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OS X Beta

Apple Notes By Paul Wiffen
Published March 2001

The slinky new Titanium G4 laptop at MacWorld.The slinky new Titanium G4 laptop at MacWorld.

Paul Wiffen makes the world a safer place for Mac users, by recounting a cautionary tale from his first brush with the OSX Beta, and joins the faithful on their annual pilgrimage to San Francisco's MacWorld show.

This month, the Public Beta of OSX (sadly, without any of the mLAN features which are planned for the full version) turned up at a studio where I maintain all the Macs. Everyone there was interested to see what it looked like and how much music software would run under it. So I set about installing it on one of the studio's Macs, in a safe way which would not interrupt the normal procedures of the composers who work there.

Proceed With Caution

MacCentral: an online Apple news broadsheet.MacCentral: an online Apple news broadsheet.

Normally, I would install a new operating system on a separate hard drive or partition, and then use the Startup Disk Control Panel to decide which partition or drive the Mac should boot from next time. If you use this method, when you want to be experimental and learn you select the partition or drive with the new system as Startup Disk and re‑boot. When you want to get work done in the normal way, you select the one with the old operating system. It has always worked for me in the past, to ensure a smooth transition from an older to a newer OS.

As the computer in question only had two drives connected to it — the original System hard disk and an additional internal 20Gb drive for audio, neither of which was partitioned — I decided to put the OSX Beta on the audio drive. I restarted the computer with the OSX CD‑ROM in the drive (holding down 'C') and followed the step‑by‑step decision process, choosing the audio drive when the drive selection screen came up. However, the next screen then produced the first warning anywhere (there was none to be found in the accompanying documentation, a major omission on Apple's part!) that the target drive would be erased and reformatted. As the audio drive had a lot of the composer's work on it (most of which was not backed up anywhere else), I immediately quit the OSX installer and ejected the OSX CD‑ROM, to allow the computer to reboot from the original System 9 hard disk.

I then saw something that I have never seen before on a Mac. Before MacOS began to run, and even before the mouse pointer appeared, the message "Can't Open:" appeared repeatedly in a very small ordinary font across the top of the screen. When it had run across three rows, the message suddenly stopped repeating and the normal boot‑up procedure reappeared.

One Of Our Disks Is Missing...

I breathed a sigh of relief, put the OSX Beta disk away until such time as an empty hard drive became available, and thought no more of it... until the guy whose computer it was pointed out (with remarkable coolness) that the audio drive was no longer appearing on his desktop. We re‑booted, the same repeated "Can't Open:" message appeared, and when bootup was complete there was still no sign of the audio drive. I ran Drive Setup from the Apple Utilities but this program could not see the drive either, and when I loaded SCSI Probe (which I always resort to when Drive Setup doesn't see a device), it also could not find the drive. I tried disconnecting the drive and rebooting without it, and then again with it reconnected, but the drive was still invisible to the Mac. However many times the computer was restarted, the same thing occurred, and I was almost ready to believe that all the audio on the drive was consigned to that data black hole from whence it would never emerge again. I was convinced that the OSX CD‑ROM hadn't written anything to the audio drive, yet it appeared that the drive had been damaged so badly that not only was its data lost, but it also could not be recognised as a drive.

Just before I removed the drive and had it sent off for data recovery, it occurred to me that the OSX install CD could have written to the Mac's P‑RAM, where instructions like the choice of Startup Disk are stored. It might just have told the P‑RAM that it should open OSX from the audio drive — perhaps the "Can't Open:" message referred to OSX. I had quit before the installation took place and so, not finding the expected OSX on the Audio drive, perhaps the Mac assumed it was not there at all. To test this theory, I zapped the P‑RAM (holding down the P, R, Apple and Option keys while rebooting) and sure enough, not only was the "Can't Open:" message gone, but the audio drive was back on the next boot. A major crisis involving expensive data recovery had been averted (although as soon as the audio drive had been put in another Mac it would have come up as normal) and several people's heart rates were returning to normal.

I ran out of time before my trip to MacWorld in San Francisco to conduct any more tests with OSX (my MacWorld report, filed from the show, follows), but as soon as I get back I will carry out further investigations with a clean hard drive, and give you a fuller report next month. In the meantime, we can learn the following lessons from this harrowing experience:

1. Don't start to install the OSX Beta until you have a suitable prepared hard drive or partition whose files you have completely backed up elsewhere.

2. Don't believe that just because a drive won't appear on the desktop its data has been lost for ever. Certainly do not start reformatting it until you have exhausted all other possibilities.

3. When all else fails (and if you haven't followed my advice about backing up your files), try zapping the P‑RAM before comitting suicide out of sheer despair at the loss of your work. If this doesn't help, then you can top yourself.

Hot MacWorld News

The really big news at MacWorld was that Apple finally showed the G4 PowerBook, codenamed Titanium. This isn't just a flashy, attention‑grabbing title — the silvery casing is actually made of that metal. The entire computer is just one inch thick, and with a slot‑loading DVD drive discreetly tucked into the front panel and a PCMCIA card slot on the side, it has to be the sexiest looking laptop ever. A 15.2‑inch mega‑wide screen and a weight of just 5.3 pounds makes it a 'must have' for the power‑hungry musician on the move. The Titanium has the same complement of ports on the back plane as the Pismo — two USB, two FireWire, S‑VGA out, and Ethernet — except, like the iBook, there's no audio in. What a shame! Still, one of the USB audio devices I have been writing about for the last few months will cure this (see the four‑part 'New Macs for Music' series, which finished in last month's SOS).

Available in 400 and 500MHz versions, the new G4 PowerBooks are expected to retail at exactly the same price as the 400 and 500MHz G3s they replace, though it remains to be seen whether the anticipated price structure will apply on this side of the Atlantic!

Apple's other big rollout was a free downloadable MP3 encoder, librarian and CD‑burner called iTunes (shame about the name!). Running on any current Mac, with a drag‑and‑drop interface, very savvy search engine, USB downloads from MP3 players, and even an Internet radio search, it rounds off an amazing suite of features by just letting you click on a 'Burn CD' button and making the CD for you there and then. (Of course, you need to have a CD–RW attached!)

The new encoder would be ideally used with the all‑new G4s, which you can now get with an integrated DVD‑R/CD‑RW and bundled iDVD software, to author your own DVDs (for professional–level DVDs there is also DVD Studio Pro). These G4s are available in 466, 533, 667 and 733MHz versions but the one that interests me most is the dual–processor 533mHz model, which is only available from the build‑to‑order web site. The other aspect of these desktop machines that's worthy of note is that the number of expansion slots has gone up again: there are now five slots in total, one of which is a 4x AGP Graphics slot. The other four are PCI slots, which is good news for the Mac‑based musician.

Near the Music & Audio stage, Glyph Technologies were showing their sexy new WildFire FireWire CD Rewritable, an 8x‑write, 4x‑rewrite and 32x‑read unit that's a perfect companion for PowerBooks. For the top‑end guys, there was the Coba SE FibreChannel Storage system, which lets you back up 292Gb of data in a dual workstation configuration. More on the above from Global Distribution (+44 (0)1799 584925).

The demo that was attracting the most attention on the Music & Audio stage was from Creative Labs (the PC‑only people who bought Emu and Ensoniq and merged them). They were showing the SoundBlaster Live PCI card for the Mac. Yes, that's right — even the most hardcore Wintel people are now waking up and smelling the Mac coffee. The card looks pretty good too, especially in the bundle with the 4.1 Cambridge speaker system for surround. The latter interfaces via a special digital connector, although you can use four normal speakers via the dual stereo out.

SoundBlaster Live comes bundled with ProSonic and Cubasis software, and is SoundFont‑compatible, allowing everything from WAV to AIFF conversion, MIDI + Audio sequencing and MP3 jukeboxing. With OMS drivers already in place and ASIO drivers under development (say goodbye to the latency problems which have dogged the SoundBlaster cards on the PC!), this looks like incredible value at $149. Creative Labs also had a cool‑looking $399 portable MP3 player called Nomad Jukebox, which apparently holds over 100 hours of music.

Some of the most interesting things I found out at MacWorld came from chance conversations in the aisles. I ran into Rodney Orpheus, Steinberg's Technology Evangelist, who told me that the Mac version of their Nuendo computer recording system will be OSX‑compatible from day one. Other nuggets of information I picked up included the fact that the Tascam US428 will ship with Deck LE from BIAS, not Peak LE. Staying with BIAS for the moment, Peak 2.7 now has ASIO drivers, and 3.0 will add VST plug‑in compatibility. Lastly I found a great little $99 FireWire‑to‑SCSI converter from OrangeMicro, which will let me use all my existing SCSI drives on the newer, FireWire‑only Macs. This means that I can bring all my existing demos to my presentation at Apple UK on February 2nd (which will have happened by the time you read this) and do all my presentations on the new Titanium PowerBook, which they will then let me take home with me (oh dear, I'm dreaming again...).

Mac Tip: FireWire Target Disk Mode

Those of you who have ever used a Wall Street PowerBook or older Mac in the very useful SCSI Target Disk Mode (I do this all the time) may be relieved to learn that a similar facility is available on FireWire Macs, in particular the Pismo PowerBooks, DV iMacs and G4s. Target Disk Mode is abbreviated by Apple to TDM, not to be confused with Digidesign's standard for digital audio transfer between their PCI cards and third‑party software applications and plug‑ins. It's a way to make the internal hard disk of one Mac directly available on the desktop of another, without mucking about with networking. Direct SCSI transfers using this method are considerably faster than via 10 Base‑T networking, so if you had huge audio or video files to copy from one machine to another it would be much faster than Ethernet.

But FireWire is faster still than SCSI, so this IEEE 1394 version of Target Disk Mode should be an ideal way to move huge files between FireWire‑equipped machines with OS8.6 or later. To use it, turn off the target computer and disconnect from the FireWire network all devices except the Mac from which you want to access the target machine's drive. Hold down the 'T' key as you start up the target computer, until the FireWire icon appears on the screen. The hard drive of your target computer should now appear on the desktop of the other Mac. Now copy files in the normal way.

Once you've finished copying, drag the target computer's hard disk icon to the Wastebasket (or, if this makes you as nervous as it does me, use 'Put Away' in the File menu). Press the target computer's power button to turn it off, disconnect the FireWire cable, and start the target computer to return to normal usage.

Web Site Of The Month

As I was starting to feel a little worried that Apple's behind‑the‑scenes mLAN development was not being reflected in the company's public statements, I am making MacCentral my site of the month, because they have restored my faith in Apple's intentions. The best piece of news I've heard this month is that, although Apple were not demoing mLAN running under OSX at MacWorld, Apple's Vice President of Worldwide Developer Relations, Clent Richardson, has been talking about their support for the current subject of my evangelistic fervour. I am indebted to MacCentral for publishing his statement ( that "Apple feels that Yamaha's mLAN will be the 'ideal way' to handle audio and music over FireWire."

Actually, although it is a little dry and (broadsheet) newspaper‑like, it's always worth keeping an eye on MacCentral, just because many of their contributors do seem to have their fingers on the pulse. The news may be reported with a little more panache elsewhere, but you will almost certainly get it first on this site.