Learning to live with Mac OS X Browsing through my favourite bookstore t'other day, I noticed that the once empty Macintosh section was now filled with shiny new titles offering to help anyone and everyone make the most of Mac OS X.
Now that IT companies have pretty much abandoned the good old-fashioned manual, the gap has been filled by IT publishers keen to take forty quid of any user who wants to learn a little more about their computer or the applications it runs. Some are very good, some merely OK, others an appalling rip-off.
To help you find the former and avoid the latter, here's what we think of the latest additions to The Register's fine Ikea pine-style shelving. We'll be following it up with more reviews in the near future.
I'm rather fond of O'Reilly's technology library. The design is simple, crisp and largely free of icons, cartoons, asides and all the other gimmicks IT publishers use to make their titles look busier and more interesting than they actually are.
They're also bloody well written, be folk who not only know what they're writing about but can do so clearly and engagingly. O'Reilly's library has helped me get to grips with Perl programming, Palm programming, RealBasic programming, figuring how to write cgi scripts, working out what Linux is all about and getting the hang of running a Web site efficiently.
Learning Cocoa, the latest addition to O'Reilly's small but growing Mac family, promises to do the same for OS X's NeXT-derived object-oriented application development framework.
And it mostly succeeds. Written by Apple's own (anonymous) technical writers, it doesn't exactly fill you with enthusiasm for its subject matter (unlike other O'Reilly titles) and it's clearly been written with experienced programmers in mind. There's little attempt to simplify the concepts of object-oriented programming and the Objective C language, leaving me almost grasping what's going on, but not quite.
You know what I mean: you can tell when your code is correct because it compiles and runs, but if it doesn't, you're pretty much in the dark.
The book takes you through a series of tutorial apps, which we like because it provides plenty of real code you can examine and steal, but it's not too good at explaining what each line actually does, which is essential for those of us who learn by following the code line by line rather than blindly keying it in.
It would have been nice to put in a more in-depth guide to Objective C. Learning Cocoa's offers an Objective C primer, but if you don't know C, you won't get much out of it since it ignores the common aspects of the two languages. No, it just assumes that, as a Mac programmer, you'll know all this stuff already. I do, but I can see a lot of newcomers, drawn to programming by the excitement of a new OS, will feel left out.
If that sounds like you, may I suggest O'Reilly's RealBasic: The Definitive Guide Not only is it more fun to read, but RealBasic, which is also an object-oriented language that runs on OS X, is a darn sight easier to understand and program. Get to grips with this then come back to Cocoa later.
Learning Cocoa also lacks an API reference section detailing the key NeXTSTEP commands. True, this is available online from Project Builder's Help menu, but for a beginner (and, I dare say, many older hands) having a reference you have next to you while you're writing is far more useful.
Project Builder, by the way, is Apple's own development tool, provided free with OS X.
Learning Cocoa, on the other hand, is a good introduction to Cocoa programming for Mac coders moving from OS 9 to OS X, but novices may prefer to wait for something a little more friendly.
Price: $34.95 (US), £24.95 (UK)
Mac OS X: The Complete Reference
If Learning Cocoa is a thin, 366-page volume, Mac OS X: The Complete Reference is, at 763 pages, a veritable fatty. Unlike the other volume, this one's aimed at new users, with a particular emphasis it seems on folk about to deploy the OS X in educational establishments.
Mac OS X: The Complete Reference is a pretty traditional manual replacement. Chapter by chapter, it guides you through almost every aspect of OS X, from its structure and technology underpinnings, through every facet of its new user interface, to setting it up. Author Jesse Feiler rounds it off with a look at all the bundled apps, plus AppleWorks, and guides to the various options users have for programming the OS (including a redundant section of programming Classic apps).
In some respects, it's difficult to see who would find all this useful. It sounds good - and, as a hefty volume, it looks good - but by trying to cram absolutely everything in, to describe almost all menu commands, options and widgets, you end up with a good description of what OS X can do, along with a multitude of screenshots, but little insight into how to take it further. An explanation of how a gas pedal works and what happens when you press it won't teach you how to drive.
Beginners may be daunted by the book's size and more experienced users may be disappointed by the lack of detail. It's a bit cursory - the book's size comes not from the depth of its coverage but its breadth. There's almost no troubleshooting help here, which is generally what new users need most.
There's also the author's flat tone of voice, so the book reads like rather college coursework than an engaging introduction to a vibrant new OS for folk who are likely to be daunted by it. Feiler also follows the tedious tradition of explaining what he's going to tell you, telling it to you, then telling you again what he's just told you.
Mac OS X: The Complete Reference isn't actually bad, and if you suddenly find yourself wanting to know what a specific menu or System Preferences panel does, it will help. Just don't expect to be reaching up to the shelf for it very often. ®
Author: Jesse Feiler, "author, software developer and consultant"
Reviewer: Tony Smith, "journalist, gentleman and scholar"
Price: $39.99 (US), £29.99 (UK)
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