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ATPM 9.02
February 2003


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Review: Mac OS X Disaster Relief (book)

by Kirk McElhearn,

Author: Ted Landau with Dan Frakes, Peachpit Press, 2002, 598 pages

Price: $34.99

Trial: None.

There has been a slew of books on troubleshooting Macs lately, ranging from O’Reilly’s pocket guides to Chris Breen’s Mac 911, a florilege of material from his Macworld column. This is a good thing, because Macs are not without their share of problems. There’s no blue screen of death, of course, but plenty of things can go wrong, both on the hardware side and the software side. Ted Landau, who is well known in the Mac community for being the creator of the excellent MacFixIt Web site, as well as author of a previous troubleshooting book (Sad Macs, Bombs and Other Disasters), and Dan Frakes give us a new book on troubleshooting Mac OS X.

Those of us who have been working with Macs for a while, and who have delved inside the System Folders of previous Mac OSes, certainly need to get up to speed with Mac OS X. Gone are the old-fashioned extension conflicts, but hello kernel extensions. There are no more crashes that bring down your entire Mac, at least theoretically—but let’s all get used to the kernel panic.

This book begins with an introduction to Mac OS X, dealing with installation, basic use, and getting to know the system. For users new to Mac OS X, this is very useful, but this is not really what I would expect from a troubleshooting book. It then covers a large number of basic problems that occur with Mac OS X, from permissions problems, to printing and networking, by way of issues with the Classic environment. It ends with a very brief introduction to using the command line under Mac OS X.

The book is complemented by a thorough index, which makes it easy to find the type of problem you’re trying to solve. The book is full of solutions, tips, and ways to make things work better and faster. But I haven’t found solutions to many of my problems there. When discussing this book with a friend, he gave me the real low-down on what this book is good for: he said, “It’s worth its weight in gold for setting up Mac OS X.” In fact, that’s the strength of this book—it gives you enough information to tweak Mac OS X and be comfortable with your customizations. If you look at one chapter—Troubleshooting Networking, File Sharing and the Internet—you will see that some 60 pages are devoted to setting up networking and only about 25 to troubleshooting; this is pretty much the way the entire book is set up.

A couple of things bother me about this book, but they are certainly minor. First is the use of third-party tools for many things. Landau and Frakes advocate the use of X-Ray, which is a shareware tool for accessing advanced file information. I would rather see solutions that come out of the box, instead of expecting users to have the same program as the authors, especially since there is no CD with the book. Second is the occasional use of non-standard screen shots. As a writer, I always tailor my screen shots to look like a default installation—no extra folders in the Home folder, no long list of volumes in disk tool windows, etc.

It should be noted that this book only deals with Mac OS X software issues—it neither discusses other software nor does it deal with hardware. (A fine book that covers hardware is the Macworld Mac Upgrade and Repair Bible, by Todd Stauffer and myself, a third edition of which is due out in April 2003.)

While the original edition of this book was pre-Jaguar, a new, revised edition was published as this review was going to press. This second edition contains a long chapter about Jaguar, and describes the changes and new additions to Mac OS X 10.2. I am delighted to see that owners of the first edition can download a PDF file of this chapter. It is available in a password-protected StuffIt archive; the password is found in the first edition of the book.

Some comments are in order, however, on this additional chapter. While it is a good thing that purchasers of the first edition can get this update without having to buy a new copy of the book, I feel that Peachpit took the easy way out. The addition is a long chapter at the end of the book, which means that when looking for information you must read both the original section and the update, and make sure to understand the changes. It would have been much better if the update were integrated into the book, with the new material replacing the old. But you can’t have it both ways…

So, in the end, this is a fine book for understanding Mac OS X and setting it up, and especially tweaking it so it works the way you want. It is less effective for actual troubleshooting, but reading through the entire book will give you enough information that you may end up with fewer problems just by dint of better understanding the operating system. I’d recommend it to any new user of Mac OS X who wants to go beyond basic setups. It’s not as complete as David Pogue’s Missing Manual, and it doesn’t cover the Unix end like Ray and Ray’s Mac OS X Unleashed, but it gives a good overview of what you can do with Mac OS X and how to do it.

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