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Mac OS X Pocket Reference Chuck Toporek
Published by O'Reilly and Associates
150 pages
£ 10.50
Published: 29th November 2002
reviewed by Lindsay Marshall
   in the December 2002 issue (pdf), (html)

Let me start by saying that I love OS X - all the things that are good about Unix, plus all (well, most) of the things that are good about Mac OS, and 10.2 Jaguar is most decidedly the bee's knees. I probably use OS X more now than any other flavour of Unix and I switch between terminal and GUI interactions all the time. Of course, having all those years of Unix experience clearly makes things easy and many Mac users being converted to OS X may well find it hard to get to grips with using a more raw Unix interface. (Though again OS X wraps up most things that in slick GUIs if you want to go down that route).

So, what of these books aimed at OS X users? The Pocket Reference does what it says on the cover and it does it pretty well -- lots of potted information about the main interface and applications of the system. I learned loads of neat interface tricks looking through the book, but I will almost certainly forget them all before I get the chance to use them - I tend to be fairly simple minded when using systems and often find the shortcuts too much of a hassle. I don't know that I would actually go out and buy this book, even though it is relatively inexpensive (in technical book terms anyway). It's thin and you can extract its essence pretty quickly.

I started in on Learning Unix for Mac OS X expecting it to be like most other books of this kind : manual pages with decoration added to them, and for the most part I was not disappointed. There is also a lot of what seems top me extraneous stuff like how to read your mail using Pine. Why would anyone want to do that on OS X (or on any system come to think of it!) which has a couple of really quite knacky GUI mail programs in MS Entourage and Apple's own Mail? For someone with Unix knowledge there is very little in here that you won't already know, though I must admit to having learnt about a couple of special OS X commands that I had not come across before. For novices this not a bad book and flags potential pitfalls clearly and well. The book, as might be expected, deals only with the Unix interface as it comes with a vanilla OS X installation - there is little about the possibilities of extending it with the extra GNU utilities that have been ported to the system. (Well, not to 10.2 yet in fact which is a bit of a pain!) The extras are certainly useful but might just be too confusing for a beginner.

The whole ``Missing Manual'' thing that O'Reilly has been doing is a great marketing idea, but I am not sure that it is much more than that. On the evidence of the two books in the series covered here, the reason the manual was missing in the first place was that you really didn't need it. iPhoto is a great example. It is without a doubt the easiest piece of digital camera software I have ever used. Its interface is simple and it does what the vast majority of people need without any complexity. I had been using it for ages before I met this book and I can honestly say it told me almost nothing that I hadn't figured out for myself with no effort or cost. What is there to say about such a simple interface? Sure, you can weave lots of stuff about digital photography in there, but that isn't iPhoto. Biggish print, lots of white space, loads of pictures -- looks great and is easy to read, but it's mostly padding. I did learn some things about the program, but it was about a part of the program I have never felt the need to even try and now I am even more certain that it is of no use to me. If you feel reassured by the presence of a manual then this book is fine but for most experienced users it would be a waste of money.

And finally the biggy - all 714 pages of it. Bloated, just like the programs it describes. Most people use Office and never need a manual. They have their favourites tricks and techniques and they can do pretty well most of what they want to do without problems, and if they need something else they'll ask around till they find the answer, or just do something else. What they won't do (IMHO) is flick through a great thick book looking for the answer to their problem. (And if they do they probably won't find the answer anyway. I spent some time trying to find out something about graphs in Excel and couldn't come up with the information) Far too much of the book is devoted to using features of Office that no sane person should be allowed near : Creating a web page in Word, Multimedia effects in PowerPoint, that kind of thing. Again, you can't knock the presentation or the writing, as with almost all O'Reillys it's well done. It's just that I really can't see the point of all that ink on all that paper.

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