Book Review: Mac OS X Hacks
Volume Number: 19 (2003)
Issue Number: 8
Column Tag: Reviews
Book Review: Mac OS X Hacks
by Scott Knaster
When Apple decided to fuse the Mac OS with Unix and NeXT software, it created a unique stack of code that shows its varied parentage: Mac OS when you're in Aqua, Unix when you're typing at the command line in Terminal, and NeXT when you use Cocoa. But it's not just software that Apple has gathered together. Mac OS X has also brought new communities of developers and users into the Mac universe. Unix aficionados and open source advocates who never gave Apple a second thought have been drawn into the new world of OS X.
Mac OS X Hacks is one result of this new community. It's part of a series from O'Reilly, a company long known for books about cutting edge and non-proprietary (and non-Apple) technologies, and now very active in publishing Mac books since the advent of OS X. Mac OS X Hacks feels like a book that's truly native to its subject: not a Unix book, nor a NeXT book, and clearly not a book from OS 9 days, but made for the new Mac universe.
Mac OS X Hacks, subtitled 100 Industrial-Strength Tips & Tools, is organized into nine chapters, using groupings that probably work just as well as any other: chapter titles include Files, Startup, Multimedia and the iApps, and Networking. Another useful organization might have been according to type of user: regular folks, programmers, network administrators, and so on. For example, the Networking chapter includes tips on how to share files between Macs and Windows computers, interesting to many users, and how to set up your own domain name service, which is interesting but much more specialized.
In addition to the chapter organization, the hacks are numbered consecutively from 1 to 100, and every page includes the current hack's number in a nice purple inset in the corner.
Tips for the Rest of Us (and Our Moms)
One of the best features of Mac OS X Hacks is that many of the tips are potentially useful for just about anybody running OS X. There's a tip on backing up, another on getting rid of files in the trash that don't want to leave or CDs that won't eject, and one on how to share your Internet connection. Although it's likely that most people buying a book with "Hacks" in the title are ready for advanced topics, these everyday tips are generally useful and can be passed on to the less technically savvy folks who depend on you for support.
Some chapters, in particular the one entitled The User Interface, describe how you can gain greater control of your Mac using shareware and commercial utilities. For example, you'll find descriptions of a couple of alternatives to the Dock, and various tips on how to restore lost features from OS 9.
Developers Only (Unix flavored)
Mac OS X Hacks has a fine collection of tips that are practical, but primarily useful to developers or other advanced geeks. A useful section sheds light on what's in an application package and how you can mess around with it. There are also sections on secure tunneling, remote login with SSH, and messing around with WebDAV and FTP servers.
The book does a good job of avoiding becoming a complete Unix-fest, but there are a lot of useful Unix-based hacks, including an entire chapter called Unix and the Terminal. The tip called Top 10 Mac OS X Tips for Unix Geeks is self-explanatory and useful for the incoming Unix crowd. Other sections in the Unix chapter provide information on how to get the most out of Terminal, how to use sudo, and how to open files and applications using the command line. This chapter is particularly useful to old Mac folks just getting a handle on Unix.
Some of the hacks presented in Mac OS X Hacks are not practical tips per se, but instead provide overview information on how particular features work. Although these tips might not be immediately useful, they're quite handy for increasing your general OS X knowledge. The very first hack, Understanding and Hacking Your User Account, gives a good overview of this useful topic which is rather alien to OS 9 folks. Another section updates file type and creator codes with OS X information. A couple of sections provide nifty insight into what goes on when OS X starts up.
Is This Tip Really Necessary?
With 100 hacks, not every one will be useful, educational, or fun. It's a safe bet that not a lot of readers will really be interested in installing the PostgreSQL database or Setting a Password in Open Firmware. Still, even these topics can satisfy your intellectual curiousity.
The test of most "tips & tricks" books is in their practicality. The contents should be fun and interesting, but if they're useful too, the book is a success. Mac OS X Hacks does an excellent job of delivering a solid package of topics that are interesting and useful.