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Mac OS

What's Mac OS X? It's the operating system used by today's Apple Macintoshes - and, more than anything else, it's what makes a Mac a Mac.

Like any modern operating system, Mac OS X presents one face to the user, establishing the computer's "personality": how it looks, feels, and behaves when you work with it. It presents a different face to the computer's hardware itself: the operating system is what "talks" to the hardware, and tells it what to do. Let's look for a moment at each of those faces, and then talk about what it all means to you.

More elegant, simpler, more fun?

While Windows and Mac OS X share many visual features, many users find the Mac OS X "user interface" more elegant, simpler, and more fun to use. (This is subjective, of course: not everyone agrees. And it's a debate that can quickly get as heated as arguments about politics or religion.)

Even though Mac OS X's visuals are about as modern as you can get, its technical underpinnings build on UNIX, an operating system that's been evolving for nearly 40 years. The result: UNIX (and Mac OS X) have become pretty darned reliable. (Though, as with all computers, there's still room for improvement.)

When it comes to reliability and elegance, Mac OS X has one more thing going for it. You can buy PCs from thousands of manufacturers, but only one brand of computer will run Mac OS X: Apple's Macintosh. So Apple has total control over the hardware that Mac OS X runs on. It can make sure that hardware works as well with Mac OS X as possible.

(With no hardware competition, Apple can get away with charging more for its computers than, say, Dell. And they do. One relatively inexpensive way to get Mac OS X: the $599 "Mac Mini," which uses whatever PC monitor, keyboard, and mouse you might already have sitting around.)

What about your Windows programs?

Because Mac OS X's technical "guts" are so different, it won't run Windows programs "out of the box." That's plenty of programs you can't run. For example, most top Windows games have no Mac equivalent. Nor do many specialized Windows programs - say, for example, programs designed to help run some kinds of businesses.

Is that a problem for you? Maybe. Maybe not. First of all, the Mac comes with lots of software: notably the outstanding iLife suite of media applications for creating everything from photo albums to original songs and movies. You can buy Mac OS X versions of many other programs, too -- like Microsoft Office, and Quicken personal finance software. (There are, of course, some Windows programs you don't want to run. Windows viruses and other "evil" software doesn't run on the Mac either, and the bad guys are only just beginning to write Mac equivalents.)

(What about hardware that was designed for Windows? Most recent-vintage printers, cameras, camcorders, and gamepads will work with new Macs. Older stuff -- especially equipment that uses old-fashioned "parallel" or "serial" interfaces? That's if-ier.)

If you simply must run a Windows program on your Mac, there's another option. Macs (running Mac OS X 10.6 or later) let you install an authentic copy of Windows alongside Mac OS X. When you turn on your computer, a program called Boot Camp lets you choose whether to run your computer with Mac OS X or Windows. (You do have to buy Windows separately, though, and that's not cheap.)

Most folks still use Windows: more than 90% of all computer users, at last count. But Mac OS X's market share has doubled in the past two years or so and lots of long-time Windows users are giving it a good, long look.

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