The Little Mac OS X Book: A Review
© 2002 Lawrence I. Charters
Washington Apple Pi Journal, reprint
Let's get a few issues out of the way right at the start.
First off, The Little Mac OS X Book is not little. At
slightly more than eight hundred pages, it is larger than an
iBook. Second, it is by Robin Williams, one of the most
celebrated computer book authors in the world, which means
that it is brilliant. The illustrations, layout, writing and
organization are extraordinary. Third, you need a copy if
you use Mac OS X. You can read the rest of this review if
you wish, but those three things alone probably cover
everything you need to know.
So, go out and buy a copy. If you don't own Mac OS X yet,
go out and get a copy of The Little Mac Book, 7th
ed., also by Robin Williams, which covers Mac OS 9. We'll go
over a bit of history in the meantime.
Williams has been writing Mac books for a long time. Her
first book, The Mac is not a typewriter, was written
as a guide for a class she was teaching, and became a
surprise best-seller. Still in print more than a decade
later, this tiny, slim volume, just 72 pages, is a model of
clarity and common sense, telling you exactly how to use a
Mac to produce clean, professional pages of text. And, based
on what I see on a daily basis, the need has never been
greater: most people still don't know how to use a computer
to write a simple memo, much less a letter or anything
In keeping with the title, the first edition of The
Little Mac Book really was little, a quarter the length
of the seventh edition (covering Mac OS 9) and an eighth the
length of her "little" Mac OS X book. The Little Mac
Book was Williams' second foray into book publishing,
and one reviewer called it the "best computer book ever
written."* The highly visual style also served as
the inspiration for Peachpit Press' superb, highly
successful "Visual Quickstart Guides."
Which brings us to the current magnum opus, The Little
Mac OS X Book. Peachpit planned to release the book
almost a year ago, but Apple's changes to Mac OS X between
the Public Beta and Mac OS X 10.1 caused considerable delay,
not only for Williams (it is hard to document an operating
system that changes so radically in such a short time) but
also for software developers. The strain of trying to keep
up is reflected in Williams' forward. These are usually
light and ebullient, but this time around she says: "I
always write the introduction last, and now I'm really
tired. It's been a long and winding book. I hope you find it
And this pretty much sums up Mac OS X, too: from the
original Copeland and Rhapsody days through Mac OS X 1.0 to
the Public Beta to the current Mac OS X 10.1.2, it has been
a long and winding road. But the result is a gem: Mac OS X
10.1.2 is a gem of an operating system, and this is a gem of
a book for explaining not only the operating system, but
almost everything else you'd want to know about a Mac
running Mac OS X.
Williams has also taken pains to make sure the book is
not as overwhelming as the size alone might suggest. She has
carefully marked the margins of key pages with gray dots to
indicate the most critical information; taken as a whole,
these amount to a "little Mac OS X" book inside the larger
volume. The rest of the work covers a vast wealth of detail
on everything from how to move the mouse and click on icons
to sharing files across the office or across the Internet.
Along the way, every major point (and many minor points) is
illustrated with screen shots and diagrams. John Tollett's
Mr. Url cartoon mouse also provide light touches; Williams
also credits Tollett with writing some of the text.
About the only thing not covered in the book is using Mac
OS X as a command line-driven UNIX operating system. The key
to the underlying UNIX operating system is Terminal, Apple's
eponymous terminal application, and Williams devotes one
paragraph to the subject. She states, correctly, that most
users probably won't need to use it.
Instead, she devotes space to things most users actually
need to know, such as an entire chapter on Apple's iTools,
their suite of Internet services freely offered to Mac
owners using Mac OS 9 and Mac OS X. The chapter, in fact, is
the best description of these services I've yet seen;
Apple's own description on their Web pages frequently leaves
visitors confused. Similarly, iTunes and iMovie each have
their own chapter, as do such frequently troubling subjects
as multiple users, aliases, printing and other topics.
Williams is very much aware that most Mac OS X users will
be moving to the operating system from older versions of Mac
OS, so she provides frequent pointers aimed specifically at
Mac veterans. In her outstanding chapter on fonts, for
example, she goes out of her way to mention Adobe Type
Manager (ATM), stating that it is not necessary in Mac OS X
and, in fact, Adobe is abandoning both ATM and ATM
One entire appendix is devoted to Mac veterans, titled
"Where Did It Go? For Experienced Mac OS 9 Users." In less
than 20 pages, she neatly summarizes the differences between
the Mac OS 9 and the Mac OS X interfaces. If you are
wondering how to do the "same old stuff" in Mac OS X, you
might want to start with this appendix; it is excellent.
The book is not perfect, of course. There are a couple
minor errors in the Table of Contents (page numbers are off
by a page), and there are a wealth of Mac OS X details she
simply doesn't cover (you could write an entire book on the
NetInfo Manager, but Williams gives it one short paragraph).
If you want to learn some heavy-duty UNIX tricks, you should
look to one of the O'Reilly books on UNIX, or Maria Langer's
excellent Visual QuickPro Guide: Mac OS X
Most mere mortals, however, will be hard pressed to find
any faults at all: it is a genuinely marvelous book, put
together with meticulous care and with a keen appreciation
of her audience. Unlike many computer books, it is never
condescending; Williams doesn't talk down to you, she
doesn't write editorials telling you how things should have
been done, and she doesn't waste time trying to impress you
with her clever wit and intelligence. The wit and
intelligence, instead, display themselves in 40 superbly
written, superbly illustrated chapters, bolstered by an
One topic the book doesn't cover in detail is Mac OS
Classic. An entire chapter is devoted to Classic, but it
focuses on using it as a tool or extension to Mac OS X,
rather than explaining Mac OS 9 (the basis of Classic) in
depth. If you want to know about Mac OS Classic, or you
haven't quite decided to plunge into Mac OS X, read
Williams' previous volume in the series, The Little Mac
Book, 7th ed. Just as well crafted as the Mac OS X
volume, but with half the heft, this "little" book will tell
you everything you ever want to know about using a Mac, with
particular emphasis on Mac OS 9.1.
Mac users are now in the middle of a vast migration. A
couple years ago, Macs were barely a blip in the world of
UNIX, but in 2002 Mac users will form, collectively, the
largest UNIX community in the world, thanks to Mac OS X.
Most of these Mac users could care less about UNIX,
specifically; they just want to know how to do cool stuff
with their Macs. If you are one of these people, buy this
* I, ahem, was that reviewer. Peachpit Press
included the quote on the back cover of several of Williams'
books for most of the 1990s.
Robin Williams, The Little Mac Book, 7th
Peachpit Press, 2001.
Robin Williams, The Little Mac OS X Book
Peachpit Press, 2002.
xxii, 802 pp.