Why MacOS X in the first place?
MacOS X is a kind of hybrid system, combining a classic Mac-like GUI and a Unix core. In short, it's the stability of Unix, with the ease-of-use of Mac. Or that's the theory. It does have a wide variety of applications, of both Unix and classic MacOS ancestry. Of course, like all software, it does have its limitations.
10.3.9: As good as it gets?
MacOS X 10.4 has now been out for over a year. And frankly, there's no good reason to upgrade. None of the new features are must haves. On the contrary, they ruined the interface of the perfectly good built-in mail program and added in a bevy of useless eye-candy. It's a real pig when it comes to RAM too. It's also noticably less stable than 10.3. In short, if you can stay with 10.3 do say. You ain't missin' nothin'. If you do have to upgrade, at least disable Spotlight indexing and Dashboard.
And speaking of RAM...
OS X is RAM hungry. No doubt about it. For 10.3, you'll want at least half a gig. For 10.4, more. Once the system starts using the disk for virtual memory regularly ('thrashing') the whole experience becomes a lot less fun. And since OS X, unlike Linux doesn't by default have a separate partition for the virtual memory file, you'll need to always keep a reasonable amount of space free on your boot volume.
Applications I use
Here's a list of the things I've got installed on my system that see regular use, alphabetized.
|AddressBook - Pretty much does what the name says. Integrates well with Apple's Mail client. Has proven immensely useful on multiple occasions. Preinstalled.|
|AdiumX - An excellent instant message replacement for AIM/iChat. No ads, efficient use of screen real-estate, and low idle CPU usage. Also supports MSN/ICQ/Yahoo etc. Freeware.|
|Adobe Photoshop CS - For heavy-duty image editing, Photoshop is still the only real option. It's pricy, slow, and basically irreplacable. The virtues of a monopoly I suppose. Commercial.|
|Adobe Reader - There's too much stuff in PDF format to be able to get by without it. Apple's Preview is pretty decent, but for some things you'll need the Adobe version. To speed up loading, disable unused plugins (in the plugins folder inside the application bundle). I prefer to use the Schubert-It PDF plugin for online browsing though (much faster). Freeware.|
|AudioHijack Pro - One of the cooler bits of shareware, AudioHijack allows you to record audio from any running program. So for all that streaming audio you don't want to lose permanently when the server disappears, AudioHijack is great. Plus it can record in a variety of formats, and be auto-scheduled. Cool stuff! $30 shareware.|
|DreamWeaver MX - For HTML editing, DreamWeaver not only provides an easy to use interface, it also generates code which is compatible and compact (almost as good as hand-coded). Plus it's so much quicker than emacs for constructing webpages. Not cheap, but well worth it. How do you think I built this page? Commercial.|
|FireFox - Second favorite web browser for Mac. FireFox is reasonably fast, and is the most reliable in terms of rendering, ahead of Safari, and immeasurably better than the Mac version of Internet Explorer. If only they could make it a bit faster... Freeware.|
|GraphicConverter - For conversion between the 150+ different graphic formats, plus scaling, basic editing and the like, GC is both fast and fully functional. Some type of a GraphicConvert-Photoshop hybrid would be really cool. $30 Shareware.|
|iTunes - Apple's mp3 player and jukebox does what it needs to. Plays a goodly array of audio types, plus allows one to easily organize and catalog mp3s. When you've got 7GB, those sort of things are quite nice. Additionally, the fastest mp3 encoder on Mac, and allows one to share music across the local network. Preinstalled.|
|Mail - Despite its less-than-special name, Mail succeeds in being the most convenient and fastest mail program for my uses. Its proven quite stable, and the builtin spam filter is quite effective in my experience. Also deals well with the 700MB of old mail I have on hand. Preinstalled. The OS X 10.3 version is pretty good, but the others aren't.|
|Microsoft Word - I still haven't found a replacement for Word that does most of what Word does, plus handles existing documents correctly. So while I can't stand the evil empire any more than the next guy, I'm stuck with their word processor. Please, someone, save me! Commercial.|
|RealPlayer - In terms of streaming audio and video, QuickTime hasn't yet taken over. So we still need RealPlayer, which handles the majority of streaming audio on the web still. Not the greatest app, but combined with AudioHijack, you can avoid spending more time than necessary in RealPlayer. Freeware.|
|Safari - A latecomer to the browser game, Apple came up with, in less than 2 years, one of the fastest, most compatible Mac web browsers. Add a nice clean interface, and aside from some caching quirks (remember to remove your icon cache or disable it) Safari is set to go. Still could use more speed, but it's getting up there. Preinstalled.|
|Thunderbird - Apple Mail may be the best mail client, but it doesn't handle newsgroups. Thunderbird most definitely does, including the strange setup I have to deal with on campus. Definitely handy. Freeware.|
|VideoLan Client - While initially designed for network distribution of video, VLC is the Mac's most versatile videoplayer at this point. It does VCDs, DVDs, DivX, XviD and countless other video formats. And yes, if you want, you can also stream DVDs over the network. Freeware.|
|VirtualPC - Still the only reliable way to run Windows software on a Mac. VirtualPC is really not fast enough to run most modern software, but as a stopgap, it'll do. It's great though for experimenting with old OSes (Windows 3.1, RedHat Linux 5.1), and it does work pretty well. Stick to 6.1 though, since version 7 is noticably slower. Commercial.|
|X11 - Apple's version of the Unix X Windowing system makes it possible to run, either locally or remotely, thousands of X applications. Or if you choose, you can run an entire alternate desktop. Choice is good. Preinstalled.|