With much fanfare, Apple Computer recently released Mac OS X 10.3 (code-named Panther), a minor upgrade to its colorful UNIX-based operating system. Credit Apple for generating a lot of excitement for what's essentially a refinement and evolution of Mac OS X 10.2 (Jaguar). Reading the various Apple-friendly reviews now available online, you might get the idea that Panther is a major OS upgrade. After spending a few weeks with the fledgling system, I can assure you that it's not.

However, Panther is an interesting update. Although I'm suspicious of Apple's claims that the release sports 150 new features, the company has clearly worked hard to fine-tune the Mac OS X experience. Panther is the cleanest, nicest-looking, and fastest version of Mac OS X yet. When it debuted in early 2001, Mac OS X had all the makings of a disaster: The system was essentially a beta release that the company sold in stores, and users quickly complained about performance lags, missing features, and other problems. Over the course of three minor updates?10.1 in late 2001, 10.2 in late 2002, and now 10.3?Apple has done much to strengthen Mac OS X's underpinnings with a usable fascia that's bursting with functionality.

Mac OS X still suffers from some early design mistakes. The Dock, which inexplicably houses both running and non-running programs, is still as confusing as ever. However, Apple has finally adopted a Windows-like task-switching scheme (invoked by the familiar Alt+Tab key sequence) that simplifies switching between running applications. Unlike Windows, with its obvious Start button, Mac OS X lacks a central starting point, leaving new users to wander about the interface with the mouse pointer, looking for something with which to interact. Apparently, Apple users don't mind randomly discovering features. And Mac OS X still lacks any sort of iterative or task-based UI elements?such as those in Windows XP?that walk users through common tasks such as importing and printing photos, recording or listening to music, or working with documents.

Although Mac OS X uses an old-fashioned desktop GUI, it's at least an attractive one. Panther replaces Aqua's ugly pinstriping with a more subtle gray color that will no doubt cause less pain among designers and other creative types who adore Macs. Apple's icons and other graphical elements are awash in color, resizable to a degree not possible in Windows, and almost photographic in nature. The system brims with unnecessary but demo-friendly graphical effects. For example, when you switch between users on a high-end Mac (another feature mined from Windows), the screen visually rotates, like a cube, to show you the other user's screen. And although Panther tones down the jarring transparent menus of past releases, windows are still animated with a Genie effect when minimized. Panther reinforces the fact that Apple is all about presentation.

For existing Mac OS X users, Panther brings no major new applications, although it consolidates some utilities and adds a few useful new features. For example, a new Disk Utility combines the functionality of two previous utilities into one UI, and a new window-clutter technology dubbed Expose lets you easily find the application windows you need?with all the graphical flourish that users have come to expect from Apple. In Panther, Apple has overhauled the Mac OS X shell, called the Finder, so that it runs faster and offers a Windows Explorer-like panel featuring often-needed shell locations such as Network, Desktop, and Documents. For security fans, Mac OS X still features the better-than-Windows no-admin access default that earlier versions offered and adds auto-downloading of security patches, just like XP. But copying Windows is de rigueur these days, and we can't fault Apple for looking to the market leader for ideas.

If Panther has a major problem, it's the price: Like its predecessor, Mac OS X 10.2 (released just 12 months ago), Panther costs a whopping $129 for most Mac OS X users, although customers who have purchased a new Mac since October 8 can get it for free. That's a lot of money to pay for mostly subtle refinements that, arguably, should have been in the system to begin with. I wish Panther were more reasonably priced?perhaps in the $30 ballpark.

Cost aside, Mac OS X 10.3 is a highly recommended update for existing Mac OS X users. However, it contains nothing that will make Windows users jealous, and maybe that's what Apple needs. Mac OS X's still-excellent digital-media applications continue unchanged in this release, and?compared with Windows?Mac OS X still suffers from a lack of major third-party support, especially for gamers. In other words, although Panther improves Mac OS X, it doesn't change that system's overall lot in life as a minor alternative to XP.