Mac's Tiger Gives Panther Owners Little Reason to Pounce
Since the debut of Mac OS X in March 2001, Apple has been cranking out new versions of its operating system as if they were movie sequels. Its new OS X 10.4 release -- which Apple also calls Tiger -- took longer than any other OS X update and still showed up barely 18 months after its predecessor, Mac OS X 10.3 Panther.
This pace of updates can't have been good for the sleep cycles of Apple's developers, and it certainly has taken a financial toll on users who have kept up with them all. With a purchase of Tiger, $129 ($9.95 if you bought a Mac after April 12), the total bill for OS X updates tops $500.
Each of those earlier releases justified its price with added features and functions. Tiger should as well. But Panther is already very good on its own, while this release exhibits a few rough patches -- meaning Tiger doesn't quite have an immediate, must-buy-now appeal.
For one thing, it can't be loaded on many computers that could run 10.3 -- Tiger requires a Mac with a built-in FireWire port and 256 megabytes of memory. Given how halting and sluggish Tiger ran on a 256 MB Mac Mini, doubling the memory seems wise.
For another, while Tiger features some remarkably powerful capabilities, they're not all provided in the most effective manner.
Tiger's highlight is Spotlight. This search tool provides most of the capabilities of such add-on Windows programs as Google Desktop -- except that Spotlight's integration into the operating system lets it index your files as they change, not minutes or hours later.
It also makes Spotlight searches easier to start; click the blue magnifying glass icon in the top right corner of the screen or use the search form included in every Finder window and file dialogue box. It even pops up in the System Preferences window; instead of wondering which control panel affects what setting, just type what you want to do and Spotlight will find the right one.
Out of the box, Spotlight already indexes the contents of nearly every file on a Mac -- e-mail messages, Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents, PDF files, address-book entries, calendar appointments, digital music, and even comments embedded in digital photos. (Spotlight's vocabulary can be expanded with downloadable plug-ins.)
But Spotlight is missing one of the most useful options of other desktop search utilities: the ability to index the contents of Web pages you've visited.
While Spotlight is Tiger's most sweeping change, Dashboard is its flashiest addition. This array of small "widget" programs for such quick tasks as address and weather look-ups whooshes into view at the tap of a key, then whisks itself out of sight when you're done. Tiger includes 14 widgets, with more offered online by Apple and others.
Apple's three core Internet programs -- Mail, the Safari Web browser and the iChat instant messenger -- gain new roles in Tiger.
Mail now runs much faster, incorporates Spotlight searching and lets you create "smart mailboxes" that function like iTunes' Smart Playlists, grouping messages by matching preset search terms. But the criteria available to build a smart mailbox are oddly limited; for example, you can't have Mail show only unanswered messages. (You can create similar automatic-search folders in the Finder and in the Address Book program.)