By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, May 1, 2005
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.)
Mail works outstandingly well with IMAP (Internet Message Access Protocol) accounts, but remains clumsy at managing more widely used POP (Post Office Protocol) inboxes. It also lacks the screening for fake "phishing" messages now offered by the Eudora and, soon, Thunderbird mail programs. Finally, the space-wasting, pointlessly quirky toolbar slapped onto Mail's windows needs to go.
Safari's major addition is support for the "news feeds" many Web sites publish; it usually finds them automatically, allowing you to subscribe to one with two clicks then easily sort through its headlines. A "Private Browsing" option ensures Safari will store no records of your use, handy if you're borrowing a stranger's computer.
But other parts of Safari now look a bit creaky. Although this browser will block pop-up ad windows, that option is turned off by default. Its notification of the secure encryption used at real financial sites (but not at the fakes set up by phishers) is way too subtle, compared with the obvious cues offered by Firefox and Opera.
Apple's iChat instant messenger now allows group video conferencing, but you'll need a high-end Power Mac desktop to host one. A more consumer-relevant feature, support for the MSN and Yahoo IM networks, goes missing.
Tiger expands Panther's limited parental-use controls with options to restrict a child's online use to designated Web sites, e-mail addresses and IM chatters.
One of Tiger's most promising components is easy to overlook. Its Automator program makes it drag-and-drop simple to instruct your programs to perform repetitive tasks. Not having to master programming syntax makes this a huge advance, although many programs can't yet be orchestrated by Automator.
Tiger is prey to as many viruses and spyware attacks as Panther -- none. But Apple missed a chance to augment OS X's already strong defenses: When a program's installer asks for an administrator's password, Tiger still provides no details about what will happen next, leaving users to hope for the best.
Stability has always been a core virtue in OS X, but I did see one serious system crash in five days of testing on three Macs. I also spotted several bugs, some merely cosmetic (overlapping controls in a Mail window) and others more serious (a new .Mac synchronization utility failed to copy all of the e-mail settings to a second Mac that it said it would). And Apple neglected to address such long-standing OS X issues as the runaround needed to erase rewritable CDs and DVDs and the painfully slow Finder performance when copying large sets of files.
Flaws and all, Tiger still beats Windows soundly, from its smooth, nag-free installation (save a brief but heavy-handed promotion of Apple's $100-per-year .Mac online service) to its sleek, shimmering graphical interface. But it's not such a huge leap past Panther to merit upgrading today. Some cleanup work from Apple could fix that. If the management there can hold off on starting the next big OS X project, there should be plenty of time to do the job right.
Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro at email@example.com.