Tiger, tiger burning bright

Apple Computer Inc. polishes up a new version of OS X

As Microsoft Corp. struggles to get Longhorn, its next generation operating system, out the door in maybe another year or 18 months, Apple Computer Inc. has managed to launch a fresh version of its widely acclaimed OS X.

Version 10.4, dubbed Tiger, is shipping with all new Apple computers. Existing users must pay $129 for a single-user upgrade license. A five-pack costs $199.

To see whether the upgrade is worth it, I installed it on a 2'-year-old Mac with an 800 MHz, G4 processor and 512M of RAM and running OS 10, Version 2.8'a serviceable machine but definitely behind the curve. Apple also sent a spiffy new iMac with a G5 processor, but that machine didn't have enough detritus from 30 months of computing to run a key new feature in Tiger through its paces.
I quickly ran into trouble installing 10.4. The file system on my computer had directory errors. These didn't affect operation of the machine, but they prevented Tiger from loading. I had to boot from a third-party, Apple-specific disk utility program that, after cranking for nearly 45 minutes, fixed the directory corruption. After that, Tiger loaded flawlessly.

OS X is really Apple's user interface surrounding BSD Unix. In its press materials, Apple lists numerous updates to the Unix core. Most significant are support for 64-bit and RAID applications, new components from the FreeBSD project, a new, open-source compiler and other technical additions I did not have the capability to test. On daily tasks, though, the computer seems to boot and run faster.

Spotlight on the extras

The enhancements apparent to average users in Tiger are a cluster of add-on applications that are both fun and useful. When you first install Tiger, it immediately begins indexing every file on the hard drive'photos, songs (if your agency permits that sort of thing), text and spreadsheet files, e-mails'you name it. In my case, indexing took nearly an hour.

But once indexed, all those files and subsequent files are available to an application called Spotlight. You enter a keyword into a tiny search window. Almost as fast as you can type the letters, Spotlight searches your drive and assembles a directory tree of all files related to that keyword, organized by file type. You can save search results.

Because GCN is a PC shop, the Macs on which I tested Tiger were personal machines. Typing in my daughter's first name, I was immediately presented with every photo, e-mail and homework paper with her name associated with it. The keyword needs only to be in the file somewhere, not necessarily in the filename.

Spotlight also responds to phrases or sentences, so you can search on a concept, like 'sports,' and not necessarily what you know to be a keyword.

In use, Spotlight is a more logical and exponentially faster way to find files than Apple's own Finder. It makes any search you can do on a Windows XP PC, including the Google search tool, seem hopelessly slow and dated.

One Spotlight feature, while mainly for families, would help if you suspect snoops in nearby cubicles. It lets you flag files as private so they don't show up in search results.

Another application bundled with Tiger is called Dashboard. Dashboard is a collection of online 'widgets' that run in the background. When you click on the Dashboard icon, the main desktop fades by half, and the widgets come up, seeming to float in front of the screen. Widgets distributed on the install DVD include a Yellow Pages search window that's contextual to the address used to register your Mac, lists of stocks tracked continuously, an international clock, a weather forecast and about a dozen others. You can download scores of other free widgets from Apple's Web site.

The applications are mercifully tiny'many less than 100 kilobits. But be careful of links in them. I downloaded a pretty, grass-green widget displaying current Major League Baseball scores, complete with a suspiciously familiar man-on-base symbol, in a continuous scroll. When I clicked on one game to see if I could stop the scrolling (the Yankees were playing the Pirates for the first time since the 1960 World Series), it opened my Safari browser to the Fox News sports Web site. The diamond symbol is the one Fox uses on its television broadcasts.

There is a freshened version of Apple's e-mail client and an update to its iChat videoconferencing that lets you talk to three other people simultaneously, or audio chat with nine others.

Another significant addition is Automator, which lets you build series of tasks into a saved script, or what Apple calls a workflow. I found Automator a bit confusing, uncharacteristically, and would simply advise planning to spend some time with it before trying to create a useful script.

The original OS X is what prompted me to chuck PCs in favor of Macintoshes for my own computing, and I've never looked back. If you are an existing Mac user, I recommend the Tiger upgrade. For enterprise and technical users, the Unix enhancements are a more salient selling point than the perky extras. Either way, Tiger is a superb update to an already excellent OS.

As a postscript, Apple's announcement of its planned switch to Intel microprocessors opens the tantalizing possibility of many more users adopting the Macintosh technology on non-Apple platforms.

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