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Tiger. It's Grrrrrrreat!

Apple's new operating system, which ships tomorrow, is a better Panther than Panther. It's packed with useful, cool, and powerful new features big and small, including ubiquitous indexed searching, group video chat, and integrated RSS.

InformationWeek Staff

April 28, 2005

11 Min Read

Every time Apple revises its Unix-based operating system, it produces a list of dozens and dozens of enhancements -- more than any ordinary human wants to read through -- and some of them so minor they're barely worth mentioning.

In their marketing, Apple wants to emphasize just a handful of features, some of them to tweak Microsoft for not offering them or having already deleted them from Longhorn's list of upgrades. Others are just plain cool, demo well, and might appeal to existing users who need some encouragement to part with their money for an upgrade.

Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger, numbered and named in Apple's peculiar fashion, ships tomorrow worldwide for $129 for existing and new Mac OS X users alike. A five-computer license for a household is $199.

Tiger can be installed on any G3, G4, or G5 Macintosh with a built-in FireWire port—FireWire cards don't count. Apple recommends 256 MB of RAM and 3 GB of free hard disk space. XPostFacto might get older and non-compliant machines to handle Tiger as it has for earlier releases.

Reviewing an operating system is always a tricky task: either you already like the general approach and are considering upgrading to a new version, or you have an aversion (rarely disinterest) in the OS and want ammunition.

Let me try to avoid both paths by focusing on what's new in Tiger. If you haven't used Mac OS X before, you should look elsewhere for an article that covers its general approach. Suffice it to say here it is the BSD flavor of Unix with tons of open source and free software under the hood and a pretty and usable interface on top.

Tiger has much that's familiar in it: the overall interface, structure, and underlying components are the same. That makes it even harder to review as it's fundamentally the same OS as Panther, but also fundamentally improved with changes from the kernel up to the tip-top interface level.

To put some sense behind looking at Tiger, I've taken a glance at some of the biggest additions that Apple has been marketing heavily and some of the subtler improvements behind the scene. Look through this addition, and see how they meet your own needs.

Tiger is evolution not revolution. Evolution isn't as exciting, but remember that a beak just a few millimeters longer might mean the difference between survival and extinction.

Video encoding. The H.264 video standard allows much higher and less pixilated levels of compression for exported and streaming video. In Tiger, this standard manifests itself in several places: in QuickTime, the underlying video software used in Mac OS X; in iChat AV 3.0; and in iMovie.

QuickTime will be able to play back much crisper and clearer streams from the Internet with less bandwidth. That's a big plus when Apple is fighting its battle for media player supremacy with Real and Microsoft.

In iChat AV 3.0, H.264 allows the fairly stunning sight of four simultaneous video chat participants who must also be running Tiger. Person-to-person video chat will works the same, although it can use less bandwidth and look better. But select two or three names in an iChat buddy list and you're launched into a multi-person chat.

iChat presents the other video participants in skewed frames with false perspective and a live reflection in a table top beneath their floating frames. This feature has a minimum cost of entry: The person initiating the conference must have at least a dual-1 GHz Power Mac G4 or any G5 and 384 Kbps of bandwidth in each direction.

Participants need at least a dual 800 GHz G4, a single 1 GHz G4, or any G5. (Here are the requirements.) iChat can now also handle 10-person audio chats with lower system requirements to initiate and participate.

This may be an improvement in collaboration for businesses that have remote offices and telecommuters and that might otherwise be relying on expensive or proprietary video solutions. I also know I'll be using this feature with my family as they upgrade to Tiger. Is it a killer feature? It's particularly interesting to see, but 10-person conference calls bypassing long distance charges may be less cool and more useful -- and save more money.

iMovie will be able to export in H.264, which should allow media creators to produce video that looks better under a much broader set of circumstances.

 

Search. Apple has rebuilt file searching in Tiger -- now called Spotlight -- so that it's actually useful. I've rarely seen searching that works so well outside of specialized applications.

The improvement comes in part because Apple has reached down into the file manager and integrated it with indexing. Whenever any file is changed or a new file is created, the file manager queues that file for indexing by Spotlight.

Searches can be started by clicking the Spotlight icon which is always present in the upper right corner of the screen. Keywords can be entered, and more sophisticated users will learn metadata tags that will let them search on the exposure setting stored in an image or files created after a certain day and time.

After Tiger is first installed, the index has to prime itself through a lengthy but apparently not CPU taxing indexing process. I haven't even noticed when, on several installs of Tiger on multiple machines, that Spotlight is hard at work.

Spotlight is somewhat scary in that it works as expected. After years of disappointment, I still find it hard to believe it's working even as I watch it produce results.

Spotlight has been scattered throughout the interface. Any Apple program or system feature that had search now has Spotlight. Some that lacked search now have it, such as in System Preferences -- as you type your query, Tiger highlights menu items and preference panes alike -- and Keychain Access, which was almost useless as a place to review stored passwords and digital certificates without a search feature.

On the Desktop, you can create Smart Folders, which are essentially live searches based on criteria you set that are updated whenever the index updates.

Developers will be able to tie Spotlight indexes and Spotlight searching into their own programs.

Scripting. Scripting is not sexy. It's not the kind of topic that causes consumers to ooh and aah. So how did Apple turn scripting into something that might convince you to install Tiger? By wrapping two aspects of it in interfaces that make them immediately useful.

Apple's home-brand AppleScript and the so-called world standard of JavaScript underlie Automator and Dashboard, respectively.

Automator is a drag-and-drop scripting tool that lets you take actions associated with programs—like "rename files by date using sequential numbers" or "convert image to TIFF"—and order them in sequences.

These sequences can have steps in which you enter data or make selections. They can be saved, shared, and modified at the AppleScript level. Apple expects storehouses of Automator sequences to be shared online.

I'm still not sure if a home user will find Automator useful or accessible, but an intermediate Mac OS X aficionado and companies that use Macs throughout—especially in publishing and Web production—will immediately take advantage of its power.

Dashboard has a different approach: It's a separate layer that you can bring up that's like overlay on the rest of your system. Hit F12 or select Dashboard from Tiger's Dock, and a virtual desktop appears with what Apple calls Widgets.

Widgets are JavaScript that typically use Web services on the back end to present information in an attractive way on a very specific subject. Apple includes Widgets for weather, stock prices, flight tracking, dictionary lookup, live translation. That last is a very good demo: as I type in German, translation appears instantly (and inaccurately for partial words).

Apple has a full programmer's interface for Widgets and expects a vast number to spawn. They already have a download area on their site ready to accept contributions.

The single-mindedness of Widgets means that if you get a hankering and have any JavaScript background, you might build your own tools. Companies might certainly look into for internal resources that can be referred to through Web services.

 

OK, those are the marquee features. Now let's look at less broad but equally significant improvements.

RSS. Yes, Apple is now on the Really Simple Syndication bandwagon, supporting Web sites and blogs that offer news item feeds through the major syndication formats.

Subscriptions are handled within Safari, Apple's browser, and can be viewed individually and in groups. Once again, Spotlight rears its head, allowing searches through the contents of RSS items that have been retrieved.

This is one of the most heavily promoted and weakest areas of Tiger because managing subscriptions isn't really part of this process. It's more like throwing RSS at a screen and choosing what sticks.

I've been using Ranchero's NetNewsWire Pro 2.0 beta for months -- it's nearing release but was waiting for Tiger -- and I don't see any reason to switch to Safari. Having to use one fewer program isn't outweighed by the lack of management. Still, it will be a great introduction to those unfamiliar with the concept.

Security. There's more protection and more ease at gaining protection throughout Tiger, although Panther didn't skimp, either.

Among a number of disparate improvements, the Keychain Access utility finally allows easy access to the passwords and certificates it stores. They're now categorized and can be searched. A Certificate Assistant embedded into the program allows the creation of self-signed certificates and certificate requests without reverting to the command line.

Tiger lets you synchronize Keychains via .Mac, which means that the passwords and certificates you rely on can be managed across many different machines you use. Because you can create multiple Keychains, you can keep some item local to one machine and share others.

For those in institutions that rely on Kerberos, Tiger adds Kerberos support for VPNs and WebDAV. They've also added some certificate options, which will make it easier to use Tiger as a client for networks with requirements that Panther didn't meet.

Virtual memory can now be secured. Security-minded folks don't like data from memory being written temporarily to disk without it being encrypted and protected. Otherwise, fragments of confidential data may be left behind.

The Address Book can store public keys of those you correspond with, making it one step easier to use PGP or similar encryption methods.

The built-in Mail client emphasizes the use of SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) for POP, SMTP, and IMAP where available, which is a great approach to take with more people working over unprotected hotspot networks.

Networking. Apple has tweaked a number of minor networking options in ways that I support because they provide more granular control.

Their firewall now allows separate entries for UDP and TCP ports, which can be critical for certain kinds of services to pass through without allowing malicious use of others.

A set of options allow a Mac to go into stealth mode (no response to any outside-initiated TCP or UDP or ICMP traffic) or to disable all UDP traffic.

A network troubleshooter guides you through common problems monitoring the network all the time in a status pane. This lets you see whether some change worked instantly without having to complete a series of actions and then see if the network's back up.

Tiger finally offers a profile manager about as good as that added to Windows XP Service Pack 1. You can set elements of a Wi-Fi profile and drag them in order of preference if more than one of the networks is available.

You can also choose behavior for joining networks that haven't been defined as "preferred." This means you can automatically join any network by changing a setting, be warned, or not join any at all.

Images. Apple has been trying for years to make working with images within the OS and its various iLife, iWork, and other programs as seamless as possible. It's not quite there yet, but it's getting closer through improvements to Preview, its image-viewing application, and the Finder.

On the Desktop, selecting images lets you instantly put them into a slide show format in which you can view individual images or see a whole contact sheet.

Preview supports a variety of new formats, including DNG, JPEG2000, and the Camera RAW (uncorrected, uncompressed raw camera data) that's become popular among image professionals. PDF support was also expanded to add features, compatibility, and viewing within Safari.

When I first heard about Tiger a year ago, I wasn't confident that there was enough there to convince me and other power users to upgrade. The more I've worked with it and then had to switch back to Panther for my more routine projects, I've found myself less and less satisfied with the previous system release. That's another way to say that Tiger was a compelling upgrade for me.

I expect that those who like Panther will quickly upgrade to Tiger because it's Panther Plus. Those who find Mac OS X already frustrating or going down the wrong path won't find Tiger a different kind of animal at all.

 

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