Allow me to make a confession that may surprise you. I've been a Mac fan my entire life. Back in 1987, when my house burned down after a Christmas tree mishap I'd rather not detail at the moment, I needed to replace my crispy Commodore 64 set up with a more modern system. I originally wanted an Amiga, but alas, the local Commodore dealer didn't offer financing. The local Apple dealer did, however, and after figuring out how much I wanted to spend (an exorbitant amount even by today's standards), I arrived at two choices: An Apple IIGS with a color display, 768 KB (not MB) of RAM, one 5.25-inch floppy drive, one 3.5-inch floppy drive, and an Image Writer II printer, or a black-and-white Mac Plus with 1 MB of RAM.

Yep, I bought the IIGS.

I know, I know. But I really wanted the color screen, and the IIGS did feature a Mac-like user interface. More important, the IIGS hardware was simply elegant. It was a work of beauty, allowing the Apple II line to go out on a high note, even as the company basically abandoned the product. In any event, I often wondered what might have been had I adopted the Mac 20 years ago. Would I have stuck with it?

Well, we'll never know for sure. What did happen was that I eventually moved to various Amiga systems and then, faced with Commodore biting the Big One in the early 1990's, I moved, unhappily, to the PC. I did everything I could to avoid Microsoft for two years, opting for IBM's doomed OS/2 for a while. But with Windows 95, Microsoft finally got its act together, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Speaking of history, I've always been interested in the computer industry and have devoured every computer industry book and news report that's been published over the past 20 years. I followed Steve Jobs' horrible flop at NeXT, but was amazed by the software that company created and then supplied only to the very rich. I followed John Sculley's rise and awful fall at Apple. And then I watched, shocked, as Steve Jobs returned to Apple.

Back in 1996, I wouldn't have chosen Jobs and NeXT for Apple. Indeed, I had hoped that the fascinating Be OS and its enigmatic leader, John-Louis Gass?e, would lead Apple into the 21st century. My initial opinion of this situation, however, was wrong: Jobs brought both his software--which became Mac OS X after a few fits and starts--and himself to Apple, and both have proven irreplaceable to the company's recent successes.

My history with Mac OS X

Excuse me for skipping over the early years of OS X, which included bizarre missteps like "Yellow Box" and "Rhapsody," and even included a PC-based early alpha build that somehow ended up at more door step back in, oh, 1997 or so. For me, and most Mac followers, Mac OS X started on March 24, 2001, when Apple shipped the initial version (10.0) of Mac OS X. That first version was as fascinating as it was limited. Like subsequent versions of Mac OS X, version 10.0 was based on a UNIX core but included a PDF-based graphics engine that enabled a stunning-looking user interface. Mac OS X 10.0 also included a few flops, which continue in the product to this day, including the reviled Dock, which is used to switch between running applications and, confusingly, non-running applications. Conspicuously, Mac OS X didn't even include a DVD player application, and performance was miserable.

I purchased my first-ever Macintosh in August 2001, a 12-inch 500 MHz iBook G3, with 384 MB of RAM and a 6 GB hard drive (later updated to 30 GB). I purchased the iBook specifically to test Mac OS X, and did so for about three years with that machine. Since that time, I've also purchased a 17-inch iMac G4 (1 GHz, 1 GB of RAM, since sold) and a 12-inch 1.33 GHz PowerBook G4, with 768 MB of RAM and a 60 GB hard drive.

I've used each Mac OS X version, in turn, as they've been released, and have watched the system improve steadily over the years. In late September 2001, Apple shipped Mac OS X 10.1 ("Puma," though that name was rarely used), which was, at least, a free update for people who visited an Apple Store the day it shipped (otherwise, it was a $19.95 upgrade for previous users). 10.1 added performance improvements, DVD movie playback, a new Capture application for digital cameras, and Finder-based DVD burning (see my review). Mac OS X 10.2 "Jaguar" shipped in August 2002, with a new Mail application, iChat instant messaging (IM), a new Address Book, Quartz Extreme graphics, and other features (see my review). Jaguar was a $129 upgrade for all Mac OS X users.

In October 2003, Apple shipped Mac OS X 10.3 "Panther," yet another $129 upgrade (see my review). Panther featured a power-user feature called Expos? and iChat AV, which features support for Apple's high-resolution iSight video camera. Since then, Mac OS X Panther has been updated with numerous fixes, and in 2004 Apple announced that it was slowing OS X development. The next system, Tiger (version 10.4) would then ship, not in late 2004 as previously expected, but in the first half of 2005. Alas, despite the wait, Tiger is a minor revision, like all previous OS X updates. Let's take a look.

Major new features in Mac OS X 10.4 "Tiger"

Contrary to Apple's hyperbolic claims of "200 new features," Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger includes, in my opinion, only two major new features, Spotlight and Dashboard, and both were clearly influenced by other existing products and services. In this section, we'll examine both of these major new features.

Spotlight

One of the coolest features in Apple's highly successful iTunes media player is the instant search capability: Simply select the search box, start typing, and iTunes will dynamically limit the song list in the player to match your search text. The iTunes search feature was so well-done, in fact, that Apple decided to adopt a similar approach in various places throughout OS X Tiger--including the Finder, Mail 2, and elsewhere--providing Mac OS X users, for the first time, with true instant search functionality. Similar in execution to the instant desktop search feature Microsoft plans to ship in Longhorn next year, and to third party Windows products like MSN Toolbar Suite and Google Desktop Search, Spotlight works as advertised. It delivers near-instantaneous search results from the places you'd most often need to find files or other information.

Finder-based Spotlight access is a good example. Complementing the Apple logo on the Apple menu at the left end of the system menu bar, Apple has created a corresponding Spotlight icon (a magnifying glass in a blue circle) that sits on the right end of the menu. When you click that icon, a colorful Spotlight drop-down window appears, allowing you to type in search text. And as you type, the drop-down window expands to display search results (Figure). As noted before, the results are supplied nearly-instantaneously, and they dynamically change as you edit the search text. You can click on document names in the search results to view the corresponding file, folder, mail message, or contact, of course.

Spotlight search boxes appear elsewhere in Tiger as well. For example, a Spotlight search box appears in Mail 2, in Help, System Preferences, and Address Book. You can also create something called Smart Folders, which is basically a stored search, similar to the Search Folders that debuted in Outlook 2003 back in October 2003. Of course, because it's available to the entire system, and features much better performance, Apple's implementation is far more interesting. To create a Smart Folder, navigate to the Finder and choose File then New Smart Folder. This will display the New Smart Folder window (Figure), which provides a visual query builder similar to the playlist query builder in Windows Media Player. Once you've fine-tuned the Smart Folder, simply click the Save button and your new Smart Folder will be saved where you want it. Double-click on the folder and your results--dynamically generated, mind you--will be instantly displayed.

Now, this kind of functionality is exceeding cool, because it's the first step toward divorcing ourselves from worrying about the hard-coded locations of files and other data stored on the computer's file system. If you think about it, it's kind of silly that we have to even worry about such a thing, and though recent file system niceties like the My Documents folder in Windows (simply called Documents in OS X) try to simplify matters, the truth is, computers should be good at finding the information we need. We shouldn't have to do all the work.

Not coincidentally, Microsoft is working on similar, if further-reaching, technology for Longhorn. Apple's solution, however, is here right now and it appears to work quite well. Score one for Apple.

Dashboard

In the previous version of Mac OS X, version 10.3, Apple introduced a feature for power users called Expos? that seeks to help manage the multiple applications and windows one typically opens in the course of using a Mac. But Expos? is a weird solution, requiring you to hit various "hot keys" (read: A function keys) in order to trigger its display, kind of a throwback of sorts to the early days of DOS-based applications. Anyway, Apple apparently decided that Expos? was so cool, they added another Expos?-like application to Tiger. It's called Dashboard, and it's gotten the company in a bit of trouble because it so closely mimics a third party solution called Konfabulator.

It's hard to classify Dashboard. Basically, it's a separate environment or screen within Mac OS X that contains mini-applications called widgets. There are four widgets loaded into Dashboard by default: Calculator, World Clock, Calendar, and Weather (Figure). You access the Dashboard environment by hitting F12 on the Mac keyboard: The desktop is grayed out, and then you can access the Dashboard widgets. When you're ready to return to the normal Mac desktop, hit F12 again.

Um, right. Since PCs and Macs have had tiny utility applications since the early 1980's, it's unclear why Dashboard widgets can't simply work on the normal Mac desktop (which is how Konfabulator works, incidentally). Having to move into and out of the Dashboard to perform these tasks seems a bit unnecessary. Why segregate them like that?

That said, there are quite a number of widgets available with Tiger, and my guess is that Mac developers will quickly supply quite a bit more. Out of the box, Tiger also includes Address Book, Dictionary, Flight Tracker, iTunes, Phone Book, Stickies, Stocks, Tile Game, Translation, and Unit Converter widgets.

Other new features in Mac OS X 10.4 "Tiger"

Once you get past Spotlight and Dashboard, Tiger is chock full of a wide range of small new applications and updates to existing applications and technologies. In this section, I'll highlight a few of those minor updates.

Safari 2.0

Apple's Safari Web browser is excellent, offering speedy performance and excellent Web rendering. In Tiger, Safari is updated to include integrated support for Real Simple Syndication (RSS) and Atom feeds, technologies that many blogs now use. When Safari hits an RSS or Atom-backed Web site, like the New York Times, you'll see a new "RSS" button in the Safari address bar (Figure). Click this, and the site's RSS feed is displayed, using a clean Apple-created design that features a right-mounted frame for controlling the amount of information you see and various sorting options (See movie). This screen is not otherwise customizable per se, but it is gorgeous and well-designed. RSS feeds can thus be bookmarked like any other Web page, which is exactly the way it should work, when you think about it.

Most modern Web browsers allow you to create Web page archives, which include the Web page you're trying to save plus all of the other content--typically images--that makes the page look right. In Windows, Internet Explorer can store Web page archives in a single file (.mht file type), which is pretty handy, unless of course you want to use another browser to view the file. Firefox, meanwhile, creates a subfolder with other content when it creates a Web archive.

Until Tiger, Apple's excellent Safari Web browser didn't support saving Web archives. But now it does: Simply navigate to the Web page you want to save, choose Save As from the File menu, and then select Web Archive from the Format drop-down list box (and, optionally, a location to store the archive).

Safari 2.0's Web archives, like those of Internet Explorer, are stored in a single file (.webarchive file type). And yes, like those of IE, Safari's Web archive files can only be ready by the program that created them, and not by other Web browsers. Still, it's a handy feature to have, and a welcome addition to Tiger.

Overall, I've always been a big fan of Safari, and I'd use it rather than Firefox or IE if it were available on Windows. It's an excellent application.

iChat AV

Apple's IM solution, iChat AV, is now compatible with the open source Jabber IM service, as well as with AOL Instant Messenger (AIM), which was previously available. The big deal with the Tiger version of iChat AV is a new teleconferencing feature that lets you perform high-quality video chats with up to three other participants. I wasn't able to test this feature because it requires a PowerMac G5 or dual processor G4 (1 GHz+) system to initiate such a chat, but I did test normal chatting and one-on-one video conferencing with an iSight video camera. The results are stunning, thanks to the quality of the camera (which is Firewire-based and supports 720 x 480 video) and the new H.264 video codec (also known as MPEG-4 Part 10) (Figure).

Apple's iChat AV is a great IM solution that has only gotten better in Tiger. I'd like to see it open up to more IM services--like Yahoo's and MSN--but , ah well, it will get there.

Mail 2

Apple's Mail application (sometimes referred to as Mail.app because of it NeXTStep heritage) has been significantly updated in Tiger, though I'm a little unexcited about yet another user interface style being introduced in OS X. You may recall that the original OS X version featured a "pin stripe" user interface. I hated it, which is OK, because it's largely (but not completely) gone now. After testing the so-called "brushed metal" look in QuickTime Player, Apple began applying that style of UI to many (but not all) OS X applications, including iTunes and Safari, which I feel was a mistake. Meanwhile, the applications that might have otherwise used the pin stripe style where changed in the previous OS X version to use a more subdued, cleaner look. Well, in OS X Tiger, that's all changed yet again. The brushed metal apps are still there, but the pinstripe style has been replaced, for the second time, with the "plastic" style. The token plastic application, incidentally, is Mail 2, though it does appear in a few other places, including Help.

User interface issues aside, Mail 2 is a nice update (Figure). The awful sliding draw found in previous versions has been replaced by a more traditional column of mailbox folders, such as what you would see in Microsoft Outlook, making the application look more professional. The toolbar buttons, however, are bizarre looking and unlike the icons found in any other Mac OS X applications, another case of Apple trouncing all over its own user interface conventions. It's astonishing to me that Mac fanatics let the company get away with that.

Any, from a functional standpoint, Mail 2 features Spotlight searching, which works as you'd expect (Figure); Smart Mailboxes (which are indeed a copy of the Search Folders feature, allowing you to save mail searches); and .Mac synchronization, which lets you synchronize all of your email accounts, rules, signatures, and Smart Mailboxes to all of your Tiger-based Macs using the .Mac service (which you must subscribe to for $99 a year). Nice.

Additionally, many of Mail 2's new features are related to iPhoto integration and digital photos. For example, the new photo controls in Mail let you resize photos before they are sent. And when you receive photos in an email message, Mail can display a slideshow. Here's how they work.

If you drag photos into a Mail message window, they are stored in the message body with their original size by default. However, a new Image Size drop-down list, available in the lower right corner of the window, lets you choose between three different sizes for all of the images in the message.

The sizes are listed as Small, Medium, and Large (as well as Actual Size), but each of those names also equates to a pixel size, as follows:

Small (320 x 240)
Medium (640 x480)
Large (1280 x 960)
Actual Size

When you receive photos via email, Mail offers some new features as well. There are two buttons next to the attachments line, Save and Slideshow. Save, as you might expect, launches a Finder Save dialog so you can copy the attached photos to your hard drive. Slideshow, meanwhile, launches a nice Slideshow applet, although you'll have to wait for the images to download, which can take a while, depending on their size.

When you wiggle the mouse during the slideshow, you'll see the toolbar. The buttons, from left to right, are Back, Play/Stop, Next, Index Sheet, Fit to Screen, Add to iPhoto, and Close. The Index Sheet option is kind of interesting: It displays all of the photos in the slideshow together on the screen at one time.

Finally, Mail 2 lets you easily customize which fields appear in a New Message window. To do so, open a New Message window and then choose Customize from the Action menu in the left side of the window (it's the small box next to the Account drop-down list).

While the New Message window is in customize mode, each possible field appears with a checkbox that determines whether that field will normally appear. To customize the window, simply select the fields you want. When you're done, click the OK button.

That's all there is to it. Simple and effective.

Address Book 4.0

In Tiger, Address Book has been updated to version 4.0 (from 3.1 in Panther). Among the new features is a new contacts importer that can import contacts from text files (in addition to vCards and LDIF files). These text files can be in tab-delimited or CSV (comma-separated values) format.

To test this feature, I exported my Windows-based Microsoft Outlook contacts list to various tab-delimited and CSV formats and then attempted to import them into Address Book in Tiger. You import text files by selecting the File menu, then Import, and then Text file. In the resulting File Open dialog, navigate to the location where you've stored the text file and select it, then click open.

I tested the four different text file formats and received the following results:

CSV (DOS format) - Text file import failure.
CSV (Windows format) - Text file import failure.
Tab-delimited (DOS format) - Text file import failure.
Tab-delimited (Windows format) - Text file import failure.

Convinced that the problem was Outlook and not Address Book, I then imported my Outlook contacts into Mozilla Thunderbird on Windows, and then exported them again to CSV and tab-delimited text files. I also exported the Thunderbird contacts as an LDIF file for testing purposes. I received the following results:

CSV - Brought up the Text File Import dialog, but had no idea how to handle the various fields.
Tab-delimited - Brought up the Text File Import dialog, but had no idea how to handle the various fields.
LDIF - Worked fine. Address Book noted that it was importing 81 new cards and all of the contact fields appeared to map correctly.

I've struggled with contacts importing on Mac OS X before, as evidenced by this article, and had hoped that the addition of text importing in Address Book in Tiger would make things easier. But that doesn't appear to be the case: I still need to use a third party tool to exchange data between Outlook and Tiger's Address Book. That's too bad, and it will make life a bit difficult for anyone that uses both Windows and the Mac.

iCal 2.0

Mac OS X 10.4 "Tiger" includes a new version of iCal that includes a number of useful new features. For example, you can automatically create a meeting event by dragging an Address Book contact or group of contacts onto an iCal calendar. When you do so, a new meeting appears in iCal on the date and time you selected, with those contacts listed as attendees. (You can also drag iCal To Do items into the calendar to create events. In this case, the title of the To Do is used to name the event.)

iCal integrates with Address Book in other ways, too. For example, you can turn on an optional Birthdays calendar (from iCal Preferences) that finds any of your contacts' birthdays and lists them in your calendar. The Birthdays calendar is read-only.

Additionally, iCal now integrates with Mail. You can configure iCal to automatically grab invitations that arrive via Mail. When such an invitation arrives, you can reply using the Notifications button in the lower-left corner of the iCal window. This button toggles the Notifications pane, which displays any unanswered invitations. The Notifications pane also displays any incoming answers to event requests you've made.

Finally, iCal 2.0 also integrates with Spotlight. This means you can search for calendar events and To Do items directly from the search box in the bottom of the iCal window. Search results appear in a pop-up search results pane.

Burn Folders

A Burn Folder is a special Finder folder (like a Smart Folder) that contains shortcuts to files or folders you might regularly burn to CD or DVD. I call it a special folder because it doesn't actually contain files and folders. Instead, it contains shortcuts (or aliases, in Mac-speak) to files and folders that exist elsewhere on the Mac.

There are two ways to create a Burn Folder. First, you can switch to the Finder, choose File, and then New Burn Folder. This will create a new Burn Folder directly on your desktop, which is the most obvious place to store such a folder. If you'd like to create a Burn Folder elsewhere in your system, navigate to that location with the Finder, right-click an empty area of the current window, and select New Burn Folder.

Once the Burn Folder is created, you can drag and drop files (including applications and documents and other data files) and folders to it normally. An alias will appear in the folder, representing each file and folder you will eventually burn to disk.

To burn the contents of a Burn Folder to disk, right-click the Burn Folder and choose Burn Disk. Or, open the Burn Folder and click the handy Burn button. If a blank CD or DVD is not inserted into your Mac's Super Drive, a dialog will appear, alerting you to how much space you need on the backup media.

If you delete a Burn Folder, the files to which it points are not deleted. Only the Burn Folder is deleted.

Though handy, Burn Folders isn't perfect. When you open the Burn Folder, there is nothing indicating how much disk space the current contents will require when backed up. And unlike with Windows XP, there is no Send To menu (or equivalent) in Tiger, so you can't just right-click on a file, folder, or group of files and folders, right-click, and choose Send To Burn Folder. Instead, you have to manually ensure that the Burn Folder is visible on the desktop, or available in another open folder. Or, as one reader points out, you can use the Expose F11 key command to reveal the desktop and copy from there.

Hey, it's a 1.0 feature. I'm sure Burn Folders will improve over time. In the meantime, it works fine as-is and is a welcome addition to Mac OS X.

Finder Slideshows

In Tiger, you can now trigger a full-featured slideshow directly from the Finder. Here's how it works.

First, navigate to a folder that contains a number of image files. Then select the files you'd like to include in the slideshow. Right-click the group and select "Slideshow." The slideshow automatically begins.

While the slideshow is running, you can bring up the slideshow menu by moving the mouse. The menu has six buttons: Back, Play/Stop, Next, Index Sheet, Fit to Screen, and Close. You can also quit the slideshow by pressing the ESC key.

And ... that's it. Finder Slideshows seem to work fine, though they're not particularly discoverable (i.e. there's no Mac menu item that starts a slideshow). But if you don't have iPhoto and would like to trigger a slideshow, Tiger is there for you.

DVD Player 4.5

While the original Mac OS X DVD player--a weird round ball of a program--was lacking, the versions Apple has shipped in the past few point updates of Mac OS X have been quite nice. DVD Player 4.5, the version that ships in Mac OS X 10.4 "Tiger," is no exception.

Apple has updated DVD Player with the following new features (which are called out as 7 individual features in its 200+ New Features what's new list for Tiger.

Audio Equalizer. The tinkerers among us can use the new translucent Audio Equalizer window to custom-configure sound output. As you might expect, you can manually adjust different frequencies with the equalizer's settings, or you can choose from presets such as Bass and Vocal Boost, Bass Boost, Small Speakers, or Vocal Boost. I had expected the presets to improve sound output on my PowerBook's small speakers, but the results were better than I had anticipated.

Bookmarks. A new Bookmarks window--which is not translucent--allows you to create Bookmarks, similar to those in Safari, at your favorite moments in any DVD. You can name the Bookmarks, and then click on them in the Bookmarks window to later return to that point in the movie. One cool option--which should be the default--lets you display a thumbnail for each Bookmark. There's also one small problem: Bookmarks are stored alphabetically, not in time sequence. Doh.

Animated Dock Icon. When you minimize DVD Player on a Quartz Extreme-equipped Mac, the movie keeps playing inside of the Dock icon, though the sound is muted. You can also optionally pause the DVD playback when the player is minimized, which frankly should be the default. I'm guessing this effect looks pretty cool on a 30" Cinema Display. On my 1024 x 768 PowerBook, it's just sad.

Navigator. A new translucent Navigator window provides real-time statistics about the currently-playing DVD. Unlike the Info display that was available in previous versions, the Navigator is interactive: You can mouse over items like Title and Chapter to navigate to different parts of the movie, or Subtitle to select a subtitle. You can also switch between elapsed time and remaining time, or adjust the volume.

Video Clips. The Video Clips window (which is shared with Bookmarks for some reason) lets you create QuickTime-style video clips, or video subsets, of a DVD. The way you create these clips is somewhat awkward: When you click the Add Video clip button in the Video Clips window, the movie pauses and a new dialog appears, with buttons to Set and Clear the Start Time and End Time of the clip. To start a clip, you just click the Set button next to Start Time. And then ... It's not clear what to do next. It turns out you restart the movie and then wait until the moment arrives where you'd like the clip to end. At that point, you click the Set button next to End Time. Like the Bookmarks feature, you can name Video Clips and view them by thumbnail, which is just cool.

Video Color. Another translucent window, Video Color lets you adjust the brightness, contrast, color, and tint of the DVD playback window. You can also choose from presets like Brighter, Deeper, and Richer. Some of these effects are quite dramatic. My guess is that this feature will prove valuable in certain situations, such as when trying to watch a DVD on an airline flight.

Video Zoom. Video Zoom lets you magnify the image width and height independently using two sliders, though it's set to lock the aspect ration by default. If you're annoyed by the black bands at the top and bottom of widescreen movies and don't mind losing a bit of the picture at the edges, this might just be the ticket.

Overall, the improvements to DVD Player are quite nice. It's a solid update.

Bluetooth support

Apple's support of Bluetooth has always been top-notch. In Tiger, Mac OS X gets a number of Bluetooth-related enhancements, including support for the Bluetooth 1.2 specification and the ability to use Bluetooth-enabled headsets for iChat AV audio conferences. But my favorite Bluetooth feature in Tiger is Bluetooth file transfer, which lets you exchange files and folders with other compatible Bluetooth devices, including PDAs, smartphones, and PCs.

Before you can send or receive files via Bluetooth, you'll want to configure the other Bluetooth-enabled device for use with your Mac. Then, you'll need to enable the Bluetooth File Transfer service in the Sharing section of the Bluetooth system preference panel.

To send a file via Bluetooth, select Send File from the Bluetooth menu extra in the Tiger system menu bar. A dialog will open, letting you choose the file (or folder) you wish to send. Then, you'll be prompted to select the Bluetooth device to which you'd like to send the file. When you click Send, the other device will be alerted of the transfer.

Assuming the other device accepts the file, Tiger will send it along.

If another device attempts to send a file to a Tiger-based Mac via Bluetooth, a dialog will pop-up, giving you the chance to accept or decline the transfer. If you accept the transfer, the file will be copied to your Documents folder.

The Bluetooth file transfer feature works very similarly to the same feature in Windows XP Service Pack 2 (SP2), which is how I tested it: The other device used in this example was an SP2-based notebook computer. In other words, it works very well.

.Mac Sync

If you're a .Mac subscriber, the Tiger upgrade provides a few new .Mac synchronization features. Previous versions of OS X used iSync to synchronize Safari bookmarks, iCal calendars, and Address Book contacts. But in Tiger, you can also synchronize Mail rules, signatures, and Smart Mailboxes; and Keychain-based stored passwords. However, this data is now synchronized through the .Mac System Preference, and not iSync for some reason.

You can configure .Mac to synchronize your personal data automatically (i.e. when anything changes), every hour, every day, every week, or manually. However, it's unclear why this was moved out of iSync? Isn't that what that tool was for?

But wait, there's more

I've only highlighted the new features that are obvious and meaningful to me in this review. But don't be dismayed. Tiger includes a slew of other new features too. QuickTime Player 7 features high-resolution H.264 support, though Apple strangely only provides Tiger customers with the free version of the player (Figure): You have to pay to upgrade to the Pro version, like everyone else. That's cheap.

Though Tiger is technically a 32-bit operating system with a 32-bit kernel, it will support 64-bit applications and 64-bit address spaces on 64-bit capable Macs such as the PowerMac G5. This will enable high-performance, data-intensive applications on G5 systems with massive amounts of memory.

For developers, administrators, and power users, Tiger includes an interesting new feature called Automator, which is basically a visual front-end to Mac OS X's powerful but underappreciated scripting environment, AppleScript. As its name implies, Automator helps you automate repetitive tasks. For example, you may want to rename a group of files, convert a group of graphics files, or perform similar actions. You can tie together these actions, which are literally called Actions, into groups to construct more complex workflows.

Developers will also be interested in improvements to Tiger's core functionality, though it's unclear how long it will be before more casual users are impacted by these changes. A new programming library called Core Image allows Tiger to manipulate images directly in the graphics processing unit (GPU) of high-end video cards, and not in the CPU, which would be much slower. Core Image is based on OpenGL, the industry standard 3D programming interface. Similarly named technologies, such as Core Data and Core Audio, seek to advance the state of the art for data modeling and audio effects and virtual instruments, respectively.

What's not included in Mac OS X "Tiger"

Contrary to a popular misconception, Mac OS X 10.4 "Tiger" does not include Apple's vaunted iLife '05 applications--iMovie, iPhoto, iDVD, iTunes, and Garage Band--nor does it include the iWork '05 productivity applications, which include Pages (a weird word processing/page publishing hybrid) and Keynote (a presentation package). Tiger also does not include the AppleWorks productivity suite, an aging set of applications that is somewhat similar to Microsoft Works. You do get most of these applications--but not the iWork suite--when you purchase a new Macintosh, however.

Installation and upgrading

Apple touts the ease with which you can upgrade your existing Mac OS X installation to Tiger, or perform a clean install. But if you're not really paying attention during Setup, you can quite easily do the wrong thing, especially if you want to do a clean install. In the third phase of Setup ("Select Destination"), there is an Options button that's quite easy to miss. However, if you want to do a clean install, you'll need to click that button first, and not the Continue button. Otherwise, you'll simply upgrade your existing install by mistake.

Apple also supports an interesting option called Archive and Install, which basically performs a clean install but retains the user settings from the previous install, which is quite handy.

A base install of Mac OS X requires over 3 GB of space. However, if you're not careful, you'll also install a whopping 1.6 GB of printer drivers (!), so be sure to watch for that during the Installation Type phase (if you didn't opt for the Easy Install, which does install all those drivers). You can also optionally install the X11 graphical environment if you're a Linux or UNIX geek making the switch. The installation of OS X Tiger is not really that configurable beyond these few simple options.

After the system reboots, you're presented with an updated Getting Started sequence, featuring new music, which walks you through such things as configuring your wireless network and setting up your .Mac/email account. Aside from the new music and some updated graphical flourishes, this process is almost identical to that in previous OS X versions.

In two installation tests on a 1.33 GHz PowerBook G4, one an upgrade and one a clean install, it took roughly 45 minutes to perform Setup and boot back into the desktop.

So what's the big deal all about?

Since the return of Steve Jobs, Apple's success has hinged largely on its ability to keep its product plans secret and then use "event marketing" to pump each release as the be-all, end-all solution to whatever problems you may be having. The marketing that accompanies Tiger's release is no different: Described by Apple as "a super-modern operating system" and "the newest major release of the world?s most advanced operating system," Tiger will, in Apple's words, "change the way you use a computer." That, of course, is completely untrue. Mac OS X 10.4 "Tiger" is, in fact, a minor upgrade to an already well-designed and rock-solid operating system. It will not change the way you use your computer at all, and instead uses the exact same mouse and windows interface we've had since the first Mac debuted in 1984. That isn't a complaint about Tiger, per se: It's a high-quality release. My issue here is with marketing, not with reality.

The problem is that Apple must trumpet each release as loudly as possible, in order to derive as much immediate upgrade revenue as possible from Tiger. Unlike Windows, Mac OS X doesn't ship on over 50 million PCs a year, so Tiger's retail success is far more important to Apple than Windows' retail success is to Microsoft. Fortunately, Apple fans have always proven themselves to be suckers for the latest and greatest: I expect millions of Mac users to upgrade immediately to Tiger. Ka-ching.

Tiger isn't a long-term play, however. Despite its lengthy development time, and promises of ever slower Mac OS X upgrade releases in the future, this new system isn't a big enough upgrade over previous OS X releases to warrant much excitement. Once you get past the few major new features for end users--primarily Spotlight and Dashboard, neither one of which exactly changes the competitive landscape very much--there's very little real meat in Tiger.

This is particularly problematic for Apple's goal of getting Windows users to switch to the Mac. In my opinion, the coolness factor of Apple's iPod and Mac hardware is far more compelling than Mac OS X itself. The Mac mini and iMac, therefore, will likely cause more people to switch (or at least use both Windows XP and the Mac) than any improvements in Tiger. Don't get me wrong, please: Again, Tiger is a solid release. It's just not a major upgrade that's worth the $129 price tag. Surely if Apple can violate its "every other release is free" policy, it could charge $50 or less for Tiger. After all, Konfabulator is free to try and inexpensive ($24.95) to keep, while Google Desktop Search is free.

Availability and licensing

Apple Mac OS X 10.4 "Tiger" will become publicly available April 29 and sold only on DVD, though beta versions were available both in DVD and CD formats. However, Apple will swap the Setup DVD to CDs upon request for a small charge. Tiger costs $129 for all users of previous Mac OS X versions. Apple also offers a 5-Mac "Family Pack" for $199 that lets you install the system on up to 5 Macintosh systems, though there is no copy protection or activation scheme in the single Mac version that would prevent you from installing a single copy on multiple machines. If the past is any indication, Apple will release numerous fixes for Mac OS X 10.4 within days of the software's release. My sources on the beta tell me that testers were surprised Apple decided to finalize the software when they did. Apparently a lot of problems still exist in the final code. I didn't experience any major issues in my own testing, however, and found Tiger to be quite stable.

Conclusions

Apple Mac OS X 10.4 "Tiger" is the strongest OS X release yet and a worthy competitor to Windows XP. Though it is marketed by Apple as a major release, Tiger is in fact a minor upgrade with few major new features for end users (though developers will be interested in some of the low-level work Apple has done with Core Image, Core Audio, and other technologies). That won't stop Apple fans from flocking to Apple Stores on April 29 and standing in line to buy it, even at its inflated $129 price. That's fine, I guess: Tiger performs well, looks great, and offers many modern OS features. Tiger builds on the rock-solid foundation of previous OS X releases, adds a few major new features, and applies a nice spit polish to hundreds of other small features. Tiger may lack some of the niceties that make Windows more appealing to new users (read this showcase for one example), but it does reward those with existing computer skills with a minimalist yet elegant user interface that, as advertised, "gets out of the way" and lets you get your job done. If you can look past Apple's corporate bravado, you'll see that Tiger is one impressive cat. And unlike Longhorn, it's shipping any day now. What a concept.