On Friday, April 29, 2004, Apple Computer will uncage Mac OS X 10.4 "Tiger," providing Mac fans with the best Mac OS X yet. Though I feel that Tiger is a minor upgrade compared to the previous OS X version, Panther, that shouldn't diminish the importance of this release. Apple has been slowly improving its UNIX-based operating system for several years now, and Tiger is the fruit of that labor. Is it enough to make Windows users switch?

That's a tough call. Compared to Windows XP, Mac OS X Tiger is more professional looking and far less likely to be hacked. It rewards computer experience with a lean and mean user interface that doesn't get in your way, as so many Mac aficionados assert. It's rock solid and stable, at least as much as Windows XP with Service Pack 2 (SP2). In short, Tiger is certainly a worthy competitor to XP, despite OS X's diminutive market share.

With Tiger, the areas in which OS X lag behind XP are shrinking. Tiger isn't a great choice for computer novices, because its Spartan UI offers little in the way of XP's hand-holding wizards and task-based folders. It still lacks XP's vast library of readily available software, though many PC-based hardware devices work just fine with Macs. And Macintosh computers--with some exceptions, such as the Mac mini and eMac--still tend to be quite a bit more expensive than comparable PCs.

Where OS X shines, in general, compared to XP is its support for digital media tasks. Grab the $79 iLife '05 suite--a bargain at twice that cost--and you'll find yourself with a set of tools for digital photos, music, home movies, and DVDs that PC users can only dream of. If you care at all about digital media, you should at least be evaluating a Mac, even if you intend to augment your PC and not replace it.

But what about Tiger? For the prosumer--that is, the technically savvy consumer--Tiger will offer a number of enhancements over previous OS X versions. For those who opt to use both Macs and PCs together, Tiger's ability to browse Windows networks has been refined and offers much better performance, for example. (Though I still wish you didn't have to mount Windows shares on your desktop and could just browse them directly from the Finder, as you can using similar features in Windows and Linux.) And the new Spotlight instant search feature delivers on a key Longhorn feature a full year and a half before Microsoft will bestow such a thing upon Windows users. It's speedy and well-done.

Want a safe and secure Web browsing environment for your children? Check out Apple's excellent Safari 2.0 Web browser, which comes free with Tiger. Safari 2.0 isn't susceptible to the frequent attacks IE users suffer from. And it's arguably even safer than Mozilla Firefox, which will likely see itself become the target of more and more hackers as it gains more users. Tiger also supplies much better parental controls than does XP. Unlike XP, you can actually create non-administrator accounts for kids that actually work as advertised. These accounts will prevent your children from accessing--or accidentally deleting--your private data, and can even be configured to ensure they can communicate electronically only with people you trust: If they try to email someone you haven't configured as safe, for example, you'll be prompted to OK the message before it's sent. Tiger's parental controls also extend to other OS X features, like iChat AV instant messaging (IM) and even the system dictionary.

Tiger is also an excellent choice for those with hearing, vision, or other disabilities. A new VoiceOver feature, similar to the Narrator feature in XP, lets you navigate the OS X interface using only a keyboard, accompanied by a robotic voice that explains what's happening onscreen. There is also a large caption option, a zooming feature, and screen flashing for alerts for the hearing impaired.

When Mac OS X was first released four years ago, it was slow and incomplete. But after a series of successive updates, culminating next week with Tiger, OS X is coming of age. You may not be ready to make the switch. But surely, OS X Tiger--perhaps running on a new Mac mini--will be a welcome addition to any technical user's stable of computing tools.