Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger: A Review

OSNews reviews Apple’s latest OS upgrade. Is it an overpriced, glorified point release or a truly worthy upgrade with major new functionality? Is it a Longhorn killer or just more of the same? We’ll take a look, and try to see what’s on the surface as well as what’s under the hood.

First, a disclosure: I’m a dedicated fan of Mac OS X, though a daily user of a Windows desktop and Linux server. My personal machine, a 1.25 GHz 15″ Powerbook with 1 GB of RAM, is the seventh Powerbook I’ve owned. Just as I have enjoyed the highs (2300c, current 15″ Aluminum) and lows (5300) of the Powerbook line, I’ve done the same with the Mac OS. I was one of the many Mac users who was losing patience with the old Mac OS, which had gone downhill since version 7.6, and was very excited about OS X, only to be a bit disappointed with its real-world quirks. But, just as it’s a really good time to be a long-time Apple stockholder today, it’s a really good time to be a Mac user.

Across the board, today’s crop of Apple hardware is beautifully conceived, well-built, and priced fairly. The Mini and the iBook, in particular, are machines that I would recommend to anyone who needs a new computer and is interested in trying out the Mac. And Tiger, the latest version of the Mac OS, is a very good operating system.

Bloat is a common problem in software today. Software companies only make money if they sell software, and since software doesn’t get used up or wear out, like a tube of toothpaste or a pair of shoes, the only way companies can earn more money from current customers is to make people buy newer versions. Aside from the dirty tricks that some companies use to force upgrades, the most common way to entice users is to add functionality. Sometimes this added functionality is superfluous, even useless, and often its presence only serves to make the software larger, slower, less stable, and less usable. That’s called bloat, and users complain about it all the time. We’ve become accustomed to new versions of software requiring faster hardware to run slower with each new release. With the Mac OS, Apple has been bucking the trend. Each version seems a bit cleaner and runs a bit quicker than the last.

Spotlight

A cynic would say that each version of the Mac OS is cleaner and faster only because the earliest versions were so slow and cobbled-together that there was huge room for improvement. And that cynic would be partially right. Turing the already-aging NeXT OS into Apple’s “modern” OS was a huge task, and I’m sure developers took many shortcuts to make it happen on schedule. But every version since 10.1 has been perfectly serviceable by today’s operating system standards (which are pretty low). Tiger continues this trend, as expected. On my same old Powerbook, everyday tasks happen just a bit quicker, and the dreaded “spinning beachball” that appears when the system is bogged down or even frozen has rarely showed its face in the four days I’ve been using the new OS. I don’t have any scientific benchmarks, just plain old subjective observation, but Tiger is faster and a bit less prone to hiccups than Panther was.

A couple of the areas where Mac OS X 10.3 felt especially slow when compared to other platforms and technologies — web browsing and search — have been improved dramatically. Browsing with Firefox or IE on Windows has been faster for as long as I can remember. For most of my time as a part time Mac/part time Windows user, I have generally liked the functionality of the Mac browsers better, even preferring the Mac version of IE to the Windows one, features-wise, but lamenting the fact that page rendering performance on Windows was generally better. Especially as Mac IE was stagnating and before Safari came out, this was particularly painful. Safari was a great step forward, but I still recognized that Windows was snappier. No more. My non-scientific tests with Safari 2.0, new in Tiger, and Firefox 1.0.3 and IE 6.0 on Windows XP find very little difference in perceivable rendering speeds across the board. Some browsers render some sites a bit more quickly, but there is no clear loser. Safari 1.x was clearly slower on most sites.

Similarly, though the native Windows search feature has never been particularly good, the arrival on the scene of Google Desktop Search and its ilk have raised the bar significantly. Apple’s new Spotlight feature is a fast new indexed search that is perhaps still not as mind-blowingly fast as Google’s appears to be, but is much more useful. A Spotlight search for “business plan” on my hard drive yields up not only the various MS Office documents related to schemes past that are buried on my drive, but also email messages, PDFs, and other files that mention the term. Spotlight also indexes my iCal events, Address Book entries, images, and Safari bookmarks. It’s not only one stop shopping, but its various tools for narrowing searches by date, location, and kind are so intuitive that I predict that within 18 months every desktop operating system will be copying it. Keeping track of 80 Gigs of old crap has never been easier.

Now one thing that I noticed immediately about Spotlight is that it hijacked the command-space key combination that the groundbreaking utility Launchbar originally used. I consider Launchbar, or its work-alike cousin Quicksilver, to be the number one most essential Mac OS utility of all time. I mean that. What these apps do is essentially allow you to bring up any application (or launch a bookmark, compose an email to someone on your list, or perform other tasks) merely by typing in the first few letters of the name. When I want to launch Photoshop, I type command-space, then P-H-O in rapid succession, hit return, and Photoshop launches. It’s such a vastly superior method for an experienced computer user to do perform common tasks, compared to putzing around with the mouse and menus, that I can’t believe I ever lived without it. It’s the marriage of the best qualities of the GUI and CLI.

Apple’s appropriation of Launchbar’s default key combo is no accident. Spotlight, in practice, works the same way as Lanuchbar. Its menu even pops out of the same corner of the screen. Spotlight can be used as an everyday tool to launch applications, bring up sites in your bookmarks, play iTunes songs, etc. But because Spotlight is more ambitious than Launchbar, it’s quite a bit slower, because it’s pulling up a lot more stuff when you search for P-H-O. You can customize Spotlight so it only indexes a few types of items, thus making it work more like Launchbar or Quicksilver, but that makes it less useful for what it’s really good for. I ended up changing the key combo of Spotlight, and keeping Quicksilver set to the old command-space key combo that I originally became accustomed to with Launchbar.

So Apple’s up to its old tricks again, systematically cribbing the cool ideas from essential shareware apps and integrating them into the OS, just as it did with Watson/Sherlock. But just as Sherlock was enough like Watson to kill it off but not enough like it to be a complete replacement, Spotlight is too feature-rich to replace Launchbar or Quicksilver for me.

On the subject of Apple ripping off ideas for shareware apps, one of Apple’s most visible new features is Dashboard, which is nifty, but mostly for eye candy purposes. The push of a button superimposes several handy “widgets” over the desktop: a cute clock, a calendar, a nice weather forecast, and a calculator, with the ability to activate and download others. The coolest part is when you add a new one, it’s “dropped” onto the screen with a ripple like water. Wow! It’s beautifully conceived, and should prove to be handy.

Dashboard

It’s also a blatant rip-off of Konfabulator, a shareware app. But Konfabulator costs money, and Dashboard is better-integrated and even more beautiful. So while Apple’s appropriation of ideas from the shareware sphere might be bad news for those developers, overall it’s a big plus for Mac users. And while I’m personally sympathetic for their plight, I don’t fault Apple for doing it. They have to get cool new features from somewhere. Heaven knows that once one person has thought up something cool to do with software, eventually everyone else will copy it. It’s a logical progression: Mac Shareware authors –> Apple –> Microsoft –> Linux. (Just kidding, everyone!) But if we were to try to prevent it, we’d be shooting ourselves in the foot by stifling innovation. So, sorry Launchbar and Konfabulator developers. Imitation is the best form of flattery, and your ideas were really cool. Just hope that Apple never gets around to completely replicating your functionality.

On the subject of eye candy, Tiger sports a refined user interface, with somewhat flattened and softened features. I still hate the brushed metal, and it’s still used all over the place for no good reason, but overall the subtle UI changes make Tiger look different enough to be distinctive, and a little better looking, in my subjective opinion.

In addition to the speed increases I mentioned before, Safari 2.0 also has integrated RSS support. I’ve only started playing around with RSS recently, and the way that Safari implements its support is a little different than I’m used to. You can set folders on the bookmarks bar and fill them with RSS feeds on different subjects and view them all together, which is handy, but Safari’s implementation doesn’t lend itself to at-a-glance monitoring of dozens of different feeds as well as NetNewsWire, the most popular RSS aggregator for OS X. Safari does display it very prominently when sites have RSS feeds available, though, so I think this added functionality will do a lot to promote RSS use among Mac users.

One of the nifty features in Tiger that hasn’t generated much buzz yet is Automator. Now, the Mac OS has always had some powerful automation capabilities thanks to the powerful but misunderstood Applescript. But I’m about as experienced a Mac user as you can get and every time I’ve tried to do anything meaningful with Applescript it’s ended in frustration. Automator takes a lot of the capabilities that have been there all along and integrates them into an easy-to-understand drag and drop environment. Not only can you automate file-management and other OS tasks, but also most actions in the standard Apple applications, such as Mail and the iApps. I guess you can say it’s Xcode for non-programmers. While it may not prove to be quite the tool that Perl is to Unix hackers, I’m waiting eagerly for an opportunity to need Automator for something.

iChat AV has some cool enhancements, like audio and video conferences with multiple participants, but I don’t have an iSight, so I didn’t try the multi-screen videoconference. Thanks to Quicktime 7, iChat and other A/V applications have various under-the-hood improvements for higher quality audio and video. iChat also now includes support for Jabber as well as AIM.

Safarirss-sm.png

Apple touts Tiger’s “200+” new features, and they’re not lying, though many of them are more along the order of small tweaks. There are some useful new network utilities, new functionality for Mail, Address Book, iCal, and other integrated apps, and some under-the-hood improvements like secure WebDAV, improved SMP capabilities, 64 bit VM, and some cross-platform networking improvements, to name a few.

The only problem that I had doing the upgrade from Panther was with one of these “improved” applications. I did an “archive and install” upgrade, preserving my settings, but when I booted into Tiger and launched Mail, not only were my several years of organized messages not properly imported into the new version of Mail, the Mail application was sluggish and refused to quit when asked. I was forced to trash the mail database and re-import my messages manually, from three different repositories, associated with different email accounts. Everything seems to be working well now, and it’s probably a result of my convoluted setup with five years of archived mail that had been imported from Entourage a while back. The new Mail version has a new look, and a bunch of new features, apparently, but none that I need or use.

Since the announcement of Tiger, some have been quick to complain, yet again, that Apple is charging another $129 for a new version that doesn’t seem to be all that much different than the old one. Is Tiger as much of an improvement over 10.3 as Longhorn is supposed to be over XP? Well, we’ll see what features Longhorn actually ends up having before we answer that. Frankly, I think that all of the myriad non-sexy, under-the-hood improvements that result in modest speed and functionality improvements the OS and its included utilities and apps like Safari would qualify Tiger for major-release status by themselves. The nifty new applications like Spotlight and Dashboard are just icing on the cake.

Back on the subject of bloat, why does bloat happen anyway? It’s because consumers become obsessed with receiving flashy new features for their upgrade dollars instead of demanding basic, incremental advancements in the core functionality. I guess it’s the same reason why the redesign of a car’s sheet metal exterior excites much more passion than a 15% increase in efficiency and horsepower and several minor new safety features would.

The new Mac OS has just enough flash to get people’s attention and make you feel like you’re getting your money’s worth, while the real value is in the “200+” minor improvements across the board. I think that Tiger is a lot more like Windows XP was to 2000 than SP2 was to SP1, despite what anti-Apple nay-sayers proclaim. Of course, there are many people who still believe that Windows XP wasn’t that much of an improvement over Windows 2000 (or was a step back), and I think the same could be said for Tiger, but honestly, you’re not going to find people in six months pining for Panther. Tiger is all around better.

On the other hand, there’s nothing earth-shattering here, and Panther is still a pretty good OS, so there’s no reason to rush out and buy it unless you’re like me and have to have the latest and greatest. Are you planning on buying a new Powerbook when the next crop comes out? You might want to save your $129 and just wait to get it for free with your new computer. Likewise, if you’ve been on the fence about buying a new Mac Mini, you might just want to buy one now, and get Tiger thrown in with the deal.

So is Tiger the end-all-be-all perfect OS? Hardly. As I’d mentioned before, the barrier is still set pretty low, so Tiger does look pretty good in comparison, but there is still plenty of room for improvement, in usability, performance, and functionality. Faster as it may be, it’s still not as snappy as the BeOS, or possibly even Windows Server 2003 for that matter.

It also still has some annoying usability quirks and I’m not talking about matters of UI dogma like universal toolbars, but rather some lapses in the Finder’s otherwise excellent usability, such as the dock that’s still too big, too centered, in the wrong place, in the way, that performs too many roles, and fails to differentiate between them properly. It’s all easily solvable by making it smaller, pinning it to the right bottom of the screen using Tinkertool, and only using it as a small visual indicator of open applications, with Launchbar/Quicksilver/Spotlight as the way of opening new ones, but why should I have to fight the defaults and use two or three separate hacks just to make application selection work right? And the Finder is still choked with superfluous functions that I rarely if ever use, file browsing is still a little clunky, and support for previewing multimedia files in the Finder is still a bit weak compared to Windows. And did I mention the ugly brushed metal interface and how it seems to be implemented willy-nilly for no reason?

What I really can’t figure out is why, when Apple has been so eager to pillage the shareware world for nifty eye candy like Konfabulator/Dashboard, why are there still aspects of everyday usability that aren’t build into the OS? How about a good, transparent backup utility, for example? Is that not one of the most important things that a typical computer user never ever does? How about support for more IM protocols in iChat? And why isn’t there more capability to customize the look and feel of the Mac experience? I’d like to remove or move around some of the menu options, get rid of the dreaded brushed metal, and, you know, make the place my own. Right now it’s half mine and half Steve’s. Steve, it’s time for you to move out. And will you just make an Apple-branded two button scrolling mouse, for goodness sakes! It’s already fully supported int he OS! Jeez!

In conclusion, Tiger is a great OS update, precisely because it’s focused on a raft of incremental improvements rather than ambitious, flashy, ultimately useless features. You may not need to run right out and buy it, but if you do, you won’t be disappointed. It doesn’t solve all of my gripes with the Mac OS, but would it ever? You just can’t be all things to all people, but you can try to build something with a commitment to excellence, and that’s what Apple has done here. I give it a 9/10, knowing that the day an OS earns 10/10 the sky will fall.

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