Logo Rob Buckley – Freelance Journalist and Editor

Review: Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger

Review: Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger

Does Tiger really roar or is it just a kitten? We put Tiger through its paces to find out if it can live up to all the hype and hysteria.

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With the Apple hype machine revving its engine so loudly you’d think something as unlikely as an actual software advert might emerge from everyone’s favourite computer firm, Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger has finally leapt into action. The latest – and most expensive - version of OS X has been 18 months in development, with gangs of software developers labouring night and day to come up with reasons why people should buy Macs instead of Windows. Have they succeeded? Yes, but not in the way you might have thought.

Tiger’s predecessor, Panther – OS X 10.3 – was a very impressive upgrade that finally brought a modern feature set to the Mac OS, while preserving its performance and usability. There was still room for improvement, but these were minor niggles. So Tiger has a tough act to follow.

The usual ways to get people to upgrade are provide them with a whole host of new features. Tiger supposedly has 200 new features, but most of them are of the “blink and you’ll miss them” variety (“Get support for UNIX-style symlinks on Windows SMB Shared Servers” anyone?) or are aspects of the same feature: Spotlight, Tiger’s new metadata search system, is responsible for at least ten feature list entries. So in reality, there are a few really big additions and a few additional changes here and there that make life a little easier. But 200? Not even Steve’s reality distortion field can really justify that.

Anyone expecting an iLife-style innovation in Tiger to justify an upgrade will be sorely disappointed. There’s only one big new application and that’s Automator – which for most people is eminently useless. For creative pros that need to link together lots of applications into a workflow, Automator will be useful one day, once more third-party apps are supported, but Photoshop Actions will be the mainstay for most until then.

Spotlight, while technically not an application, is the bigger selling point for Tiger. The ability to find anything you want instantly, in no matter what document, contact, calendar event or image? That’s got to be good, right? Well, it is when it works. While our relatively unencumbered test iBook G3, iMac G4 and Power Mac G5 all got on perfectly happily with Spotlight, returning results as soon as we started typing, our file-laden PowerBook G4 had a hate-hate relationship from the beginning, with Spotlight’s initial indexing session crashing it or making it unusable for the first few hours after installation. It took us some happy hacking with Tiger’s excellent command line tools to get rid of Spotlight’s database and make it re-index the hard drive before we were getting those instant results, with Smart Folders (more on them later) often taking 30 seconds or longer to fill up with even one file in earlier attempts. Even now though, just about any search term we type in from “T’ai Chi” to “Mac OS X” will still throw up an eBook of “The Bourne Supremacy” as one of the top hits. We happily await bug fixes in future updates, because this will be a killer feature when it works across the board.

Otherwise, most of the useful new features are enhancements to existing applications. Almost everything in Tiger, from the Apple menu through the System Preferences to the minor utilities such as Keychain Access, has had some plastic surgery, usually for the better. Mail does look like it’s been sitting next to the fire though, although the death of “the drawer” can only be welcome.

Safari hasn’t had an extreme makeover, but it does have some long-hoped-for features, such as support for RSS feeds, PDF viewing and private browsing, all done with the usual Apple style, but without bringing the Safari feature set up to the same kind of level as Firefox’s, say. It does feel a lot faster, which can only be a Good Thing™.

The Finder has two new kinds of folders – Smart and Burn. The former are like saved search results that update themselves dynamically as you make changes to files and folder. They’re very useful, once you’ve re-thought your ingrained work habits to come up with good ways of using them. The burn folders are, however, about as useful as a chocolate teapot.

Rounding up the headline features, iChat’s four-way video conferencing could be useful for anyone whose friends all have iSights and dual-processor G4s or better. Parental controls for clamping down on kids’ freedoms will no doubt make the Tiger-equipped Mac the darling of the Daily Mail and a few more paranoid IT managers. But the headline list is pretty short, all the same.

As with Panther, which also struggled slightly to come up with lots of convincing reasons for upgrades yet was clearly worth the price on the box, the biggest reasons for upgrading to Tiger can’t easily be put into a features list. Firstly, Tiger is a lot faster than Panther, particularly on G5s where its complete rewrite to support 64-bit computing really wipes the floor with Panther’s anaemic implementation. But every program runs and performs better, whether you have a G3, G4 or G5. Those with newer, more powerful graphics cards will really get the most out of them with Tiger, and that’s even though one of the most powerful new features of Tiger – Quartz 2D Extreme – isn’t turned on by default! Expect skyrocketing performance beyond all expectations in a future Tiger update when they finally get the bugs out of it.

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