Tiger tale: Look before you leap
Apple's latest operating system upgrade--what, $129 again?--earns its stripes with tricks that Microsoft can't match, yet. But do you really need it?
By Peter Lewis

(FORTUNE Magazine) – STAR WARS FANS BY the thousands will be lining up to pay $10 to see the latest episode of the space opera, even knowing that they could be exposed to Jar Jar Binks again. And thousands of Apple fanatics lined up for the latest episode of the Mac operating system, version 10.4, knowing that Apple would once again assess a $129 upgrade fee.

Coincidence? I think not. To many of the Apple faithful, Mac users are the rebels fighting the clone armies of Microsoft's empire, and Mac OS X is, to paraphrase Obi-Wan Kenobi, an elegant operating system for a more civilized age.

Still, I can't help but wonder if Obi-Wan would have bothered making Lightsaber 10.4. Typically, Jedi knights upgraded to new lightsabers only when they gained significant new powers in the Force, or when an old lightsaber was lost, broken, or hopelessly outdated. Mac OS 10.4--more popularly known as Tiger--doesn't really transport the typical Mac user to a new level of computing enlightenment, and it's hard to claim that its predecessor, Mac OS 10.3 Panther, was broken or outdated. Arguably the most significant advance in Tiger is the support for 64-bit computing, which is profoundly important for future computer applications but not likely to make much of a disturbance in the Force for most users, at least not now.

Apple says Tiger has more than 200 new features, but only a few are brand-new, including Spotlight, a desktop search engine that ends the tyranny of having to file documents, music, e-mail, and photos in neatly organized folders, and Dashboard, a collection of handy little programs called widgets that pop up to perform very simple tasks like doing calculations and unit conversion, tracking stock prices, or showing the weather in whatever city you're traveling to this week. Most of the other new features in Tiger are either incremental improvements on existing features or technical tweaks deep in the operating system where only the most intrepid explorers will find them.

If you've been frustrated by the four-gigabyte memory limit on 32-bit applications, by all means put Tiger in your tank. If you want to be ready to view so-far-nonexistent high-definition DVDs on your Mac, it's 10.4, good buddy. But if you're a typical Mac user, the question boils down to: Is Tiger worth $129 for Spotlight and a gaggle of widgets? Or can you live with Mac OS 10.3 Panther, bypassing Tiger until Sabertooth (or Ocelot or Tabby or whatever Apple calls its next upgrade) comes along in another year or so?

Panther was the best operating system for personal computers on the market, and Tiger improves on it. It offers features that Microsoft is only promising to have in its next version of Windows, code-named Long- horn, which has already been scaled back and even so isn't expected to be ready for at least 18 months.

However, Tiger is the fifth major upgrade to Mac OS X in four years, and the third for which Apple has charged its faithful customers $129. Apple has trained its loyalists to expect a new upgrade each year--probably for another $129--and its executives boast that the company's software team is a well-oiled, code-cranking machine. Assuming that Apple does let another cat out of the bag in 2006, and assuming that I don't suddenly rise to a new level of digital enlightenment that renders Panther inadequate for my powers, I'm inclined to sit this one out. Besides, every time you screw around with the foundation software of a computer, as Tiger does with the Mac OS's Unix core, something breaks. Tiger didn't do a Siegfried & Roy number on my Mac G5 or its main applications, but it did mess up some of my fonts and network settings.

That said, some folks--I'm talking to you, data slobs--will find Tiger's Spotlight desktop search engine to be worth every penny, all 12,900 of them. Spotlight instantly finds what you're looking for, even if it's misfiled and even if you can't remember whether you last saw it in a Word document, an Adobe PDF file, or an e-mail message. Because it is integrated directly into the Tiger operating system instead of bolted on like Microsoft's MSN desktop search, Spotlight pounces on the desired files almost instantly and tears them apart, displaying all the possible hits in separate categories like Most Likely, Mail Messages, Documents, Images, Folders, and PDF Documents. There's no need to manually index the files before they can be searched, and Spotlight can find files even if they've just arrived in your mailbox moments ago. Spotlight doesn't care where Elvis is, as long as he hasn't left the building (and he's still on the hard disk). If he's in your computer, it will find him. Too bad Osama bin Laden isn't in there with him.

The rest of Tiger's main upgrade features are less exciting, to me at least. Tiger's iChat AV now allows three people to videoconference at the same time, up from two in Panther. Tiger's Dashboard widgets are pretty and the shimmering animations are cool, but so far they're just novelties. Safari now aggregates the RSS feeds used by news sites, bringing me fresh headlines from CNN and my favorite blogs instead of my having to go fetch them. But that's something I can do already with Firefox (though not with Internet Explorer). Automator is a new Tiger feature that automates complex or repetitive tasks, but again, it seems just a prettier version of scripting.

Apple indirectly encourages a Tiger-Longhorn fantasy duel by gloating over Longhorn's long delays. But the real duel could be two years distant; Microsoft only recently showed off a preliminary test version that it said had only a fraction of the features we'll eventually see.

Apple has used its iPod portable music player and its relative immunity to viruses and other security problems to seduce more than a few Windows users over to the Mac side. With its laser-like search capabilities, Mac OS X Tiger strikes another blow against the empire.

As with any operating system upgrade, I'd advise waiting until the inevitable bugs are shaken out before making the leap to this newest cat. Unless, of course, your curiosity is killing you.

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