Technology

Thoughts On Tiger

I promised this post months ago, but I just haven’t had the time to hash it out. Now seems as good of a time as ever since at least one of my grad classes is mostly caught up for the moment! This is by no means a comprehensive review of Mac OS X 10.4, but I hope it provides a decent overview and a good perspective on one person’s experiences using this product.

Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger was released on April 29, 2005 to wide acclaim and wide criticism. As per Apple’s recent tradition, the product was $129 ($69 for educators). There was much ado over “200 New Features” from Apple’s PR, and there was general complaint and mockery regarding a $129 fee for a “point release” from the critical. The truth of Tiger is somewhere in the middle. You have to pick some pretty fine nits to find “200 New Features.” On the other hand, Mac OS 10.4 is more than a general “point release.”

An OS By Any Other Name

I’ve often said that Apple sells itself short in the nomenclature used for it’s “X” systems. To illustrate this, some history:

(At this point, some of my more tech-savy readers should skip ahead.) Mac OS X, pronounced “Mac Oh-Es Ten,” is not really the tenth version of the Macintosh Operating System. The original Mac OS died with the passing of Mac OS 9. The current system is based on UNIX, and it is a marriage, sometimes inelegant and sometimes uncomfortable, of the Classic Mac OS and another OS project that was called NeXTSTEP. As such, Mac OS X 10.1 was really version one of a new product. (No, I refuse to count Mac OS X 10.0 as anything else than an expensive beta.)

With each successive release, this product has matured considerably, so much so that screenshots of Mac OS X 10.1 look very foreign to someone used to working with Mac OS 10.4. In fact, these two systems look about as similar as Windows 98 and Windows XP. However, public perception can be that progress has been minimal because of how Apple has chosen to name their new operating system. It would be more accurate to view this product as Mac OS X Version 4 than as a simple point release.

Installation and First Impressions

My system disks were of Mac OS X 10.4.0, and installation was breezy. It took a little over 20 minutes to install on my G5, but it took quite a bit longer on my PowerBook G3. After rebooting, there was some performance lag as Spotlight indexed my hard drive, but that was quickly resolved. I quickly played with as many toys as I could including Automator, Dashboard, Spotlight, and the snazzy new screen-savers! Everything worked as expected.

My G5 seemed noticeably faster overall. I’m continually impressed how each Mac OS revision seems to make that machine snappier (even though it’s a 1.8 GHz SP, which is supposedly adversely affected by 10.4). Startup time is also speedier. On average, my G5 takes roughly 30 seconds to boot. Unfortunately, Mac OS 10.4 has had the opposite affect on my PowerBook G3, and the poor thing seems to struggle under this system’s weight. I guess I should have known I was in trouble when my old PowerBook was not on the initial list of supported hardware. (It appeared a few days later.)

What about stability? So far, there have been no kernal panics. Actually, I have been fortunate enough to never have had one of these, and I have been an OS X user since the Public Beta came out. My PowerBook began my OS X experience, and my old Graphite iMac DV joined the X era when Mac OS X 10.2 “Jaguar” came out. In addition to the lack of kernal panics on either my G5 or my PowerBook G3, I have experienced no system freezes, and the only application to “Unexpectedly Quit” has been Microsoft Word 2004 on my laptop. My desktop has had absolutely zero flakiness … outside of some that was my own doing.

My only real complaint is the fact that 10.4.1 and 10.4.2 (as well as some other miscellaneous updates) had already been released prior to my purchase of Tiger in late August, but the boxed version I got did not contain these updates, so both my desktop and my laptop had to download those updates after installation. I had kind of expected those updates to be “in the box” by then. For reference, 10.4.1 had been released May 16, and 10.4.2 had been released July 12. My purchase of Mac OS X 10.4 was on August 20.

New Features

Dashboard

Dashboard is the flashiest of the new features, and it is the feature that will probably remain most associated with Tiger. Dashboard is a compnant of Exposé, which was introduced by Apple in 10.3 “Panther.” Dashboard is a separate layer from the desktop that runs mini applications callsed “widgets.” These widgets are one-trick ponies that can do things like track shipments, monitor the weather, control iTunes, convert measurements, and act as a calendar. There are thousands of widgets freely available for download on the Internet, and there are a few more sophisticated ones that cost a few dollars. Fortunately, Apple has included an interface for installing and managing widgets as of the 10.4.2 update.

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By in large, I find Dashboard pretty useful. I used to run Konfabulator strictly in Konsposé mode, so Dashboard offered little adjustment for me. The screenshot shows my most frequently used widgets, and they all do the job well. My only gripe is with the general lag of Dashboard when you open it the first time after login. Personally, I have to recommend a tiny app called Dashboard Starter if you think you’ll use Dashboard a lot. All it does is launch Dashboard on login, thereby making the widgets more responsive once you are ready to use them.

Spotlight

Spotlight is the integrated system search feature of Mac OS 10.4. You can envoke Spotlight by clicking on a magnifying glass icon in the upper right-hand corner of the screen or by using the keyboard command Command-Space. Spotlight searches while you type, which is fine on fast systems, but I wish there was the option for it to wait for you to hit Return on my slower G3 system. Most of the time, if I lose something, Spotlight can find it for me. However, on my PowerBook G3, I’ve noticed that about half of my documents never get searched, and I’m not sure how to correct that situation. I’m a pretty organized person and seldom lose track of where I have information stowed, but Spotlight has come in handy during those times I have lost track of stuff.

Here’s what a Spotlight window looks like if you ask it to show you all results from the Spotlight menu. Could this be the future of the Finder?

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Automator

Automator may be one of the cooler new features that few will discover and even fewer may use. I can’t comment too much about Automator because I’m still learning about it. Basically, Automator is designed to bring one-step goodness to repetitive tasks. For example, you could apply a sepia tone filter to multiple photographs at once. You may want to assign Spotlight Keywords to multiple items, or you could name several files sequentially (August 01.pdf, August 02.pdf, etc.). There is a learning curve involved, but Automator is a nice example of how Apple sometimes succeeds in thinking outside the box. I think I’m going to really like Automator once I get used to it.

Here’s a screen capture of one of Automator’s sample workflows. You can add and rearrange steps using simple drag-and-drop.

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Other New Features

QuickTime is now at verison 7 and supports a new high-definition codec. Unfortuantely, QuickTime 7 does not seem to be as responsive as QuickTime 6 was when viewing .mpg videos in a browser window (Safari or Firefox). Some new Finder features include Burnable Folders and Smart Folders. Both are quite useful, especially the Burn Folders, which allow you to set up a burn session without a CD or DVD actually being inserted in the drive. FIanlly, the built in RSS support in Safari is cool, but if you are used to a dedicated RSS aggregator (like NetNewsWire), Safari probably won’t offer enough features to make you switch.

There are plenty more little touches that separate Mac OS X 10.4 from previous releases, but this gives an overview of some of the most obvious enhancements.

Under the Hood

More important than the superficial enhancements are the “under the hood” improvements to Mac OS X 10.4. These are the changes that most will never see or know about but that affect how the system and applications work.  Apple refers to these as “key technologies,” and they include such elements as H.264 support, Core Image, Core Data, and Core Audio. Core Audio was introduced in either Jaguar or Panther, and it created a robust set of integrated audio functionality right into the operating system that any application can potentially have access to. Rogue Amoeba’s Audio Hijack Pro is a good example of an application that takes advantage of Core Audio.

New to the Core Foundation Technologies are Core Image and Core Data. Core Data is over my head, but it meant to improve the data-model framework used by applications. Core Data is important to Spotlight’s functionality, and it uses database concepts to organize and manage data from any application built to utilize it. This, like other Core Foundation Technologies, is aimed squarely at developers and making Mac OS X as attractive of a development platform as possible. Furthermore, Core Image, like Core Audio, provides developers with a respectable palette of image tools that can be seamlessly integrated into their application. Image Tricks by BeLight Software is a nice utility that is built entirely around the Core Image filters.

What does this mean to the end user? It means future Mac OS X applications can take advantage of all sorts of great technologies that would formerly have had to be integrated manually. Imagine a presentation application that could apply audio effects to sounds and music in the presentation, that could manipulate images right in the application by applying Gaussian blur and sepia tone filters without having to rely on a separate image editor, all while indexing every bit of content in your presentation for easy searching later. An application like this would be very possible utilizing Apple’s Core Foundation Technologies (which makes me wonder what new features we’ll see in Keynote 3). I don’t understand half of the technical documentation regarding Core Foundation, but I do know that I’ve been impressed more than once by applications that make good use of these technologies.

Dashboard and Safari RSS are nifty and fun. Core Foundation Technologies are the stepping stones that will build the future of the Macintosh platform.

The Interface

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Aqua has evolved greatly since the days of Mac OS X 10.0. It is much more subdued than it used to be, and pinstripes are pretty much gone. However, it seems that Apple has been improving the interface in bits and pieces. Now, there are as many as four different widow appearances and a plethora of controls to choose from. Unfortunately for users, this results in a very inconsistent visual experience. On the other hand, this may be intentional. Software developers seem to be moving to having different applications having distinct looks and feels (Windows Media Player and Office 12 anyone?). It’s just not my cup of tea. Fortunately, applications like Unsanity’s ShapeShifter make modifying the systems appearance fairly painless.

The Kitchen Sink & Conclusion

I know there are many aspects of Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger I have failed to overview in detail. For example, I haven’t talked much about H.264, nor have I said anything about the new metadata features that have worked their way into Tiger. iChat AV has gone untouched on my computer, so there was no use in even mentioning it, and accessibility features as well as the new parental controls are absent from this overview. 10.4 is a huge system filled with features, and there is no way I’m going to be able to cover all of them.

Tiger is another step toward making Mac OS X a more robust and feature-rich environment to work in. Some features like Dashboard are very visible while others, like Automator, may seem more daunting to the average user. Some features have been left strangely hidden, like the Finder’s Slideshow functionality, while many of the other enhancements are at the system level, invisible to most people. Overall, I’m glad we bought Tiger, and I’m really looking forward to the enhancements and changes that will be brought by Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard in late 2006!

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