Young Tiger shows strength but has room to grow

I didn't stand in line with the faithful to get one of the first copies of Apple's Mac OS X 10.4, but I was raring to try it out. Here are my preliminary impressions after working with it for a few days. For another viewpoint, check out PC World's "First Look."

Of all the new features, the new OS-level search tool called Spotlight is getting the most attention. It's fast and flexible--and its smart searches make keeping track of files much easier, because you can set up and save searches based on criteria such as keyword, file type, and date created. Your saved search becomes a "Smart Folder" that shows all documents matching your criteria, updated instantly.

I think Spotlight will make my editing work easier by letting me find all the instances of a particular term in my "Current Work" folder so that I can quickly make sure they are all spelled the same way (if I've decided midway through a project, say, that "roundtrip" should be spelled "round-trip"). The initial indexing is not fast, though, and it happens immediately after you install the OS whether you like it or not. After that, Spotlight indexes in the background.

Not-so-tiny programs

Another high-profile addition to Tiger is the Dashboard application, with its applets known as "widgets." I didn't expect to like Dashboard, because I prefer to avoid cluttering my desktop with gizmos. But I found that Dashboard helps me keep my desktop clean, rather than cluttering it--because my chosen handful of applets appear and disappear with the touch of a hotkey. I can pull out a calculator or the Yellow Pages with one keystroke, and put them away just as quickly.

About 20 useful widgets come with Tiger, and there are plenty more available to download. When I looked at my system resources, though, I was surprised that each was using about 20MB of RAM, even when tucked away. That seems like a lot for small, specialized apps. If you go nuts and load dozens of these toys, you may find your system bogging down.

All the news you want to read

Given my blog obsession, of course I had to take the Safari Web browser's new RSS reader for a spin. It lets you view news feeds right in the browser--and displays an RSS icon when a site has a news feed available.

As a newsreader, Safari is okay. You can bookmark RSS feeds you want to track, group them in folders in your bookmarks file, and save searches of feeds. There's a long list of feeds already bookmarked when you install Safari--you can select those you're actually interested in and drag them to another folder for quicker browsing. Safari doesn't make multiple feeds particularly browsable, though; a dedicated reader like NetNewsWire is still better for this. But if you don't want to use another application (and pay for it), Safari's RSS-reading capabilities are a good start.

Another slick new tool in Safari is the Private Browsing option. It lets you browse without leaving traces of where you've been: It doesn't track your history, searches, or downloads; and it refuses all cookies. The downside is that you don't get the benefit of cookies--like being able to return to your Web e-mail account without logging in again. But when you're working on a shared computer (in a public place, for example), Private Browsing is handy. It does basically the same thing as the Reset Safari command, but does it proactively rather than retroactively.

The new version of Safari also lets you view PDFs directly within the browser window. This welcome addition is overdue: Now you no longer have to wait for PDFs to download, then launch Preview to see them.

Labor-saving device?

Automator is a brand-new feature in Tiger, and it looked promising in the various previews of the OS over the past year. It's designed to automate frequently performed operations, and Apple has touted it as being easy to use.

I've never had an easy time with macro recorders or scripting tools, so I'm a good test subject for Automator's usability. I don't have the patience or expertise to painstakingly debug a script, and macro recorders make me nervous--if I'm aware that every mouse click is being recorded, all of a sudden I'm all thumbs. Automator doesn't involve that kind of performance anxiety, but it wasn't as easy to use as I'd hoped. In fact, this first iteration still seems to have some kinks.

First, the number of included actions (the building blocks for scripts, which Apple calls "workflows") seems limited; I was surprised at how few there were. And second, Automator's online help isn't as clear as I've come to expect from Apple: Terms aren't explained as fully as they should be. Automator doesn't tell you when you've made a mistake in constructing your script, or suggest a way to fix it. And the program crashed a couple of times while I was working with it--once when I was inspecting the actions in a sample workflow and again when I tried reordering actions in a workflow.

Apple says that Automator will warn you when a process doesn't complete successfully and tell you why, but I didn't find that to be true. I assembled my trial workflows and Automator told me they ran successfully, but they didn't do what I wanted. My "select songs from a CD, import them into ITunes, then eject the CD" workflow fell down on the "eject CD" step. Because Automator's explanations were so sparse, I couldn't determine why this didn't work. I also tried to use Automator to select a set of photos and make a new album in IPhoto, but that didn't work either. In both cases, Automator incorrectly confirmed that the workflow ran successfully.

Using Automator isn't easy enough for novices. Apple needs to make Automator more crash-proof and rewrite its online help--it still has passages that sound like they were written by programmers, for programmers. This is not yet the scripting application for the rest of us.


Little things mean a lot I had a couple of small wish-list items for this upgrade, and Tiger didn't come through. Apple's input device driver is rather primitive: It supports the basic left and right mouse buttons, but nothing more. Considering that OS X loads with a ton of printer drivers, support for a few extra mouse button functions and a scroll wheel doesn't seem like too much to ask. I alternate between several different input devices (including the Evoluent Vertical Mouse and Contour Design's RollerMouse) to keep repetitive strain injuries at bay. Both devices have an autoscroll function in which you click the scroll wheel and release, then just drag the mouse to scroll. That's a definite hand-saver. Unfortunately, to take advantage of it on the Mac, you must install a $20 shareware utility called USB Overdrive. Thankfully, the current version of USB Overdrive is compatible with Tiger. I was also hoping that Apple would make its disc-burning utility a little slicker in 10.4. The Disk Utility in the last version of Mac OS X makes burning a multisession CD-R (one that you can write to multiple times) particularly inconvenient. Apple hasn't changed this in 10.4. A third-party program is probably still the way to go, but I've experimented with a few and don't have a favorite. And because software developers are still readying their Tiger-compliant updates, it's too early to pick one. Sure, Spotlight is swell. But I think I'll follow the traditional advice about major upgrades and wait a bit before installing Tiger on all the Macs in my household.

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