Apple will ship Mac OS X 10.3 Panther from 8pm on October 24, the company announced today. It will cost £99, but certain customers can claim it for a shipping fee on the Mac OS Up-To-Date upgrade package (see below for more details).

Panther delivers over 150 new features, including a completely new Finder that provides one-click access to a user’s favorite files and folders; Exposé, a new way to instantly see all open windows at once; and iChat AV, a complete desktop video-conferencing solution.

In the UK many resellers will host special events on Friday night, October 24, at 8pm to celebrate the launch. Others will offer special events the fololowing day. The product goes on release at 8pm in the UK.

Apple CEO Steve Jobs said: "Panther sets the new gold standard for operating systems. With more than 150 new features, we're delivering innovations today that will not be seen in any other operating system for years to come."

Panther's Finder has been completely redesigned to offer lightning-fast file searching that's up to six times faster than that of Mac OS X 10.2, Apple said. It provides single-click access to files by putting a user’s favorite folders, storage, servers and iDisk in one place. The new Finder can also dynamically browse of the network for Mac, Windows and Unix file servers.

Exposé and iChat AV Also new in Panther, Exposé is a revolutionary new way to instantly view all open windows and choose any of them to be on top. It visually unshuffles overlapping windows on the desktop into an organized thumbnail view so a user can instantly locate and switch to any open window or get to any file on the desktop. Powered by the Mac OS X Quartz graphic engine, Exposé is a breakthrough in working with multiple files, applications and projects.

Panther also introduces the final version of iChat AV, Apple's desktop video conferencing solution. iChat "has been enjoyed by over half a million beta users since its introduction in June," Apple revealed.

Apple has also announced the following features:

Fast User Switching – Panther can switch between active users without quitting applications or logging out.

FileVault – secure storage for critical files that employs 128-bit encryption and supports the latest security standards. This means users can keep the date in their Home folder secure.

Font Book – New in Panther is this OS-level font-management application offering double-click font preview and one-click font installation. It has an intuitive interface for managing fonts, and activating or deactivating them.

Apple's Preview application has also been improved. This now offers "super-fast text searching that builds an instant index of search results in a PDF, text selection and copying, URL support and support for the PDF 1.4 format", Apple said.

Panther fully integrates iDisk – it increases productivity by automatically syncing a user's offline work to their .Mac Internet server storage once they're online again, so users can work locally on files with hard drive speeds and have them synced automatically back to their iDisk later.

Apple has also improved its Mail application with advanced spam filtering and the capacity to organize mail into related threads.

Panther's Address Book application also offers powerful new features for label printing and has a feature which will notify contacts when the Mac user's personal information changes. Fax capabilities have also been integrated into Address Book, so "sending and receiving faxes is as easy as printing," Apple says.

Cross-platform boost With an eye to improving the Macs place in mixed-platform networks, Apple has enhanced Windows compatibility to make sure files, printers and network services can easily be shared with Windows users. Microsoft Exchange is built into Mail and Address Book to make it easy to access Exchange email and sync address-book entries.

Unix improvements include support for the latest open-source libraries, commands and technologies, X11 applications, IPv6, Kerberos integration, and a "greatly improved" NFS file system.

Apple has greatly improved its development environment, Xcode, which it calls "the fastest way to create Mac OS X applications".

"Xcode combines an easy-to-use interface with proven developer tools such as GCC 3.3 to make it easy for developers to take advantage of the latest technologies from Apple", the company says.

Panther also ships with the latest versions of iSync, iCal, iPhoto, iMovie, iTunes Music Store and Safari.

Panther pricing Mac OS X 10.3 Panther will cost £99 (including VAT) for a single user licence. UK pricing will be supplied.

Customers can place pre-orders with the Apple Store from today. The Mac OS X Panther Family Pack is a single-residence, five-user license that will be available for a suggested retail price of £159.

The standard Mac OS Up-To-Date upgrade package is available to all customers who purchase a new Mac system on or after October 8; all customers who purchased a Power Mac G5 regardless of purchase date that do not have Panther included; and customers who purchase the Mac OS X 10.2 Jaguar retail product on or after October 8 for a shipping and handling fee of £14 (subject to confirmation).

Panther requires a minimum of 128MB of RAM and is designed to run on the following Apple products with built-in USB support: iMac, iBook, PowerBook, Power Mac G3, Power Mac G4, Power Mac G5, Power Mac G4 Cube.