Tiger, the Macintosh operating system that Apple Computer released yesterday worldwide, doesn't pounce so much as creep in on little cat...

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Tiger, the Macintosh operating system that Apple Computer released yesterday worldwide, doesn’t pounce so much as creep in on little cat feet.


Known officially as Mac OS X 10.4, the operating system continues its gradual maturity, offering fewer surprises than earlier leaps, like Jaguar (10.2) and Panther (10.3). The $129 Tiger update purrs more than it growls, which is more inviting.


Although Apple claims 200 feature improvements in this release, some of these will interest only programmers (supports gcc 4.0.0!) or those in corporate and academic network security (Kerberos authentication added).


For the rest of us, a few key system enhancements promise to speed routine tasks and remove frustrating roadblocks.


Spotlight. Trying to find an old document that contains the name of a colleague? You might spend dozens of minutes or longer opening folders and individual files, or the same amount of time using tools built into Panther and Microsoft Word to locate that file by content.


Spotlight makes searching painless. This new search tool relies on massively efficient indexes that assemble databases of the name, attributes (like size and file type), and text content of every file stored on a computer’s hard drives. And it’s not just for word-processing files, but also PDF documents, iChat transcripts, even the shutter speed and exposure settings saved with every photo you import from a digital camera.


Mac OS X generations


March 24, 2001: 10.0: Cheetah


Sept. 25, 2001: 10.1: Puma (free upgrade for 10.0 users)


Aug. 24, 2002: 10.2: Jaguar


Oct. 24, 2003: 10.3: Panther


April 29, 2005: 10.4: Tiger


Note: Cat code names weren’t on the box before Jaguar.


Spotlight performs a time-consuming index after you install Tiger, which could take from several minutes to hours, depending on how much data is on your hard disk and how fast your processor is. But after that, new and changed files are added within seconds to minutes. Spotlight never has to re-index your entire hard drive again.

A Smart Folders feature in the Finder ties the results of a Spotlight search to the contents of the folder. The folder is updated whenever a file changes that meets its criteria.


For example, create a Smart Folder for HTML documents of fewer than 10 kilobytes that contain the words “Apple Computer,” and every time you save a Web page about Apple anywhere on your hard drive, it will show up as a reference in that folder as well.


Spotlight technology is embedded throughout Mac OS X. Any program or dialog that has a search field can use Spotlight’s instant “as you type” results filtering, including System Preferences.


Dashboard. You probably have several noncomputer items on your desk (a clock, calendar, calculator, etc.), even though those utilities exist in the Mac OS. But they appear as separate applications, which, if left always running, clutter up the Dock and get in the way.


Dashboard takes those functions and places them on a separate virtual layer above your Mac’s Desktop. Normally, they’re hidden from view, but pressing the F12 key superimposes these “widgets” over your working area (pressing F12 again hides them).


Want to check the weather forecast, make a quick calculation, or look up stock prices? Apple includes pre-built widgets for those and more. We especially like the on-the-fly language translator, flight tracker and dictionary/thesaurus.


iChat AV 3.0. iChat AV 3.0 is featured prominently on Apple’s Web site because it’s the slickest-looking update in Tiger. The new version can link you up with three other simultaneous video chats, with each person projected onto a 3-D panel to simulate the idea that everyone is sitting around the same table — complete with live reflections in the “table” surface.


However, handling the real-time display of four video feeds requires horsepower for the person who initiates the conference: a Mac with at least two 1 GHz PowerPC G4 processors, or any G5, and a 384 kilobits per second (Kbps) or better Internet connection in each direction.

If the bandwidth falters, iChat AV compensates by making slower connections appear slightly blurred, rather than jerky or blocky, to maintain smooth motion. The requirements for participants aren’t as high; see Apple’s grid at www.apple.com/macosx/features/ichat/ for other configurations.


iChat AV 3.0 also now supports audio chats of you and up to nine other participants, which can go a long way toward cutting down long-distance phone calls when you want to get the entire far-flung family on the line at once.


QuickTime 7. One of the technologies that gives iChat AV its polish is QuickTime 7, or, more specifically, support for the H.264 video codec. H.264 is a name only a mother could love, but it enables iChat AV to deliver sharper video quality. It also provides much better quality for movies you export from applications such as iMovie, which can be scaled to different sizes — from cellphones to high-definition video.


Automator. Automator is programming for the rest of us — a kind of drag-and-drop approach to assembling a set of actions that accomplishes a result. For instance, you can set up a sequence for a folder that, when you drag images into that folder, resizes them, converts them to TIFF, exports them to iPhoto, creates a new photo album and a DVD slide show in iDVD.


Tiger’s system requirements




Almost all Macintosh G3, G4 or G5 computers with built-in FireWire can run Tiger if the computer has at least 256 MB of RAM and 3 GB of free disk space. Apple has a full list of supported hardware at www.apple.com/macosx/upgrade/


requirements.html. Some computers that don’t meet Apple’s list of requirements but are still relatively powerful may be able to install Tiger with the help of XPostFacto (eshop.macsales.com/OSXCenter/XPostFacto/


Framework.cfm?page=XPostFacto.html); a Tiger-compatible version of that tool may take some weeks to appear, however.


Or you could automatically rename a group of files, create an archive, and then e-mail it. Automator comes with a variety of tasks built in, and Apple expects software designers to add their own for their programs.


And more. We don’t have the space here to go into detail about all the new changes in Tiger, such as Mail 2.0, 64-bit processing to access large amounts of memory for applications that support it, and the capability to create photo slide shows in the Finder.


But some features are worth singling out briefly, including the built-in dictionary and thesaurus: Control click a word in Safari or nearly any other application and choose Look Up in Dictionary from the contextual menu that appears; or better yet, hold down Command-Control-D over a word, release the D, and view definitions instantly as you move about the page over any word.


Tiger also boasts some welcome security features, including secure virtual memory and an improved password generator: It’s hard to make up good passwords that are long enough to be secure and difficult enough for others to figure out that they’re safe to use. Tiger hides tools in a few places that bring up a password utility that can assist you in that task.


Keychain Access, a program in the Utilities folder for managing stored passwords, now is organized by category and includes a Spotlight-based search feature making it finally usable.


Glenn Fleishman and Jeff Carlson write the Practical Mac column for Personal Technology. Send questions to gfleishman@seattletimes.com or carlsoncolumn@mac.com. More Practical Mac columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists.