Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger: First Impressions

the Mac OS X Tiger boxSo, this year, I didn’t geek out completely and go to the ’Night of the Tiger’ at the local Apple Store (but I came close) for the release of Apple‘s latest OS upgrade: Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger. I went to the Night of the Panther for Mac OS X 10.3, and it was fun, but the hassle didn’t seem worth it this year (I don’t work near the store anymore). But I did go the next day, so that counts for something, right? Well, now that I’ve been working with Tiger for about a week, and putting it through some of its paces, I believe I can confidently say: Tiger’s pretty damn cool in some particularly useful and immediate ways (Dashboard and Spotlight being the obvious ones), but much of it isn’t quite as glorious as I’d like, especially in contrast with my jump from Mac OS 9.2 to 10.3, which was like waking up on a sunny day after a week of rain.

A big part of this less-than-perfectly-happy feeling is Tiger’s addiction to RAM (and the apps I run). My machine meets the minimum RAM requirement for Tiger: 512 MB. The minimum requirement (Apple’s always forging ahead, for better or worse). I figure 1 GB is the only way to get truly smooth performance out of this OS’s fancier features. It’s not to say that my workflow has slowed or anything, it definitely hasn’t, but the prettier features have a slightly noticeable lag to them, rather than their intended immediacy. makes it not as snappy as I believe it was meant to be. Also, if you have and use Panther, much of the surface OS is functionally identical, so the difference isn’t as dramatic…kind of.

Before I go on, I’d like to clarify some things: I use crazy amounts of RAM on a regular basis, no matter what OS I’m on, so that’s a factor. I’m a power user, in that I use Photoshop CS, Illustrator CS, and InDesign CS in tandem, on top of my other day-to-day apps, to manipulate multiple large and/or complex files and usually in very processor/RAM intensive ways. But things like the Dashboard and Spotlight don’t really pop and zing like they’re intended to without a big chunk of RAM; they take a moment or two to really snap into action, sometimes longer for the web Widgets. Maybe Apple’s just set the bar too high. I don’t expect these things out of Win XP.

As for the big three new OS features, I’ve played with and used Spotlight, which is essentially a souped up, super-functional search tool that gives comprehensive sorted results that can then be viewed and re-sorted in various ways, and Dashboard, which is a customizable quick-start set of mini-apps called widgets.

Spotlight icon

Spotlight seems like a very, very useful feature I’m just not used to yet. Its data display capabilities are quite impressive. It can natively preview a good number of file formats and sort these previews in a variety of very useful ways (slideshows, individually, contact sheet-style, etc.). Also, as a professional graphic designer, I can’t just let all of my files go willy-nilly or name them idiotic things with 78 characters and punctuation. So, I usually already have my digital space very organized. But it’s much more comprehensive than any other out-of-the-box OS search tool I’ve seen, and some of its features really do need to be seen to understand how cool they look.

Also, if you type a term into the System Preferences window, it’ll literally spotlight the icon of the control set that pertains to that term, along with providing a quick drop-down list of the terms it thinks match. It’s really impressive. But, the generic search also got a Spotlight upgrade, which means that your computer can get a bit, ah, distracted while it tries to cue up the snappy new search tools and previews, instead of just hopping to it and cancelling out of the search when you tell it to. This is probably that RAM problem again. Apple made a decision to go big, and that’s what they’re doing.

Dashboard icon

Dashboard, however, is where it’s really at. This is the tool that I not only believe will make Mac OS X really part of people’s day-to-day needs, but it’ll also turn Tiger users into a bit of a club, with their own topic of conversation. As for what Dashboard is, to quote Apple:

“Dashboard is home to widgets: mini-applications that let you perform common tasks and provide you with fast access to information. With a single click, Dashboard appears, complete with widgets that bring you a world of information — real-time weather, stock tickers, flight information and more — instantly. Dashboard disappears just as easily, so you can get back to what you were doing.”

This is essentially true, but, as I said before, it’s not as “instantly” as they may claim. This feature may pop up quickly (I’d say that 90% of the time it’s near-instantaneous), but many of the widgets read web data, which must be refreshed. Now, I realize I’m hair-splitting here, the referesh time is about 1–4 seconds, so that’s still pretty damn nice, considering the info you can have near-immediate access to. But it isn’t instant, as they claim. Some of these widgets tread a fine line: very pared-down info with few features, but really, really fast. So the decision to use the widgets often rests on their instantaneous nature. Otherwise, I’ll just go online or use an app.

For the purposes of example, here’s a shot of my Dashboard [124 KB] right now. If you could see it actually appear on screen, you’d see the weather widgets flip to the current weather after about a second or so, but for a process that takes about 1.5 seconds total, it’s pretty damn good. I’ve got a calendar, what’s on TV (which can be customized), a quick high/low weather for a week in two cities, a calculator, a dictionary/thesaurus, and a font previewer currently loaded, but I’ve actually got a lot more widgets which are accessible for dropping on the active dashboard area (with an insanely cool water ripple effect). It’s stuff like this that Microsoft interface designers and engineers probably envy with a burning passion.

Now, why do I say that this is such a big deal? The widgets. They’re essentially little, easy-to-make (from what I gather) mini-apps that you can download and drop into your widgets folder and use. They’re like trading cards, or ringtones, or desktop images, or any other thing people collect and trade. If Apple’s smart, they’ll open these up and push them like crazy, because (let me tell you), they’re addicting and often really, really convenient. There are translators, package trackers, dictionaries, clocks, access to the bash, hula girls, yellow pages, converters, games, etc., etc., etc. And every day I go back, there are more. I predict this will be huge, and may act as an easy way for Apple to turn its acolytes into apostles. They are a million little examples of how Mac OS looks frickin’ cool and is really easy to use in a way that Windows is not. Plus, as I said, it’s a feature based on collecting largely-free little widgets. It’s perfect for Americans and their kids.

I already use Dashboard regularly (and not just to show off). But without a high-bandwidth web connection, I’m sure it’s a bit less impressive. Many of its widgets are essentially content-specific web portholes. They provide a very quick, focused, ad-free view of specific information on the web. The rest are A) baby apps (calculators, calendars, etc.) B) games C) novelties. At least so far.

Oh, one more thing: Dear Apple, the iTunes widget is really, really useless. It’s just a different version of the collapsed iTunes window. Why wouldn’t I just go to iTunes, which would already be running? Maybe I’m the crazy one here.

Safari icon

Another big change is Safari 2.0. Frankly, Safari doesn’t seem all that different, other than a few interface niceties concerning RSS feeds. It handles PDFs in a way I find annoying, by showing the PDF full screen and removing all of your interface tools, such as zoom. But I think that may have more to do with my ignorance than a shortcoming of the app (we’ll see). I’m not familiar with the RSS feature yet, so I can’t really comment other than to say I’ve seen my site in an RSS feed now. It’s supposedly about a bajillion times faster with JavaScript, beating out Firefox, but I’m sure that’ll change in a month. One thing that bugs me is that Safari continues to not work on sites that it didn’t work perfectly on before (like my bank site). Safari is still my preferred browser, but anyone who’s realistic about the state of the web knows that one browser doesn’t do everthing best. Maybe I’ll learn how to use the RSS thing someday, too.

As for the rest of the OS, they’ve finally killed and buried the last of that silly-ass iMac-style horizontal pinstriping on the menu bar, eschewing it for shiny glass, which carries through in more and more places now (and brushed metal everywhere else). I’m worried that OS X is drifting towards Win XP with its move towards that bright blue and simple shininess, but they still do it waaay better than Microsoft. I wonder how they decide what gets the glassy treatment, and what gets brushed metal. I know that their hardware is broken into a kind of ’pro user’ vs. ’light user’ thing with their iMac vs. PowerMac, iBook vs. PowerBook thing, but I don’t see as much of a cohesive concept here.

Any other under-the-hood improvements are much more subtle, out of my view, or I haven’t stumbled into them yet. Apparently, SMB server support is better and now Rendévous is called Bonjour, but other than that, I don’t see much change from Panther. Oh, Quicktime is at version 7 now, with all sorts of great video goodness, but I don’t edit video much, so I’ve yet to see a big difference.

So, it’s more of that good Mac OS lovin’, but my high expectations didn’t anticipate the hardware needs to go along with them. That being said, I can look at a calendar and get the weather in NYC and Philly, and a few other things simultaneously in about 3 seconds. So, it’s a matter of what I wish I had, rather than the goodness of what I’ve got. ‘Cause I’ve got a lot here, and aside from a few odd quirks that seem to be bugs, Tiger is a solid bet and will impress all of your friends. Just don’t try to play any video games on it yet (Macs still don’t do that very well).