10 things to know about Tiger

And although it will be some time before the beast finally pounces, it has started to show off some of its stripes. The next major update to OS X, Tiger, has a lot in common with its predecessors, Jaguar and Panther—from its feline-inspired nickname to the promised addition of 150 new features and enhancements. But in one key area, Tiger represents a departure—it’s the first major update since OS X’s 2001 release that won’t appear in the fall. With Apple slowing down the rapid pace of OS X development, Tiger is expected to ship sometime during the first half of 2005. Still, Tiger isn’t completely shrouded in mystery. We examine how each of the announced additions and enhancements will affect the way you use your Mac, and whether they will make Tiger the king of Apple’s cats.

1. Spotlight: Searching’s New Focus

Of all the no-hassle tasks you can do on a Mac, finding a song amid your iTunes library may be the simplest. Just go to the iTunes search bar and start typing what you’re looking for, whether it’s the name of the song, the artist, or the album. With every keystroke, the list of displayed songs is whittled down, until you’ve found what you were searching for.

Apple plans to integrate the ease of iTunes-style searches throughout Tiger. The systemwide search feature—dubbed Spotlight—promises to look through documents, Mail messages, iCal calendar items, Address Book contacts, and other files, producing search results as quickly as you can type in queries.

Tiger adds a magnifying-glass icon to the far right corner of the menu bar. Click on it, and a drop-down search field similar to the one in iTunes appears. As you type your query, a live list of search results appears, with results sorted by type (Mail messages, PDF documents, and HTML files, for example).

Spotlight searches aren’t confined to file names. Because Spotlight looks at information about your files and any text contained within them, it can search based on who created a file, who modified it and when, file type, and even individual words in a document. All your files are indexed in the background, so there aren’t annoying pauses when you type in searches.

Spotlight searching appears in other parts of Tiger, too. Take System Preferences, which replaces the old list of toolbar icons with a search field. Type in a keyword, and a drop-down list of related preferences appears; at the same time, the relevant preference pane is highlighted. For example, a search for Screensaver will highlight the Desktop and Screen Saver icon. Search terms don’t need to be exact—if you search for Wallpaper, for example, Spotlight will recognize what preference pane you’re searching for and highlight its icon.

The Finder’s search field will also undergo a Spotlight-powered renovation. In addition to the usual searches for file names, you can search by keyword—the kind of file, the date it was last viewed or modified, and other properties. You can even search for multiple properties—say, every PDF you’ve viewed in the past week. A Save button in the Finder lets you save search results based on specific criteria into Smart Folders. Much like Smart Playlists in iTunes, Smart Folders update in real time whenever you add or remove documents. Mail and Address Book add similar functionality, with Smart Mailboxes and Smart Groups, respectively.— Philip Michaels

2. Unix enhancements: Bits with bite

Many changes in Tiger will take place below the surface, in the Unix kernel, in the Unix user space, and in the OS X development environment. These additions won’t wow you as much as Spotlight will, but they’re among the most important improvements you’ll find in Tiger.

64-bit Memory Addressing Although the PowerPC G5 is a 64-bit chip, limitations in current versions of OS X restrict the amount of memory it can allocate to any one user process to “only” 4GB. While this seems massive, researchers working on tasks such as DNA sequencing require more—their data sets are huge, and computations happen quickly in RAM. Tiger’s support for 64-bit memory addressing means that these applications can now harness up to 4 billion times as much memory as their 32-bit counterparts. But those 32-bit applications will also get a boost under Tiger, thanks to general improvements in the OS’s code.

XGrid Tiger will include XGrid, software that distributes complex tasks among a number of networked machines. This addition should lead to more applications designed to take advantage of networked Macs for CPU-intensive operations. You’ll never use XGrid when writing a Microsoft Word document, but the feature will come in very handy if you work with huge amounts of experimental data or render complex animations on video files.

Access Control Lists In the current OS X, you define access to files and folders by setting permissions for the file’s owner, the group to which the file belongs, and others (anyone who isn’t the owner or a member of the defined group). In Tiger, you can use Access Control Lists (ACL) to set permissions—any file or folder can have an associated ACL. For example, an associated ACL would allow you to give your spouse access to your Pictures folder, without going through complex group or permissions tricks.

Resource Fork Support In Tiger, many common Unix utilities, such as cp, tar, and rsync, will function properly when dealing with files that have resource forks—which is where, historically, Mac programs kept things such as icons, images, and sounds. OS X 10.3’s Unix commands are, generally, not resource fork-aware, so using the copy (cp) command on a file results in the loss of the resource fork. Thanks to a documented interface in Tiger, developers will also be able to add resource-fork support to their own Unix programs. The support for resource forks at the Unix level should lead to more GUI apps that take advantage of Unix tools without endangering the resource forks in Mac files.— Rob Griffiths

3. Dashboard: Meet the widgets

Harking back to the early days of Mac OS, Dashboard mixes the classic Mac’s Desk Accessories with OS X’s Exposé and then adds a dash of Web savvy, to create a completely separate layer of the Mac interface.

Apple bills Dashboard as “Exposé for Widgets,” and, indeed, Dashboard wouldn’t make a lot of sense were it not for its integration with Exposé. Essentially, Dashboard lets you run small programs (which Apple calls widgets) on an invisible layer within Exposé. When you press a key (F12, by default), the Dashboard layer zooms and fades in, as though it had been hiding somewhere just behind your head all along. Clicking on a button to change a widget’s preferences causes some graphical flash—the entire widget spins around to reveal a preference pane on the “back” of the widget itself.

Don’t expect to do your word processing or spreadsheet calculations in Dashboard—the programs that live there are meant to be tiny. But smaller tasks that should get in your face only for a few seconds (for instance, the Desk Accessories you used to stash in your Apple menu back in the day, such as Calculator and Scrapbook) are ripe for Dashboard.

Perhaps Dashboard’s cleverest feature is how it integrates with Safari. Essentially, Dashboard applications are floating Safari windows. They can be designed with HTML, Cascading Style Sheets, and Web graphics (in GIF, JPEG, and PNG formats, among others). To program widgets, developers can use JavaScript, the common language of Web-page programming. And since widgets are basically Web-page windows, developers could also embed content via Flash or QuickTime.

If you’re curious about Dashboard, you can give Arlo Rose and Perry Clarke’s $25 Konfabulator a try. It’s a similar JavaScript-driven system of widgets. And as of version 1.7, it even provides Konsposé, a feature that lets you hide and reveal all your widgets at once, Dashboard-style.— Jason Snell

4. .Mac sync: In sync, systemwide

Tiger’s entrance marks iSync’s exit; Apple is dropping future development of the synchronization utility. But that doesn’t mean an end to synchronizing data with your cellular phone, PDA, or .Mac account. In fact, Apple plans to integrate synchronization right into Tiger.

Much of Tiger’s synchronization features work through .Mac, Apple’s subscription-based bundle of Internet services. Consider it Apple’s way of giving you more reasons to spend $99 a year for a .Mac account. But syncing in Tiger doesn’t end with .Mac.

Unlike iSync, Tiger’s synchronization engine is open to the rest of the world. Users of third-party address books, calendaring apps, and the like can rejoice—if the developer of your particular program adds support for Tiger’s new synchronization engine, you’ll be able to sync your data with anything the synchronization engine can talk to. (According to Apple, Tiger will synchronize with the same sorts of things that iSync supports: .Mac, iPods, mobile phones, and PDAs. There’s no indication whether Tiger will sync to other kinds of devices or directly with other Macs without using .Mac as an intermediary.)

More important, synchronization under Tiger is no longer limited to bookmarks, address books, and calendars. Any program can synchronize any sort of data. For example, if the developer of your favorite launcher-palette utility adopts Tiger’s new synchronization engine, you’ll be able to synchronize the contents of various docks, tabs, or palettes. Make a change on your desktop Mac, and those changes would be automatically synchronized with the copy of the utility running on your PowerBook.

If you’ve ever been frustrated because the settings on the various Macs you use tend to drift apart on different computers, syncing can put them back together. Apple applications in Tiger that will support this new syncing technology include the Desktop & Screen Saver preference pane, Exposé, and the Dock—potentially enabling your Dock items to follow you wherever you go. You’ll control it all from Tiger’s .Mac preference pane, which lets you choose the applications you want to sync and how often that synchronization should occur.

Will this new syncing engine solve every data-synchronization problem Mac users face? Probably not. But because Apple is opening synchronization up to third-party developers with Tiger, many more of those problems will get solved than have ever been solved with iSync.— Jason Snell

5. iChat AV: Three’s company

iChat AV allowed far-flung OS X 10.3 users to chat face-to-face. With its updated version of iChat, Tiger will make sure that more Mac users can join in the conversation.

The instant-messaging application first introduced in Jaguar received audio and videoconferencing capabilities in Panther. But those chat sessions were limited to one-on-one conversations. iChat’s boundaries expand in Tiger—audio chats can now include as many as ten people, and videoconferences are expanding to include a total of four users.

Apple promises high-quality audio compression techniques for iChat AV in Tiger, so audio sessions will come through loud and clear. Audio chats will retain the same look they have in Panther—a panel that lists the other chat participants’ names, as well as a sound meter. For multiparty chats in Tiger, the sound meter adds a second purpose—it not only lets you know whom you’re talking to, but also provides a visual cue that lets you know who’s talking.

Videoconferencing, however, gets a substantial visual overhaul. The interface offers a three-dimensional view, with the two video screens on either end tilted inward toward the third video screen in the middle. The image of each chat participant is reflected beneath their screens, in a look that Apple says is reminiscent of a conference-room table. However, Mac users of a certain age might notice more than a passing resemblance to the Council of Elders scene from the opening of Superman.

Whether you use the new iChat to collaborate with far-flung colleagues or to condemn General Zod to the Phantom Zone, you’ll benefit from the H.264/AVC (Advanced Video Coding) video codec that improves the messaging app’s picture resolution (see “H.264: Highly Defined”). iChat also has improved bandwidth management: the chat participant whose computer sports the fastest Internet connection automatically becomes the manager of the entire multiparty chat session.

Even with enhanced bandwidth management, it’s unclear exactly who will be able to use the revamped iChat; Apple hasn’t announced system requirements yet. To video chat using iChat AV 2.1, you need a machine with at least a 600MHz G3 processor and a cable, DSL, or broadband Internet connection. With the processing oomph required for multiperson chats, the system requirements for iChat in Tiger could be more stringent.

Don’t expect to take this new version of iChat out for a test spin. Unlike iChat AV—which appeared as a Jaguar-compatible beta before it was released as part of Panther—this new version won’t be released as a separate beta.— Philip Michaels

iTunes-style dynamic searching is a major component of Tiger’s Spotlight feature.Apple designed iChat’s three-panel multiparty video chat interface to look like a conference table.A calculator, an iTunes controller, Stickies, and other Javascript-based programs are part of Dashboard.

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