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A reader who has a load of Xs in his or her AOL email address writes in with the kind of question I'm often asked when Apple issues a new version of its operating system.

I am currently running 0S 10.2.8 on a dual 1.25MHz Power Mac G4. I only use the computer for surfing the web and typing a few memos. Is it worth it for me to update to Tiger at this point, skipping over the 10.3 version of OS X?

Before I address the larger issue of whether or not an upgrade makes sense, let’s get this specific answer out of the way first.

Probably not.

As much fun as it is to have the latest and greatest release of OS X, having that release is helpful only if you’re going to put its added features to use. AOL user X likely uses his or her Mac in a fashion similar to my mother—a little email, some simple word processing, and viewing and printing pictures of her children and grandchildren. While mom may get some use out of Tiger’s widgets, features such as Spotlight and Automator would be lost on her. She doesn’t do chat so iChat’s video conferencing is no attraction and her email is limited enough that she’d make little use of smart mailboxes and Address Book’s smart groups.

So, to the larger issue: What factors will determine if an OS upgrade is right for you?

Hardware: What computer are you using and what capabilities does it have? On one end of the spectrum, let’s say that you’re running OS 9 on a 400MHz Blue and White Power Mac G3. Even though your computer meets Tiger’s system requirements (PowerPC G3, G4, or G5; built-in FireWire, 256MB or RAM, and 3GB of hard drive space), Tiger is going to run like a pig on your Mac. Megahertz matter in this regard. If your computer doesn’t offer a processor that runs at 700MHz or faster and you’re running Mac OS 9, I’d forego the upgrade. Putting a Tiger in your tank isn’t going to help until you get a much faster Mac.

On the other extreme, if you have a Power Mac G5, you’re going to find Tiger snappier than Panther in a lot of operations. Even if you never touch some of Tiger’s touted new features, the speedier feel of your computer may be enough to make the upgrade worth it.

And those in the middle? If you’re running some version of Mac OS X and are happy with its performance, you can take the next step up the ladder and consider the kind of work you do with your Mac.

What you do: This is the “my mother” test. What do you do with your computer that will be improved by an OS upgrade? If, like me, you scatter your files from one end of your hard drive to another, Spotlight is a very compelling feature—it makes it very easy for disorganized people to find their stuff quickly. If you’re a graphics professional (or enthusiastic amateur) tired of performing the same tedious jobs over and over, Automator is your meat. Automator makes it relatively easy for regular folks to create a single action that performs a series of tiresome tasks—resizing and emailing iPhoto images, for example. If you have physical disabilities that make it difficult to use a computer (specifically, difficulty seeing), the new screen reader capabilities of Tiger (called VoiceOver) might make the upgrade worth the price of admission.

On the other hand, if you’re perfectly happy with how your Mac works now and can think of a better way to spend $129, there’s no shame in staying put. Tiger (or what comes after) will be there when you’re ready for a change.

How convenient do you want computing to be? Beyond these truly compelling new features, Tiger includes a lot of features that make working with your Mac more convenient (or simply more fun). Widgets are a prime example. There’s nothing you can get in a widget that you can’t get from a third-party application that functions perfectly well in the operating system you’re currently using. But under Tiger it’s darned convenient to punch F12 and quickly perform a calculation, jot a note, check the weather or your favorite stocks, or learn the Spanish translation for “Meatballs, didn’t I tell you?” Likewise, it’s hardly impossible to find a contact or email message in the version of Address Book and Mail you’re using now, but Tiger’s smart folders make doing so easier.

Where do you want to go? Tiger is also about the future. For example, inside you’ll find Core Image, a plug-in style architecture that makes a series of image filters, transitions, and effects available to any application written to take advantage of them. It’s not cool yet because those applications haven’t arrived. But they will, and when they do, you’ll be glad you’re running Tiger. And QuickTime 7 includes the new H.264 video codec, which delivers incredible looking video at low data rates. There are other new things under the hood that will become more valuable as we go along. If you want to be ready for the future, now may be the time to make the investment.

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