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When you start using an upgraded version of a familiar piece of software, the first things you notice are the changes. In those initial sessions, it’s hard to tell whether those changes are for the good or not—all you know is that they’re different . But then, slowly, you begin to form judgments about the new features, to appreciate small touches that originally escaped your notice. This is where I am with Tiger.

Spotlight’s Shades of Gray

Spotlight is undeniably cool. It’s Tiger’s most important feature, and it’s miles beyond any of the old search features in the Mac operating system (yes, Sherlock, I’m talking to you).

That’s because Spotlight doesn’t just search text inside of your files. It also knows about your files’ attributes —who authored a Microsoft Word file, for instance, or which camera snapped a JPEG. Different apps can define their own descriptors, but Apple is distributing a list of “common attributes” that it’d like programs to share.

I also really like the Smart Folders feature, which Spotlight enables in the Finder. Smart folders have solved one of my own workflow problems: Spotlight can sort through my folder of e-mail attachments to find all the Macworld stories I need to read, and it puts them all in one convenient place.

However, Spotlight also has a major limitation: at this point, it works only on a file-by-file basis. It won’t find e-mail messages, for example, in programs (such as Entourage) that save messages as individual files. Apple and software vendors need to find a fix for that, so we can truly uncover all the data on our Macs.

Still, I like Spotlight. In a year, I think it will be seen as the most important feature ever added to OS X. If you deal with an avalanche of files, be they Word documents, images, or whatever, Spotlight alone will make upgrading to Tiger worthwhile.

Dashboard in Progress

As a paying user of Konfabulator, I like the idea of small, single-purpose application widgets. And some of Apple’s new Dashboard widgets are very useful. The Dictionary widget is perfect, letting me look up a word quickly without launching the new Dictionary application.

However, some of Apple’s widgets are not as useful as they could be. The Calendar widget doesn’t integrate with Apple’s iCal. And the way you add new widgets to your Dashboard—clicking on a rotating X symbol at the bottom of the screen to reveal a strip menu of available widgets—is clumsy. As the number of widgets grows, it’ll just get clumsier.

Moving widgets off of the Dashboard layer is also awkward. If a widget would work better for me on my desktop, why can’t I move it there without resorting to Terminal? (It would have been nice if Apple had let us deploy widgets more flexibly.)

More Feature Favorites

Among my other favorite new features:

Multiuser videoconferencing works surprisingly well in iChat AV 3.0, and group support in the Buddy List window is excellent. But I wish it were easier to start a multiuser videoconference. Right now, you and your friends have to figure out whose Mac is fast enough to host the conference. iChat should do that for you.

Safari 2.0 ’s support for RSS feeds should help bring RSS technology into the mainstream. But putting RSS feeds in a Web-page interface makes me think that Apple missed the point of Web-site syndication. And the new Private Browsing feature fails to wall off Safari’s previously stored cookies, so Amazon.com will not only greet you by name, as usual, but also track any pages you visit in a supposedly private session.

Finally, a few words in praise of Automator. It’s exciting to see the power of Apple’s scripting technologies being placed in the hands of millions of Mac users who will never, ever write even a single computer program. Now the impressive automation features of AppleScript are available to the rest of us. That’s great news.

Should You Upgrade?

Let’s be realistic here: if you’re an active Mac user who plans to continue buying new software and hardware on a regular basis, Tiger is a necessity. If you’re not planning on buying any major upgrades and your Mac works fine just the way it is, you can probably get away with skipping it. If you’re somewhere in between those two groups, Tiger is probably in your future. Once it’s been prowling the Mac world for a few months—time enough to shake off the bugs—you’ll start to get the itch to upgrade. And you’ll be glad you did.

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