Mac OS X 10.4, code-named Tiger, should hit the market "long before Longhorn," as Apple's CEO, Steve Jobs, is fond of saying. Like previous versions of Mac OS X, Tiger will be based on an open-source Unix-like core. New is a 64-bit system, which does not mean an across-the-board speed boost, but memory-hungry applications such as large databases will likely benefit. Apple's also embedding new technologies such as support for the High Definition H.264 video codec and Core Image, which co-opts video cards for rendering better onscreen images even in the OS, extending the Mac's media and graphics capabilities.
Tiger's Spotlight is an operating system-level search feature that indexes the computer's hard drive and helps find anything contained in a file or its metadata. And whenever you migrate to a new computer, Setup Assistant automates migration of all your personal files, settings, applications, and folders, a feature already found in Windows XP. Another new feature, Dashboard, populates your desktop with widgets that show the weather, flight information, and more; these disappear from your desktop when not needed. Automator is an application that promises powerful scripting capabilities in an easy-to-use graphical interface.
Upside: Some new technologies, such as Core Image, should enable Tiger to feel faster and more responsive than previous Mac OS X versions. So far, each Mac OS X update has improved performance, an admirable trend that we expect to continue. Spotlight promises powerful search capabilities across every file, from e-mail to PDFs. For example, you can find all of your e-mail messages that contain a single keyword. Though details are scarce, Apple promises Tiger will also improve compatibility with Windows. The messaging client iChat AV also gets a boost, allowing up to three users to establish a full-screen videoconference.
Downside: The much-touted features Spotlight and Dashboard may end up just another layer of eye candy, further moving Apple away from its halcyon days of interface design based on good science, rather than style. In general, some features that rely heavily on fancy graphics tricks may not run well on older machines.
Outlook: Apple claims that this upgrade will include more than 200 new features, a claim we can't verify or discount at this time. If true, this should be compelling enough reason for most Mac OS X users to upgrade. Check back this summer to read our full review of the new Mac OS X 10.4.