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From Apple, a Tiger to put in your Mac

The latest version of the software suite that makes up the Macintosh operating system debuts Friday. How is it? Photos: Tiger's ready to pounce

If anyone considers tomorrow a special day at all, it's probably because it's Friday, or because "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" movie opens, or because it's Uma Thurman's birthday.

But for one particular group of 25 million people, April 29 is a much bigger deal. It's the day Apple Computer releases Mac OS X 10.4, nicknamed Tiger - the latest version of the software suite that makes up the Macintosh operating system.

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Ordinarily, of course, reading about operating systems is about as much fun as a seminar on tax policy. Very few people line up at 5 a.m. to be the first to upgrade the software in their microwaves, cell phones or cars.

But Mac OS X has recently become interesting even to people outside the Cult of Macintosh. The more Microsoft Windows is bogged down by viruses, spyware and disruptive security updates, the more miserable life becomes--and the more the long-suffering Windows majority begins to investigate virus-free, spyware-free alternatives like Mac OS X.

One nice thing about Windows, though, is that Microsoft sics a new version on its customers only once every few years. (Windows XP, for example, made its debut in 2001. The next version is scheduled for 2006.) Apple has asked its faithful followers to upgrade Mac OS X about every year, at $130 a pop (or free with a new Mac). What could Tiger offer that could justify yet another expenditure?

Apple's Tiger Web site lists over 200 new features. Not all of them are, ahem, likely to set off a mass exodus to the Macintosh. Will anyone upgrade to Tiger because, for example, "you can easily find any glyph by typing its Unicode ID"?

Still, there are a few humdingers in that list. The most important is Spotlight, which is like Google for your hard drive. As you type into the Spotlight box in your menu bar, a tidy menu instantly drops down. It lists every file, folder, program, e-mail message, address book or calendar entry, photograph, PDF document and even font that contains what you typed, regardless of its name or folder location. This isn't just a fast Find command. It's an enhancement that's so deep, convenient and powerful, it threatens to reduce the 20-year-old Mac/Windows system of nested folders to irrelevance. Why burrow around in folders when you can open any file or program with a couple of keystrokes?

Out of the box, for example, tapping Command and the space bar highlights the Spotlight box. So if you hit Command-Space and type "Schw," the list shows every message Arnold Schwarzenegger sent to you by e-mail, every appointment you've got with him and, of course, his address book entry. It's all organized neatly by category; a quick click or keystroke opens the item you want.

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You can also save a Spotlight search as a "smart folder," a self-updating folder that always contains stuff that matches certain criteria--for example, all documents created in the last week containing the phrase "wombat mating habits."

Unfortunately, Spotlight can't "see inside" many programs other than Apple's, although that will change as software companies upgrade their wares.

For example, Spotlight can search the contents of Word, Excel and PowerPoint files, but doesn't yet see the messages in Microsoft's Entourage e-mail program.

The second most heavily hyped Tiger feature is called Dashboard. It's a constellation of gorgeous miniprograms that appear or disappear en masse when you touch a selected key. They include real-time stock tickers, weather forecasts and airline flight information, along with a calculator, dictionary, Yellow Pages and other doodads. They're handy enough, and they appear with a dazzling rippling effect that turns your screen into the surface of a Zen pond. But Dashboard isn't a Tiger exclusive; the shareware program Konfabulator, available for Windows and older Mac OS versions, does pretty much the same thing.

On the other hand, some of the most groundbreaking new Tiger features are barely mentioned in Apple's marketing. For example, the new parental controls let you, the wise authority figure, specify which e-mail correspondents, chat buddies, Web sites and even programs are OK for your children. Older children may find the "white list" approach overly limiting, but the design is otherwise clean, effective and beautifully integrated.

Then there's security. Why hasn't Apple ever advertised Mac OS X's stellar security record? Maybe the company is worried that if it did, some determined hacker would deliberately spoil the party just to prove Apple wrong.

Even so, Tiger is the most impenetrable Mac system yet, filled with new defenses against the dark arts. Messages alert you--a little annoyingly, actually--every time you download a file that could theoretically contain a virus (because it contains a runnable program, even if it's compressed). And a new "stealth mode" in Tiger's built-in firewall makes your Mac invisible to ping signals from Internet predators who are hunting for computers to infect.

Mac OS X's built-in programs have been upgraded, too. Of these, iChat AV, which permits free audio and video phone calls over the Internet, is the most spectacular. Up to 10 people can join a single audio conversation. And as long as one of the participants has a G5 Macintosh, four Tigered people with fast Internet connections can have a full-screen video chat. Your three partners, wherever they happen to be in the world, appear on three vertical panels, gorgeously reflected on a shiny black table surface. It may remind you of the flat, spinning panels that imprisoned the trio of villains at the end of "Superman II." But it's a jaw-dropping visual stunt that can bring distant collaborators face-to-face without plane tickets.

The rest of the 200 features don't fall into any one visionary category; they're an assortment of tweaks and upgrades that pile up like something out of Gilbert and Sullivan:

The Safari browser now subscribes to RSS news feeds,

And its "private browsing" mode conceals the tracks of online deeds,

There are archives now, and log files, when you send or get a fax,

You can make the pointer bigger on those Jumbotron-screened Macs.

You can start a full-screen slide show from some photos on demand,

And the voice that reads the screen aloud can lend the blind a hand.

There's a password-phrase suggestor meant to make yours more secure,

And the Grapher module draws equations simple and obscure.

Then the Automator program is a geeky software clerk--

You just choose the steps you want performed, and it does all the work.

There's a lot of miscellany, lots of spit-and-polish stuff,

But it works and doesn't slow you down --and these days, that's enough.

Now, if it weren't for that brilliant Spotlight feature, Tiger wouldn't be as important an upgrade as, say, last year's Panther edition. In fact, without Spotlight, you could make the case that Tiger is overpriced at $95. (That's Amazon.com's price, after a rebate that's good through the end of May. A five-Mac license is available for $150 after the on rebate, too, although it's worth noting that Mac OS X is not copy-protected and requires no Windows-style activation.)

But with apologies to Mac-bashers everywhere, Spotlight changes everything. Tiger is the classiest version of Mac OS X ever and, by many measures, the most secure, stable and satisfying consumer operating system prowling the earth.

If you're a Mac geek of the sort who'd get a kick out of high-end features like Automator and the advances in the underlying Unix engine, then Tiger is worth getting now. Of course, if you truly are a Mac geek, you didn't need a newspaper columnist to tell you that.

If you're just an everyday creative worker bee, though, consider waiting out the shakedown period before pouncing on Tiger. Apple will surely release a 10.4.1 update that fixes the tiny glitches, like the errors in the onscreen help system (which is, mercifully, infinitely faster than in the last version). And in the coming weeks, the handful of Tiger-incompatible programs (notably the excellent networkable calendar Now Up-to-Date) will be upgraded and made Tiger-ready.

And if you're a Windows refugee or someone who's never owned a computer, you'll find this Tiger remarkably tame and approachable. Who knows? Maybe April 29 will mean something to you after all.

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