May 4th, 2005
Tiger is out, and unless you already made your decision and purchased a copy, the question you are asking yourself is: "Should I upgrade?" This question inevitably comes up with every major Mac OS upgrade. Tiger is no exception.
In brief, here's my answer: "Yes. You should upgrade."
But not because, as Apple claims, "Mac OS X Tiger will change the way you use a computer." Don't expect anything nearly that dramatic. The most significant change in Tiger, and the one that Apple emphasizes when it makes this claim, is Spotlight. Spotlight is Tiger's entirely new way for searching the files on your drive. There is no doubt that Spotlight is a speed demon at getting results, and it finds a wider range of items (such as matching text contained within PDF files) than the old Find feature. Still, in my use, Spotlight is not always a winner. Maybe it will just take me more time to get used to it, but I occasionally have more trouble getting Spotlight to zero in on what I want than I did with Panther's now antiquated technology.
Neither should you upgrade because it is "essential" in any sense of that word. If you were happily using Panther yesterday, Tiger will not cause anything you were doing to suddenly stop working. Panther was already a fairly mature version of Mac OS X. It did not need a major overhaul. And Tiger does not provide one.
No, the main reason you should upgrade is simply because it's worth it. The only real reason to hesitate is if your Mac doesn't have the required specs to run Tiger.
True, you may not want to upgrade right away. You might want to wait and make sure that some bug, undiscovered during beta testing, doesn't bite you before Apple fixes it. And you might want to make sure that your critical third-party applications are updated, if necessary, to work with the new OS before you convert to Tiger.
But aside from that, upgrade away. Apple asserts that Tiger has over 200 new features. Even if you only care about 10% of them, that's still plenty of reason to move up. Just as important, as time passes, the upgrade will become required to keep pace with the latest versions of other software.
OK. I can hear some protests in the background: "Sure, if the upgrade was free or close to it, I would agree. But the real question is: 'Is it worth $129?" These protesters continue: "I don't depend on my Mac for a living the way you do. And I am far from rich. I have to think long and hard about whether $100 or so to get a new version of Mac OS X is really the best way to allocate my limited resources. Will Tiger really make my life $100 better?"
On balance, I still say yes. When you consider that the OS is something that you use continuously whenever you are using your Mac, and that it contains dozens of useful applications in addition to the core OS software, $129 is something of a bargain. You not only get a new version of the basic operating system, but you get substantially upgraded versions of Safari, iChat AV, Address Book, Mail and more. As a point of contrast, upgrading Adobe's Creative Suite software will set you back around $500.
If your use of the Mac is minimal (maybe you just use it for checking your email and occasional Web surfing), maybe Tiger is not worth the bother. But if you are that type of user, you probably aren't debating whether or not you should upgrade. You may not even be aware that a new version of the OS is out. In fact, you probably aren't even reading this column. So my comments are not really directed to you.
For the rest of you, if you really want to get an excellent overview of what's included in Tiger, there is no better place than Apple's own Mac OS X Web site. After checking out the two main attractions, Spotlight and Dashboard, take some time to dig deeper. You'll find many gems. Among my personal favorites are Safari's ability to save Web pages as archive files (meaning that all graphics are included and all links work) as well as its new RSS feed capabilities. The new version of Preview supports the ability to fill out PDF forms. If you have a .Mac account, you can sync your entire Mail database across multiple computers. And Automator promises to finally make AppleScript accessible to a mass audience.
Despite all this, going from Panther to Tiger is a very different experience than going from Jaguar to Panther. In many ways, it seems like a much "smaller" upgrade. To understand why, it helps to view changes in any Mac OS upgrade as falling into one of three different categories:
Interface changes. Changes to the user interface are the ones you tend to notice first and most. If we metaphorically compare an OS upgrade to a new model of an automobile, interface changes are the equivalent to a new look for the exterior or a redesign of the dashboard. They don't necessarily provide you with much that is truly new, but they change the way you do what you already could do, perhaps making it more convenient or more aesthetically pleasing.
Panther was filled to the rim with interface changes. There seemed no aspect of the OS that was too big or two small for Apple to change. It was as if Apple was still experimenting with how Mac OS X should ultimately work. Ideas that were tried out in Jaguar and its predecessors were rejected and revised in Panther. From the design of Finder windows to the layout of the System Preferences, to how printing was handled, everything changed. Moving up to Panther required a good deal of unlearning what you had already learned.
Not so in Tiger. There are a few places where you'll find a substantial interface overhaul. The redesigned Keychain Access utility comes to mind; it now joins the family of Apple applications that follow the iTunes design model. But mostly, if you know how something works in Panther, you'll find it works just about the same way in Tiger. Apple finally appears to be comfortable with the overall look and feel of Mac OS X, and is now more into tinkering (such as changing Accounts' "Limitations" to "Parental Controls"). Overall, I believe this is a good trend. There is only so much change I want to deal with every year. Regardless, this is the main reason why Tiger appears to be less of an upgrade than Panther.
Technology improvements. Sticking with the automobile metaphor, these are the changes that are "under-the-hood," such as improved brakes or an engine redesign that offers more miles per gallon. You may not notice them much, but they ultimately have a significant impact on your use of the machine. Tiger has much to offer here. Just a brief listing here includes the H.264 compression in QuickTime 7, the new Core Image and Core Video technology, and expanded support for security certificates.
New capabilities. Not so much a change or an improvement to an existing feature, items in this category provide something completely new. They allow the OS to do things that it could not do at all before, or at least not with anything close to the same level of convenience. The automobile equivalent would be like adding a GPS device to a car. Tiger truly shines here. An entirely new utility, VoiceOver, provides an audio-centric way to interact with the Mac. Primarily designed for people with visual impairments, all users may find aspects of VoiceOver that are worth using. There is a new Network Diagnostics utility in /System/Library/CoreServices. You get prompted to use it whenever Mac OS X spots an apparent networking problem. The same folder includes a new Certificate Assistant; it helps you create your own "digital certificates" as well as checks on the authenticity of others. Mail includes its own separate "Connection Doctor." A new Firewall Stealth Mode offers greater protection against network "snooping." And, of course, there are those Dashboard widgets. On a lesser scale: Address Book can now print envelopes; Font Book can validate fonts; iCal can take birthdays from Address Book and automatically list them as calendar events; Activity Monitor adds a set of "Send Signal to Process" options. The list goes on.
You may not notice these new features right away. You'll need to launch the relevant applications, and start browsing through menus and dialogs, to find them. But these are the most significant part of what is new in Tiger.
Of course, these categories blur at the borders. In many cases, a given feature may fit into more than one category. Spotlight, for example, could easily fit into all three. It is an interface change from the way Find worked in Panther. It uses a new technology for its searches. And, especially with its ability to integrate within other applications, it offers new capabilities. In fact, the extent to which a feature easily fits into more than one category is probably a good measure of the overall significance of the feature.
My point in citing these loosely-defined categories is simply to help frame why Tiger is a different animal than Panther, and why upgrading to Tiger will be a different sort of experience than upgrading to Panther was. Regardless, as I said at the top, it is an upgrade very much worth doing. With Tiger, Apple continues to show a remarkable ability to deliver innovative changes at an incredibly rapid pace.
Ted Landau is the founder of MacFixit, and the author of Mac OS X Help Line, Tiger Edition and other Mac help books.
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