Cool For Cats

September 1st, 2005 DG, Software, Tech

Another year, another sweeping overhaul for the world’s best looking operating system, and even more features in a package we thought couldn’t be improved upon.

It says something about Apple that its operating systems for the last handful of years have been named after big cats; sleek, sexy, with a whisper of allure and danger, while Windows’ new OS (Longhorn) sounds like an old bull put out to pasture with flies buzzing around its head. You’d think with all that money, Bill Gates could afford at least a work experience kid to do some marketing.

What also speaks volumes about Apple is that they’re on the ball — usually ahead of it, in fact. When a new technology promises huge things, they incorporate it into a new OS, along with a myriad of new usability tools from the essential to the distracting, and Tiger is no different.

The Big Four

With so many new tricks to choose from, it’s a mystery why Apple have picked the particular handful of features that are front and centre in Tiger’s marketing.

The one commanding much of the attention among the terminally cool is Dashboard. Click a single keyboard shortcut and up pop any number of cute looking creatures ‘applications that can tell you everything except what colour socks to wear that day (though that’s probably not far off).

More or less one big content-pulling tool, Dashboard is made up of little programs (christened widgets by Apple) that reference information from the Internet. There’s a clock, calendar and iTunes player, for example, but since they’re all part of the core OS having them in Dashboard as well is a bit of a mystery.

Others can keep you updated on the stock market, look up numbers in the phone book, convert currency, translate phrases between languages and convert units of measurement. A dozen or so come with Tiger and upon the first few uses they seem frivolous.

But don’t give up on it too early. A search on Apple’s download pages turned up several hundred, doing everything from delivering quotes from the Holy Qu’ran to a Podcast search facility, so Dashboard shows a lot of unrealised promise. The default widgets are (as always) very US-centric, but there’s already an Australian Yellow pages widget, and you can bet that if you had a widget wishlist someone would accommodate before long. In fact, there’s probably a widget wishlist widget out there somewhere.

The cynical will click on the tiny information symbols on some of the default widgets (whereupon it flips over) and wonder if Apple gets a kickback from each content provider; perhaps explaining in part why Dashboard is being pushed so hard. Give it time though, it gets pretty addictive.

Widgets are easy to add and take away — just click the plus symbol in the bottom right of your screen and it extends a launch bar with the default set and a link to download more. If you’re a big Microsoft Office user one of the first things you’ll have to do is reassign the shortcut key — by default it’s F12 (Save As is Office applications) — similarly to the way hardcore Quark Xpress users had to reassign the Expose keys in the last version.

And the graphics technology that causes a little water ripple when you drag a widget to the live area to turn it on is beautiful — if you have the graphics card to handle it (most systems older than the original G5 don’t).

Shine a Light

Spotlight has completely overhauled all the search technology in the Mac OS. With every passing version, Apple works harder to move you away from the time consuming and increasingly difficult task of filing and finding things on your computer, and Spotlight takes the next step.

Accessible via the Command+Space shortcut (taking over from the very handy Launchbar, the third party utility that’s still more user friendly and opens URLs in your default browser), in the menu bar and also when you hit Command+F, Spotlight doesn’t just search filenames, it searches file contents, including metadata.

That sounds like a dream come true at first — you can remember the name of the guy who sent you that email but can’t remember where it is, you know the day you saved that PDF but don’t remember what it was called; Spotlight — Apple claims — can track it all down.

But there are chinks on the armour. Under tests, Spotlight routinely found folders, filenames and text files containing the search term (it has no problem with Microsoft Office applications), but PDFs showed up only some of the time.

And the most frustrating thing is for those looking forward to searching the content of emails only to discover that Spotlight only seems to search the default Mac Mail client. If you use anything else, you’ll feel somewhat conned.

Also, as Spotlight searches the contents of files, it populates that list much slower than if you only search for filenames. See what you’re after, go to click on it, and in the blink of an eye it might have moved further down as the list updates and you’ve selected the wrong thing, proceeding to open the wrong application along with it.

Hands off Computing

The entire point of computers in human society is to perform tasks our brains, hands and economies can’t do fast enough. Human limitations still invariably play a part however, simply because a computer has to wait for us to tell it what to do.

So one of the final frontiers in microprocessors has always been having the computer work without being told and execute ever-complex workflows without our ever having to input the next step.

Macros, Applescript and other technologies all had the right idea, but with their assumed knowledge of at least basic level programming code, they were never very user friendly.

So it was only natural that Apple would give the automatic workflow process their distinctive mark (pretty, user friendly and icon rather than code based). That mark is Automator, a standalone application designed to let you drag, drop and manipulate pre-loaded actions to create workflows that would be cumbersome if performed manually.

The theory is completely sound, the practice considerably less so. Automator is neither intuitive nor easy to work out. It’s easy to put a workflow together, all you do is search for the action you want (open file, rotate picture, file all sent email, etc), and drag it into the workflow pane. But the results will be different from what you expect.

For example, we built a workflow using seemingly clear-cut actions designed to open, crop and move images in Preview. They opened in Preview and the workflow froze. In another, we created a one-step workflow to play a selection of Quicktime movies, which were blown up into full screen mode and froze at the opening frame.

In neither case is Automator necessarily at fault, but neither the cause nor the solution are easy to fathom. By its nature it can’t escape the yoke of its code-monkey origins, so may be above the heads of your average user.

Push Comes to Shove

RSS (Real Simple Syndication) is the XML-based format set to take the world by storm. Given life by Netscape way back in the day, it’s finally enjoying the popularity it deserves thanks to the blogging community and has been quickly adopted by news services, podcast producers and anyone else at the pointy end of ‘push’ media.

Instead of your browser (or any other content searching tool, for that matter) being a means to search for the information you want, RSS turns your browser into a receptor for the information to find you.

More and more content providers both large and small are employing the use of RSS feeds, and Apple has pipped everyone else at the post by releasing the new version of Safari with built in RSS capability. Content from your favourite major news sources, millions of blogs and countless other sources can now be lifted straight from the Internet and delivered to you without your lifting a finger.

It’s both a blessing and a curse; you can immerse yourself with even more of the white noise people think information overload is turning modern life into, or you can see it as a way of cutting through the white noise to access just what you want.

Safari has a few other neat tricks too, such as viewing PDFs in the browser without having to download and open them in another application, and the option to enable private browsing, where none of your actions are recorded in the history.

Chock Full

For the first time ever, All of Tiger’s new features are listed on the Apple website — over 200 of them of varying sizes and usefulness.

When you click on an image on a web page the contextual menu gives you the option to save it straight to iPhoto. Quicktime now shows a full set of controls in full screen mode. There’s a new dictionary and thesaurus application right there on your system (as if not having to get up and walk to the bookshelf was easy enough — now you don’t even have to use a web browser).

iChat AV now allows for a four-way conference chat right in the one window, and thanks to expanded graphics and audio capabilities, Apple claims the picture and sound are better than ever.

You can create a Burn Folder right in the finder, ready to drag files to that you want to burn to CD. It sounds great if you use third party disc burning software like Toast, but once more — unless you have a totally Apple-endorsed or manufactured system (our test machine’s Combo drive wasn’t supported), you’ll just have to pine for it.

A very welcome feature is parental controls. With a hysterical, fear-mongering and technically ignorant conservative government on one side and anything-goes, censor-nothing net anarchists on the other, most of us fall somewhere in the middle.

The Account controls were the first step in setting up a user for your kids, now you can take the functionality much further. iChat, Mail and Safari all have very clever ways of blocking websites, mail senders and potential chat buddies until you’ve vetted them. In a very handy set-it-and-forget-it system, you’re notified if a user tries to access a service, recipient or chat you haven’t approved, and they can’t until you agree.


Occasionally as frustrating as it is cool, Tiger has some huge new features, but most of them don’t feel as world beating as they have with past OSX releases.

The liabilities are mainly confined to two areas. The first is that Apple tends to live in a perfect world many of us don’t inhabit yet. They got rid of the floppy drive first — some say prematurely — and much of their whiz-bang tricks depend on a broadband Internet connection, less than universal as we painfully know in Australia. If you’re not connected, Dashboard — for one — is useless. And of course, video chat on dialup is like trying to divert a waterfall through a drinking straw.

The second area is that, as both a software and hardware provider, Apple has a natural interest in using one to ‘encourage’ you to use the other. The clever graphical effects that have been part of OSX (even the groovy spinning desktop of fast user switching) are lost on all but the newest machines. The Burn Folder issue is liveable, but buying Tiger on the strength of Spotlight searching everything and then finding out that — as a Eudora or Entourage user — you’re excluded is a considerable bugbear.

So while it’s impressive in the way only Apple products can be, this Tiger needs sharper claws.

Mac OSX Tiger
$199 RRP
Apple Australia
133 622

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