Despite all the advances in personal computing, one problem has remained constant: It often is really hard to find a file months or years after it was created. To have any hope of doing so, users have to create a logical, structured system of folders, and take care to give consistent, descriptive names to their files. But few have the patience to do that.
Tomorrow, Apple Computer will introduce a new edition of the operating system for its Macintosh computers that finally solves the missing file problem, and introduces other features as well, including a new “Dashboard” that instantly displays small, frequently used programs like a calculator, dictionary and stock tracker.
The new release, called Tiger, is the latest version of Apple’s excellent Mac OS X operating system. Its key feature, called Spotlight, is the first universal, integrated search system ever offered as part of a mainstream consumer PC operating system. In seconds, Spotlight can peer inside e-mail, office documents of all kinds, photos, songs, address books, calendars, and all manner of other files to see which ones match a search term you type in.
Spotlight is vastly better than prior built-in search functions on either the Mac or on Microsoft’s Windows operating system. It also beats the add-on search programs for Windows. Spotlight can rapidly find almost any file, any time — even years after it was created, and even if it is hidden among tens of thousands of other files. So as users learn to trust it, they no longer will have to worry about where they store files and what they name them.
This is a big deal. Along with a similar built-in search capability Microsoft is working on for its next version of Windows, Spotlight could spark a major change in the way people use computers. Instead of hunting for documents or clicking on programs, people may now start activities by searching for relevant files and then opening them as needed.
Spotlight is only one of the impressive new features in Tiger, which will be free on all new Macs and will cost $129 for existing users. The others include the Dashboard feature; parental controls on what kids can do on the computer; dazzling built-in video conferencing; and a revised Web browser that allows private surfing and quick reading of news headlines.
Tiger’s built-in search system, Spotlight, finds soccer-related files (bottom) no matter where they’re stored on the Mac; the Dashboard feature (top) offers quick access to stock quotes, yellow pages, flight data and other information.
Overall, Tiger is the best and most advanced personal computer operating system on the market, despite a few drawbacks. It leaves Windows XP in the dust.
It also adds to the Mac’s general superiority over typical Windows computers as the best choice for average consumers doing the most common computing tasks. Apple’s hardware already was the best in the business, and Mac OS X has, so far, escaped the virus and spyware problems that plague Windows.
The new Apple system boasts some key capabilities Microsoft won’t introduce for another 18 months or so, when it finally rolls out its long-awaited next version of Windows, code-named Longhorn. Chief among these is the integrated, universal search. A second is “virtual folders,” called Smart Folders by Apple, which can automatically scoop up files that meet criteria you set.
In my tests, on three different Macs during the past couple of weeks, Tiger performed generally well. Installation took about an hour and went smoothly in each case. None of the computers ever crashed, and every program I tested worked fine, despite the change in operating-system versions.
The only significant problem I noticed was that the computers seemed to run into slight, but greater-than-normal, delays from time to time. Certain functions, like Spotlight searches and the updated Safari Web browser, were very fast. But with other tasks, I noticed more spinning beach-ball icons, Apple’s symbol for delays, than I had with the prior Panther version of the Mac operating system.
In particular, the built-in e-mail program, Apple Mail, was slower. There was a perceptible lag in opening a new e-mail form, beginning a reply, and displaying the drop-down contact list that appears when you begin typing in an e-mail address.
Apple acknowledges it will need to tweak Tiger to eliminate the delays, and it promises to address the problem within a few months. It might be wise for users with older, slower Mac models to wait until then to upgrade to Tiger.
The company claims Tiger has 200 new features. Here is a rundown of the most important ones.
Search: The new Spotlight search system can be summoned by just clicking on a small magnifying-glass icon that appears in every menu bar at the upper right. You simply start typing in a word or series of words, and as you type, an organized list of results instantly appears. The list tells you how many hits were found and displays the results in categories by file type, like e-mail messages, contacts, documents and so forth.
If you click on “Show All,” you get a larger window with a handsomely formatted list of results that you can organize by date, file type, person mentioned or other methods. Spotlight even finds words inside Adobe’s PDF files. It also can search on the data stored inside music and photo files, such as the names of artists and camera information. If picture files are found, thumbnails of them are displayed right in the list, and you can view them in a slide show.
Spotlight is far superior to add-on desktop search programs available for Microsoft Windows from Google and others, because it doesn’t have to constantly “index” the hard disk, looking for new files while the disk spins constantly. Since it is built deeply into the operating system, Spotlight learns about each new file as soon as it is created, saved or downloaded.
Prior built-in search functions in the Mac and Windows operating systems were slow and couldn’t search on some kinds of data, like e-mail. So you had to use separate search features in each type of program. Spotlight makes that unnecessary, though separate search functions are still available.
Dashboard: With the press of a single function key, a new translucent screen appears that holds large, stylish icons for useful little programs you might want to get to quickly. These programs, called Widgets, include a dictionary and thesaurus; a calculator; a weather display; a calendar; a language translator; a weights and measures converter; a stock tracker; an electronic yellow pages program; and a flight tracker.
These things are already available on the Web or through separate programs on many PCs. But with Dashboard, they pop up instantly, over whatever screen you are using, without disturbing any work you are doing. You don’t have to launch separate applications or employ a Web browser.
Apple ships 14 Widgets with Tiger, and starting tomorrow, the company will make available downloads of many more written by third parties. Some of these, already posted on other Web sites, include Web cam viewers, simple games, and small panels for searching encyclopedias.
Parental Controls: Tiger is the first operating system I have seen with built-in, system-wide parental controls. You can create a separate user account for a child that restricts his or her computing actions in a wide variety of ways.
Parents can limit what programs a child can launch and ban the child from burning CDs and DVDs, changing system preferences, or even printing.
You can restrict a child’s Web surfing to the sites you specify, and limit his or her exchanges of e-mails and instant messages to the people you specify. If anyone else sends the child an e-mail, it is forwarded to the parent. If the child wants to send an e-mail to a nonapproved person, the parent can be asked for permission electronically. The e-mail controls require both the child and the parent to be using Tiger.
Video Conferencing: If you have a video camera on your Mac, Tiger allows you to hold a video conference via its instant-messaging program with up to three other people simultaneously. Each participant is shown in a large panel of a handsome, three-panel display. I tested this, and it worked perfectly. Other built-in video chat systems, on Windows and earlier Mac operating systems, typically allow video conferencing with one other person.
Smart Folders: Tiger allows you to create special folders, which are, in effect, saved searches. For instance, you could set up a folder to hold all files containing the word “Fenway” that were created after a certain date and are above a certain size.
This kind of special folder isn’t a new idea. Apple has had them in its iPhoto and iTunes programs for awhile, and Microsoft included them in the latest version of its Outlook program. Third-party programs have them as well. But in Tiger, they can now be created right on the desktop, to capture many kinds of files, with no added software needed.
The only drawback is that you can’t directly turn a Spotlight search into a Smart Folder, and desktop Smart Folders can’t include some of the file types Spotlight can retrieve, including e-mails. Apple has added a separate Smart Folder feature to its built-in e-mail program.
Web Browsing: Apple’s built-in Safari Web browser was already better than Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, and in Tiger it is now much faster and has some great new features.
One is called Private Browsing, which allows you, with two clicks, to enter a mode where the browser doesn’t save most traces of which Web sites you visited.
Another is a built-in RSS reader. This function, usually found only in separate software programs, displays summaries of the latest headlines for items posted to many news sites and Web logs, or blogs. In Safari, these can be viewed right from within the browser, in pages that are formatted handsomely and can be sorted in various ways. Tiger even includes a screen saver that displays the latest headlines Safari has retrieved.
Security: The Mac already had a key security feature missing in Windows. On a Mac, most software installations require the ID and password of the computer’s owner. That makes it harder for digital criminals to carry out the kind of surreptitious software installations that place spyware on computers.
In Tiger, this has been ratcheted up a notch. When you download anything from the Internet using the Safari browser or Apple Mail program, Tiger examines the download for hidden application programs and warns if one is present. Unless the user approves the download, Tiger won’t save it to disk in a form that allows the application to open.
In addition, Tiger seeks the user’s permission any time any application program is run for the first time.
Automation: A new feature called Automator allows nonprogrammers to string together common tasks to automate them. For instance, you could create an automated sequence that would play certain songs, or retrieve and change certain photos. It’s a nice idea, but I found it too complicated for most average users.
In addition to the delay problem, I found one other small thing lacking in Tiger. The new version of Apple Mail, while sleeker looking, offers less information on what is happening in downloads of new mail, unless you bring up a special window.
Still, Tiger is a beautiful and powerful operating system that advances personal computing. It is a big gain for Mac users right out of the box. If Apple can wring out the delays, it will be a home run.
Write to Walter S. Mossberg at email@example.com.