Tiger's Tale

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Though they only constitute one out of every 33 computer owners, Mac users have long held a reputation for acting smugly superior to their Windows brethren. And with the release next week of Apple's latest operating system software, Tiger ($129), they'll have good reason. Tiger is the fourth and easily the most significant upgrade to Mac OS X (following Puma, Jaguar and Panther). Its main selling point, a desktop search application called Spotlight, is similar to a feature Microsoft is touting in its next Windows release, Longhorn—which won't be out for at least another year. And that's not all. Here's what you get if you put a Tiger in your digital tank:


Trying to find your stuff is one of the major headaches of modern computing, especially if you're looking for something buried in the text, rather than the title, of a long-lost file. Spotlight, a small window that pops up at the top of your screen, takes care of that. Not only is it super fast (you're already getting results when you type in the first few letters of your search term), but it looks through absolutely everything: email messages, contacts, the information attached to digital photos, even a page you scanned in or a map you downloaded from the web. As an encore, Spotlight guesses which file you're most likely to want, based on how often the search term crops up in it and how recently you looked at it, and offers that at the top of the list.


Widgets is a word guaranteed to excite only engineers. But that's what Apple calls the components of Dashboard, a collection of customizable and incredibly useful widgets, each of which materialize on your desktop with a soothing ripple effect and look good enough to lick. There's a widget that tracks your chosen stock prices, a widget that translates any word into one of a dozen languages, widgets that converts currency, weights and measures, and a widget that searches the entire Oxford American dictionary and Thesaurus (which also ships with Tiger). Widgets do all the workaday stuff of the web—local weather, flight times, Yellow Pages—without you having to boot up a browser or remember a web address. Dashboard starts with 14 widgets; the idea is that amateur programmers will create hundreds more once Tiger gets up and running. (Windows users can begin to get the widget experience by downloading Konfabulator.)


Got a humdrum task you need to do over and over? Want to tell your computer to download all mom's emails to your iPod? Automator makes such jobs, well, automatic. One window (searchable with Spotlight) displays all tasks your various applications can do. Drag and drop them in order into another window, and presto—you're programming without the need to learn a scary computer language.


In Tiger's upgrade of the Mac's stellar instant messaging program, you can now have voice chats with up to ten other users at the same time (which is better than most confusing conference calls, since iChat keeps track of the last person who spoke). You can also video conference with up to three other users with an iSight camera. Tiger's new high-definition video technology makes for the smoothest video chat yet. The other participants appear on what looks like the inner walls of a 3-D cube, with their reflections on the floor. You can invite PC users with webcams to play, too, but what they see won't be nearly as cool. So there's one more opportunity for Mac owners to practice their smug superiority, up close and personal.