OS X 10.4 (Tiger) has been officially available since April 29th. I've been lucky enough, thanks to a developer seed, to have been testing various builds for a couple of months. In that time, there are a number of things I've grown to love about Tiger (and a number I dislike, though those will come in a future write-up). With over 200 new features, I thought I'd try to pick out the 10 that I've liked the best so far.
Note that these are observations about OS X 10.4 only. Sometime I'll write a longer story discussing OS X in general, both what I like and dislike. But for now, here are my ten favorite 10.4 features...
- Apple's much-improved Mail program. From the toolbar buttons (yes, I like the jellybean shape behind the buttons, too) to the subtly colored mailbox panel to Smart Folders to the speedy Spotlight searching, the new Mail's a winner.
- System Profiler. In previous OS X releases, this tool was good, but not great. Now it's great. Information on just about everything to do with your system is but a couple of mouse clicks away. From graphics cards to displays to FireWire to USB devices to memory to PCI cards to printers to networking gear; even programs, extensions, fonts, and logs are detailed here. Very well done, and very useful when you want to know something about your machine.
- The free Developer Tools. No, I didn't suddenly become a programmer overnight. But some of the pre-compiled sample
toystools they provide are amazing. To name just a few that are fun to play with (on machines with better video cards), check out Core Image Fun House, Quartz Composer, and Quartz Debug, which will let you enable Quartz 2D Extreme (a way to accelerate drawing of 2D windows by using a 3D graphics card). Also, even non-programmers can use Interface Builder to tweak some elements of certain applications.
- Core Image and Core Video. It may be a while before we really see the benefits of these features in OS X, but it will be worth the wait. Giving programmers an easy way to utilize newer 3D graphics cards will eventually lead to some amazing applications. See previous entry for one example of what can be done (Core Image Fun House).
- H.264. This QuickTime 7 codec (also available in 10.3) does amazing things for video compression. Jeff Harrell's Shape of Days blog has a couple of demonstrations (1, 2) of H.264 encoding, and the results are pretty impressive. In a nutshell, H.264 gives much higher quality (and/or size) at similar or lower bit rates than does MPEG4.
- DVD Player. The DVD Player in OS X has always struck me as somewhat of an afterthought -- kind of like "Ah crud, we're shipping machines that have DVD drives now. Quick, someone come up with something that can play a DVD movie!" With 10.4, this shortcoming has been addressed. The DVD Player application has gained cool new features, including a high-quality zoom mode, an audio equalizer, control controls, and a slick new DVD navigator. Numerous other features have helped turn DVD Player into a very well done application.
- Automator. While Spotlight and Dashboard seem to get the most marketing attention from Apple, I think Automator is the real hidden gem. With very little work, it's now possible to put together Automator actions that do incredibly useful things. And if that's still too tough, there are places where you can download already-created Automator actions: Apple's Automator scripts • Automator World
- The built-in dictionary and thesaurus. It is so nice not to have to go to the web or my (gasp!) bookshelf to check a definition on an odd word, or to find a synonym for a too-often used word. Of course, it'd be much nicer if it worked in every application (like Word), instead of just Cocoa and some Carbon applications. Still, it's very useful, and great to have access to even when you don't have a net connection.
- Dashboard. While barely making my list, Dashboard is a potentially useful (and fun!) addition to OS X. I find it most useful, though, with the Development Mode hack enabled, of course. This lets you pull widgets out of Dashboard so they float above your normal desktop. There are widgets that I want to see all the time, not just when in Dashboard mode. I keep a couple (calculator, stocks) visible at all times, and use the rest sparingly. I've yet to find a truly useful third-party widget, but more and more are coming every day. You can keep your eye on a couple spots for new releases: Apple's Dashboard Widgets(May 12: 151 widgets) • Dashboard Widgets (May 12: 270 widgets)
- All the small touches that go mostly unnoticed, but make computing much easier. Sidebar items now have contextual menus ... a docked application's contextual menu now has easy to use "Open at Login" and "Remove from Dock" options ... Java applications run much, much faster than they do in 10.3 ... improved sync services ... modifiable modifier keys, without third-party software ... the notable improvements in the Printing and Sharing preferences panel ... firewall logging features ... parental controls (judging by our nearly-two-year old, I'll need these sooner rather than later!) ... etc. There are a lot of subtle improvements hiding all over 10.4, and they really help enhance the user experience.
Overall, I'm thrilled with Tiger. There are certainly some areas that feel a bit rushed, but it's a very solid release with a ton of useful new features. This is supposedly the end of the "quick release" schedule for major OS X updates, which means that more and more of the Mac population will eventually be migrating to a member of the 10.4 family, as 10.5 is some unknown number of years away. Given that, I think it's a fine starting point, and can only get better from here...