With each update the OS X, there have been impressive steps forward in underlying technology. And, so far, 10.4 is no exception.
The speed increase is the first thing that stuck me. I never considered 10.3 slow, but I do now! General system work, be it scrolling, opening windows, or navigating the folders of the hard drive, all seem more responsive… just plain faster.
Some applications launch substantially faster. MS Entourage now seems to even render the email messages faster. Granted, all of these observations are non-scientific, since I never timed these tasks under 10.3. But that also shows how much more pronounced the improvements would need to be in order to stand out as they have following the update to 10.4.
The first thing I noticed after finishing the install of 10.4 was the high processor usage. To the average user, this might not even be noticeable since the system was still very responsive. But, I have come to rely on MenuMeters. It adds a processor graph to my menu bar, along with a graph of network throughput and memory usage. Investigating the increase in processor usage showed me that Spotlight was already indexing my hard drive.
Spotlight, new in 10.4, is a full text indexing service that scans the entire hard drive. It is similar to the standard Find File we have all used, but Spotlight actually searches inside of files allowing us to not only search for keywords in a files name, but now keywords inside of the file itself. And all of this is done lightning quick, once the drive is initially indexed. Mine took about 30 minutes to scan about 80GB of data after first installing 10.4.
Also new in 10.4 is Dashboard. It is an interface for what Apple calls Widgets. A blatant rip-off of a long-standing Mac product called Konfabulator, Apple has made the product its own by adding it to 10.4.
Dashboard lets us add Widgets to our desktop. Widgets can do just about anything from show a graph of the wireless signal over time, to display the 7 day weather forecast, or even show you the status of commercial airline flights. And, possibly as impressive, these Widgets just look cool! They are sleek and high-tech looking. According to Apple, they are also easy to develop so there should be cool new Widgets circulating the net any day now.
File Sharing has become more refined and well thought out in 10.4. Simple and subtle changes include the removal of some less understood preferences. And, of course, SMB volumes on Windows servers mount as easily as Mac shared volumes. This will be key as Apple is always working to get Macs better integrated into traditionally Windows based networks.
Now more refined and logical, the Sharing Preference Pane finally offers greater control over the built in Firewall. We now have the ability to put the OS in Stealth Mode making it undetectable to a number of remote probing techniques. We can also now block UDP traffic as well as log Firewall activity.
A Spotlight icon has been added to the right side of the menu bar. It can also be accessed via the Apple+Space shortcut keys. This makes it easy to activate Spotlight and immediately begin typing what you are searching for. The shortcut key combination can be modified in the Spotlight Preference Pane.
Also new to the Preference Panes are options to remap key system keys to make it easier to use your Mac with PC formatted keyboards. For those who have never plugged a PC USB keyboard into their Mac, the Windows key is located where the Option key is on the Mac, and the Alt key is located where the Command key should be. Now it is easy to swap they keys mappings by simply modifying the preference.
New Security options include the ability to Secure Virtual Memory. So far, I have not found any documentation describing exactly what this is intended for. I am assuming that it hashes or encrypts the Virtual Memory data that it caches to the hard drive in order to make it impervious to hackers. Given Apple’s commitment to making the Mac the most secure personal computing platform, it is reassuring to see them taking it to such a technical level.
One oddity is that new screenshots are now saved in .PNG format rather than .PDF. I was partial to the 10.3’s PDF format, so I am puzzled at the switch to PNG. PNG is a powerful format, but it has never really caught on since it is not supported by all of the major browser engines. I am hoping there will be a way to switch back to PDF as a standard format in the future.
All in all, there are a lot of reasons to upgrade to 10.4 Tiger. There are, however, some things to watch out for. First of all, make sure that all of your favorite applications are compatible prior to upgrading. In most cases this will not be an issue, but if you use system-modifying applications like Default Folder X or LiteSwitch, you will want to be sure to uninstall them prior to updating if you want to avoid any undo issues. It is likely that updates will be out for each of the applications in due time. As I write this, St. Clair Software has already released a 10.4 compatible updated to Default Folder. In coming weeks, rest assured that other updates will come as well.
Also be sure there are 10.4 compatible drivers for your printers. I and very fond of my Brother MFC-210c, but I can no longer print since updating to 10.4. Brother tech support informs me that new drivers should be available in 4-6 weeks. This is an inconvenience to me at home, but a major hurdle at the office. For some people, it might be a reason to delay to update all together. But, that being said, 10.4 ships with an record setting number of supported printer drivers as part of the default install.
For now, I say why wait. There is enough of a performance increase with 10.4 to motivate the update, even without all of the new features. As always, be sure to do a complete system backup prior to the update. In my experience, the updates have gone smoothly, but it is better to be safe than sorry!