Having become something of an Apple convert, I decided it was high-time I made a pilgrimage to the Apple store in London, so last weekend that’s what I did. It was also a good excuse to see Star Wars Episode III on the digital screen in Leicester Square, but this is yet-another-OS X-Tiger-review, not yet-another-Revenge-of-the-Sith-review! Let’s just say that anyone who claims that it’s better than the first two prequels is not wrong, but it’s a sad state of affairs when you’re out-acted by CGI creations (Christensen, McGregor I’m looking at you).
The Apple store is a fairly long way down Regent Street from Leicester Square, but worth a visit because it’s exactly how an Apple store should be i.e. it’s stylish and packed full of wonderful toys to play with. For example, I marvelled at how big the metal case of the G5 is and how cool it was that you can see the front fan through the meshing. I swooned over the Apple Cinema Displays, which give about four times the desktop of my humble 12” PowerBook. I was overwhelmed by the wall of iPod accessories that confronted me and then I went to pick up a copy of OS X 10.4 Tiger. And this is where things started to go a bit wrong and the experience turned sour.
I joined the moderately-sized queue to pay for my purchase and waited to be served. And waited. And waited. And waited. There were initially three sales assistants serving, but I’m sure Apple have a less prosaic title for these employees. Then one of them decided to go and do something else and we were left with two assistants. One person was discussing something with a customer, whilst another one seemed to be having great difficulty working out how much to charge for a Mac mini. I could have told him.
Meanwhile, I spotted three other members of staff hanging around looking jolly and chatting to each other. One of them looked to be in a more senior position, so I kept eyeballing him and tried to use Jedi mind tricks to get him to open another till, but the Force was strong with him and it didn’t work. After waiting for twenty minutes I tossed the Tiger box onto the counter and walked off in disgust. I felt so let down that I’ve dispatched a letter of complaint to the manager of the store. I pointed out that prestige brands bring with them a certain expectation about levels of service, so we shall see what comes of that. Anything less than Steve Jobs himself personally delivering a dual-processor G5 to me will be a further disappointment.
After the store fiasco I ordered my Tiger from trusty Amazon UK and it promptly arrived and I installed it. I like the way there’s one disc for both a full install and an upgrade, and I thought the price was quite reasonable at £74.99. Apple also sell family packs of five licences which is a good idea that Microsoft would do well to copy. It’s really nice the way the install boots from the DVD and you get a nice proper graphical installer. Far better than Windows XP which I believe still copies the installation files to your hard disk first and still has a nasty old text mode portion of setup, which Windows NT has had since 1993. What’s not so nice about the Mac package is the cheap paper sleeve that the DVD comes in.
When installing a new version of Windows I always go for the full install, but seeing as how my Mac is still quite new and doesn’t have a great deal on it yet, I opted to try the upgrade. However, I did pick the custom install option because I’d remembered reading that by default it installs 1.2 GB of printer drivers, which seems excessive—particularly as I don’t have a printer! It also insisted on installing lots of foreign language support and wouldn’t let me not do this, presumably because my Panther install had come like this and the feature couldn’t be removed, only upgraded.
Everything went well and after nearly an hour I had successfully upgraded to Tiger! Spotlight indexed my disk in about three minutes—told you there wasn’t much on it yet—and my Dashboard widgets zoomed into view just like the promo movie showed they would. Unlike others I quite like the default set of Tiger widgets, particularly the beautiful weather one. Overall, I was impressed again by the Apple experience.
The overall system performance doesn’t seem to have suffered as a result of doing an upgrade rather than starting from scratch and many have observed that OS X actually gets faster with each release, which is quite a feat. To be honest, I haven’t used Tiger enough to be able to comment on that yet. The Safari Web browser is noticeably faster though and is now my favourite browser. Talking of Safari, a major new feature is its integrated support for RSS feeds, but I don’t really understand this because I use a Web browser to…browse Web pages and an RSS reader to…read RSS feeds.
OS X is still very much a work in progress because Apple can never resist fiddling with things that you might previously have been happy with. For example, the Apple menu item in the top left-hand corner has changed colour and now implements Fitts’s Law, and the Mail application introduces another user interface style that breaks Apple’s own guidelines—a decision that has met with near-universal disdain. It’s a good job I don’t use it. The ability to place frequently used System Preferences in the System Preferences window toolbar has been taken away and replaced with a Spotlight search box, which is actually incredibly accurate no matter what you throw at it. For example typing “wallpaper”, “image” or “background” will all highlight the Desktop & Screen-Saver icon which is what you go to to change your desktop wallpaper. The ability to save Spotlight queries as Smart Folders seems like a great idea until you consider how they could have been implemented and realise that Apple could have been a bit cleverer on this one.
One of the new Mac OS X 10.4 features that most intrigues me is the Automator application, probably because I thought of a similar idea for the PC years ago. It was when I’d just discovered how useful batch scripts could be and I thought it would be great to have a program that would let non-programmers achieve similar things just by dragging basic building blocks around and connecting them together and setting a few properties on them. Nothing came of that idea because I didn’t know enough then about software component technology and because it seemed like it would be a major project to undertake. Anyway, Automator looks like a perfect implementation of what I envisaged. So the Mac now has two superb automation solutions: AppleScript and Automator.
One feature of Tiger that I didn’t anticipate was that it would break my Wi-Fi network. As Panther did before it, it found and joined the network automatically and the signal strength even seems to be improved. However, I wasn’t able to access the Internet at all. According to the network status I was connected to the Internet via AirPort but Safari simply couldn’t find any websites. Then I went to my PC to verify that it wasn’t a network problem and that couldn’t access any sites either! Whichever site I tried, Firefox said that it couldn’t be found, which suggested a DNS problem to me. After rebooting the router, I regained Internet connectivity on the Windows XP box. Trying from the Mac broke it again. Interesting.
I tried disabling all Wi-Fi security but that didn’t help. I ran the Mac’s Internet connection troubleshooter and that didn’t help either. As far as Tiger was concerned it was part of my Wi-Fi network and could access the Internet. Then I started to root around on the Web for the answer and found a couple of possibilities, the first of which solved my problem. It appears that Apple have changed some aspect of the way networking works in Tiger and that it’s now necessary to specify your ISP’s primary and secondary DNS server IP addresses in the connection’s TCP/IP properties. This fixed the problem for me and all was well again. If that doesn’t work then try changing the host name to a name that’s six characters or less and with no spaces.
This gripe aside, I think that Tiger is a compelling upgrade with a great number of worthwhile features, some of which are a bit buried. An example would be the new slideshow function in the Finder for previewing groups of pictures. What I particularly like is that it improves on the same Windows XP feature because it allows you to view pictures as an index sheet. It’s this sort of thinking that leads me to conclude that the gap between OS X and Windows continues to widen. Microsoft have an increasingly daunting task on their hands, not only to get Windows Longhorn out of the door but to wrestle the crown of best personal computer operating system in the world from Apple’s OS X. The next few years are going to be very interesting.