Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger review

Version 10.4 has finally arrived. Is it worth the upgrade?

Apple's latest OS heralds an era of 64-bit computing

TechRadar Verdict

Tiger is a solid upgrade that brings a good range of improvements. Spotlight and Dashboard are the stars


  • +

    Snappier feel



    Improved Safari

    Better Mail client


  • -

    No upgrade deal

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There's no doubt that Tiger has been one of the most keenly anticipated upgrades for the Mac, ever since it was announced and previewed almost a year ago by Steve Jobs. Since then Mac fans have been clamouring to get their paws on the big stripy cat.

The new OS comes in the now-familiar Apple OS software box but is distributed on DVD only. Those who don't have a SuperDrive or a Combo drive will have to ask Apple for a CD version, which will set you back an extra £11.99.

Installing Tiger is breeze. It takes roughly 20 minutes for the complete operation and no product activation is required, as is the case with Microsoft's Windows XP. During the time taken to install you can peruse your way through the slim colour booklet that comes in the box and bone up on all of Tiger's exciting new features - there are over 200 of them in all.

If you're really interested you can find an exhaustive list at com/macosx/newfeatures/ over200.html

Oddly enough, with so many new features in 10.4 you'd expect the interface to look a little different. However, apart from a slightly bluer Apple in the top-left corner and the addition of a small blue Spotlight icon in the top-right menu bar, there's little to indicate that Apple's latest OS is a major upgrade.

It belies the fact that it heralds an era of 64-bit computing, new core graphics and audio, as well as delicious eye-candy in the form of Dashboard's Widgets.

Painless upgrading

Upgrading to Tiger is a painless process, and we installed it on four different Macs to check compatibility. On each one Tiger behaved impeccably. However, to be certain that things go smoothly we'd recommend that you repair disk permissions both before and after installation.

Once you're up and running Tiger sets about indexing the entire contents of your Mac's hard drive so that the new Spotlight feature will be able to find almost anything on your Mac. Indexing can take anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours. Once the index has been built you can type any text in the Spotlight window and almost instantly any file that includes the search term will be listed in a Spotlight window.

Just click on any file to open it and away you go. If you're the sort of person who has separate drawers for socks and T-shirts then Spotlight may not be too useful. On the other hand, if your bedroom floor is strewn with clothes and muddles, this new addition will soon be your best friend.

It works like a charm and really can find almost anything on your Mac. Even the tidiest and most organised among us occasionally mislay or lose things, so Spotlight will be a firm favourite with most Mac owners.

Tiger's other visible new feature is Dashboard. Looking remarkably like the Konfabulator shareware application, this feature brings forth a series of handy little panels called Widgets. These accessories are available by pressing [F12] on your keyboard and the Widgets instantly appear, floating over the Desktop. You can consult and then dismiss the Widgets by clicking on the screen and returning to your work.

Tiger currently ships with some basic Widgets that include a calculator, weather forecaster, dictionary and translator. There are a few others including a Yellow Pages directory and Stock ticker, but these two only work on American addresses or companies; it's a case of Sherlock all over again. However, developing Widgets is easy (according to Apple) so expect to see some useful little Widget websites very soon.

Is Dashboard really useful? Well it's certainly pretty but we think it's of limited use at the moment. The translator, for instance, has a few flaws. We tested the English to German version and found that the word suggested for "butterfly" was a "Basisrecheneinheit" which another dictionary told us was "automatic calling and/or answering equipment". Hmm... obviously something's not quite right there.

Also, adding and deleting Widgets seems a bit cack-handed and we couldn't find any way of turning off Dashboard. Make no mistake, Dashboard is fun and pretty, but its usefulness has yet to be proved. As they say: "The jury is still out."

64-bit brilliance

As a 64-bit operating system, Tiger can now address oodles of RAM. You're no longer limited to a 2GB limit on memory intensive applications. This, of course, is little concern to the majority of us who have less than 2GB of RAM, but for video or music producers it could really speed things up.

In performance terms, Tiger definitely feels snappier than Panther. Finder has been tightened up, although the continued appearance of the spinning beachball of death leads us to believe that Apple still hasn't made the Finder application multi-threaded.

That's a bit of a disappointment as the beachball is one of the biggest bugbears in OS X. At the core of the new OS are a number of major changes to the core graphics and audio code. It's all low-level stuff but it will pave the way for increasingly sophisticated multimedia applications.

You probably won't notice much difference at this stage, but the rewrite of QuickTime does lift the video quality a notch. And the adoption of the new H.264 video codec will make iChat sessions with an iSight clearer and enable three-way video meetings on a really impressive 3D stage, providing you know two other people who also own an iSight.

Tiger's 200 new features are too many to list, but there are a few that we think are worthy of a special mention. Firstly, the new Mail client is much improved. The interface, its speed and the filing system are much better.

The integration of Spotlight also means you can search the content of all your emails in an instant. It's great if you receive emails with bland or non-descriptive subject lines. Unfortunately, Spotlight doesn't index Entourage emails yet, but that should be put right soon.

Safari also gets a major upgrade with a faster rendering engine and the inclusion of RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feeds. This produces a listed digest of content from websites such as BBC News that publish an RSS feed.

Also making a first appearance in Safari is Private Browser. This switches off history, caching, search terms and even autofill for the period it's switched on. It means someone can visit websites without leaving a trail of where they visited. Of course, an ISP will still have records of which sites have been visited, so if you think it gives people a free rein to visit illegal sites, think again.

There are plenty of other features and it is worth visiting Apple's website to see them all.

Overall, we think Tiger has earned its stripes but the upgrade fee is a bit steep. It would have been nice if Apple offered a half-price upgrade to registered Panther owners. You don't need to upgrade to Tiger but we think that once you do you'll enjoy the improvements. Mark Sparrow was the former name of Its staff were at the forefront of the digital publishing revolution, and spearheaded the move to bring consumer technology journalism to its natural home – online. Many of the current TechRadar staff started life a staff writer, covering everything from the emerging smartphone market to the evolving market of personal computers. Think of it as the building blocks of the TechRadar you love today.