Tiger, the latest upgrade to Mac OS X, is preparing to pounce in early 2005, and it's already shown some of its stripes.

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The next major update to OS X, Tiger, has a lot in common with its predecessors, Jaguar and Panther - from its feline-inspired nickname to the promised addition of 150 new features and enhancements. But in one key area, Tiger represents a departure - it

With Apple slowing down the rapid pace of OS X's development, Tiger is expected to ship sometime during the first half of 2005. Still, Tiger isn't completely shrouded in mystery. Apple has already revealed some of the improvements Tiger will offer.

1. Spotlight: Searching's new focus

Apple plans to integrate the ease of iTunes-style searches throughout Tiger. The system-wide search feature - dubbed Spotlight - promises to look through documents, Mail messages, iCal calendar items, Address Book contacts, and other files, producing search results as quickly as you can type in queries.

Tiger adds a magnifying-glass icon to the far right corner of the menu bar. Click on it, and a drop-down search field similar to the one in iTunes appears. As you type your query, a live list of search results appears, with results sorted by type (Mail messages, PDF documents, and HTML files, for example).

Spotlight searches aren't confined to file names. Because Spotlight looks at information about your files and any text contained within them, it can search based on who created a file, who modified it and when, file-type, and even individual words in a document. All your files are indexed in the background, so there aren't annoying pauses when you type in searches.

Spotlight searching appears in other parts of Tiger, too. Take System Preferences, which replaces the old list of toolbar icons with a search field. Type in a keyword and a drop-down list of related preferences appears. At the same time, the relevant preference pane is highlighted. For example, a search for Screensaver will highlight the Desktop and Screen Saver icon. Search terms don't need to be exact - if you search for Wallpaper, for example, Spotlight will recognize what preference pane you're searching for and highlight its icon.

The Finder's search field will also undergo a Spotlight-powered renovation. In addition to the usual searches for file names, you can search by keyword -- the kind of file, the date it was last viewed or modified, and other properties. You can even search for multiple properties - say, every PDF you've viewed in the past week.

A Save button in the Finder lets you save search results based on specific criteria into Smart Folders. Much like Smart Playlists in iTunes, Smart Folders update in real time whenever you add or remove documents. Mail and Address Book add similar functionality, with Smart Mailboxes and Smart Groups, respectively.

2. Unix enhancements: Bits with bite

Many changes in Tiger will take place below the surface, in the Unix kernel, in the Unix user space, and in the OS X development environment. These additions won't wow you as much as Spotlight will, but they're among the most important improvements you'll find in Tiger. They include 64-bit memory addressing, which will give support for 64-bit applications. 32-bit applications will get a boost thanks to general improvements in the OS' code.

XGrid Tiger will include XGrid software that distributes complex tasks among a number of networked machines. This addition should lead to more applications designed to take advantage of networked Macs for CPU-intensive operations.

In Tiger, you'll be able to use Access Control Lists (ACL) to set permissions - any file or folder can have an associated ACL. For example, an associated ACL would allow you to give your spouse access to your Pictures folder, without going through complex group or permissions tricks.

3. Dashboard: Meet the widgets

Harking back to the early days of Mac OS, Dashboard mixes the classic Mac's Desk Accessories with OS X's Exposé and then adds a dash of Web savvy, to create a completely separate layer of the Mac interface.

Don't expect to do your word processing or spreadsheet calculations in Dashboard - the programs that live there are meant to be tiny. But smaller tasks that should get in your face only for a few seconds (for instance, the Desk Accessories you used to stash in your Apple menu back in the day, such as Calculator and Scrapbook) are ripe for Dashboard.

Perhaps Dashboard's cleverest feature is how it integrates with Safari. Essentially, Dashboard applications are floating Safari windows. They can be designed with HTML, Cascading Style Sheets, and Web graphics (in GIF, JPEG, and PNG formats, among others). To program widgets, developers can use JavaScript, the common language of Web-page programming. And since widgets are basically Web-page windows, developers could also embed content via Flash or QuickTime.

4. .Mac Sync: In sync, system-wide

Tiger's entrance marks iSync's exit; Apple is dropping future development of the synchronization utility. But that doesn't mean an end to synchronizing data with your mobile phone, PDA, or .Mac account. In fact, Apple plans to integrate synchronization right into Tiger.

Much of Tiger's synchronization features work through .Mac, Apple's subscription-based bundle of Internet services. Consider it Apple's way of giving you more reasons to spend £69 a year for a .Mac account. But syncing in Tiger doesn't end with .Mac.

Unlike iSync, Tiger's synchronization engine is open to the rest of the software world. Users of third-party address books, calendaring applications, and the like can rejoice - if the developer of your particular program adds support for Tiger's new synchronization engine, you'll be able to sync your data with anything the synchronization engine can talk to.

5. iChat av: Three's company

iChat AV allowed far-flung OS X 10.3 users to chat face-to-face. With its updated version of iChat, Tiger will make sure that more Mac users can join in the conversation.

The instant-messaging application first introduced in Jaguar received audio and videoconferencing capabilities in Panther. But those chat sessions were limited to one-on-one conversations. iChat's boundaries expand in Tiger - audio chats can now include as many as ten people, and videoconferences are expanding to include a total of four users.

Videoconferencing will get a substantial visual overhaul. The interface offers a three-dimensional view, with the two video screens on either end tilted inward toward the third video screen in the middle. The image of each chat participant is reflected beneath their screens, in a look that Apple says is reminiscent of a conference-room table. However, Mac users of a certain age might notice more than a passing resemblance to the Council of Elders scene from the opening of Superman.

6. Automator: AppleScript for everybody

You may not know anything about it yet, but trust us - Tiger's new Automator feature will save you a lot of time by handling all of the dull, repetitive tasks currently weighing you down.

In some ways, Automator is AppleScript for people who can't even look at the word AppleScript without breaking into a sweat. AppleScript has always been a fantastic way to create little programs that perform repetitive tasks, but to benefit from that automation, you had to write AppleScript code - too much to ask of most users.

With Automator, you use a drag-&-drop interface to build a flow chart. By building up a series of actions, you can create a complex series of tasks that incorporate various Mac programs.

Once an action is in the Workflow window, you can set options that define exactly what that action will do. Then, you can run it, and save it for when you have to perform the same task again.

7. Core image, video: Hard-core graphics

Previous versions of OS X introduced Core Audio and Core MIDI - underlying sound technologies, built-in at the system level, that allow for faster and easier ways to work with sound. Tiger does the same trick, but with sight, not sound. The updated operating system has two new technologies that make powerful tools available to users throughout the system - Core Image and Core Video.

Core Image and Core Video take advantage of the fast memory and powerful GPUs of today's speedy video cards. Tiger's Core technologies give developers easier access to pixel-level effects than they had in previous versions of OS X while offering a new way to create such effects.

By relying on the video card, Core Image and Core Video can quickly apply filters using floating-point calculations to produce detailed and accurate colour without taxing your Mac's processor.

8. Safari 2.0: Safari, summarized

RSS - that's Rich Site Summary or Really Simple Syndication, depending on who you ask - has simplified many a Web surfer's life. So it makes sense that Safari 2.0, arriving with Tiger, would add support for RSS feeds. After all, Safari's entire raison d'être is to streamline browsing.

RSS technology lets Web publishers generate small text files containing basic information about Web content. When it's paired with a program that can process RSS files - such as an RSS reader like Ranchero Software's NetNewsWire (www.ranchero.com) - RSS can radically change the way you deal with information on the Internet, by giving you a summary of all the latest news and information on your favourite RSS-friendly Web sites.

The new Safari RSS feature integrates RSS right into Safari itself, bringing the strengths of RSS to a bunch of users who may not otherwise know that RSS exists.

You can also view more than one feed at a time, creating your own personal channels full of news stories from The New York Times, BBC, and ESPN Web sites, for example.

Apple has added an RSS search box, similar to the Google search box, to Safari 2.0. Type a query into the RSS search box, and Safari will search the contents of all your bookmarked RSS feeds. It's a quick way to find information on a topic without having to scour the entire Web.

But RSS isn't all that's new in Safari 2.0. The Start Private Browsing command under the Safari menu basically makes Safari black out, forgetting everything that it's doing while you're browsing privately. So the pages you visit, and the passwords you type in won't be cached while you browse privately.

Fans of Microsoft Internet Explorer's excellent Web Archive feature, which lets you save a Web page (including embedded images) to disk, will be happy to know that Safari 2.0 will let you save out Web archive files as well. Using this feature, you can store old Web pages on your own computer and view them safely even if the Web site that posted those pages disappears forever.

9. h.264: Highly defined

OS X's big picture is about to get a whole lot sharper, as the new H.264/AVC video codec, appears in Tiger.

Also known as MPEG-4 Part 10, the H.264 codec produces extremely high-quality video at relatively low data rates. In fact, the DVD Forum - the trade association that brought you the DVD - has adopted H.264 as a video format for the upcoming HD DVD standard (along with MPEG-2 and Windows Media Video 9's VC-9 technology).

H.264 can reproduce full 1080i high-definition content at roughly the same data rate - 7 to 9Mbps - as today's standard-definition DVDs, because the codec is much more efficient and intelligent than MPEG-2 compression.

Another benefit to H.264 is its scalability; it works as well for content on 3G phones at 50 to 160 Kbps as it does for HD content. So content creators can choose different settings to make different versions of video by using only one codec.

As part of Tiger's QuickTime multimedia architecture, the H.264 codec is available to applications that are based on QuickTime, such as Final Cut Pro and iMovie - so you'll be able to export your movies directly, using H.264. The new codec will be used for iChat AV and should allow for much better image quality without increasing bandwidth requirements.

10. Voiceover: The last word

Unlike other features debuting in Tiger, VoiceOver actually appeared to Mac users long before Steve Jobs gave the world a first look at the updated OS during the Worldwide Developers Conference in June.

Earlier in 2004, Apple announced a new technology -- then called Spoken Interface -- that would combine speech, audible cues, and keyboard navigation to help people with visual impairments work easily with OS X. The company planned to add this functionality to the next major update of its operating system.

VoiceOver is part of OS X's Universal Access features, and it's integrated into the OS's interface, giving you another way to access your Mac. With VoiceOver, you can have Web pages, Mail messages, and word processing documents read aloud; you can also get audible description of your workspace as well as any activities taking place on the Mac.

One voice can provide every description, or you can opt to assign unique and personalized voices to the six different types of information - commands, content, item descriptions, item types, spoken menus, or echoed text - that VoiceOver provides.

VoiceOver also offers keyboard commands for navigating through OS X's interface or controlling application and system commands. A new tool called viewfinder lets you control what the Mac says and lets you interact with items on screen via just your keyboard. Using VoiceOver, you can press buttons, drag sliders, select and deselect options, scroll, and operate other on-screen controls that would otherwise require a mouse.