Mac OS X 10.4 'Tiger' in depth
Part One: Spotlight and Widgets
Review I've been running Mac OS X 'Tiger' since the day after its release, on 29 April. At the time, hundreds of reviews of the operating system were published, but I didn't want to be a part of the herd, since many of them were little more than lists of the new features. I wanted to spend some more time with Tiger before getting off the fence.
So did The Register's Andrew Orlowski, and you can read his thoughts on some of Tiger's key components here.
Over the coming weeks, I'll be looking at 10.4's new features in depth, and exploring what Apple's done with some of the older components that have been evolving right from Mac OS X's Public Beta release, such as AppleScript, and the utilities bundled with the system software.
Spotlight is a work of genius. I first saw Spotlight demo'd by Apple, and it was incredibly fast, clearly by virtue of having been suitably configured beforehand. At home, on a much slower system, and launched fresh, it's rather less rapid. Over time, though, it picks up speed, and you can help it along by opening as many of your old files as possible, allowing it to incorporate their metadata and content indexes into its database.
As someone who began using computers long before the advent of built-in hard drives, this notion of replicating data - copying what's already in each file into another file - makes me twitch. It seems a terrible waste of storage. But we live in an era of machines with hundreds of gigabytes of storage, so who but me is going to mind? And since it's in part what gives Spotlight its speed, perhaps I shouldn't either. With its own database, it only has to look in one place to generate the results list. It's also tied into 10.4's kernel-level file handling code, so whenever files are read or written, Spotlight's database is updated. Modify a file, save it, and it appears straight away in Spotlight's listing.
Spotlight is not only quick, but it works, and works well. Sure, there's no indication of whether a document contains one mention of the word 'fintlewoodlewix' or a hundred - results are listed by name, file-type or modification date - but what information it does provide was usually sufficient to jog my memory as to the document's relevance. The way Spotlight ties in with so many applications, and how it highlights the search string within the file is impressive - though it only works in certain, Spotlight-savvy apps like Apple's own Preview.
I like the way images can be presented as a slideshow, though the Exposé-style thumbnail code proved a little slow on my 867MHz PowerBook G4. I originally decided I wanted this feature to be directly available at the folder level, in Finder, as it is in Windows. But then I started using Spotlight's own folder view - selected with Command-Shift-Space, or by selecting Show All from the Spotlight menu's search results list - more and realised that Finder is now almost redundant.
Start your machine, fire up Spotlight's own window and you can whenever you need to open a file, you get Spotlight to find it. There's o need to know where you saved it last time, no need to navigate through folder hierarchies - it's just there.
As an aside, I should point out that I'm sufficiently anal to have a folder hierarchy, with documents filed accordingly. By and large, I know where files are going to be, so Spotlight, for me, is so far of relatively little direct use. Contrast that with my partner. She saves all her documents in either My Documents - she's a Windows user - or on the desktop. Were she a Mac user, Spotlight would be indispensable. Apple has clearly developed Spotlight not for techies but for all those folks out there who haven't yet learned how to create new folders and drag files into them. Now, we can be smart-arse about their inability to master their machines, but there are rather more of them than there are of us, so ask yourself, who should Apple be catering to first?
But back to Spotlight itself: it's the future. Once all your information is accessible quickly, you won't need a file manager, you just get your data whenever you want it, wherever it is. And it can, potentially, work transparently across networks and network-attached storage. Heck, all it needs is a series of New Document... options, and you wouldn't even need to open your Applications folder. It's almost as if OpenDoc has come back from the grave. I've set Spotlight's not to list Applications and System Preferences panes, but had I done so - as per the default setting - I could launch apps straight from Spotlight. Again, all without opening a single Finder window.
But here's the really interesting part. If you quit Finder - you can add a Quit option by tinkering with the app's preferences file or, more easily, by using Marcel Bresink's useful TinkerTool utility - it stays that way. Previously, Mac OS X would automatically restart Finder. If that's not Apple's way of saying you no longer need Finder, I don't know what is.
What it also can't do yet, is let you copy files to other volumes, of course, even if you've added one to the Dock just for that purpose. So you do need Finder for some things.
Me, I'm in 'old dog != new tricks' mode, so I'll probably stick with Finder for the time being, particularly while Spotlight slowly adds all my less frequently accessed documents to its database. But Spotlight is certainly how I'll be telling new users to find their files.
Spotlight is a major step forward for personal computer data access, and Apple's done it without even having to replace the file system with a database, which is what I expected it to do. Spotlight's own database may become just such a system by proxy, but this way Apple hasn't broken compatibility.
Spotlight supersedes Finder's own search system, but it hasn't replaced it. Instead, the old Command-F key stroke invokes a Smart Folder definition. Smart Folders are essentially file listing commands rendered by Finder as if they were real folders. It's a nice idea, and one that would have been more welcome had Spotlight not made it to 10.4. Why have a folder apparently containing all the documents you worked on over the past seven days, when you can get the same thing from Spotlight?
Well, operating systems shouldn't force a single modus operandi on their users - they should provide a variety of ways of doing the same tasks, the better to suit the preferences of all their users. Mac OS 9 had a wealth of tools - Control Panels, the Apple Menu, the Control Strip, Desk Accessories, the Launcher bar, etc - to provide alternative ways of doing the same thing, and Apple killed most of them when it moved to Mac OS X. It's good to see some variety returning at long last, first with 10.3 and now with 10.4.
Smart Folders provide an alternative to some - but not all - Spotlight roles, and I welcome them. I don't welcome the way they've been implemented. A case in point: With 10.3 I would regularly run a search for all the folders in my main Music folder who had label colours, because I use different label colours to highlight albums and partial albums that were downloaded from iTunes. This way I could find them quickly to make backing up more easy.
Can I do the same thing with Smart Folders? Not quite. Finder will now let me find all folders labelled green, but not all folders that have a label - ie. those that don't not have a label, to turn boolean logic's NOT command into an English double-negative. Fine, but I have some orange folders too, and Finder will not let me specify all folders whose label colour is green OR orange. It will let me select all folder whose label colour is green AND orange - which, unsurprisingly, doesn't find anything.
Smart Folders provide a vast array of search criteria, but the selection is weakened by the hard-coded ability to do AND searches but not OR, especially since this was possible in the previous version of the OS.
Apple's engineers saved their reputation (just) by adding an option to enter your own query string - it's the Raw Query option. This does allow you to use boolean operators, but you have to known the query verbs and nouns, and they're not straightforward - my query is:
(kMDItemFSLabel != '0') && (kMDItemContentType != com.apple.mail.emlx) && (kMDItemContentType != public.vcard)
ie. find items whose labels are not zero (ie. they have a labe) and which are neither email messages nor address book entries.
You can learn more on Apple's developer website, here, which reveals that Smart Folders are an offshoot of Spotlight. That allowed me to add a nonsense word to the Spotlight Comments of the dozen folders within my Home folder that I want to back up regularly, then create a Smart Folder to list only those folders. I connect my back-up hard drive, open both Smart Folders and drag their contents across. Voila - one instant, manual back-up.
The next stage is to automate the process a little, and I'll come to that when I look at Tiger's Automator utility, shortly.
If I'd written this review shortly after installing 10.4, I'd have had more to say about Dashboard. But as time has passed, it has been activated less and less frequently.
Dashboard is a good implementation of an old technique. It sits below the application mode, so it's always there. Unlike similar solutions, you don't have to launch it manually or set it to run whenever you start up your Mac. You don't have to switch from the app your working in to another one in order to bring Widgets up on the screen. I hit F12, or click on the desktop icon and up it pops. I hit F12 again, or click the mouse away from the Widgets, and it goes away leaving me exactly where I was before invoking it.
This is the way desk accessories should work, and Apple's implementation of that is the best I've seen.
The trouble for me is that almost everything I can get from Dashboard, I can get elsewhere, and generally I'm going to do so because the information I want is in locations I'll be looking at anyway.
I always have iCal and Address Book running, so Widgets that peer into these apps' databases are useless to me. My clock is in the menu bar. Since I have to run iTunes in order to use the iTunes controller widget, I may as well just go to iTunes and select Play there. Stickies and Calculator already exist as apps, the latter also providing the functionality of the unit conversion widget. I always have Safari running, so it's as easy to open a new tab and go to Yahoo! Finance for a stock quote as use the widget.
I do use the clock widget to keep track on the time in Brisbane, Australia (family) and San Francisco (work), and the weather widget proved useful once I changed it from London, USA to London, UK. I don't look at these very often, though, because it takes Dashboard so long to get each one up and running the first time you activate it after turning your Mac on for the day.
That, and the lack of useful (to me) Widgets, limits Dashboard's utility. Other users may see it differently, and as I say, having alternative modes of operation is A GOOD THING. Unlike Spotlight, however, Dashboard is a feature you may use rather than one you will use. It's no more a reason to buy Mac OS X 10.4 than the addition of the Control Strip was to buy, IIRC, Mac OS 7.5. ®
To be continued...