Mac OS X 10.4 'Tiger' in depth
Part three: Mail, Safari and security
Mac OS X's Mail app has been my preferred email tool since I started using the operating system back in the Public Beta days. I never got into Microsoft's Entourage, despite being an Outlook Express user up until that point. Mail has nicely evolved as my own email usage has grown, first with the addition of solid message filtering and later with the Junk mail filter, which I find I trust more than The Register's ISP-maintained server-end solution.
Mac OS X 10.4 takes Mail to version 2.0, and the improvements are mainly cosmetic. Mail 2.0's modified user interface has come in for some criticism, but I like it. If the new icons are too large when you first run the app, or you don't like the multi-part buttons, you can easily customise the toolbar to suit your personal preference. Similarly, you can customise the toolbars of new and incoming messages opened in a window of their own. You can also select which fields you want a New Message window to show, which is handy if you're not interested in all the cc: and bcc: stuff, or you want to make the new mail priority selector appear.
Moving the Mailbox list from an Aqua drawer into a full frame within the mail readout window not only looks better but makes more sense - the drawer metaphor implies the contents are not something you want exposed all the time, but that's exactly what you want if you have multiple mailbox folders into which you filter emails.
Had I been starting out with Mail 2.0 from scratch, I might have ignored the filter feature and gone instead for Smart Mailboxes, Mail's version of iTunes' Smart Playlists and Finder's Smart Folders. Unlike the Finder version, Mail's Smart Mailboxes allow both AND and OR logic, and you can sort on all the usual attributes. For me, they provide a more ad hoc way of collating certain emails - think of them as a kind of saved Spotlight search. Indeed, searches made using the customary search field can be saved and they appear as Smart Mailboxes.
Speaking of Spotlight, Mail's searching is now based on Spotlight, so it's immediate and narrows down as you type more characters. Crucially, you can now search across all mailboxes rather than just the one you happen to be viewing.
Another tweak borrowed from elsewhere in Mac OS X are slideshows for emailed graphics, which makes viewing photos from family and friends a real pleasure. If you have iPhoto installed, you can have Mail send any or all of the pictures to your library. Apple has fixed the glitch where email attachments copied by drag and drop rather than the Save button would retain the read/write permissions of the sender rather than the recipient.
Sending pictures is easier too, thanks to a new ability to auto-resize shots either to minimise the attachment size, to ensure recipients can see all of the picture straight away, or both. Signatures can now be applied on a per-account basis, which is handy if, like me, you use Mail to manage both personal and professional emails.
For the more technically inclined Mail 2.0 provides a handy window - right-click or Control-click on the mailbox's name in the right-hand panel - to see what's on your mail server before you download the files and allow you to delete them immediately. There's a quota manager in there too, but you'll need an IMAP mail account to make use of it. Apple has added a Connection Doctor, which checks your server connections, so you can see whether a downed server or a ropey Internet connection is preventing your mail from getting through.
There are still irritations: manually empty either the Deleted or Junk mailboxes, and it still asks you if you want to. If we can be trusted to empty the Trash without being asked, I'm sure we're sufficiently responsible to be allowed to do so with rubbish emails. And why does the Erase Junk Mail warning appear as a regular dialog box while the Erase Deleted Messages warning is an Aqua sheet? Right, let's rehearse the Apple UI mantra: consistency, consistency, consistency...
At first I thought Safari's 10.4 tweaks amounted to little more than the much-hyped and long-overdue RSS viewing facility. I spotted the best feature, for me, by accident. Having installed Acrobat Reader 7.0 under 10.3.9, I finally got the opportunity to open online PDF files in the web browser. But it was slow, and I soon went back to saving PDFs to disk and then opening them in Mac OS X's Preview utility. With 10.4, Safari has this inline viewing facility built in. At first, I thought it was just the old Adobe plug-in at work, but its speed made me realise this was not the case.
There's a preferences file hack you can employ to turn this facility off, but as someone who looks at a lot of online PDFs, I'm now able to do this efficiently in Safari without having to waste time downloading files or waiting for tardy Acrobat to do its thing.
Apple maintains Safari 2.0 is also faster at rendering pages than previous releases, and it feels faster, but then other browsers feel faster still. But it's getting there, at least.
RSS support has similarly been a long time coming, but it's a good implementation. Safari's ability to flag up the availability of a site's RSS feed is particularly welcome, since it saves having to hunt through increasingly complex page layouts for the vital link. With a series of RSS subscriptions in place, Safari provides a handy text search tool, along with a variety of options - handily place to the right of the RSS article listing - to help you find the stories you're most interested in. A slider neatly lets you move from headlines to full-length stories.
The only irritation is Safari's habit of ditching all your other tabbed pages when you select a feed. Quite why an RSS listing can sit alongside a regular web page, I don't know - Command-clicking on an RSS link in the Bookmarks bar at least gives you the option of viewing the listing in a tab.
Apple has added a web archive facility to allow you to save complete pages rather than just the HTML code that underpins them. It's about time - Internet Explorer had this feature back in the Mac OS 9 era, and even then it was better than Safari 2.0's implementation. IE would at least allow you to download pages linked from the one you were viewing. And if I remember correctly, it saved the results as real files, not as an inaccessible binary file as Safari does.
Safari will now display the certificate supporting the authenticity of a given website - you click on the lock icon at the top right of the window - but it doesn't help you accept a site whose certification authority is not known to it. You can tell it you're happy to trust the site's certificate, but it will continue to warn you every time you load it.
Still, Safari remains my favourite Mac OS X browser, though I'm increasingly wondering whether a shift to Firefox might be in order. I like the way you use Safari, but Firefox has an edge in rendering speed and, crucially, compatibility. Yes, every so often I still need to fire up IE in order to view websites that Safari can't render. I know that's the web site's fault, not the standards-based Safari, but that doesn't help when someone is tapping their foot behind you while you have to launch another browser. Bastardised standards are wrong, but ignoring those with a weight of users behind them is silly.
Tiger's version of Apple's Keychain Access application, the OS' one-stop shop for password and other sensitive data storage, now links to a new app, Certificate Assistant, which allows you to create root certificates to authenticate files shared within workgroups. Keychain Access has been given an "iTunes-like" facelift, making it easier to navigate than it has been in the past. And you can use a smart card to authenticate both the System and your own keychain, though you'll need an external card reader, of course. I haven't so I couldn't try it out, alas. According to Apple, 10.4 will support smart cards compliant with US government security standards, in particular GSCIS.
Apparently, memory pages swapped to the hard disk by 10.4's virtual-memory manager are encrypted against prying eyes, too - an offshoot, no doubt, of the on-the-fly encryption and decryption system, FileVault, Apple introduced with 10.3. You set it in the Security pane in System Preferences. I've yet to notice any performance degradation from the encryption overhead. Jobs sent to shared printers can be encrypted too, apparently, though there's nothing in 10.4 to stop anyone getting to the office laser ahead of you.
Other tweaks to Mac OS X's security provisions include the addition of an Advanced... button on the OS' firewall System Preferences pane which allows you to log firewall activity if you're worried someone's trying to sneak past it, and to set it to operate in stealth mode and ignore unexpected requests for information.
Speaking of the System Preferences app. There's a nice module linked through from a number of panes, called Password Assistant. It chooses passwords for you according to a couple of criteria: length and type. The latter range from memorable suggestions to keys compliant with FIPS-181, the US Federal Information Processing Standard for such matters. A coloured bar indicates how secure the Password Assistant reckons the suggested word to be.
You can type in your own passwords, too, and it's fun - not to mention chilling - to see just how secure - or not - they are.
To be continued...