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All That's New and Improved

Tiger has more new features than any one article can reasonably cover. The Apple Web site has extensive lists of upgrades and new features as well as animated demos. Rather than reinventing the wheel, I'd like to focus on some of the most prominent new features that I found most impressive when upgrading: Dashboard, Spotlight, and Automator.

Dashboard

Dashboard is undeniably cool. With one-touch access (a hot key can be set under the "Dashboard and Exposé" section of System Preferences) to a seemingly infinitely customizable array of small applications, Dashboard is surprisingly sleek. The first time you bring up Dashboard, you see a default set of small applications known as widgets. Widgets are actually small mini-Web pages that gather useful information for you; for example, weather, phone numbers from the Yellow Pages, movie times, or the translation of "Ich habe zu viel angst davon."

The default set of widgets includes a world clock (which can be set to any time zone), a unit converter, sticky notes, weather updates, a calendar, a calculator, and more. Cooler apps that give you recipe ideas, iTunes lyrics, and a metronome that tells you the speed at which you're tapping your mouse can be downloaded from the Apple Web site or one of the many third-party developer sites that Apple links to.

When you download a widget, it automatically gets added to the Widgets folder, located in the Library under your username.

Customizing Dashboard is easy: simply click on the plus symbol in the lower left corner of the screen to bring up a menu bar of widgets that you can drag onto the Dashboard. It's really that simple. When you drag the widget onto the Dashboard, you'll see a ripple-like effect, as if you had dropped the little application into a pool of water. (This looks cool, but it's a waste of graphics power, if you ask me.) Until you close or disable the new widget, it will appear on your Dashboard every time you call it up. Some widgets have a convenient "x" in a corner; others require you to click the same plus sign that you used to add the widget. Clicking the plus sign adds nice big "x" marks to the left corner of every widget, allowing you to close the ones you no longer need.

You can also add and remove widgets from the Manage Widgets utility in the menu bar that the plus sign brings up. This utility allows you to enable or disable widgets by choosing from a list of all those you have installed. You can have multiple copies of the same widget (especially useful for the world clock and sticky notes), and the number of widgets that you enable is limited only by the space on your screen. Each individual widget's settings can be altered by clicking in the "i," which appears when you move the mouse over the right-hand corner of the widget. Generally, the widget will seem to flip over so that on its back, you can alter settings. Some widgets don't have settings, so the back view will show you product information, such as the developers and where they can be found on the Web.

Widget Woes

There are only a few problems with Dashboard's fundamental sweetness. First of all, many of the most useful widgets become, well, useless without an Internet connection. It might seem obvious that the Yellow Pages widget can't talk to the Yellow Pages without the Internet, but what about the translator? That doesn't work without the Internet, either. Many of the basic default widgets, such as the units converter and calculator, do work without the Internet, but woe be on to ye who uses dial-up because you'll need to sign on every time you want to use Dashboard to check movie times (which seems to defeat the time-saving aspect).

The second, and in my opinion, biggest obstacle to Dashboard's complete success is the sticky note widget. I've been using the Stickies application and its predecessors voraciously for about five years now and am loathe to attempt to function without it. When I found the sticky note widget, I was excited to upgrade. However, Dashboard sticky notes are not scaleable, which means that the amount of text you can fit on one sticky note is quite limited. This may not seem like a big deal until you try to cut and paste a useful paragraph from a Web site or email message or type a long shopping list. Because the sticky note cannot expand, it simply refuses to accept text that is too big for it. Sometimes it will flash on the note and then disappear; other times, it won't take at all. In essence, I've found the Dashboard sticky notes to be useless, which has severely hindered my use of Dashboard.

Finally, despite its high cool factor, Dashboard hasn't really saved me a lot of time. Any one of the useful things that it does is a task that I actually do only rarely. Using a widget to look up a movie time doesn't feel all that much faster than going to my usual movie Web page that I have bookmarked and that remembers my Zip code and theater preferences. Theoretically, both are limited in speed by the same Internet connection. The benefit of the widget comes if you're the sort of user who doesn't have a movie site or the Yellow Pages bookmarked, or doesn't like Web sites to remember anything for you. Granted, widgets bypass the startup time of a Web browser, but a fast browser is not much slower than the time it takes for the Dashboard to load. Also, if you find yourself needing to convert pounds to ounces a lot or needing to translate chunks of text quite often and aren't happy with Babelfish, you'll find Dashboard and its widgets exceedingly helpful.

Bottom line: I give Dashboard a thumbs up for concept and potential for usefulness, but a neutral sideways thumb for practical execution. (Yes, sticky notes are that important to me.)

Spotlight

It seems that ever since Sherlock and Mac OS 9, Apple has been making a big deal out of new search functionalities in every new OS. It also seems that since Mac OS 9 and Sherlock, there hasn't actually been an appreciable improvement to the search function. I hit Command-F and find what I need. End of story.

I'm almost embarrassed to admit that my apathetic attitude has finally changed. Spotlight has really effective interfaces and a highly sophisticated search engine. New interfaces and search functions give you more useable results and information about those results. Before I dive into those, however, I want to mention the Smart Folder.

Those of you who have been using iTunes for awhile will remember when Smart Playlists appeared about a year ago. This is the same idea. Basically, a Smart Folder (created by selecting "New Smart Folder" from the File menu in the Finder) is a saved set of search criteria that will run every time you open the folder. You can, for example, create a Smart Folder that contains all pictures with "Bob" in the title so that you can easily call up a photo of Bob. Every time you open that folder, Spotlight will re-create the predetermined search so that any "Bob" photos that have been added since the last time you searched will be accessible from the Smart Folder.

This is an amazingly useful organizational tool, especially for those users who let iTunes, iPhoto, and so on, put their media wherever the program defaults to, but who still want easy access to those files outside of the native applications. It's also useful in that you don't have to worry about putting multiple copies of documents or aliases to them in different folders for organizational purposes, since Smart Folders update every time they're opened.

Note that Smart Folders contain links, not actual files. You can trash a Smart Folder without losing data, but you need to remember to drag the actual files onto a CD before burning it. Also, note that the default location for Smart Folders is in a folder called "Saved Searches" in the Library, under your username. You'll also find a link to each new Smart Folder in the sidebar of your Finder window. The "save" dialog box only gives you the option of saving in the default "Saved Searches" folder, the Desktop, or in your home (username) directory. Remember that you can put a Smart Folder anywhere on the hard drive that you choose by saving it to the Desktop and then moving it to a more convenient location.

Let's take a look at the new interfaces. From the first time you start up in Tiger, you'll notice an unfamiliar blue magnifying glass icon in the right corner of the Finder menu bar, which is always there and always accessible with one click. That one click will bring up a search box into which you can type a file name or keywords. Your results will be displayed in the form of a drop-down menu and organized by file type. This new concept of organizing search results by file type is one of my favorite aspects of Spotlight. The drop-down menu of results is truncated, but at the top of the menu is a link to the full set of results. At the bottom of that menu, there is a link to Spotlight preferences (also found under System Preferences), in which you can limit the scope of Spotlight searches to certain places on your hard drive and define certain places where it should never search. This menu-based interface is simple, elegant, and powerful.

The traditional Command-F search interface brings up a window that is essentially a regular Finder window, except that in the main pane there is a search box and a space to create and add criteria (rather than the usual folder views). From a series of drop-down menus, you can define a class of files that you want to find (for example, all the photos you've opened in the last week) using keywords, dates, file type, color label, and a host of useful and quite detailed criteria. The default is two criteria: Kind, and Last Opened, both of which are set to "Any," meaning that they are not really functioning. But this is useful if you just want to do a keyword search using the search box.

If you want to use search criteria to narrow your search, select more specific information from the drop-down menus where "Any" appears or change the limiting factor from the drop-down menu where "Kind" and "Last Opened" appear. To add additional search limiters, use the plus sign icons to add more search criteria.

You can choose where to search: local servers, your entire computer, your home (that is, username) directory, or others (such as an external hard drive). You can't search more than one of these areas at once, but that has yet to interfere with or slow down my searching. I am very excited about having the option of using effective and multiple criteria to hone in on a class of files rather than just a keyword search. This option allows for more sophisticated searching and a much more multifaceted approach to data classification. It's this type of criteria-based searching that makes the Smart Folder function actually useful and incredibly versatile.

There are two details about this interface that represent significant advances in functionality and design to me. Mac search utilities have always shown the user where a file is located on his computer using little images of the various folders that need to be opened. I have often found that these paths are so long as to be useless and generally visually located in the search utility in a less-than-convenient place. So, like most users, once I've found the file I'm looking for, I tend to simply double-click on it to open it from the search utility.

Spotlight is different. The file paths are located conveniently on the bottom of the pane and do not appear until a file is clicked on (as opposed to appearing every time you scroll your mouse over a file). Surprisingly enough, you don't even have to enlarge the window to see the folder names on longer paths. Scroll your mouse over a folder icon in the file path and the full name will appear.

The other leap forward in this interface is the little "Save" button in the upper-right corner of the window, just below the search box. This "save" function creates a Smart Folder for you. As I discussed earlier, it's important to be aware of how a Smart Folder works and where it is, so that you don't end up being more disorganized than when you started. The ability to create Smart Folders right from the search window is useful, efficient, elegant, and smart design.

Bottom line: I give Spotlight an enthusiastic thumbs up.

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