With Apple Computer Inc.'s release of the latest version of its Unix-derived operating system, Mac OS X, the Cupertino, Calif., company is clearly trying to steal a march on both Microsoft and Google. Specifically, the new version--which is code-named Tiger, more formally known as OS X 10.4--features a much ballyhooed desktop search function called Spotlight.
Showing Its Stripes: Tiger boasts an advanced search feature called Spotlight that finds files, e-mails, images, and so on by searching on keywords based on content and metadata tags.
The promise of this desktop search is that it will turn the mishmash of e-mails, attachments, images, and documents floating around on your hard disk into an easily accessible treasure trove. Can't find that memo you wrote last year about the IT budget? Looking for those photos of Venice? Just type in some key words that relate to the file content--rather than the name of the file, which tends to be something unhelpful like SEPMEMIT.doc or DSC01598.jpg--and desktop search is supposed to pop up the relevant item in a matter of seconds.
But how does Spotlight work in practice? The answer is, fairly well, but it has a few rough edges. In particular, there are occasions when the old way of searching used in the earlier versions of OS X was actually faster. If you knew the file name, or at least part of it, scanning with the Find function through a few directories for matches was pretty speedy, and you usually ended up with a short list of results.
Spotlight tends to throw the kitchen sink at you--you don't get just file name matches, but also matches to e-mails, PDFs, and images. It does give you tools to narrow your search, but sometimes that can mean you have to take more time and do more clicking to find a file than in a traditional search. It is also time-consuming to initially index your hard disk if you are upgrading an existing OS X system to Tiger. While most people report times of less than an hour to process their hard disks, my system took about 6 hours to finish indexing, probably because of the large number of e-mails and PDFs I store.
Mac OS X Tiger; Apple Computer Corp.; Cupertino, Calif.; US $129
Another big Tiger feature is Dashboard. With a single keystroke, up pops a screen full of miniprograms, dubbed widgets. Widgets do handy little things, like letting you use a simple calendar or check the weather forecast without having to launch a full-fledged application. This is very convenient if you're working, say, on an e-mail about next weekend's picnic and want to check whether rain is expected--without stopping to fire up a Web browser, navigate to a weather Web site, switch back to e-mail, and resume your original train of thought.
Also worth noting are Tiger's Universal Access features, intended to allow people with disabilities to use a graphical, mouse-driven interface. In particular, my wife, who is visually impaired, swears by the new Voice Over function. Its vocal cues--the computer will read aloud the titles of any open windows, for example--and keyboard commands allow her to easily navigate the desktop environment and work with the handful of fully Universal Access-enabled applications. The big sticking point is Web browsing, where flashy sites can be unnavigable to all but the sharpest eyes.
All in all, despite Spotlight's teething troubles, Tiger is a worthwhile upgrade.