On Friday, April 29, 2005, Apple Computer will unleash Mac OS X 10.4—aka Tiger—and give Mac fans the best Mac OS X yet. Although I feel that Tiger is a minor upgrade compared to the previous OS X version, Panther, that doesn't diminish the importance of this release. (See my review of Panther on the SuperSite for Windows.) Apple has been slowly improving its UNIX-based OS for several years now, and Tiger is the fruit of that labor. Is it enough to make Windows users switch? That's a tough call.

A Worthy XP Competitor
Compared to Windows XP, Mac OS X Tiger is more professional looking and far less likely to be a hacking target. It rewards computer experience with a lean and mean UI that doesn't get in your way, as so many Mac aficionados assert. It's rock-solid and stable, at least as much as XP with Service Pack 2 (SP2). In short, Tiger is certainly a worthy XP competitor, despite OS X's diminutive market share.

With the release next week of Tiger, the areas in which OS X lag behind XP are shrinking. Tiger isn't a great choice for computer novices, because its Spartan UI offers little in the way of XP's handholding wizards and task-based folders. It still lacks XP's vast library of readily available software, although many PC-based hardware devices will work just fine with Macs. And Mac computers—with some exceptions, such as the Mac mini and eMac—still tend to be quite a bit more expensive than comparable PCs.

In general, where OS X shines compared with XP is its support for digital media tasks. Grab the $79 iLife '05 suite—a bargain at twice that price—and you'll find yourself with a set of tools for digital photos, music, home movies, and DVDs that PC users can only dream of. If you care at all about digital media, you should at least be evaluating a Mac, even if you intend to augment your PC and not replace it.

Burning Bright
But what about Tiger? For the prosumer—that is, the technically savvy consumer—Tiger will offer a number of enhancements over previous OS X versions. For those who opt to use Macs and PCs together, for example, Tiger's ability to browse Windows networks has been refined and offers much better performance. (I still wish you didn't have to mount Windows shares on your desktop and could just browse them directly from the Finder, as you can with similar features in Windows and Linux.) And the new Spotlight instant-search feature delivers on a key Longhorn feature a full year and a half before Microsoft will bestow such a thing upon Windows users. It's speedy and well done.

Want a safe and secure Web-browsing environment for your children? Check out Apple's excellent Safari 2.0 Web browser, which comes free with Tiger. Safari 2.0 isn't susceptible to the frequent attacks Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE) users suffer. And it's arguably even safer than Mozilla Firefox, which will likely become a target of more and more hackers as it gains more users.

Tiger also supplies much better parental controls than XP does. Unlike XP, Tiger lets you create non-administrator accounts for kids that actually work as advertised. These accounts will prevent your children from accessing—or accidentally deleting—your private data, and you can even configure these accounts so that your kids can communicate electronically only with people you trust: If a child tries to email someone you haven't configured as safe, for example, the system will prompt you to OK the message before sending it. Tiger's parental controls also extend to other OS X features, such as iChat AV instant messaging (IM) and even the system dictionary.

Tiger is also an excellent choice for those with hearing and vision problems or other disabilities. A new VoiceOver feature, similar to XP's Narrator feature, lets you navigate the OS X interface by using only a keyboard, accompanied by a robotic voice that explains what's happening onscreen. Tiger also features a large-caption option, a zooming feature, and screen flashing for alerts for the hearing impaired.

Coming of Age
These and other features make me believe that OS X Tiger can not only coexist with XP on your home network but thrive when you begin taking advantage of its unique capabilities. The original version of Mac OS X was slow and incomplete. However, after a series of successive updates culminating next week with Tiger, OS X is coming of age. You might not be ready to make the switch. But surely, OS X Tiger—perhaps running on a new Mac mini—will be a welcome addition to any Connected Home Express reader's stable of computing tools. It's definitely something to consider.