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Saturday, July 03, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
Practical Mac / Glenn Fleishman
Assume the crouching Tiger pose for at least six months. Apple showed a preview of its next operating-system release, Mac OS X 10.4, which it will spring upon us in the first half of 2005. That could mean up to a year from today.
With Panther purring along, Tiger's biggest impact will be on owners of Power Mac G5 computers, which Apple expects to sell quite a few of before Tiger ships. Tiger will take full advantage of the 64-bit G5 processor's power; Panther does not.
While Tiger claims 150 new features, just as Panther did, an average user won't notice or care about most of them.
Programmers may delight in better access to some of Apple's cooler technologies to incorporate into their programs. Users may just see more consistent interfaces and faster, smoother performance in games, graphics programs and browsing.
Tiger brings a number of add-on items into the fold, including support for Web site story syndication via RSS (Rich Site Summary), used as a subscription system to dole out headlines and summaries of articles and blog entries, among other purposes.
Mac users can turn to Seattle-based Ranchero Software's NetNewsWire (www.ranchero.com) for RSS news reading, but Safari will bring RSS to a broader audience that wouldn't want to download and configure a separate program.
Tiger's most significant improvements include multi-user iChat AV support for audio (up to nine other participants) and video (up to three other participants). Spotlight can quickly search all kinds of documents and program files at one time, making it easier to find information out of increasingly vast stores of data.
There's also a tool to help eliminate the tedium of repetitive tasks (Automator), and a utility manager called Dashboard, which appears to be a functional and uncredited look-alike to the third-party Konfabulator system (www.konfabulator.com).
Like previous Mac OS X releases, Tiger will cost $129. It includes virtually none of the features readers of this column favored most strongly a few weeks ago.
My computer is ringing:
If receiving phone calls on your computer seems like a nightmare of connectivity to you instead of a tool for saving money and being more available, you won't want to know about the latest in voice over Internet protocol (VoIP).
Vonage's latest offering eliminates the hardware and puts the phone in your computer. Using a software VoIP program from Vonage, Mac users can now receive calls to a real phone number directly on their computer, as well as place calls. The service is a $9.95 add-on to any existing Vonage account, which cost $14.95 to $29.95 per month depending on included minutes (from 500 to unlimited). Setup fees and tax raise the price slightly.
The advantage to using a software phone is similar to a cellphone's portability, but calling plans and per-minute charges are enormously cheaper. Vonage includes 500 minutes (U.S./Canada) with its soft phone; additional minutes are 3.9 cents each.
I've managed to slash my cellphone bill by about $50 per month by using a hardware Vonage account in my office and reducing my cellphone plan minutes. The soft phone will add flexibility for me while at home or traveling.
For the best voice quality, I recommend buying a decent-quality USB headset; the built-in microphone and speakers work, but can create feedback. A broadband connection is needed.
Firefox's proponents: In my roundup a month ago of several browser alternatives for Mac OS X, I left out Firefox, a Mozilla-derived browser that a dozen readers said they preferred to any of the others that are available (www.mozilla.org/products/firefox/, free, 0.9.1 beta).
I found the current beta version stable and quick, with a clean interface. Unlike the full Mozilla and Opera programs, which include e-mail and other utilities, Firefox is just a browser. It has some similarities to Camino and Safari, but it's available for many platforms.
Firefox might be preferable for more advanced users who want to take advantage of Firefox extensions. These extensions allow new features to be added and browser behavior to be changed. For most users, this isn't a consideration.
In that earlier column, I also happened to malign the Opera browser, saying that it lacked tabbed windows. In fact, Opera offers tabs but calls them "Pages" in its menu.
Glenn Fleishman writes the Practical Mac column for Personal Technology and about technology in general for The Seattle Times and other publications. Send questions to email@example.com. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists
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