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Mac OS X 10.3 (Panther)

System: Macintosh

Company: Apple Computer

Price: $129

Some call it Panther, others say OS X 10.3. But whatever you call it, there's a lot to like in the newest version of Apple's operating system.

The biggest improvement is speed. The Finder, which is a lot like Explorer in Windows, moves along at quite a clip when compared with previous versions. And the bootup speed of your computer is equally zippy. The Finder also has undergone a makeover for the better and allows things such as bookmarking favorite places on your hard drive and network. Resuscitated from Mac OS 9 is the ability to tag files and folders with colors. This is powerful organizational mojo and lets the computer find files for you in a different way.

Panther also includes a new version of an instant messaging program called iChat. In addition to typing people messages, you can use your Mac's builtin sound capabilities to make the equivalent of free phone calls. The quality is better than a regular phone. And if you and your buddy have an Apple iSight video camera (or any other FireWire digital camcorder or Web cam), you can see the person you're talking with. If you've got an older version of OS X, you can buy this program for $29.95 should Panther not be in your immediate upgrade plans.

Other well-needed improvements have been made to the built-in mail program, Apple's Safari Internet browser, iTunes and other bundled applications. Notable is that the TextEdit program now creates and reads simple Microsoft Word files, which is great for occasional home word processing.

Panther is a solid incremental upgrade that's marred only by a $129 price tag. It's a sense of deja vu as the Mac faithful shelled out the same amount about a year ago for version 10.2. And I'm sure they'll have to do the same for the next version.

But if you've got the spare money, you've got to get this.

_ JULES ALLEN, Times correspondent