By Monte FergusonMacOS X has has come a long way since it’s initial release. It is really a whole host of programs that creates the MacOS X experience. Add to that, with the Leopard release, the most ambitious feature rich upgrade yet. What you get is an awful lot to take in. It is pretty safe to say that nearly everything has been updated with this release. When even the Dictionary and DVD player apps get updates you know there is a lot of things to check out. Rather than trying to give one large overview I’ll try to give an impression of the depth of the new features by breaking things out into sub sections.
The Finder in MacOS X has been the most criticized element of the opearting system. Everyone has an idea or two on how to “fix it”. The Finder in Leopard has definitely undergone a major update. Like many of Apple’s latest creations it inspires strong emotions. You either love it or hate it.
The Finder draws its inspiration from the interface of iTunes. The side bar, in Finder windows, has been been beefed up. Items are grouped into categories (places, devices, shared computers, and searches). Another feature brought over from iTunes is Cover Flow. You can use Cover Flow to flip through a folder full of documents, displaying a large preview of the first page. (You can click through multipage documents and even play movies in Cover Flow mode.)
A new icon preview feature displays thumbnail previews of your documents. A handy feature I use a lot is the Path Bar. It shows you the folder “path” that lead to the file you’ve selected. It’s dynamic, meaning you can do things like drag files to any location in the Path Bar display. File sharing is much easier than ever. Computers on your local network, who have file sharing turned on, display in the side bar. Just click on its icon and click on the Connect As button to display a screen to log into that machine. Screen Sharing, over your local network, can be setup just as easy right from the Finder. If you have a Mobile Me account you can take advantage of Back to My Mac. It allows you to connect to a remote Mac over the internet. You just select a shared Mac from the Finder side bar as if it were on your local network.
If you’re not a fan of eye candy you will likely find the updated desktop in Leopard to be unappealing. The menu bar is now semi-transparent. (A subsequent point release lets you change the opacity of the menu bar.) The Dock has gained a faux 3D appearance, with reflections. Gone are the little black triangles that indicated active programs. They’ve been replaced with light blue circles. (There was extensive criticism regarding these changes online.) Personally I like the features. I especially enjoy the 3d Dock.
A criticism of Tiger, and Panther, was that Apple had different and clashing designs for various windows, I.E. Finder windows vs application windows. Leopard has a consistent design theme throughout. It makes for a more polished looking user experience.
Stacks are an attempt to clean up users desktops. A stack is a special folder in the Dock. When you click a stack, the files within spring from the Dock in a fan or a grid, depending on the number of items (or the preference you set). Leopard starts you off with two pre-made stacks: one for downloads and the other for documents. The Downloads stack automatically captures files downloaded from Safari, Mail, and iChat. The Documents stack is a great place to keep things like presentations, spreadsheets, and word processing files. You can create as many stacks as you wish simply by dragging folders to the right side of your Dock. Stacks work best with a limited number of files. When stacks were initially rolled out you only had a choice of the fan option, or the grid. Apple responded to early criticism and brought back the old behavior of hierarchical folders in the Dock. Stacks are also spring loaded, though hovering over the stack will open a Finder window displaying contents of the stack. Stacks can be sorted, like any Finder window, by criteria like filename, date added, date modified, date created, or file type. Just Control-click the stack and pick an order.
Back to my Mac
Have you ever had a moment when you realize a file you need is on a remote Mac? It’s practically impossible to access the other Mac thanks to the fact most internet providers use dynamic addressing, meaning your internet address changes, and that most of us use a router which also further obscures your computer’s address from the Internet. With Leopard, and a .Mac account, it’s simple. Back to My Mac keeps an up-to-the-minute record of all your computers’ addresses on a .Mac server. So when you’re on the road, you’ll see your .Mac-registered computers in the Shared section of your Finder sidebar, just as they’d appear at home. They’re protected from any eyes but yours — and you can even browse their contents using Cover Flow in the Finder.
Spotlight was pretty good when it came out in Tiger. But Apple has listened to users criticisms and improved it in Leopard. It now lets you use advanced Boolean logic (AND,OR, or NOT) in a search request. This makes Spotlight a very powerful tool. But there is even more. You can now search for exact phrases using quotation marks. Search for items by date or ranges using > and < symbols. You can even use Spotlight to perform simple calculations. Just enter the numbers and the operators (ex. 2+2) then hit Return to see the result.
The idea behind Quick Look is to ease finding the file you're looking for by giving you a visual cue. For those of us who don't extensively file items or use keywords to annotate documents, this can be quite a boon. You just choose a file and hit the space bar. A full sized preview will appear. If it's a text document you can advance the pages. If it's a music or movie file you can hit controls that let you play the selected file. You no longer have to wait to have a program launch just to figure out if the file you see is the one you want. It sounds gimmicky, but I've found this feature to be quite valuable on several occasions. Quick Look is not restricted to single files. You can select an entire folder full of files and preview all of them one at a time. Quick Look works with nearly every file on your system, including images, text files, PDF documents, movies, Keynote presentations, Mail attachments, and Microsoft Word and Excel files. (Quick Look can also be invoked when looking through a Time Machine back up.)
Apple does a great job of having at least one killer feature in each MacOS X release. Leopard's is Time Machine. Apple has managed to make backing up, something which only a very few do, into something that is set it and forget it easy. All you have to do is plug in an external disk. Time Machine asks if you want to use it to back up your Mac. You merely have to say yes and Time Machine does the rest. It backs up your system files, applications, accounts, preferences, music, photos, movies, and documents. Better yet, it doesn't just keep a running list of files, it remembers how you system looked on any given day. It also presents the contents of the back up as they appeared on that given day, just as if you were looking at your computer on that given day. This comes in very handy if you know you had a file a couple of weeks ago but now you can't find it. You can go back to 2 weeks ago and choose to restore that file, a folder, or your entire system.
Initially Time Machine copies the entire contents of you computer to your back up drive (without compression). The only thing it skips is cache files, and other temporary files not needed to restore your Mac to its original state. After that first backup Time Machine incrementally backs up your files-just copies the files that have changed since the last backup. A space saving measure in Time Machine creates links to unchanged files. That way you don't have to copy them every time yet still restore back to a given day.
You have to go into a special mode, the Time Machine browser, to review previous back ups. It uses a cool 3d space effect, with back up windows stretching back to infinity. You can use Spotlight to search for files or folders. You can also use Quick Look to verify a files content. Just choose what you want to restore and hit the Restore button. The file, folder, iPhoto library, email, or Address Book contacts will be restored in place. Time Machine can also be used to restore your entire computer.
Before you dismiss it as too easy, ie it must be only good for a home user, consider that it can be used in a network environment. You can set it up to back up to a Mac, running Leopard, using Personal File Sharing, a Leopard Server, or an Xsan storage device. Which means multiple Mac's can share the same back up destination.
This is one of those features that is cool but might not gain wide acceptance. Space borrows a concept from the Unix world, virtual work spaces. The idea behind this is to cut down on the clutter and the distractions that can arise on your computer. Much like you have specific rooms in your house for specific functions (Example: kitchen, bathroom, or bedroom) Space lets you set up virtual work areas that can be organized by task or theme. (Example: internet would have a browser an mail program. A work one would have spreadsheets, and a word processor). You can make up to 16 different Spaces. You can choose which Space you want things to open in. If you change your mind, this is a Mac exclusive, you can drag an app to another Space. As you would expect, switching between Spaces is easy (Either use the arrow keys or go into a bird's eye view and select the space you want.) If you click on a Dock icon of an open app you'll be automatically taken to the Space it resides in. You can enable, and configure, your spaces by going to the Expose & Spaces pane in System Preferences. (Example: you can assign an app to always open in a certain space.)
Mail once again sees improvements I'm not a big fan of html email. But if you like that sort of thing, you'll love the new stationary feature in Mail. Mail now has 30 professionally designed stationary templates. From what I can see it looks like they took some of the templates from iWeb and incorporated them into Mail. If you want to create an email newsletter with pictures you'll love this stuff. You can also create your own stationary. Anyone will be able to view them as they use standard HTML.
In my mind a much more useful feature is the new found ability to take notes in Mail. You can actually make notes in a sidebar in Mail. I know that I am often reading through email in batches. Which means I'll see something that I want to keep track of for later. Now this is a feature I can call handy. You can even group notes into folders or setup a Smart Folder to organize them. The notes folder acts like an email mailbox. Which means you can retrieve notes from any Mac or PC using an IMAP mail service (example gmail, Mobile Me, AOL).
A new To-Do feature nicely compliments notes. You can highlight text in an email, click on the To Do button to create a to-do item from the message. You can set a due date, an alarm and priorities to your to-do items. The to-do retains a link to the original note or email. The to-do's also appear in iCal, and atomically update when you make changes. Like Notes, to-do's are stored with email and can therefore be accessed by any Mac or PC when using an IMAP mail server.
Other features in Leopard's mail may not be as noticeable but will be welcomed by many. Spotlight searching of email has been improved. Apple promises “smarter relevance ranking” ie, it does a better job matching found items to what you were searching for. Spotlight will also be able to index and search any of your new notes or to-dos. Apple has added a feature to Mail that Apple pioneered in mid 90's called data detectors. Data detectors recognize certain piece of information, say a date, and let you click once to add it to iCal. Or recognize a street address and offer to open a map for directions. Mail can now act as an RSS reader. You can choose to be alerted to new updates on a subscribed feed or have them delivered to your inbox. You can use smart mailboxes to organize incoming news articles. If you have an email account with big outfits like Yahoo, Hotmail, AOL or Gmail you'll love the new simplified setup. Just enter your email address and password. Mail will fill in the rest. If you use anyone else, you'll have to fill in that information manually.
iChat's new features span the gamut from silly to serious.
On the silly side you can now use video backdrops in iChat. They replace your true back ground in real time. You can create your own custom backdrops by dragging a picture or video into the video effects window. Another fun feature is the ability to use Photo Booth effects in your chats.
On the serious side you can remotely, in full screen, conduct a photo slideshow, a keynote presentation, or play a movie while you provide running commentary (picture in picture style.) Another serious, and in my opinion seriously cool feature, is iChat screen sharing. For those of us who end up being tech support for our family this can be real boon. It lets you control another Mac remotely, or let a remote Mac user share and control your Mac. You can both use the computer at the same time. (You have to allow the other party to share your Mac.)
Have you ever wished you could save a chat session? Now iChat lets you save audio and video chats, as well as text based chats. Before recording begins iChat notifies your buddies and asks their permission to be recorded. When your session is done iChat stores your audio chats as AAC files and video chats as MPEG-4 files. Perfect for playing back on an iPod or sharing with friends and family, who can use iTunes to play them back.
Other new features in Leopards iChat include: AAC-LD audio codec to deliver the clearest possible sound during chats. It samples a full range of vocal frequencies. iChat gains the ability to have tabbed chats. No need to fill your screen with chat windows when talking to multiple people. You can now have multiple logins. Invisibility is supported in this release. Animated buddy icons have been added as an option. You can also forward SMS messages.
iCal has been the least improved of the built in apps that come with MacOS X. It was a pleasant surprise to see it getting an update. Let alone a bunch of new features. Many of the updates aim squarely at Outlook and Exchange server. They are geared towards enterprise customers who might be looking to move away from Exchange.
Group scheduling makes it's way to iCal with this release. A new feature lets you specify your work schedule for the week. This works hand in hand with the meeting scheduling features that were just added. You can schedule meetings with colleagues, check availability, and even book conference rooms. You can find out the best time for a meeting with a single click, ie compare everyone's schedule. Another feature that puts iCal on par with Outlook/Exchange is the ability to reserve meeting rooms and equipment. An Event Dropbox lets you share photos, video, or any kind of document via email with designated attendees. You can also delegate someone to be in charge of your calendar while you're out of the office. (To take advantage of this you have to have a CalDav Server, like the one included with MacOS X Server.)
There have also been general improvements to the program that benefit everyone. The iCal interface has undergone an overhaul. It now sports the unified Leopard look. Gone are the slide out drawers to modify events. Now you click on the event inline, ie from within the calendar itself. You can have iCal create an alarm, automatically, for each event you create. If that gets annoying you can also disable all alarms for events with a single preference setting. A new offline calendaring feature lets you modify events, and queue invitations when you're not online. The next time you connect to the Internet iCal syncs up your changes.
It has become standard that with each new OS release we're treated to an updated version of Safari. Leopard comes with Safari 3.0. Apple touts its performance vs it's competitors. I haven't bothered with any bench marks but I can tell you Safari 3 is noticeably faster than version 2 was.
Safari 3 has gained a feature that first appeared in Firefox 2. It is the ability to search for something on a web page inline. What the means is you can do a search on the words of a web page while you're looking at it. Safari improves upon the feature by telling you how many instances of the search term had been found. It also does this cool effect of greying out the page except for the words that match your search. The first hit is always is surrounded by a bright yellow box. I find this to be very helpful. I use it often.
Tabs in Safari also received an upgrade. Now you can switch between tabs via the keyboard. You can drag drop your tabs to rearrange their order. If you drag a tabbed window out it will open up as a separate browser window. It also works the other way. You can take multiple open windows open and have them converted into tabs. A history feature remembers the last set of tabs that were open when you last closed Safari, or if it crashed.
Safari has a few other features that are helpful. Safari can now zoom in or out on a PDF, save a PDF file directly, or open the file in Preview. It also lets you resize text fields on web pages. Just look for the grab area in the lower right corner. (Don't worry, the rest of the web page will readjust to compensate.) The last notable feature is one of those things that make great demo's but I'm not completely sold on it. Namely taking a web page, or a portion of the web page, and turning it into a Dashboard widget via the Web Clip button. This new web clip widget is “live” in that it will update as often as the page it references does.
As a parent of very young children this is an aspect of MacOS X I haven't had to explore in depth, yet. There is a good deal of new functionality for Parental Controls in Leopard. Using the same technology that underlies it's spam filtering for Mail, a new content filter checks web sites for suitability for children before they load. If not, it blocks them from view. You can over ride this by specifying sites you do or don't want your children to see.
A new scheduling feature lets you specify time limits on computer use for your children. For instance you can specify a Monday-Friday schedule and have a different weekend schedule. You can set the max duration and the time of day they can log into their account on the Mac.
If you've ever wondered what your kid has been doing on the computer, you'll like the new logging feature. The log keeps track of websites your kids have visited, applications they’ve used, and people they’ve chatted with. You can access the parental controls and monitor logs remotely from any Mac on the network.
The only downside to the parental control features is that only Apple software works with them 100%. If you give your kids access to another browser or chat client you won't be able to impose the same level of control.
The big buzz, when Apple moved to Intel processors, was the possibility of running Windows on the Mac. Apple, seeing that running Windows sold Macs, decided to tacitly support those who wanted to run Windows. Boot Camp lets you run Windows natively on your Mac. It sets things up so you can dual boot, meaning you can choose to run Windows (XP SP1 minimum) or MacOS X fully native. (One restriction is you have to use the Windows FAT 32 file system. NTFS is currently read only under MacOS X.)
Apple created a Boot Camp Assistant that walks you through creating a partition, on the fly, formatting that partition for Windows, and then begins the installation process. (An included PDF gives you step by step guidance. You will want to read it carefully so you don't wipe out your MacOS X partition.) After you run Boot Camp you will be prompted to insert your Leopard DVD to install, automatically, needed drivers for Windows
After installation you can choose to boot into MacOS X or Windows by clicking on the Option key., and choose the appropriate icon. Boot Camp adds a Boot Camp Task Bar shortcut in Windows. This lets you easily boot back into MacOS X, change Boot Camp settings, and access Boot Camp specific help. Boot Camp automatically detects Apple keyboards and maps PC key commands to the appropriate keys.
When you're booted into MacOS X you have full access to files in the Windows partition. Which means you can copy, open,modify or delete files. Should you no longer need the Windows partition you can delete it and the used disk space is instantly available to MacOS X.
Apple deserves a lot of credit for Boot Camp. They not only responded to their customer’s desire to run Windows natively, they also made it easy to setup and support. It’s easier than an equivalent install on a generic PC. This move in particular, and the ability to run Windows in a virtual machine, has generated momentum with switchers and enterprise customers.
Applescript sees improvements under Leopard. For starters you can combine strings from multiple languages into your solution, as Applescript is now fully Unicode. A new Scripting Bridge lets you control or query a program, via Applescript, from Ruby, Python, and Objective-C. A number of System Preferences are now scriptable, including Expose, Accounts and Networking. An updated language guide and more descriptive error messages aid in developing and deploying solutions. A new enhanced Application Object Model lets coders write scripts that are abstracted resulting in more generic, and portable, scripts. Another nice feature for scripters is a new application property that can check to see if an application is running and if it is the frontmost. Folder Actions, basically Applescripts attached to folders, now use the file system rather than the Finder to trigger events. Folder Actions now have their own server, ie a background program always listening and ready to act. This should mean faster, more responsive folder actions.
Automator sees some major improvements in Leopard. To begin with Apple has tried to make its interface more accessible. They have brought over the Starting Points feature from iWork. Starting Points displays a sheet with categories to choose from. You can further refine your selection via pop-up menus. Other updates to the user interface include a workflow log, viewable via a single click, and access to iLife content through an iLife media picker.
You can now train Automator to, well, automate your repetitive tasks. A new action called Watch Me Do lets you record user actions, like pressing a button, and replay that as an action in a workflow. Workflow looping lets a workflow repeat for either a specified number of times or duration. Automator gains new actions for working with RSS feeds, iSight camera video snapshots, PDF manipulation, and many more.
Automator also gains some powerful additions which will make it much more useful for professionals. Workflows can now store and retrieve data during execution. Which means you can use the same information at different steps in a work flow. A new command line utility give Automator access to other programming languages.
The only other major update to Dashboard involves a tie-in to Mobile Me. Settings for your widgets sync between multiple Macs. Therefore you can take your Dashboard environment “with you”.
There is a lot of new features under the hood. In fact this is the most feature packed update to MacOS X ever. I would say that there are so many new features everyone will find something that they love. I was impressed with the thoughtfulness of many of these features. Once you start to use the system you’ll notice subtle improvements here and there. Even apps like Dictionary got some useful feature updates. New features aren’t the entire story. In my opinion this release feels faster than Tiger. I’ve also found it to be more stable than previous releases.
For those using G3 Macs Tiger is the end of the road. That is also true for many of the folks who might be using a G4. (Leopard requires at least an 867mhz G4.) Leopard also comes standard on a DVD ROM. Unlike Tiger I have not heard anyone mention an option for a CDROM version of Leopard.
The biggest complaint about Leopard was that it felt unfinished. Initially there were features that didn’t work right. There were reports in the field with issues on various systems. (An issue with third party programs that modify the user interface caused a good deal of those initial reported problems. ) Perhaps Apple’s time table was too ambitious last summer. They had just released iPhone OS 2.0, and Mobile Me.
This review only scratches the surface of all of the features in Leopard. By far it is the most ambitious release since 10.0 came out. If you meet the system requirements, I’d recommend you upgrade to Leopard. There is so much good stuff in there you’ll be glad you did.
Posted: Thursday, April 30th, 2009