Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Apple Mac OS X v10.5 Leopard

Part useful, part flash, all beautifully easy. Leopard delivers several exciting innovations that make using a Mac both more productive and more fun.

Price: $129 (single license); $199 (family pack)

Part useful, part flash, all beautifully easy: Apple's Mac OS X 10 Leopard bounded into stores Friday, thrilling the Mac faithful with a solid and extremely useful upgrade. By maintaining a swift upgrade timeline (Apple generally updates its OS every 18 months, though Leopard had a four-month delay due to the iPhone development) and offering a low single-license price of $129, Apple continues to stand in favorable contrast to its much larger and more entrenched competition. Plus, Leopard delivers several exciting innovations that make using it both more productive and more fun. Windows users, are you considering switching yet?

Time MachineBacking up is the chore everyone knows they should do, yet few do. That's why Leopard will be remembered as the OS that debuted Time Machine, the backup tool that changes everything.

Leave it to Apple to design a backup tool that's not only a complete no-brainer but that also offers a clever graphical way of viewing your saved data. To use Time Machine on a Mac notebook, you'll need a dedicated external drive. With 500GB drives going for as low at $119, there's no excuse not to have one. Plug in the drive; your Mac will ask if you want to use Time Machine to back up your data. Click Yes and you'll be told that the drive needs to be erased first. That's it. Time Machine handles the rest. First, it creates a full backup of your entire Mac, then incremental backups every hour afterward. The external drive saves hourly backups for 24 hours, daily backups for 30 days, and weekly backups until your drive is full.

When you need to recall a deleted or altered file, Time Machine provides displays the old data as a series of windows that regress into time. View the contents of a Finder window until you find your missing file, or run a search and compare the search results for different backups. You can even use it to delete an incriminating file from all of your backups. Naturally, Time Machine also lets you restore your entire computer following a catastrophic crash. While it's a remarkably useful and powerful tool, Time Machine can't back up to a shared network storage drive unless you enable AFP (Apple Filing Protocol)]; it can back up over a network but only to a dedicated drive. We have a hunch that that will change soon, however.

FinderMany of Leopard's most useful improvements have to do with the Finder, which simply helps you find your own data more quickly.

iTunes users already know Cover Flow as a visually pleasing way of flipping through your music collection, letting you scan covers to find what you want. Now, Cover Flow joins the Finder (oddly, without changing its name), letting users flip through all of their stored documents, photos, presentations, videos, and more with the same ease. Because looking at program icons wouldn't be informative, the Finder offers an image of the first page of that file. That Cover Flow worked quickly on a 933-MHz G4 test machine (a desktop that barely met the minimum requirements) is a testament to how powerful the software is.

Our next favorite Finder improvement is Quick Look, which lets you preview a document without loading the application that's associated with it. Select a file in the Finder and tap the space bar: You'll instantly get a larger image of the file contents. If it's a multi-page document, you can turn through the pages. If it's a video, you can play it. This all happens with no waiting for most files.

Stacks, a modest but flashy change to the Dock, is the kind of improvement that Apple loves to show-off in ads. A Stack is just a docked folder; click on it and the contents spray out in a curved arch, springing from the Dock or in a grid. The Dock could already hold folder previously, but in Tiger, opening one showed a simple text interface. While not as sexy, we found this text-based approach to be both more useful than Stacks. If the arch becomes distracting, you can always default to the more intuitive grid view.

Spaces, another visually nifty inclusion, lets you break your workspace into multiple spaces, each holding different apps; then it lets you move between them. It's impressive to watch, and it will greatly benefit people who love to have many apps open at once and need a way to compartmentalize their work. We do like that it allows for some consistency in where to look for your most-used applications, such as e-mail or the browser. And we love how easy it is to move windows from one stack to the other.

Mail, Address Book, and iCalApple's default e-mail client, Mail, works in tandem with Address Book and iCal, but we'd like to see Apple take its improvements even further.

Mail now includes more than 30 HTML stationery templates for creating professionally designed e-mail that looks like a newsletter. Templates are grouped into the categories Birthday, Announcements, Photos, Stationery, and Sentiments. (We especially like the one that looks like a giant yellow sticky note.)

Mail now uses data detectors to find important data in messages, letting you create an Address Book contact with one click, add an appointment to iCal, or display a phone number in jumbo type for easy dialing. This worked fairly well in testing, although it rarely included all of a contact's information when creating an Address Book entry. It could get the names, phone numbers, and addresses okay, but it sometimes left off titles and companies. We like that its data detectors can decipher in an invite that "this Tuesday" means the Tuesday following the date the invite was sent. Unfortunately, this works with only standard e-mail and HTML--not embedded PDFs. You can also make a Note or a To-Do in Mail. To-Do's are synched with iCal.

iCal has long been the OS' weak link, and, sadly, that continues with Leopard. iCal offers strong collaboration features and gains a tool called Event Dropbox, which makes sharing information easier for teams. But it still lacks basic functionality, such as being able to create recurring To-Do entries or attach To-Do's to a particular date.

Something for EveryoneBoot Camp is solid insurance for uneasy switchers, and business users will find more to like with iChat.

If you can't decide between a Windows and Mac machine, Apple has ensured that you don't have to: Boot Camp is now a part of the OS, letting Intel-based Mac users install Windows (not included) and boot up into either OS.

Apple's videoconferencing tool, iChat, has also made big strides with Leopard. You can now add fun backgrounds to your chats or use Photo Booth effects to distort your face in odd ways. You can also now share your screen with iChat or even remotely control the screen of whomever you're chatting with. It's a fantastic way to offer tech support from a distance.

Leopard offers too many features to go into depth on all of them in one review, but we should add that we love the improved parental controls (which let parents control access, set usage times, and monitor activity-all from a remote machine), the improvements to Safari (which let users create widgets from any Web clipping and surf anonymously from shared computers), and the improved Spotlight search (which can now provide dictionary definitions and perform calculations).

If you're a Mac user, Leopard is worth the price for Time Machine alone, but the sheer variety of improvements and innovation inside this OS give you much more than your money's worth. While some enhancements are just for fun, and others could have gone further, there's plenty here to keep Apple users productive and happy-and make Windows users jealous.

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