OS X Leopard First Day Review

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mac_os_x_leopard_box.jpgAfter having played around with Apple’s latest operating system for the past twelve hours or so, here are my initial thoughts on Leopard (10.5).

Bear in mind that I haven’t tested everything extensively (some things I haven’t set up at all yet), but it should give you an overall flavour for the new features, and perhaps help you decide whether it’s worth upgrading yet.

FUNCTIONS AND APPLICATIONS

I’ve listed the main applications and functions, as touted by Apple, in alphabetical order, with my thoughts on each. I’ll talk about the overall experience in the next section. If you just can’t wait, jump to the the final overview or (very short) conclusion.

Automator

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For all its promise, I never really made much use of the Automator in Tiger. Apple claims to have updated the Leopard version to make it easier to build automated tasks. Included is a “Watch Me” function which can be used to record a set of actions, in real time, and have them saved for later playback.

There are certainly a lot more options available, though in the main the best use of it, at present, will still come from being heavily reliant on Apple’s own software — Safari, Pages, Keynote, iTunes, and so on. Great if you’re totally at home with these applications, but not so great if you want to throw Firefox, Word, or any number of other bits of software into the mix.

Promising, but (at least to me) still just that little bit too much effort.

Boot Camp

I’ve never had a desire to run Windows on my Mac — I have access to a PC should I need it. I looked at installing XP, just to test, but wasn’t comfortable messing about with partitions. Until I add another, larger hard drive, this will remain unused.

Hats off to Apple for making it available, though, particularly for the increasing number of PC users who have switched to the Mac and want/need access to Windows.

Dashboard

The Dashboard mechanism hasn’t changed much. It’s possibly a little faster to load, and some of the widgets (such as the Unit Converter) have a few additional graphics, but apart from that, it’s still dependent on whatever widgets you choose to add.

One additional feature, however, is the ability to “clip” any portion of any web page to the Dashboard. From Safari, right click on the web page, select “Open in Dashboard”, and then select which area you want to be displayed.

The resulting clip isn’t interactive, nor does it allow you to scroll outside the area selected (and if you select an area bigger than your monitor, you could be in trouble). However, it does update, and could be useful for frequently visited pages.

The clips didn’t always load when entering Dashboard, but a quick “Apple-R” refreshes them. Most links appear to be clickable, too (it seemed at first that they weren’t, but I’ve tried again since), with the landing page appearing in a new Safari tab on the desktop.

How useful this is will depend on how much you use the Dashboard itself. I’d suggest it could become a little more useful as a central repository for information outside the Spaces environment, but then, I always used the Dashboard fairly frequently.

Finder

maclogo.jpgThe Finder itself has some added eye candy of its own. The translucent menu bar (on Macs fast enough to handle it; it was gradated as per Tiger on my elderly G4) is nice but hardly essential.

Again, the Dock’s translucency is nice, but not essential. The blue lighting makes it a bit easier to see which applications are open (though I always tended to use Apple-Tab as I was often about to switch apps anyway) than the black triangles used in Tiger.

The starfield background used on all the screeshots is just that, an extra desktop pattern.

All Finder windows have gone the iTunes route, and now have four views for finding files, with the addition of the Cover Flow mode for flicking through files. It’s probably something you’ll either love or hate, so it’s a good thing the other three file display modes are still intact.

I found it to work best when flicking through banks of images, though it’s fun at first to see other documents, with accurate thumbnails, whizzing past. More on that in “Quick Look” later on.

The iTunes-esque sidebar now features four distinct areas.

First up is the Devices menu, which lists all the discs and, err, devices available locally.

Second is the Shared menu, listing resources available over the network (whether or not you have authorisation to them is another matter). Apple programmers have added their own little joke when displaying PC servers, with a monitor showing the Blue Screen of Death.

Thirdly comes the Places menu, which can contain any number of folders and shortcuts, and behaves much as before.

Finally, the “Search For” menu contains smart folders.

In reality, not much has changed in terms of what’s available, merely how it’s displayed. It’s good to have easy access to shared volumes, and I was also pleased to see very easy access to shared screen support built in. This is nothing new for those already “in the know” but probably something everyday Mac users never used. It means I can now control several Macs over the network, with direct access to their screens, providing that permissions are enabled. Good stuff.

Nothing else in the Finder itself jumps out and says “I’m new”. It’s as competent as before, with a few extra visual features that you’ll love or hate. At present, I love them.

Front Row

Front Row has had a big makeover and now looks even better. There’s easy access to media, though again it does rely on organising media via Apple’s own products. For example, I have a lot of pictures not indexed in iPhoto, some MP3s/podcasts not encoded in iTunes, and TV programmes recorded using EyeTV (TV on iTunes in the UK? C’mon). These don’t appear to be available via Front Row.

That’s not a problem for me, as I don’t use FR much. It looks as if it does its job admirably well, though, with plenty of eye candy.

iChat

ichat_logo.pngI don’t use iChat. None of my contacts use it, or AIM, and I don’t use video with it. I was intrigued to see how the new video backdrops would work. They looked great in the online demo, but I got disappointing results, with bits of the background popping up and bits of me disappearing into the virtual background.

It may have been the camera I was using (not the built in iSight) that caused the problem. I’ll look into it.

Of more interest from a “useful” point of view is the screen and application sharing, but as I don’t have any iChat buddies, least of all with Leopard installed, I’ll have to see if I can create a virtual friend on my other Mac and test it out.

It’s a service I’d use if it wasn’t so Mac-centric. It has enormous potential, but until then I’m stuck with Skype, Windows Live, and the other IM clients that my contacts actually use.

Mail

mail_menu_items.pngThe pre-launch fuss around Mail was about its funky new stationery, notes, and to-do lists.

All functions seem to do what they’re supposed to, though when I tried to set up some personalised stationery the first time, the Mail application crashed. Teething troubles, no doubt.

It’s highly unlikely I’m going to make use of the new eye candy, in much the same way as I won’t be using iChat’s more fancy video features, but that doesn’t mean that some Mac users won’t enjoy sending funky graphical greetings to all their contacts. It just doesn’t fit into business, but then as the Mac increases its popularity with “ordinary” users (not to sound condescending), it doesn’t need to.

Notes and To-Do lists work fairly well as they’ve been designed. It’s likely you’ll already be using some system to keep track of things you need to do. Again, it’ll be down to personal preference whether you uproot those systems for the new integration between Mail and iCal.

It works well enough, once I realised where the To-Do items were appearing on iCal (I don’t use it much).

Though I understand why Apple has done it this way, I’m no fan of notes in Mail appearing in the main inbox, particularly as they’re in a smaller Marker Felt font. Sure, it distinguishes them, but then so does the fact there’s a whole new “Reminders” section for this kind of thing.

Maybe there’s an option to ensure these remain separate, but I haven’t found it yet. More customisation would be useful.

There’s quite a nice feature for creating To-Do lists from a selection of text in a mail message. By default, To-Do items get put in the same mailbox as the original item. If you work with several mailboxes, it could get confusing, though as with most things Mac, it shouldn’t take long to work out what’s going on if you use the function regularly.

I can see myself using the To-Do list feature, and in turn firing up iCal each day. It’s got potential.

The concept of RSS feeds in Mail is a good one, if you like the overall interface, as it lends itself just as well to reading feed items as email messages. However, there didn’t seem to be a way of importing a collection of feeds (via OPML), so I’m not inspired to trying to transfer my Google Reader subscriptions. There’s bound to be a system file containing feed addresses that could be manually edited, though, but I’d suggest most people willing to do that kind of “hack” for the sake of RSS are already happy with an existing feed reader.

Finally, what I was most concerned about, yet which seemed to have the least coverage, was spam filtering.

When Tiger Mail arrived, a big deal was made about its advanced spam filtering and training mode. While it started off good, it soon became overwhelmed by the spammers’ new methods of sneaking past filters. It became outdated very quickly.

Based on a day of email use, the spam filters in Mail 3.0 do appear to be catching more spam. However, it’s not clear whether the methods of identifying it will evolve, or they initial database/algorithms will quickly become outdated.

I haven’t yet set up my email accounts to go via Gmail (which, to my mind, currently has some of the best spam protection). If Mail’s standards slip again, I’ll definitely switch. If it learns, I’ll trust it.

Preview

preview_tools_menu.pngThe Preview application, often fired up to show PDF documents and for very basic graphical manipulations, such as cropping, has had quite a major overhaul, to the point that it could well become one of my favourite native apps.

At present, I use a combination of Photoshop (rarely) and GraphicConverter (frequently) to work with images for the web. Preview may now be able to do much more of the “bread and butter” editing I need.

When opening any type of standard graphics file (GIF, JPEG, TIFF, PNG), the Tools menu now contains a lot more options, including extensive controls for adjusting colour and size, and there are some interesting new selection methods including lasso and shape extraction. There’s also an Inspector which gives quick information about the image.

While Preview won’t replace more dedicated applications for detailed work, the additional features make it a much stronger contender.

Quick Look

Much talked about, Quick Look is every bit as useful as I’d hoped. I hate having to open applications (particularly those of a particular vendor) just to view a document, and now I don’t have to.

Selecting one file, right-clicking, and selecting “Quick Look” from the contextual menu brings up a translucent box (much like the Apple-Tab application switcher) with a preview of that file.

It’s possible to select multiple files, of different types, and run a slideshow, or manually flick between them. It’s quick (graphics-intensive PDFs can take a few seconds to render), and nifty, and creates decent results. It’s also the method by which to run a slideshow of images – that distinct menu item has now disappeared. Any collection of files can be run as a show, or displayed as an index sheet.

Microsoft Word documents don’t always display 100% accurately, but usually I’m more interested in the content than the layout. Excel sheets are fine. Keynote presentations display as a set of vertical slides.

Some applications don’t work with Quick Look — Garageband projects for example — but that’s not a huge loss.

This is a feature I expect to use a lot. Bravo Apple.

Spaces

spaces_diagram.pngAnother much hyped feature, Spaces is a great concept but your mileage may vary as to how useful you find it.

Even with a multi-monitor setup, you can never have too much desktop space, and Spaces effectively lets you maintain up to sixteen (4×4) desktops, fully independently of one another.

Setting up is very easy, though “Application Assignments” may take some getting used to. You can specify that an application defaults to just one space, or shows up in all of them. So, if I always wanted my Skype window to be visible across desktops, I’d set it to “Every Space”, but if I just wanted it in space 1, I’d do that.

There’s no way to specify some spaces, which could be a useful feature, but then you don’t have to use AA at all, and application windows can be placed in any space.

Pressing F8 (by default) shows an Exposé-like overview of all your windows. From here, you can drag windows between spaces. It’s even possible to run Exposé from this view, allowing you to see separated, miniature views of every window. Neat.

By dragging a window to one edge of a space, and holding for a second or two, the next space in that direction is brought into view. Once you have in your head the layout of your Spaces, it’s quite easy to visualise and use.

Generally, if you switch to an application which resides in another space, then you’re transported there. This didn’t seem to work for all non-Apple apps, though. EyeTV had to be selected from the dock, not the application switcher, and Firefox’s windows weren’t always made active.

A few teething problems, then, but a system I plan to use to de-clutter my desktop even more.

Spotlight

The Spotlight internal search system has been improved since Tiger, offering more logic operations and faster indexing. However, it could still have gone further.

It’s now possible to use Google-like operators and types (not identical) to search for specific things, or narrow down many results.

At the main Spotlight search field, which by default appears top right of desktop when pressing Apple-Space, it’s now possible to use the boolean operators AND, OR, NOT, and AND NOT. However, when forming searches using the menu system (as when creating smart folders) it still seems only to be possible to use the AND operator. This is still a little restrictive.

However, it does seem possible to save a search formed by typing the query into Spotlight, and using that as a smart folder.

I personally use Spotlight much more for finding files than for creating smart folders — that’s just how I tend to work. I still think Apple could have built more logic in to the function, for those who’d like it. Defaults would ensure that it wasn’t overcomplicated for everyday searches.

Good, but could still do better.

Stacks

mac_os_x_desktop_with_spaces.jpgStacks is an interesting one. It floated around demos almost as much for eye candy as anything else, though it obviously has its uses, presuming you like the Dock (if you don’t, you’ll probably hate it)

Designed to remove clutter from the desktop, any folder can be plopped to the right side of the Dock. When clicked on, the items in it expand into an upward arc, or a grid (if the Dock is on the left or right, then it’s always a grid)

The preset Downloads folder only gets filled automatically with downloads done via Safari (possibly Mail), so if you use Firefox, you’ll still end up with downloads wherever you’ve defaulted them. However, you could drag those files to the downloads folder if you wanted to.

The feature is good, but again I’d like to see it expanded. I’d like to be able to click on folders in the grid view and stay in the grid view (or have the option). I’d like to be able to right click and go straight to options for Quick Look, or Automator actions.

Again, it’s a good start, and very usable, but hoping that it’s a feature that evolves.

Time Machine

I’ve not hooked up an additional hard drive yet, so can’t comment on the effectiveness of the Time Machine. It’s a great idea, so long as it’s reliable, and particularly for “everyday” users (or even pros) who still don’t have a regular backup plan in place.

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THE WHOLE LEOPARD

Installation

Installation is a breeze, though in a bid to make it “one-click” simple for anyone to install over the top of a previous version of OS X, Apple have made some of the more recommended ways of upgrading an operating system hidden.

That won’t bother switchers, or people buying new Macs from now on, as they’ll have a fresh Leopard waiting for them.

I’d advise those upgrading OS X to do as clean an install as they can bear — at least Archive and Install, which moves out the old OS X rather than simply replacing files, which is what the simple install appears to do. It reduces the risk of leaving any nasties behind, particularly if you’ve made system-level modifications.

Performance

I’ve not done any official benchmarks, but the whole system feels as fast, perhaps slightly more so, than Tiger. However, there’s no obvious speed boost as some have experienced when upgrading pre-Tiger versions of OS X.

Certainly, once settled, the new features don’t slow down a modern Mac. G4 Macs close to the low-end specs will struggle, with some features degrading gracefully. Still usable, but worth considering if you’re not better off sticking with Tiger.

Some elements, however, do appear to run less efficiently at present. For example, I use a Flash video encoder plugin for Firefox, which is fairly processor intensive. However, when I fired it up under Leopard, it hogged nearly the complete processor time. Hopefully, future releases will solve these kinds of issues.

Compatibility

As with any new operating system, there will always be software (and some hardware) casualties.

Of course, all of Apple’s own software has been updated, where necessary, though there have been a few, non-drastic glitches with Mail.

Other major software companies, such as Adobe, have already started announcing which of their applications work with Leopard, and if/when others will be upgraded.

If you’re still hanging onto OS 9 (Classic) applications, forget trying to use them (unless someone comes up with a hack, of course). That operating system is now completely dead, as far as Apple is concerned.

It’s worth checking when your favourite software will be upgraded, or if you can manage without it and find an alternative. So far, only a couple of fairly minor utilities have stopped working, and I can manage without them. For Intel Macs, Rosetta will still work to translate PowerPC software on-the-fly.

Wow Factor?

There’s no real “Wow!” to the new operating system. There are no essential features here, in fact it’s difficult to see exactly how much more will be added to our current crop of operating systems that’s truly revolutionary. The main “Wow” factors came in Tiger, and have been built upon here.

If you’re considering Leopard, but aren’t sure, take a look at the way you currently use your Mac, and then, ideally, take a test drive at an Apple Store to see if the additional functions will improve your productivity.

I’m pretty sure that I could have carried on in Tiger quite happily. Spaces, Stacks, Time Machine, Mail, and Quick Look aren’t so vitally important that I couldn’t manage without them — though now I have them, I’m becoming hooked.

I am sure there are more performance benefits “under the hood” which aren’t immediately obvious. Though you take the risk of a dot zero release being more temperamental, eventually my hope is that Leopard, overall, is more stable, faster, and efficient with resources than any previous version of OS X.

Features like Front Row prove, again, that Apple care both about function and look. Though it currently reaches a smaller audience than the iPod and iPhone, I’d suggest that Mac OS X does that the best. Arguably a more secure, easier, but powerful operating system, wrapped up in some stunning clothing.

I have no problem working with pretty windows.

Conclusion: Should you buy?

I can’t tell you whether you should upgrade or not. If you’re currently using Tiger, you may want to wait. If you’re using a lower end Mac, you may not be able to upgrade. If you’re using software that’s absolutely critical to your business or lifestyle, you’d be well to be wary about upgrading before you know that it works.

I have no regrets about upgrading, though. Leopard is a fine addition to the OS X family.

Andy Merrett

3 comments

  • I like very much the writings and pictures and explanations in your adress so I look forward
    to see your next writings. I congratulate you.

  • great (honest) review andy – thanks

    – i particularly liked the way you spoke about ichat and automator!

    will you be posting an update? (maybe after 10.5.1)

  • great (honest) review andy – thanks

    – i particularly liked the way you spoke about ichat and automator!

    will you be posting an update? (maybe after 10.5.1)

Comments are closed.