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Friday, October 26, 2007, 09:00 am PT (12:00 pm ET)

An Introductory Mac OS X Leopard Review: Meet Your New Desktop


Introduction to the Leopard Desktop

Those foundational principles provide an overall glimpse of the strengths the new Leopard offers. Of course, there's also room for improvement, some occasional irritations, and elements you might not like in the system. Here's a more specific look at what I've discovered within Leopard's significant features and applications getting started with the desktop.

Installation

One application everyone will jump to use first is the installer. As with other Mac OS X installer DVDs, you can restart from within your existing system or simply boot from the DVD. It also includes a PDF booklet with easy to follow installation help, written in the style of an iPod guide. Apple is finally marketing Macs to regular people; imagine how many they'll sell now.

Leopard is set to install nearly everything by default — as had always been the case in Mac OS X upgrades — including Cherokee fonts, lots of language localizations, and several GB of printer drivers. The instructions outline how to do a custom install, and it isn't difficult, but it is odd that the default behavior is to dump lots of obscure foreign fonts on your hard drive. We know Steve Jobs is a fan of "beautiful fonts," but how about some restraint here?

The installation progress takes about an hour, including a lengthy check of the DVD. As with previous Mac OS X installers, it seems to reach the finish line and then hang out with "a minute to go" for some time. Apple advises you to go get a coffee and come back. In any case, that example of frustratingly scanty user feedback is, fortunately, a rare problem once the install has completed. A secondary installer can be used to load developer tools, including Xcode, DashCode, and WebObjects.

The New Desktop

The default desktop is the now familiar view of space, which also shows up in the standard "Welcome to Mac OS X" entry movie that plays on launch. It sets up your account, and then offers to register your system. With that complete, you're left with the purple desktop, which is also used as the new desktop icon in the Finder. The other two new elements visible at launch are the reflective, dimensional looking Dock and the translucent new Menu Bar.

Leopard


The Menu Bar is really only mildly translucent. I didn't notice any impact in readability, but if you find it objectionable you can use a dark desktop pattern (or go out of your way to change things in the system). Whichever desktop pattern you use will be infused into the Menu Bar's look, which subtly presents your desktop photo even when the desktop is obscured. The stronger and brighter the desktop you choose, the more noticeable the effect is.

Leopard


The Menu Bar also has a flatter, subtler appearance compared to the Tiger version, which looked like glossy plastic and featured a bright blue Apple icon. The icon is now black with a grey swash across the lower half that makes it appear to be a black metallic logo with a mirror polish (above). Clicking on the Apple Menu makes it white. Drop down menus now have rounded corners and stronger drop shadows that give the system a classy look overall, and the translucency effect of menus now uses a blur to enhance readability over the background below (below).

Leopard


Also integrated into the Menu Bar is the new Help system. As you type in search terms, it suggests Menu Items. If you point the mouse at suggested items offered in the Help menu, a floating chalk pointer pops up, pulls down the menu, and points out where the item is. If you click on the menu bar item in the Help list, it will simply activate that item (below, in this case it would open a Go to Folder window: again, fewer clicks). If your search in Help matches terms in that application's Help pages, it will also display those in the menu.

Leopard


The other end of the Menu Bar offers the smarter new Spotlight. Open it up with Command+Spacebar. As you type, it first tries to find a matching application and offers to quickly launch it with a tap of the spacebar. If no apps match, it assumes you're looking for a definition of a word in Dictionary, or with numbers, looking for an answer from the Calculator (below). Spotlight is now useful for more than just finding files, and brings up smarter results that are now both instantaneous and easier to use. Additional notes on Dashboard, Spotlight and the Desktop were presented in Road to Mac OS X Leopard: Dashboard, Spotlight and the Desktop.

Leopard


The Dock also picks up the background image, both through its translucency and by way of reflections. It also reflects nearby open windows. I thought this would be more busy and annoying than I later decided it was in actual use. The highway stripe separates applications from Stacks, docked windows and files, and the Trash. Docklet menus also get the new rounded corner look.

Leopard


Again, if you find it too distracting you can also tone things down with a simpler desktop image, or by setting the Dock to the right or left side, where it uses the simpler strip look rather than the glass shelf appearance. You can also manually set the Dock to assume the plain strip appearance (below) along the bottom of the screen via the command line:

Leopard


Additional notes on the Dock, including an extensive look at the new Stacks, were presented in Road to Mac OS X Leopard: Dock 1.6.

Leopard


The Finder is now iTunes. It was inevitable. They both catalog your stuff, search it, show it, group it, start it, categorize it, label it, date it, and share it over the network. The new Leopard Finder uses an iTunes-style window, offers a Cover Flow view that debuted in iTunes a year ago, and now presents more items in your sidebar, iTunes style:
  • Devices lists your attached drives, .Mac folder, network shares, and optical discs.

  • Shared lists all of the machines on your local network, via Bonjour, as well as Back to My Mac, a feature of the new Wide Area Bonjour offed through .Mac, and any manually connected file servers. Clicking on shared systems shows you the sharepoints on that system, offers to login as a user or browse as a guest, and for configured Leopard peers, allows you to initiate a screen sharing session. Once you mount shares, an Eject button displays on that item so you can easily unmount the server.

  • Places is your old Finder sidebar, with any folders you want to list.

  • Search For are smart folders, which are essentially stored search queries.

The new Finder also gets a Path Bar for showing the folder hierarchy of the folder you're looking at. While the Finder could always display a Path Menu from the proxy icon centered in a windows' title bar when Command clicking, the new Leopard also lets you pull that up by right clicking, which is a bit more natural when using a two button mouse of a two finger clickable trackpad.

The new Cover Flow view shows off the beautifully rendered new high resolution icons (above, check out TextEdit's icon), as well as the dynamic previews of files. Even better, you can play movies inline within Cover Flow, or from the file Preview in Column view. Hit the spacebar to bring the file up in Quick Look, the system-wide file viewer for a variety of known file types; it's also extendable by developers. There are additional notes on the Finder in Road to Mac OS X Leopard: Finder 10.5.

Leopard


If the new Finder is too complicated for you, you can try out the "At Ease" Simple Finder, designed for kids and available under Parental Controls. In the world of Simple Folder, everything launches when you click it, you aren't expected to drag anything around, and you can't do much but surf the web, exchange emails with you set list of people, and create lot of files that can only go in your own folders, which are presented in a set panel window. It's pretty much a lot like working for a big corporation running Windows, although you still get the shiny new Dock. Additional notes on Parental Controls appeared in Road to Mac OS X Leopard: Parental Controls and Directory Services.

Leopard


Coming soon from AppleInsider: an introduction to Leopard's desktop applications.