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Monday, October 29, 2007, 06:40 am PT (09:40 am ET)

An Introductory Mac OS X Leopard Review: Mail and iCal

Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard comes with a selection of entirely new or greatly improved applications. The new system is designed to be flexible to fit your needs, so you can import the data from existing apps you currently use into Leopard's, or alternatively continue to use your own preferred alternative apps on the new OS. It also exposes new functionality for developers to allow them to extend upon, replace, or collaborate with Apple's supplied applications. Here's a look at how the new versions of Mail and iCal work.

Installation Types

As noted in the previous segment, An Introductory Mac OS X Leopard Review: Meet Your New Desktop, if you already have Mac OS X 10.3 Panther or 10.4 Tiger installed, you can install 10.4 Leopard as an upgrade. This simply replaces the old parts of the OS with the new components from Leopard, and preserves all of your application settings and configurations. It's also slightly faster to perform.

A number of alarmist websites have been warning users about doing an upgrade install as if it were an inherently dangerous undertaking. This is not really true; upgrade installs rarely present real problems unless you've hacked away at your system or have corrupt files on your disk. MacJournals recently castigated Cnet's MacFixIt site for fear mongering related to performing a Leopard upgrade install—as well as using DiskWarrior—in the article MacJournals News : The despicable MacFixIt.

The article noted that unless you've already followed MacFixIt's advice to "drop older system extensions and drivers into newer versions as a hackneyed attempt to fix problems," the best option is usually to perform an upgrade install, explaining, "the normal 'Upgrade Mac OS X' installation choice is the default for a reason: it works."

If however, you're experiencing problems with your current system, have hacked away at your system, have installed quirky software (including specialized hardware with drivers that patch the system with Kernel Extensions), or are still running a system prior to Mac OS X 10.3 Panther (believe it or not, Leopard actually supports some Macs models that originally shipped with Mac OS 9.2 and Mac OS 10.0), then you need to choose a different install option.

First, perform a backup of your drive to a secondary hard drive using a free disk duplication utility such as SuperDuper or CarbonCopyCloner. Next, verify your hard drive. You can do this using the Leopard DVD; simply boot from it, and then from the installer page, pull down the Utilities menu and start Disk Utility. If your drive checks out fine, you can do an "Archive and Install." If you get disk errors, or if you simply suspect that your drive may be problematic, you can have the installer perform a full "Erase and Install," after, of course, backing up your data.

Apple outlines the steps in an easy to follow PDF document named "Install and Setup Guide" on the Leopard DVD. If you do a simple upgrade, Leopard will leave certain settings as you had them. This includes the downloads directory used by applications such as Safari; by default, they typically dump their files on the desktop. This can be changed in the applications' Edit/Preferences, if you'd rather use the new centralized Downloads directory. Drag this to the Dock if you'd like the Downloads Stack described in Road to Mac OS X Leopard: Dock 1.6. There are a few other slight differences that are inherited from your old system when you upgrade rather than install fresh, but none are really problems.

Beyond the Desktop: Leopard Mail

If you're already using Mail, the new version in Leopard offers to upgrade your existing messages in a process on first launch. Once completed, you'll notice the new Smart Mailboxes, Reminders, and RSS items in the sidebar.

Smart Mailboxes were in Tiger, but are now broken out into their own main category, which can be sorted around as a single block, rather than as individual folders. A new preference in Mail also allows you to either only count new mails in the Inbox on Mail's Dock icon notification badge (below), or to also include all folders, or to use a specific Smart Mailbox for the unread count. This is handy if you sort your incoming mail and only want to see notification for emails matching specific rules you define.

Leopard


RSS lets you use Really Simple Syndication URLs to track new content on websites. Safari added RSS features in Tiger, allowing you to click the RSS button on websites to jump to a feed view of the page. Using a standalone RSS feed reader such as NetNewsWire, you can manage incoming feeds with greater control. Mail provides a lean version of this by allowing you to set it as the default feed reader; it will then list the feeds you select to display them either in their own listing only under the RSS section (below top), or mixed right into your Inbox items as new incoming messages (below bottom), depending on which style you prefer. You can move individual RSS feeds between your Inbox and the RSS section by clicking the arrow icon next to the name of each feed.

Leopard


Leopard


If you like the idea of browsing various sites via RSS, you may want to upgrade from Mail to a full feed reader that supports other features the new Mail does not; however, Leopard's Mail offers a simple, easy to use introduction to the world of skimming news, right from your Inbox. Click on an RSS feed in your list, and a list of recent items are presented just like incoming mails, with a preview of the content below. Depending on how the RSS feed is set up, it may show either an opening paragraph or the entire article from the website, along with the publication time and date and a link to the original page.

RSS browsing is fast and convenient in Mail, but if you don't like the feature, you can simply hide it by dragging the RSS section out of view and selecting an alternative feed reader or your web browser to handle RSS feeds.

Reminders introduces Notes and To Do events. Both items appear in a hierarchy under Reminders, separated into multiple folders per mailbox, if you configure Mail to use multiple mail accounts. This presentation logically groups mailbox items by function, rather than just presenting all of the folders of an entire mailbox together as a set, as is common among other email programs. Mail keeps one set of "On My Mac" folders, and an independent set for each IMAP-style email account you configure, as does any other email system; it simply presents those folders differently, oriented to the user rather than to the conventions of the mail server.

Notes are specially formatted emails, but they stand out using the unique yellow scratchpad paper and the scribbled Marker Felt font used in the iPhone's Notes. In Mail, you can add the same rich text formatting and file attachments of regular email messages, but Notes act as specially categorized memos in your inbox that can be sorted apart from your normal messages, and are also singled out in their own folder under Reminders.

Leopard


You can also bring up a Note and click Send to mail it out; this rips off a copy of the note and inserts it into a regular email with styles and attachments intact, on a notepad paper with a nice drop shadow. Unlike an email draft, the original Note doesn't disappear after you send it, so Notes are a handy way to manage memos you might want to send out to multiple recipients, like a form letter. Notes also replace Stickies, which used a non-standard system of their own to capture notes, and couldn't support file attachments or being sent as emails. Click the "simplify" pill button on the Note window title bar, and the toolbar disappears, leaving a compact, Stickies-like Note (with unique rounded window corners on the bottom). If you don't like the Marker Felt font, change it in preferences.

Notes in your IMAP email Inbox show up as regular emails on other systems, such as the iPhone; the notepad-style formatting is only displayed within Leopard Mail (below). However, once you send a Note, the ripped notebook look is created as an HTML email, and so it appears as a Note-attached email to all recipients as well as when you check your email on another client, including the iPhone. Notes don't yet sync to the iPhone's Notes app, but that is obviously only a matter of time, as presented in Using iPhone: Notes, ToDos, Attached Files, and Mac OS X Leopard.

Leopard


To Do events also appear under the Reminders section, although unlike a Note, they don't display in the Inbox as well. While Notes are like email assistants in Mail, To Do events are like calendar event partners in iCal. To Do events have always appeared in iCal, so why are they now in Mail? The answer lies in the clever linking of email messages to calendar events.

In addition to simply creating a new To Do reminder in iCal or Mail and adding it to your list, you can now select an email—or a selection of text within an email—and right click to perform a New To Do (below). This creates an action item that links back to that message. This is a very handy way to extract a list of actionable reminders while reviewing your incoming email. You can then pull up the message directly from your To Do list later on, rather than searching around for the conversation that launched the reminder.

Leopard


To Do events created within a message are presented on that email in Mail, too (below). You get a red X control for deleting the To Do, a checkbox to complete the item, a hyperlink that jumps into the message to find the text selection you linked from, and an 'add more details button' for setting a due date, multiple alarms, a priority, and an assigned calendar.

Leopard


Leopard


This isn't just some catch up features applied to check off a box of "add To Do events in Mail," but a well thought out system for linking your messages and calendar together (below, note the iTunes style arrow links on each reminder). The interface is done in Marker Felt and orange highlighting to distinguish Reminders from other components of Mail, as if your administrative assistant were scribbling out reminders and notes to keep you on schedule. If you don't like Notes and To Do reminders, you can rest assured that they don't pop up unless you choose to use them; the entire Reminders section disappears with a click on its disclosure triangle, and can be dragged to the bottom of the sidebar out of view. The Notes and To Do buttons can even be removed from the toolbar.

Leopard


On page 2 of 2: Other New Mail Features; Leopard iCal; New Interface Details; and Calendar Event Items.