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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


Other New Mail Features

Mail also presents a new Mail Activity window, which pops up at the bottom of the sidebar when selected from the lower left icon (above). As messages are created, sent, received, or deleted from the server, this region shows a series of parallel progress bars that highlight what's happening behind the scenes.

When you create a new email, two new buttons appear in the toolbar: Stationery and Photo Browser. Select the former and a listing of templates rolls into view, organized by Birthday, Announcements, Photos, Stationery and Sentiment. You can also drag and drop your favorites into a container marked Favorites for easy access. This seems to be an new user interface convention supplied by the ImageKit.

The various templates give you a starting point for entering your own text and dragging in your own photos from the Photo Browser panel, which displays a hierarchal listing of your iPhoto pictures listed by Event, Album, Smart Album, or Flagged settings defined in iPhoto. It also presents a listing of pictures you've taken from Photo Booth. You can drag any of your pictures in to replace the canned placements in the supplied template, or simply drop them inline within your text.

By default, templates automatically shrink your photos down to save space so you don't inadvertently send out monstrously large photos from your 8 megapixel camera. You also can't edit templates from the mail view, so it isn't a full version of iWeb for creating Godzilla HTML mails. It does however give users an easy way to smarten up a few photos in a professional template to send to friends.

Leopard


Text regions in the supplied templates highlight to show where to enter the text, and you can change the text fonts, styles, and colors using the standard Font panel. You can't add new arbitrary text regions however. This makes a lot of sense, as its easy to go overboard with complex HTML. Using Apple's supplied templates, emails are only around 100 - 600 KB, considerably larger than plain text emails, but certainly no problem for users with a fast Internet connection. Using the photo templates with a half dozen of your own pictures, the email can grow to a couple megabytes, which is still much smaller than if you'd attempted to just drag in that many full sized photos. It also adds some interest to your pictures, and the easy to use crop and zoom features make it simple to adjust how the photos look. Consumers struggle with figuring out how to shrink and send photos in email; Mail solves this for them.

Receiving an email created from a Mail template is the same on a PC or Mac (or iPhone), as it is simply sent as an HTML document. As long as you select fonts that your recipients have installed on their system, all will be well. Otherwise, they'll simply get replacement fonts displayed instead.

Other new Mail features, including the new Data Detectors, were presented in Road to Mac OS X Leopard: Mail 3.0. Mail's new features feel solid, practical and well conceived, and performance has improved.

Leopard iCal

The new iCal has greatly improved over Tiger's version. It's now fast enough to be practical. Its tight new integration with Mail means that scheduling your calendar isn't just a busy exercise, but a real way to be more productive when prioritizing tasks originating from emails.

The overall calendar interface is similar to previous versions (below top, daily view), but uses slimmed down window boarders and now adopts the iPhone appearance for its mini monthly calendars (below bottom, in weekly view), which can optionally be displayed as a listing of one to four months (or more if you have a large display). Adding more calendars covers up the "source" list of all the iCal calendars it knows about. Listed calendars are grouped into local calendars you've defined within iCal, a ".Mac calendar", and any WebDAV calendars you've subscribed to. You can also create new calendar groups, which allow you to organize your created calendars into hierarchal listings.

Leopard


Leopard


Support for the .Mac calendar is either unfinished or just presented in a confusing way. The .Mac service doesn't really provide a single calendar of its own; it allows you to sync any number of calendars you define in iCal. There's no .Mac web view of your synced calendars presented online (at least not yet), as there is with your .Mac email, contacts, and bookmarks. The .Mac calendar in iCal seems to simply be a placeholder for the To Do events created in Mail. If you select the .Mac calendar listed and try to create a new event, it tells you that "you can not add events to a Mail calendar."

Therefore, the purpose of that ".Mac" listing seems to be only to highlight Mail-created To Do items with a distinctive color code apart from the other To Do reminders in other calendars you've set up (below, Mail To Do reminders are in red rather than the blue and green set up for iCal calendars). It makes no sense to schedule calendar events in that same Mail To Do bucket, because Mail doesn't manage calendar items. Labeling this as ".Mac calendar" is confusing however, because it suggests that it's the only calendar synced with .Mac, although you can't put anything in it. In reality, all your calendars are .Mac calendars, because there's no way to selectively sync only a few of them with .Mac (it's all or nothing). It seems like this item should instead be labeled "Mail To Do Reminders."

Leopard


New Interface Details

You can adjust the width of the sidebar (called the Calendar List), which smoothly scales the display both the main calendar display as well as the monthly mini calendar views; it can also be hidden entirely to devote the window to your main calendar. Another icon in the lower left corner lets you display Notifications in the sidebar, which show incoming calendar invitations received by Mail.

On the right side of the window, iCal displays a list of your To Do reminders. You can sort them by priority, due date, calendar, or sort them manually by drag and drop. You can also hide items once they're marked completed, or leave them in view. The thumbtack icon in the lower right lets you hide the entire To Do column. With both sides hidden, you get a full desk calendar across the entire window (below).

Leopard


If you activate time zone support, you get a local time zone indicator in the upper right (above). This allows you to set the default time zone for new events, so you can schedule items using the local time while traveling, and the calendar floats them using the set time zone, not just the hour number.

Mail provides day, week, and month views, but no calendar list like the iPhone's. This would be a nice addition, in part because iCal makes it easy to create multiple calendars, but there's no way to find what's in a calendar. Are there important events related to a calendar created for a now forgotten purpose (or imported from a mysterious device), or can it be safely trashed? You can search all calendars for rapid results listed in a special listing under the main calendar; click on the search results and the items jump you right to that item. Unfortunately, there's no way to search for everything and view events in that type of listed format, as there is on the iPhone.

Calendar Event Items

Rather than using a pullout drawer like former version of iCal, or a floating Inspector panel as might be expected by iWork users, the new iCal uses a popup interface that resembles a speech bubble (below). Open a calendar event, and inside the popup panel are presented its start and end time, assigned calendar, alarm settings, URL, a note field, file attachments, and attendees. The most obvious problem with this is that you can't open multiple events, say to compare the details of two events.

Leopard


It's also impossible to open multiple calendars in the same way you can open multiple mail viewer windows in Mail. You can only look at one view at a time, and one event at a time. If Apple added multiple calendar view windows, it would solve this problem, as each could open an event; another solution might be to allow for multiple inspector window so you could, as with the Finder, open multiple Get Info windows rather than only open one Get Info panel for the currently selected item.

The new iCal has some rough edges around adding meeting invitations. You can bring up the full Address Book or a simplified Address Book panel within iCal, and you are supposed to be able to drag contacts to calendar items. This doesn't always work; it doesn't like it when you try to invite contacts with the same name, whether you're inviting two different people with the same name, or if you're wanting to address it to the same person under two different emails. It simply dumps the duplicates.

Leopard's iCal has been significantly rewritten, and still needs improvement. It is however, very usable. The fact that Apple is now using it internally as its corporate calendar app, as noted in Road to Mac OS X Leopard: iCal 3.0, indicates that iCal development will progress rapidly; earlier versions hung around as an impractical placeholder for several years while Apple itself used Meeting Maker.

Up next: introductory reviews of Leopard's new Address Book and iChat. AppleInsider's coverage of Leopard will conclude later this week.