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

Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard has two audiences: those who already own a Mac and are interested in upgrading their experience, and new buyers investigating a Mac purchase. This review series is designed primarily toward Mac users looking to upgrade but includes notes of interest to new Mac buyers as well. This segment provides a 2-page introduction to Leopard's overall features and an introduction of the desktop, with real world usage notes about its peculiarities so you can decide if Leopard (and the Mac) is right for you.

Apple is organizing Leopard launch parties at its various retail stores this afternoon, which will start across the US around 6 PM after the company's stores seal off their windows and undergo a Leopard makeover, not unlike that iPhone event launched in June. The difference, of course, is that iPhone campers waited in line for days to grab the first Apple mobile phone ever, while a new version of Mac OS X comes out about every year and a half. Last year, however, the arrival of a new version of Tiger for Intel Macs consumed enough of Apple's attentions to push Leopard into 2007. Then the iPhone launch delayed Leopard into the fall. Fortunately, Leopard appears well worth the wait.

Is Leopard Ready Yet?

Back in 2005, Apple released Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger with a few rough edges, many of which were patched a couple weeks later in the 10.4.1 update. Since then, the company has churned out nine other free updates at regular intervals that progressively added features and fixed problems. However, this time around, the company left its new OS in gestation for a full sixteen months since its debut at the 2005 World Wide Developers Conference, compared to just ten months of Tiger development following its initial showing. It has been a full two and a half years since Tiger, and all that extra development time has helped to polish the release of Leopard significantly.

Rather than feeling like a "1.0" software release, Leopard claws against the conventional way to release operating systems ("ship it early and then fix with follow up service packs") and instead feels a lot more like Apple's other products, from the iPod to the iPhone to the company's software applications. There's no doubt that a project this complex won't have some niggling issues to iron out, but Apple has directed a lot of attention to ensuring that the Leopard launch will go as smoothly as its transition to Intel last year, or its iPhone launch a few months ago.

In an age when shoving out incomplete, commercial software products as "beta releases" has become standard practice, the fit and finish detail work that has gone into Leopard is really impressive. If you're worried about Leopard not being complete, you can set aside you concerns. However, if you currently use applications that are critical to your work, you should contact the vendor to make sure they're ready for the Leopard launch. You might also decide to wait a week to gauge user feedback on the specific applications you use.

For more casual users, I can point out that I've been using Leopard as my main system now for several months and am extremely happy with its stability and features. The "Golden Master" version Apple is now selling, labeled build 9A581, further improves on previous builds that were already solid. I'd rate Leopard equal in comparison to the current release of Tiger, and slightly more complete than the latest iPhone 1.1.1 release, which seems to hit glitches occasionally.

What To Expect

Apple's product boxes keep shrinking, which is a good thing. Leopard now ships in a small DVD folder distinguished by a holographic X on a star-field background, but the real product is the work that went into developing the software. That work is being sold in the same DRM free packaging Apple has been advocating for music sales in iTunes.

There's no Product Activation system to prevent you from stealing Apple's software; the company trusts that you'll appreciate its product enough to support its efforts to continue development on Mac OS X. That's another welcomed change in the industry, particularly in comparison to Microsoft's Windows Vista, which not only requires a product activation, but also resets activation if you install certain drivers and goes into a "Reduced Functionality Mode" until you are cleared of your suspected crimes.

If you are now running Mac OS X 10.3 or later (Panther or Tiger on either a PowerPC or Intel Mac), Tiger will perform an in-place update, preserving all your settings. If you have an earlier system or a Developer Preview, Leopard needs to do either a clean install or an "Archive and Install," which sets aside your existing software, installs the new system fresh, and will then optionally import your user accounts and files afterward.

Leopard requires at least an 867 MHz G4 PowerMac, or any G5 or Intel model, and 9 GB of free hard drive space. Apple also lists "512 MB of memory," but anyone running any version of Mac OS X should have 1 GB, and ideally 2 GB or more of installed RAM. There are also some other specific requirements that apply to certain power features, including video effects in iChat. These are listed on Apple's site: Mac OS X Leopard - Technical Specs.


Overall Impressions

There's five main themes that have jumped out at me as permeating Leopard's key features and its overall value in using the system:

General Performance

In my testing of Leopard on both a 2005 1.25 GHz G4 PowerBook with 1 GB RAM, and a more modern, year old Core Duo MacBook Pro with 3 GB of RAM installed, I found the system's general performance to be excellent on both machines. The general interface speed of Leopard, despite its fancier bells and whistles, is at least slightly faster overall than Tiger in general and in some cases dramatically snappier and more responsive, even while offering more both in features and in flourish.

That's largely because many of the fancy features of Leopard are delegated to the video card, which is usually sitting idle. If your system lacks the hardware required for certain effects, Leopard doesn't struggle to do them anyway, it often just trims things down to do what it can. Of course, Leopard doesn't magically speed up your slow hard drive or double your installed RAM, but it does take full advantage of your system's resources. At the same time, Leopard can still run on machines that are now a half decade old.

Pervasively Parallel

Another noticeable reason for everything being slightly faster is Leopard is that a lot of secondary tasks are delegated to their own thread, allowing more to be done in parallel rather than having the interface held up until a task is completed. One example is network servers in the Finder. If you've ever disconnected the network before ejecting a file share, you've no doubt felt the pain of having your entire Finder grind to a halt while the system sends out a search party looking for the missing disk. Normality doesn't resume until all hope is lost, and the rescuers don't seem to give up easy, even though they never have any chance in finding anything.

All that's gone in Leopard. Disconnect a file share, and the Finder remains responsive while it tries in vain to reconnect in a separate thread. It then simply pops up a disconnect notice. If you have your Mac on a network, that's reason to buy Leopard in itself. The new Mail similarly benefits from multicore optimization.

Another example of parallel operations occur when you boot; the system starts up very rapidly, because it's designed to kick off everything in parallel.Along the same lines, putting a Leopard machine to sleep and waking it up is nearly instantaneous, just as with Tiger. On Windows, be prepared for a frustrating delay every time you wake your laptop. For mobile users, waking from sleep is a common reason to switch to the Mac.

User Feedback

One of the most frustrating things about software can be waiting for a result without any indication of what's going on. Apple's User Interface Guidelines recognized the importance of informing the user of status information back in the 80s, using thermometer progress indicators and other means of letting the user know why the system was busy.

Leopard provides lots of good examples of this. When you plug in a hard drive, for example, Spotlight begins indexing the files on that drive so you can rapidly search its contents. As with Tiger, the Spotlight icon in the upper right gets a a dot notification to indicate Spotlight is busy. However, when you perform a search, the Spotlight menu now provides a progress indicator to show you how much longer the job will take, and lets you cancel the action.

Mail has a similar Mail Activity region that can be displayed to indicate what tasks are underway. This helps the user realize why things may have slowed down, and makes it easier to cope with delays or work around them by pausing intensive activities. For example, when Time Machine hits a scheduled backup time, it presents a progress indicator within System Preferences, which can be used to stop the back and automatically reschedule it for later.


Minimal Clicking, Maximally Intuitive

One fair indicator of how well designed an interface might be is how many clicks it takes to get what you wanted. New features like Stacks trim a few clicks away from finding files, and the revised Spotlight makes it easy to do everything from launching an app, to looking up a word's definition, to doing a quick calculation. And of course, it can also find your files.

Spring-loaded Dock icons —which pop open when you drag an icon on them and hit the spacebar —are also a quick shortcut that strips off a few intermediary clicks when navigating. The best part of these features is that they are all completely natural, and don't require learning keystrokes to invoke complex actions; they simply make sense.

Spaces lets you just drag windows around between Spaces, as it "should." In reality of course, all of that intuitive simplicity was the result of a lot of work to make things behave naturally, because left to their own devices, all software interfaces are horrifically artificial and clumsy.

A Thoughtful Interface

Leopard has a lot of the feel of the iPhone, as one might expect of an Apple product. Recall that the reason people camped out overnight to get the iPhone wasn't because early buyers were excitable fans ready to buy anything, but because they appreciated the work Apple spends in crafting its designs, both in hardware and in the software interface.

The new system also brings together the different window styles that had cropped up, with every application now adopting the unified, clean window style pioneered by iTunes. Aside from third party hacks, there is no provision for theming the interface in Leopard; windows aren't designed to amuse, they are there to provide an elegant but utilitarian framework for your documents. Windows also increasingly get out of the way. The big thick windows of the Finder are now gone, replaced by minimal framing of file views. Safari, iCal, iChat and Address Book all reflect the same design. Contrast this with Vista, which is intentionally designed to be showy and ornamental, as advertised in Microsoft's "Wow" ad campaign.