The fifth major update to Mac OS X, Leopard, contains such a mountain of features — more than 300 by Apple’s count — that it’s difficult to boil this $129 operating system release down to a few easy bullet points. Leopard is, at once, a major alteration to the Mac interface, a sweeping update to numerous included productivity programs, a serious attempt to improve Mac OS security, and a vast collection of tweaks and fixes scattered throughout every nook and cranny of the operating system.
As with every OS X update since version 10.1, there’s no single feature in Leopard that will force Mac users to upgrade immediately. Instead, it’s the sheer deluge of new features that’s likely to persuade most active Mac users to upgrade, especially since this is the longest gap between OS X upgrades — two and a half years — since the product was introduced. Sure, some items on Apple’s list of 300 features might seem inconsequential, but if even a handful of them hit you where you live, that will be more than enough motivation for you to upgrade.
The most important new feature added in Leopard is undoubtedly Time Machine, Apple’s attempt to encourage the vast majority of users who never, ever routinely back up their data to change their ways. Time Machine automatically backs up a Mac’s files to a separate hard drive (internal or external, though external is certainly safer and more convenient) or a network volume being shared by another Mac running Leopard. Attaching a drive and assigning it as a Time Machine backup volume is incredibly easy, and once you’ve set it up, you can essentially forget all about it.
Perhaps the most impressive feature of Time Machine is its support for incremental backups. Rather than creating an identical copy of your drive, it tracks the files you’ve changed and saves those changes on an hourly basis. And grabbing an old copy of a file isn’t some complicated job designed for an IT professional; with one click on the Time Machine icon you’re in the gratuitously spacey Time Machine interface, which lets you use the Finder to fly back in time and pluck out the data you want to retrieve. It really is backup for regular people, and the presence of Time Machine leads to a remarkable change in mindset: I just installed a new version of a program I’m beta testing, and realized that if it didn’t work, I could quickly roll back to the previous version via Time Machine.
One downside of Time Machine’s backups is that they’re not bootable on their own. If your main hard drive dies, you need to replace the drive and then rebuild your drive by using the Leopard boot DVD's Restore function or the Migration Assistant utility. But all your files will be there when you’re done.
Will Time Machine turn us all into compulsive back-up fanatics? No, because making that backup requires actual storage space, which requires the purchase of a large backup drive. But until online storage is infinitely vast and fast, that will always be an issue. The good news is, Time Machine is simple enough that it really eliminates most of the obstacles that cause most people to bypass backing up their data. If you can buy a big hard drive and plug it into your Mac, you can keep your data safe.
It’s been 18 months since Boot Camp, Apple’s method of allowing Intel-based Macs to boot into Windows, was released as a public beta. Boot Camp serves a useful purpose in that it provides basic Windows compatibility and the ability to run Windows programs at native speeds. However, most people who want to run Windows software on their Macs will opt for tools such as VMware Fusion and Parallels Desktop, which allow Windows and Mac OS X to operate simultaneously.
Still, the importance of Boot Camp can’t be understated. Its mere presence provides a basic level of Windows compatibility that many potential Windows-to-Mac switchers will find comforting.
Multiple-workspace utilities, which let you switch between various collections of application windows in order to reduce clutter, have been around for years on numerous platforms, including Mac OS X. Leopard’s new Spaces feature is an attempt to bring the concept of multiple workspaces to a much wider audience. While it’s certainly promising, in the initial release of Leopard I found it to be a bit erratic.
Spaces has been integrated smartly into OS X’s existing Exposé feature, another tool for organizing a large number of windows. The concept of Spaces is that the Mac’s interface is actually a series of workspaces, located adjacent to one another on a grid. To drag a window out of a cluttered workspace and into a pristine one, you just drag the window to the edge of the screen and, after a momentary pause, the existing space will disappear and the window will appear by itself. Pressing the F8 key invokes an Exposé-style zooming feature, that reveals the contents of all the spaces and their spatial relationship to one another.
I’m not convinced that multiple workspaces are ever going to be a mainstream feature, but they can be a huge productivity boost to busy power users. And Apple’s implementation is quite nice, allowing you to assign individual applications to specific spaces or to every space.
However, Spaces does have some quirks. I found that sometimes windows would appear in spaces that I didn’t expect, for reasons that I couldn’t fathom. Some of my third-party applications became quite confused until I set them to appear in every space. Sometimes I would launch a program in one space and move to another space, only to find that program’s windows appearing in my new space.
Still, Apple should be credited for bringing such a geeky feature to a broader group of users. While Spaces might never become a feature that takes the world by storm, it does have the potential to dramatically improve the productivity of many users who would never have downloaded a third-party workspace utility.
Mac OS X and its users haven’t yet felt the sting of a major hacker attack, but in the two years since the release of Tiger, Apple and other technology companies have come under increased scrutiny about the relative security of their products. And Leopard includes a large number of new features that specifically address security concerns.
Most regular users won’t notice the fact that several Leopard applications are “sandboxed” with restricted access privileges that make them less likely to be used as tools in a hacker attack. Nor will they realize that Leopard now uses a shifting system of assigning memory spaces in order to make it impossible for hackers to bank on the presence of specific code in a specific area of a Mac’s memory. What they will notice is that when they first attempt to run a program they’ve downloaded from the Internet, they’ll be prompted with information about when they downloaded it and what program was used to download it. Apple has done a good job of making its security messages more understandable to regular users, which is good, since most users will simply click through a dialog box that makes no sense.
Here are somethings from other users you should know before you upgrade to Mac OS X Leopard
1. Leopard works fine on old machines as long as they're not too old.
Leopard only works on Intel, G5 and G4 Macs that are 867MHz or fastermeaning your really, really old PowerBooks or iBooks are borderline. You can try rigging up an install on Macs that aren't too old, but you don't get the Core Animation or other fancy effects. It's slightly slower to start up and shut down compared to Tiger, but you get more features.
2. Time Machine provides the easiest built-in backup software on any OS.
Even compared with the built-in backup software on Vista, Time Machine is super easy and super automated all the while keeping functionality high by including easy-to-use file versioning as well. If you're not already backing up your Mac with apps like the similarly powerful SuperDuper, Time Machine is a big reason to upgrade. All you need to do is plug in an external USB hard drive and everything's taken care of for you, all in the background without any input from you. If you're already happy with your backup method, this will be a marginal feature, but if you're tired of dealing with backups or losing data, Leopard is for you.
3. iChat gives you powerful video, screen and document sharing.
Another one of the major improvements in Leopard is in the iChat app. Not only do you get video effects, there's lots of work-focused document sharing and screen sharing as well for working with people over long distances. There's also iChat recording for recording your video chats or meetings for later viewing. That's a killer feature for some, totally useless for others. But if you're going to be doing any kind of screen-viewing with other people, iChat is probably the easiest way to do it since it launches right from your chat application.
4. Leopard is the only way you can dual-boot Windows on your Mac.
Boot Camp may have been free before, but your old copy will expire at the end of the year. That means you need Leopard to dual-boot Windows and OS X. You can still use virtualization software like Parallels or VM Ware for using Windows at the same time as your Mac, but you're sharing system resources between the two applications. If you only need to use Windows and you need to maximize your RAM and CPU you're better off with Boot Camp.
5. 64-bit performance speeds up newer Macs.
If you're on a Core 2 Duo Mac, Leopard will eventually give you 64-bit versions of your apps. It's a bit technical when we get down to talking about frameworks and the building blocks for new applications, but just know that 64-bit versions of the same applications will run faster than 32-bit versions. Plus, you have no performance penalty for running 32-bit applications along-side 64-bit ones.