OS X Gets a Facelift, and Lots More

Consumer Reports News: October 26, 2007 05:52 PM

It's been two years since Apple last updated its Mac operating system, OS X. But today the company launches version 10.5, popularly known as Leopard.

Is it a must-have? As anyone with a Mac knows, OS X is already a well-evolved, secure operating system. Though Apple would like everyone with a compatible Mac to plunk down the $130 Leopard costs, you don’t absolutely need to if you already have Tiger, the version that came before Leopard.

Related information from Consumer Reports:

On the other hand, there are more than 300 new features in Leopard, some of them significant. Here are several of the most notable:

Desktop updates:

  • The most visible change is to the Dock, OS X's program-launcher and taskbar. (See image at right. Click on it for a closer look.)  Leopard perches the Dock's icons on a reflective, 3-dimensional "shelf." This little tweak goes a long way toward making the desktop look neater.
  • The Spaces feature lets you create several virtual desktops based, for example, on different projects you're working on. You can easily switch among the desktops, view them all at once, and can drag items between them or change their order.
  • The main Apple menu bar gains semi-transparent menus and windows cast more-diffuse shadows on objects behind them, making them look like they’re floating.

Enhanced user interface:

  • Leopard provides a new and intuitive visual access to folders in the Dock called Stacks. Your downloads and documents folders are there, and you can add others. Clicking a Stack fans out its contents and lets you choose a file with one click. (See image at right. Click on it for a closer look.)

  • A new file-browser option lets you flip through file and program icons as you do with album-based Cover Flow in iTunes. Document and media-file icons show the file's content, and you can expand each icon with a Quick Look button that lets you see more without opening a separate application. (See image at right. Click on it for a closer look.) But you don't need Cover Flow to preview a document. Any view in Finder provides a miniaturized look at your files; PDFs have a binder effect, and multi-page documents sport dog-eared corners that show a piece of the subsequent page.
  • Drop a second finger on a MacBook's touchpad and its button becomes a "right-click," bringing up a context menu. (Mac laptop owners had longed for a two-button touchpad.)

Improved and expanded utilities:

  • Leopard's new "Time Machine" backup system goes far beyond Windows' System Restore or typical backup programs. Time Machine takes your Mac "back in time" to restore lost files or previous versions. As with other Mac OS applications, the interface is quite visually intuitive. You need to add an external hard drive to make it work as a true backup system. Once you plug that hard drive in, Leopard asks if you want to use it for backing up with Time Machine. Answer yes, and your automatic backup is ready to go.
  • Spotlight, the Mac's search engine, now includes a dictionary definition to define a typed word, complete with origin. It can now search across the shared folders of networked Macs. (Searches of Windows systems are based on file names only.)
  • Mac Mail has been enhanced to add features akin to those in Microsoft's Outlook and Mac Entourage personal information manager. Apple added notes and to-do lists, and improved interactivity with e-mail, contacts, and calendaring. Mac Mail can also set up e-mail accounts automatically for several common e-mail services such as Yahoo and Gmail. Templates provide a number of stationery options, including designs that let you add your own photos to the stationery. Mac Mail also recognizes addresses typed in the text, and lets you easily add them as contacts. Similarly, it detects dates and simplifies entering those into your calendar.
  • Preview, the Mac’s default image viewer, has gained a number of manipulation features such as direct e-mailing, resizing, and annotation.
  • iChat gains a host of new features, including conferencing, photo, movie, and presentation sharing. A new remote-desktop feature can make it easier to get computer help from a friend. You can even change the background of your video image, substituting a photo or even a video clip as a backdrop. This takes some sophisticated processing, but it works, as long as the "real" background behind you doesn't change (even in lighting) and you don't move the webcam.
  • There are parental controls built in, including application restriction, content filtering, and time limits (specific or cumulative, by weekday or weekend). There's logging, and the ability to manage parental controls from another Mac on a home network.
  • If you enjoy Dashboard widgets, Leopard now gives you the power to create your own, using its new Web Clip feature to select any portion of a Web page and turn it into a Dashboard widget. The widget will update as its page of origin does.

More add-ons:

  • Front Row, Apple's media-center-style interface, is bundled into the operating system, rather than being added only in models with remote controls.
  • PhotoBooth, a picture-taking applet, is also included, but you’ll need to add a webcam (Apple's iSight or one compliant with the "UVC," or "USB Video Class," standard) on Macs without one.
  • There's good news and bad news for fans of Boot Camp, the boot-up manager that lets you install and run an alternate OS like Windows on Intel-based Macs. First the good news: It's now bundled in Leopard, Windows can use more of the Mac hardware features, and Leopard can read files on the Windows partition. The bad? Those that are using the free, downloadable beta version that worked on Tiger will have to upgrade to Leopard to keep using Boot Camp, since the beta version expires on 12/31/2007. Beta users also lose tech support from Apple now that Leopard is released. And don't expect Apple to help you out with Windows glitches when you’re running Windows under Boot Camp. While tech support for Boot Camp functionality itself (such as using Boot Camp Assistant) will be provided, Apple won’t support any task that involves running Windows, including things that affect its own hardware.

There are many other enhancements under the hood. Some are intended to increase security for users, important now that OS X has gained popularity and may attract more attention by malware writers and hackers. For instance, some potentially vulnerable Mac OS utilities run in a "sandbox," which isolates them from the rest of the OS in case a hacker gains control of them.

Users of the occasional Mac OS 9 application that had to run in "Classic" mode under Mac OS X, may be chagrined to learn that Classic mode is no longer available under Leopard. But the same is true for recent Intel-based Macs anyway, so the writing was on the wall.

Mac owners wanting to upgrade to Leopard will need a Mac with an Intel or Power PC G4 or G5 processor, and 512MB of RAM (1GB is better).

The bottom line: Apple has produced an operating system that leaps ahead of its former one in many ways, and ahead of Windows Vista in several ways as well. We were not able to get even the pre-retail developer's release to hang or crash. If history is a guide, Mac users will be very happy to have a Leopard in their computers, with a much easier transition than Windows users had in the move to Vista.

—Dean Gallea

Paul Eng


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