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Looking Into Leopard

Today's column takes a look at Apple's new Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard operating system. In the space available, I had to focus on the features I thought most users would encounter--which meant I wound up glossing over many other interesting new things in Leopard (300 in all, going by Apple's count).

Fortunately, I have this space to talk about those details:

* Upgrading from Tiger to Leopard took about an hour on two Intel-based Macs, an iMac and a MacBook. A good chunk of that time was taken up by the Leopard DVD's own self-test--it checks for any defects on the disc before starting the install itself. I did not experienced any software-compatibility glitches; the only serious one I've heard of involves a third-party system hack, Unsanity's Application Enhancer.

* Since so many of you asked, I put Leopard on a computer that barely met its system requirements--a Power Mac desktop with an 867 MHz G4 processor. (A sticker on the back reported that the Post bought it on July 10, 2001.) Here, the install took almost two hours--but the computer was surprisingly responsive afterwards. Leopard did shut off some of its flashier visual effects, though; for example, the background of the Time Machine interface was a static picture of stars instead of the usual animated starfield.

* Leopard doesn't seem to need much more memory than Tiger. Apple's Activity Monitor utility showed 374 megabytes of memory in use on a just-rebooted Intel-based iMac running Leopard; on another freshly-rebooted Intel iMac running Tiger (plus a set of HP printer drivers), the figure was 385 MB.

* About that Time Machine interface: I've spent years looking at new front-ends for software, but I still blurted out "whoah" the first time--and the second time--Time Machine whooshed into view. Looking at it, you'd think George Lucas ran Apple instead of Steve Jobs.

* Leopard brings some overdue order to the Mac user experience. Instead of the three competing window styles of Tiger--the brushed-metal toolbar of Safari, the pale gray sheen of Mail and the faint pinstripes of TextEdit--almost all of the programs included in Leopard use the same, medium-gray theme.

* Many of these programs, in turn, bear a strong resemblance to iTunes: a unified toolbar and title bar, toolbar buttons for everyday actions and a search field in the top right corner. The Finder owes the most to Apple's music program--it even has a "CoverFlow" view that lets you flip through the contents of a folder, one at a time.

* As in earlier Mac OS X releases (see, for example, my review of Tiger and the e-letter that accompanied it), the applications bundled with Leopard have also received some noteworthy upgrades. The Safari Web browser exhibits fewer display glitches with Web sites and finally includes a find-in-this-page search to match Firefox; the Front Row media-playback interface adopts the look and feel of the Apple TV's software; iCal runs faster and requires fewer contortions to edit an appointment.

* A lot of techies have been enthused about Spaces, the feature that lets you switch among multiple virtual desktops in the way that Linux has allowed for years. I didn't even mention it in the review: It's disabled by default, and in practice I find that Expose is a more elegant way to keep from being swamped by overlapping application windows.

* Providing tech support to other Mac users in the family may get a lot easier with Leopard's Screen Sharing option; it lets you log in remotely to a Mac (either across a local network or, with a .Mac subscription, across the Internet) and run the entire computer inside a window on your screen. Screen Sharing is built on an existing standard, VNC, so you should also be able to share a Mac's screen with a Windows or Linux machine--but I haven't been able to get that to work in my own limited attempts. (Any suggestions?)

* Of the two biggest items on the new-Mac-setup checklist I wrote a while back, one has been fixed: Leopard automatically downloads important software updates for you, though you still have to authorize their installation. The other remains unfixed: Leopard's firewall is inactive by default. Remedy that oversight by opening System Preferences, clicking on Security and then clicking on "Set access for specific services and applications."

* This last item is a little silly, but it's fun: Leopard includes a new speech synthesizer that sounds far more human than Apple's previous attempts. You can hear this "Alex" voice reading aloud a paragraph from a recent Post story in today's podcast (MP3).

If you'd like more detail, check out the first-look assessment at MacInTouch; if you want to know ever single chapter and verse, clear out the next hour to read John Siracusa's in-depth evaluation at Ars Technica.

You can also quiz me about Leopard during my Web chat at 2 p.m. today. The phone lines are already open... metaphorically speaking.

Meanwhile: Have you installed Leopard? How's it gone so far?

By Rob Pegoraro  |  November 1, 2007; 10:10 AM ET
Categories:  Mac  
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