Review: Mac OS X Leopard

Time Machine

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.

Time Machine's interface looks a bit spaced out, but it makes incremental backups understandable.

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 (as well as other supported applications such as iPhoto) 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.

Boot Camp

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.

Spaces

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 Expose 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 Expose-style zooming feature, that reveals the contents of all the spaces and their spatial relationship to one another.

A four-workspace, two-display set of Spaces.

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 (a feature I used to make sure that my DragThing dock and iChat windows followed me wherever I went).

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.

Quick Look

Quick Look, which appears throughout Leopard, is a technology that lets users preview the contents of documents without opening the program that was used to create them. Click on a Microsoft Word file in the Finder and press space, and the entire file will appear before you, ready to be read (but not edited). Select a movie and press space, and the movie will expand and begin to play.

Quick Look can play back QuickTime movies without launching QuickTime Player.

That same Quick Look technology lets you optionally set Finder views to display live previews of documents. Spotlight and the Open and Save dialog boxes are also Quick Look savvy. And the Finder's new Cover Flow view really wouldn't be possible without this technology, which transforms dull document icons into live previews of each document's contents.

In practice, turning your Finder icons into live document previews isn't always very useful - text documents end up looking like a wash of gray. But Quick Look itself is an impressive technology, if longtime users can retrain themselves to press space rather than double-clicking on a document to see what's inside.

Subscribe to the Best of TechHive Newsletter

Comments