Review: Mac OS X Leopard

Righting Wrongs and Improving Features

In addition to the new features introduced in Leopard, this operating system release includes major updates to numerous existing programs that are included with Mac OS X.

The marquee feature of Leopard's predecessor, Tiger, was Spotlight, a desktop search engine that indexed the contents of all your Mac's documents and made them instantly accessible. It made for a great demo, but in everyday use Spotlight was a real letdown. It was slow, couldn't handle sophisticated queries, and failed to support the simplest query of all (namely, searches for a file with a specific name). With Leopard, Apple seems to have addressed most of Spotlight's failings. It's shockingly faster than it was in Tiger, and Spotlight now supports Boolean operators (and, or, and not). There's also better support for saved searches and for searching files on networked Macs.

Mac OS X's built-in calendar program, iCal, is now five years old, but Leopard's iCal 3.0 is the first version that doesn't feel like a toy. The iCal interface is more straightforward and responsive, and the ability to edit entries by double-clicking on them eliminates the unwieldy Get Info pane of previous versions. iCal 3.0 also supports the CalDAV standard for group calendaring, which threatens to turn iCal into a true business tool. Unfortunately, we weren't able to test these features on a CalDAV server (one ships with the server version of Leopard, and since the server is based on an open-source server framework, the streets will likely be littered with CalDAV server implementations before too long).

iChat's new tabbed interface, with a chat displayed in the new Compact display option.

Apple's iChat IM client has also received an excellent update, addressing almost all of the program's flaws. Audio chat sound quality, which previously lagged sadly behind Skype's, is noticeably better. It's much easier to manage multiple chats via a tabbed chat interface (previously only available in iChat via an add-on such as Chax). And perhaps most importantly, iChat now allows you to log into multiple AIM accounts at once. All that's missing now is support for competing chat services such as those offered by Yahoo and MSN.

Apple Mail 3.0 has also seen numerous improvements, although perhaps the biggest one is the improved speed of Spotlight, which makes searching for messages within Mail much less painful. Mail also now has support for to-do lists and "notes," in which you leave messages to yourself. Mail seems to be an odd place to stow this information, and the to-do interface in Mail is poorer than the one in iCal. Although Mail's notes look a lot like the notes on the iPhone, the two don't sync. Another out-of-place Mail feature addition is support for RSS feeds, which are already supported in Safari and numerous third-party feed-reading programs. But Mail's interface is actually quite conducive to RSS reading, and I found reading RSS feeds in Mail to be enjoyable. It'll never be appropriate for heavy RSS consumers, but for casual RSS users it really hits the spot.

OS X's included Preview utility is probably the most unheralded productivity program in OS X. (By default, it's the tool that opens images and PDF documents when you double-click on them in the Finder.) But it may be harder for Preview to remain a secret now that it's been given a major facelift with Leopard. Preview 4.0 gives Acrobat a run for its money when it comes to basic PDF features, improving support for PDF annotations, improving searches within PDF documents, and providing built-in tools to reorder pages and combine PDFs into a single document. Preview's image manipulation tools have also improved, including the addition of the "Instant Alpha" background-removal tool that Apple first introduced in iWork '08.

Numerous other included tools have received major improvements in Leopard, as well. Safari 3, which has been available in beta form since June, offers a dramatically improved Find command and resizable text fields for Web forms. It also includes Web Clip, a tool that allows you to "clip" part of a Web page and turn it into a Dashboard widget. (Despite the addition of this feature and a new movie widget, Dashboard still doesn't seem to be remotely the paradigm shift that Apple suggested it would be when it was introduced with Tiger. I often find myself forgetting that it's even there.)

Dictionary

The Dictionary utility has added support for Wikipedia as an additional information source, and it's nicely integrated into the application's interface. For everyone who hasn't abandoned DVDs for the wonders of the iPod, DVD Player has been completely overhauled, giving users much better control over navigating DVD content, including a TiVo-like jump-back feature. And Front Row, which replaces the Mac interface with a remote-control driven menu system for navigating iTunes content, has been updated to use essentially the same software as the Apple TV hardware device, meaning any Mac with an infrared sensor and Leopard can play back music and videos using the slick Apple TV interface.

Wikipedia adds a depth of information to the built-in Dictionary utility.

The introduction of the Automator utility in Tiger suggested the promise of regular users taking advantage of automation technologies previously limited to people who knew their way around scripting languages such as AppleScript. As it turned out, Automator was pretty cool - but once you wanted to automate more complicated tasks, you'd run into its limitations pretty quickly. In Leopard, Automator has been updated to address its two greatest limitations: you can now set and read variables during a workflow, and you can set a workflow to loop. Automator also now has a Record feature, which lets you record yourself performing certain tasks and then integrates those tasks into an Automator workflow.

Finally, Leopard shows remarkable improvement when it comes to handling networking issues. It's much easier to dismount remote servers, and attempting to access a server that's disappeared no longer causes an interminable wait. (That's an issue that should have been resolved by Apple long ago, but at least with Leopard it's finally been addressed.) The Networking preference pane has also been updated with a better-organized interface.

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