Leopard: first impressions

After using Leopard for a week or so, here are my first impressions but, overall, it seems like quite an improvement over the last version of Mac OS X, which was already pretty good.

Disclaimer: the notes below are made after only a short time using the new OS, so bear that in mind whilst reading.

Highlights

Here’s a list of the main changes/additions that I have noticed so far:

  • Time Machine: useful backup tool allowing changes to the file/directory to be seen over time
  • Spaces: multiple desktops — finally, Apple!
  • Mail: RSS reader embedded, stationery added for pretty emails, to-do annotations possible
  • Open Look: take a look inside files without having to launch the usual associated application
  • Dock: useless reflective eye-candy, but stacks seem useful
  • Front Row: Media player for audio/video
  • Speech: Alex!

Installation

I used the ‘upgrade’ path rather than the ‘clean install’ path. This is where you simply install the OS over the previous installation. No problems to report: all ran smoothly, as with previous upgrades I have done with Mac OS X. I didn’t really have many exotic OS tweaks installed so I didn’t run into any problems that some others have reported. The main tweak I used previously was VirtueDesktops for multiple desktop functionality, but this has been rendered obsolete now as Leopard includes the ‘Spaces’ feature, like UNIX and Linux have had for many years already. Finally! Of course, before I dared to run the upgrade installation, I performed a full clone of the boot drive (using Carbon Copy Cloner) and tested the clone. Just in case, you never know!

Time Machine

Wow, what a star! Time Machine seems to be a very useful backup solution that is easy to use and makes it simple to locate deleted/changed data that you may need to restore or review. When you launch the Time Machine item in the Preferences panel, you select the drive you wish to use for performing the backups. Then you select any directories and drives you don’t want it to backup. Click the big ‘ON’ switch and you’re done. Apple’s description of Time Machine describes its modus operandi as:

For the initial backup, Time Machine copies the entire contents of the computer to your backup drive. It copies every file exactly (without compression), skipping caches and other files that aren’t required to restore your Mac to its original state. Following the initial backup, Time Machine makes only incremental backups — copying just the files that have changed since the previous backup. Time Machine creates links to any unchanged files, so when you travel back in time you see the entire contents of your Mac on a given day. Every hour, every day, an incremental backup of your Mac is made automatically as long as your backup drive is attached to your Mac. Time Machine saves the hourly backups for the past 24 hours, daily backups for the past month, and weekly backups for everything older than a month. Only files created and then deleted before the next hourly backup will not be included in the long term. Put another way: You’re well covered.

So a suitable backup drive needs to be considerably larger than the amount of data you start out with on your boot drive to allow space for all the changes that will be backed up. Time Machine means I can now ditch the old software I was using to create incremental backups (SilverKeeper). I hope that because it’s so easy to use, it will encourage many more people to perform backups now, as losing irreplaceable photos and other data is no fun. And it is real peace of mind to know that something is running automatically in the background keeping track of all your work. As a quick test of Time Machine I opened Address Book, edited a contact by removing his mobile number, then invoked Time Machine and clicked the back-in-time-arrow to see the previous state of the selected contact, which contained the mobile number I had just deleted. If I wanted to restore the old state I could just hit the Restore button. Cool!

Spaces

Spaces is multiple desktops. I’m not sure how useful this will turn out to be in practice. However I did like running Windows in fullscreen mode on its own desktop, and using CTRL-4 to jump to it, and CTRL-1 back to the main desktop. Quick and handy. With Spaces enabled in the Preferences panel, you tell it the dimensions of the desktop grid you want and then you can use the CTRL+cursor keys to navigate the desktops or CTRL-number key to jump directly to a specific desktop.

Mail

Mail has added an embedded RSS reader, so no need for a third party reader like Vienna, in theory. Also ‘to do’ functionality has been added so you may annotate emails which give you an idea of something you need to do. This then integrates into the ‘to do items’ list in the iCal application. You can also create notes inside Mail, and these appear at the top of your inbox and, separately, in a Reminders section in the left panel of the Mail window, alongside the To Do items. I wonder how useful this will be in practice.

Open Look

A preview functionality called Open Look has been added, whereby you can hit the space bar when selecting a file in the Finder, or in Time Machine. This allows a fast check of file contents to be made without launching the usual associated application. Using the cursor keys once you are previewing a file allows you to quickly cycle through a number of files to see which one you want. This may turn out to be one of those useful features that grows on you, but only time will tell.

Dock

The Dock has been updated and now sports a reflective skin so that windows placed near it reflect. This seems like a complete waste of time, and if there was a feature to turn it off I would invoke it immediately. On the plus side, Stacks have been added. For example you can drag the Applications folder into the Dock. Now when you click on this Applications folder in the Dock, a vertical stack of applications appear, giving you a quick way of accessing applications which are not already installed in your Dock. And if there are too many to be practically visible, you can alter the layout so that a grid of icons is displayed as a heads up display transparency. This will be very useful. You can also drag any folders you frequently use there too. Nice feature which I envisage using all the time.

Front Row

This is a media player app which was previously bundled with the mac laptops. I only took a quick look at it, but it looks nice and may be very useful. I will see in due course.

Text to speech

I knew of this trick before, but due to the nasty robot-like speech of previous speech synthesizers I didn’t bother with this. Imagine you have an email and you’d like to listen to it whilst you work on a spreadsheet or document, or whatever. Well then, now Leopard has a more human-like speech synthesis character called ‘Alex’. Go into the Preferences panel, select Speech, select the Text to Speech tab, select Alex from the System Voice combo, select the ‘Speak selected text when the key is pressed’ checkbox, select the Set Key button, hold down the Command-Option-Control-S key sequence, click OK, open an email (or any other text), hit Command-Option-Control-S and your email will be read to you by ‘Alex’ whilst you get on with something else. Nice for the lazy, but where’s the female voice with comparable oral skills? ;-)

Conclusion

All in all, so far at least, Leopard seems to be a solid upgrade which makes a lot of small, yet valuable, improvements to the OS, and includes a very useful and easy-to-use backup solution that may finally encourage people to give backups a try. From what I’ve read about Vista, where the reviewers are removing Vista and replacing it with XP, there seems to be no comparison. Apple 1, Microsoft 0 :) I will update this page when new discoveries are made.

Finally, some useful links

You may find the following links useful to learn more:

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