By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 11/1/2007 7:06:06 PM ET 2007-11-01T23:06:06

People new to the Mac and existing users alike will be wowed by many of the reportedly 300 new features built into Apple’s latest update to its OS X operating system, Leopard.

These include a no-brainer backup system, a screen utility that turns a single Mac screen into virtually several screens at once, and improvements to the iChat video chat program that makes it easy to share pictures or a PowerPoint presentation with a friend or coworker in another office or in another country as if you were sitting right next to each other. But like any OS that gets an update, Leopard is not without a few glitches, albeit mostly minor ones.

The changes existing users will notice first include the semi-transparent menu at the top of the screen and the glass-like Dock — the floating band of icons used to launch applications. The menu is both nice and not-so-nice, depending on how you look at it; a dark desktop picture makes the menu hard to see, while a bright desktop picture lightens it up. An option to adjust or turn off transparency altogether would be nice.

Slick new features
The Dock is where one of Leopard’s much-anticipated new features, Stacks, resides. Stacks offer one-click access to commonly accessed things like the Documents folder and downloads. Click either of those and a list of items fans out if there are a few, or appear in a grid if there are many items. New or existing folders of items can be dragged to the Dock to create additional stacks, minimizing the potential for desktop clutter common to Windows and prior versions of OS X.

Another slick feature is Spaces, which enables up to sixteen “virtual screens” at once. For instance, I’ve set up four Spaces screens that I’m switching between as I write this, with Screen 1 for Mail, Screen 2 for Safari running full screen, Screen 3 for Microsoft Word, and Screen 4 for the Finder and file management stuff. Switching between screens is as easy as pressing Ctrl and tapping the appropriate number key or arrow cursor keys. It’s as if I have four monitors that I can switch between, each showing only what I want to see on any given screen.

Pressing F8 shows all virtual screens at once, and windows can be dragged between screens, or Spaces dragged this way and that to rearrange the order. Additionally, certain programs, such as Sticky Notes and iChat, can be set to appear in every screen, since they’re programs I access frequently no matter what the main focus. My only quibble is when I launch a program from the Dock, I have to wait for it to fill the current Spaces screen before I switch to another screen, or else it follows me to the new, unintended screen.

Effortless backup with Time Machine
The new Time Machine backup program is less showy than Spaces — until you actually need it. Plug in an external USB or FireWire drive and Time Machine goes to work backing up your Mac’s entire hard disk. Once that’s done, Time Machine continually backs up new, changed and deleted items on an hourly basis, as well as on a daily, a weekly, and a monthly basis. Need to get back something that’s gone? Launch Time Machine and the utility literally launches you back in time via a star field interface, presenting a flowing stack of windows filled with items as they appeared when they were backed up.

I do have one complaint with Time Machine. Before launch, Apple touted Time Machine’s ability to work wirelessly with USB hard drives plugged into the Apple’s Airport Extreme network router. I was bummed to find the feature absent from the shipping version of Leopard. Granted, wireless access wouldn’t be the fastest way to do the initial backup, but it might be acceptable for those hourly and incremental backups that begin once the first backup completes.

Two more new features, Cover Flow and Quick Look, combine to make short work of browsing files. Familiar to iTunes and iPhone users, Cover Flow presents items in a continuous, flowing lineup that moves left and right at the press of the arrow cursor keys. Scaled-down miniatures of items are highly legible as they breeze by. A press of the spacebar invokes Quick Look, which zooms in for a preview of the item without having to launch the associated application. That means Adobe Acrobat PDFs, iPhoto pictures, QuickTime movies and Microsoft Office documents can all be previewed with Quick Look without actually running any of those programs.

Previously, users who wanted to run Microsoft Windows on Intel-based Macs could download Apple’s beta Boot Camp utility. The final version is now bundled with Leopard. It allows the hard disk to be partitioned to accommodate Windows, which can be launched at startup, but cannot run at the same time as the Mac. For that sort of OS-juggling magic there’s either SWSoft’s Parallel’s or VMware’s Fusion, both of which allow the Mac and Windows to run at the same time.

Less spectactular, but still impressive
The rest of Leopard’s new or improved features are less spectacular on the surface but no less impressive in making this great operating system even greater. Several applications have gained new features. Most notable is Mail, which gets a number of catch-all additions, including an RSS reader for scanning text feeds, and easy to use stationary to quickly create attractive emails of summer vacation pictures or party invitations.

One incredibly helpful feature in Mail is called Data Detectors, which recognizes information such as addresses, phone numbers and invitation dates and makes it easy to do things with said data bits.

For instance, the system recognizes a friend’s new address and with a click, the information can be added to an existing contact card or used to create a new one, with no more copying and pasting from the e-mail to the contact fields. Ditto for phone numbers and email addresses. Street addresses can also be mapped to the web with a simple right click.

What’s more, the Data Detector feature is smart enough to interpret a line like “Let’s have lunch at New Wave this Friday at noon” and, with a click, send it to iCal as an appointment for noon on Friday. It’s worth mentioning that iCal benefits from improvements that finally make it a more businesslike scheduling tool, including much-needed interface improvements, and group calendaring based on the CalDAV standard used for workgroup scheduling.

Also added to Mail are To Dos and Notes; though the latter looks like the iPhone’s Notes, the two cannot be synced.

Other improvements include: a more powerful iChat that offers goofy effects to make it look like you’re video-chatting underwater, and an easy way to share your screen with a friend; a facelift to Front Row mimics Apple TV by making it easy to use a Mac remote to point and click through music, videos, DVDS, TV shows and photos from across the room; and more flexibility when searching with OS X’s excellent system-wide search tool, Spotlight.

OS has some glitches
The installation process on a MacBook Pro went without a hitch when I chose the Upgrade option. Oddly, though, a “clean” install on a MacBook’s freshly formatted hard disk ran into a few hiccups. For one, Intego’s VirusBarrier would not launch after installing it anew, while the existing version on the upgraded MacBook Pro ran fine.

Also, the freshly Leopard-ized MacBook frequently has problems emptying the trash; sometimes it empties without a hitch, other times it does so very slowly or stops, requiring a restart. The upgraded MacBook Pro has no trouble emptying the trash, but it did lock up so completely that a forced power key shut down had no effect. I could only turn it off by removing the battery and unplugging the power cord. It restarted and is working fine.

Is Leopard worth its $129 price of admission? It depends. Some of Leopard’s new features, such as Spaces and Time Machine, can be had in one form or another with third-party add-ons. Even so, having those new features and the many smaller but significant improvements to Mail, iCal, the Finder and other programs are reason enough for many to justify the $129 price of admission.

The users who will be most impressed with Leopard are those new buyers saying goodbye to Windows and hello to Mac for the first time. For the rest of us, Leopard’s sum of parts adds up to an even better experience with an already excellent operating system.

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