Computerworld: Leopard hits and misses

Editor’s Note: This story is excerpted from Computerworld. For more Mac coverage, visit Computerworld’s Macintosh Knowledge Center.

Macintosh fans can be a peculiar lot. They may follow Apple’s every move with rapt attention, but they’re not shy about sharing their thoughts when they think the company has fallen short. That even applies to such feverishly anticipated developments as the release of a new version of OS X: Just check out almost any Apple OS forum these days for a sampling of Leopard-related snark, mere days after it shipped.

At Computerworld , we’ve been spending a lot of time with Leopard, peering under the hood and poring over the various changes, updates and tweaks, and we’re ready to weigh in, too. As good as it is—and it is a nice piece of code work—Leopard isn’t perfect. No operating system is.

So here’s where we point to a few of the things we think Apple missed on the way to its Leopard launch, or things that weren’t missed but simply could have been done better. Of course, it wouldn’t be fair not to offer a few thoughts on what Apple did extremely well, so those are included as well.

Misses

Time Machine: Time Machine is the coolest app included in Leopard, but that doesn't mean it’s perfect. In fact, it can be a tad confusing when you’re first setting it up using the System Preferences pane.

By default, Time Machine backs up everything on your computer, and is even smart enough to know not to copy files on the external hard drive you’re using as your backup.

So far, so good. But let’s say you have more data on your computer than there’s room for on your backup drive. That means you’re going to have to pick some things for Time Machine not to back up. Here’s where things get dicey.

To deselect files, you have to click the plus-button to add items to your “Do not back up” list. It’s counterintuitive; you click “add” to subtract. It would make more sense to use the plus-button to add whichever drive, folder or file you want saved, or use the minus-button to delete items from the backup list.

No doubt Apple intends Time Machine to back up everything by default, which is why it’s set up this way. Just make sure you buy a large enough hard drive, and this won’t be an issue.

The Dock Before Apple released the final version of Leopard, some of those with access to prerelease builds had complained about the Dock; in particular, the way looked when it was placed on the left or right side of the screen.

Running it up the side seems natural in this era of widescreen monitors, as that’s where the extra screen real estate is. Why force windows to be smaller than they need to be by sticking the Dock along the bottom of the screen? And yet, that’s where Apple seems to naturally think it should be.

The result, at least before the final version of Leopard came out, was a shelf-like Dock that looked anything but a shelf when positioned on the right or left.

Instead of a sideways glass shelf, you get a dark, sleek, translucent strip ringed in white—basically, a modernized version of the old Tiger “Scotch tape” look. Some people don’t like it, some do. But it’s a little weird to have such a major part of the user interface change its look based on where it’s located. It feels too much like an afterthought.

Stacks The stacks that reveal the contents of a folder in the Dock are a nice idea, but some of their behavior is annoying. First, if the Dock is on the bottom of the screen (where a lot of people tend to keep it), a stack will display as a curving column of icons or as a rectangular grid, depending on how many items are in the folder.

For folders where the number of items changes regularly (such as Downloads), you never know which display you’re going to get. Furthermore, stacks displayed as columns sort items alphabetically beginning at the bottom of the stack, while stacks displaying as a grid sort items alphabetically beginning at the top left. Between that and the changing shape, you can rarely find what you’re looking for immediately.

Another miss with stacks is the fact that there’s no easy way to navigate within them. In previous Mac OS X releases, folders placed in the Dock functioned as pop-up hierarchical menus for navigating their contents. It would be nice to get this functionality back.

Mail mis-delivery When you first launch Mail in Leopard, it imports and converts your e-mail database and all your mailboxes. But some people who went through this process then found that rather than seeing all their mail in all their in-boxes just by clicking on the main Inbox header, they had to view each Inbox’s mail separately, by clicking on each mailbox individually. Needless to say, that’s a serious inconvenience.

Active Directory Active Directory support doesn’t seem to be completely reliable so far. Many users are reporting problems with Active Directory binding under Leopard. Binding to a domain and logging in both seem to be slower across the board for most users, and a number of people have reported other problems beyond just sluggishness. Given that for many people and organizations Active Directory support is a priority, this is a major miss.

Cover Flow Admittedly, Cover Flow in Finder windows is cool. It allows you to visually scan files and folders the same way you flip through songs and albums in iTunes or on the iPhone.

Here’s the annoyance, though: You open a Finder window in Cover Flow mode, then drag the lower-right corner of the window down to see more files. Oops! Watch instead as the Cover Flow icons grow to gargantuan size while the list of files you’re actually trying to expand remains the same size.

We don’t want behemoth-size icons, no matter how pretty. We want to see the rest of the list of files in whatever folder we’re perusing. Once you set the size of the Cover Flow window pane, it should remain that size in all Finder windows until you enlarge it.

Lack of imaginative iPhone integration When Steve Jobs first unveiled Leopard’s features, he said there were still some Apple had not yet announced. One thing that many Mac users expected was further integration of the iPhone and Leopard.

While the iPhone currently plays nicely with iTunes (on both Macs and PCs), we want more. If my iPhone rings, why can’t my Mac automatically display Caller ID information right on the screen? When I come into Bluetooth range of my Mac, why can’t that set off a script or two that turns off my screensaver, fires up my music and launches the apps I need?

Third-party applications that better tie mobile phones and Macs have been around for years, but none support the iPhone. So Apple should.

The good news is there’s still a good chance of this sort of integration happening. Given Apple’s software roots and its continuous efforts to enhance the user experience, this is probably more a matter of when and not if.

Orphaned hardware For those who are a couple of generations behind in their hardware, the prospect of a Leopard world is bleak. For one, any Mac with a G3 chip is automatically left out. This includes all of the original translucent iMacs; you know, the ones that helped get Apple back on its feet.

The blue towers that ran Tiger respectably (given a lot of RAM) are also out of the picture, as are all first-generation iBooks—remember the orange and blue ones? Leopard also leaves behind the Generation 2 White iBooks as well. All black G3 PowerBooks? Gone.

But the carnage doesn’t stop there. A lot of G4 machines won’t make the cut, either. Any machine without 512MB of RAM and at least a 867MHz G4 processor isn’t supported. This includes some Mac minis sold before July 2005 that shipped with G4 processors and 256MB of RAM. While you can upgrade the memory via putty knife and third-party chips, there is no official Apple upgrade available. Just over two years old and already obsolete!

Other G4s that Leopard doesn’t support include Quicksilver and earlier Power Macs and Cubes released before January 2002; eMacs sold before October 2003; Titanium PowerBooks older than November 2002.

“Does not support” really means “will not install,” by the way. The Leopard installation program won’t run on a machine that doesn’t meet the specs. But you can put Leopard on an older machine, if you want to try it. Attach it to a supported Mac via FireWire, start it in Target mode, and you’ll be able to install Leopard on it from the supported Mac. We were able to get an unsupported mini working that way, albeit slowly.

Hits

Time Machine OK, so maybe we grumbled a little about how the user interface works in the Time Machine preference pane. So what? You’ll eventually figure it out. Once you do, Time Machine does basically one thing—back up your files—and it does that really well and in the most graphically appealing way possible.

You may never have backed up files before, or maybe you only do it when you sense trouble and are worried your hard drive is about to blow up. Now Apple has taken the most mundane of chores and turned into something akin to a video game. You’ll want to back up your files just so you can show your friends the celestial Time Machine browser. They’ll be impressed, and more importantly, your files will be safe.

Stacks Another “Yes, but …” here: As annoying as the shape-shifting Dock is, the addition of Stacks is both useful and visually impressive. They let you see what's in a folder in the Dock without having to actually open the folder or even find it in your system.

Just click once on the folder, and icons representing all of your files sweep out in an arc across your screen. Click the file to open it, or click the arrow to immediately go to it in the Finder.

Front Row For Apple’s Media Center fans, Front Row was a hit from Day One. It provided a great interface for browsing the iTunes media library and operated from a minimalist remote control that had a similar form factor as the original iPod shuffle. However, its inability to play non-iTunes Media was widely criticized; also, it only was installed only on new machines and ran a bit slow.

Leopard changes all of that. Any machine that runs Leopard now runs Front Row—it’s right there in the Applications folder. You can control it with the keyboard, a Bluetooth remote or the traditional Apple Remote.

It now also boasts the improved Apple TV Interface that allows you to browse your whole machine. With the proper codecs, it can play a much wider array of movies as well—and not just from the host machine, but also from other machines and media servers on your network.

Quick Look For many file types, the Finder has provided some preview capabilities for a while in column view, but Quick Look makes virtually every file preview-able. For Microsoft Office files especially, it makes it possible to just quickly skim a file for specific pieces of information without waiting for any of the Office apps to actually launch.

It’s also great for getting a quick preview of attachments from within Mail rather than having to open or save the file first. All in all, it’s a cool feature that turns out to be quite a timesaver in any number of situations.

Data detectors This is an unsung hero of Leopard, a feature you’re unlikely to notice until you stumble across it while using Mail, for example. The technology, first introduced in 1998 but dropped when Apple revamped its operating system three years later, can discern e-mail addresses, URLs, phone numbers and appointments in an e-mail. When your cursor moves over the text, Mail automatically places a dotted-line box around the word with an arrow allowing you to call up a contextual menu.

If the e-mail says, for example, “meet me tomorrow,” placing the cursor over the word “tomorrow” calls up a variety of options when you right-click. Among these are Create New iCal Event; Show This Date in iCal; Look Up in Dictionary; or New To Do. E-mail addresses are recognized and can be added to your Address Book. Names can be opened in the Address Book, too. It’s a little-touted feature that, once you get accustomed to it, you'll be using all the time.

Screen sharing Screen sharing, in general, is done very well in Leopard. Although overall screen sharing has been available through both the Apple Remote Desktop software and VNC on Mac OS X for years now (albeit with no built-in viewer), Leopard has made it much more accessible.

Putting it right into iChat, including voice chat along with screen sharing and piping the data over any of several instant messaging protocols, is a brilliant solution for those “my computer isn’t working right” e-mails from less technically adept friends and family.

NSOperation This is a feature that most users will never encounter but will certainly feel. MacOS X Tiger was designed with a single processor in mind; Leopard, in contrast, acknowledges that computer architecture has changed within the last few years.

While multiple processors have been available on the Mac for several years, the introduction of the Intel architecture has resulted in multiple cores being the norm. Previously, developers seeking to take advantage of these cores had to go out of their way to make sure their applications were properly threaded.

Enter NSOperation. This API allows developers to optimize their code so that it automatically scales to take advantage of a machine’s hardware, from a low-end Mac Mini to the high-end 8-core Mac Pro. This feature will greatly benefit everyone on the Mac platform, even though it’ll never be center stage at a Macworld Expo. NSOperation, take a bow.

Core Animation Leopard itself shows the presence of the new Core Animation libraries. Time Machine is probably the most obvious example, with its 3-D animated look and feel. Core Animation is a real breakthrough for other developers, however, in that it makes it rather easy for any application to be written with animated 3-D interface elements. We haven’t seen the full extent of what this will mean for Mac users yet because Leopard is so new, but it is something that opens a lot of exciting possibilities for both users and developers.

Development environment Aside from whizzy 3-D interfaces, the new frameworks and APIs built into Leopard will bring us a whole new level of applications in the months to come. Leopard allows developers to easily write 32- and 64-bit applications compatible with both the PPC and Intel architectures, chock full of goodies. Application integration, iLife-esque functionality and access to the Core technologies built into Leopard help shape Apple’s development environment into a powerful and easy way to develop new software. The future looks brighter than ever for the Macintosh platform.

This story was edited by Jake Widman.

Subscribe to the Best of Macworld Newsletter

Comments