A deeper look at Mac OS X 10.5.5

Monday’s release of OS X 10.5.5 brought a slew of updates—136MB worth in the Software Update version on my Mac—most of which were described in Apple’s nicely-detailed release notes. I’ve now updated all the machines in my possession, so I thought I’d share my experiences with the latest OS X update.

As noted, this update addresses a few areas that were probably affecting many Mac users. MacBook Air users will welcome improvements in video playback and processor core idling, and iPhone users will now find that Time Machine backs up their iPhone backups. All of us will appreciate faster Spotlight indexing, improved accuracy in handling repeating iCal events, bug fixes in Mail… and who wouldn’t welcome “extensive graphics enhancements?” These are all things Apple described, of course—so just how well do these changes work, and what else changed behind the scenes that hasn’t been disclosed?

First, for those sitting on the fence waiting for user reports, I’m sure you’d like to know how well OS X 10.5.5 works. In a word, my experience thus far could be best described as uneventful—and with something like an OS upgrade, that’s a good thing. I’ve upgraded four machines now, ranging from my aging-but-still-beloved 12-inch PowerBook G4 up to my Quad-core Mac Pro, and I’ve yet to experience so much as a hiccup. I’m certain, however, that someone out there has had issues with the update—it’s almost a certainty, given the huge number and variety of Macs out there. If there’s a fundamental issue in 10.5.5, though, I’ve yet to run across it. While Apple has occasionally had trouble with previous system updates, this one seems to be trouble-free, at least thus far.

So what else did Apple update that it didn’t feel like talking about in its update notes? I noticed quite a few undocumented changes while browsing the upate’s bom file (a file that lists all files installed by the installer; in 10.5, you’ll find them in /Library -> Receipts -> boms). Most of these, however, were quite minor—for example, it seems that Dictionary has been given some new words, and the workflows in the PDF Services folder have been updated. Sadly, while some Automator workflows were updated (mainly those dealing with PDFs), the bug that broke the Create iCal events from anywhere hint is still present; that oh-so-useful workflow still won’t work when used outside Automator in 10.5.5.

Sadly, that’s not the only hint that’s broken in OS X 10.5.5—a tip for adding more power to 10.5's screen sharing is now only partially functional. The section on enabling the Bonjour browser still works, but the ability to add more buttons to the toolbar has been removed. If you liked those extra buttons, you’ll have to shell out $299 for a 10-machine version of Apple Remote Desktop 3. Unfortunately, Apple doesn’t offer a less-expensive version for those of us with "only" a few Macs in the house.

One relatively major change not covered in the update notes is a new version of the X11 X Window System (which allows you to run X11-based applications in OS X). The version number has climbed from 2.11 to 2.15, and many of the X11 utilities (in /usr -> X11 -> bin) appear to have been updated as well.

There were also quite a few non-X11 Unix commands updated in 10.5.5. Many of the updates were for printing applications (lp, lpstat, etc.) and network applications (dig, nslookup, and so on.). While most of these are minor updates—the version number on php, for instance, didn’t change, but the new version was created two hours later than was my existing version—some are more notable. ssh, which is actually OpenSSH and is used to securely connect to other hosts, jumps from version 4.7p1 to 5.1p1, bringing it up-to-date with the latest available release.

Overall, OS X 10.5.5 seems like a solid mid-lifecycle product release. There are, of course, still some annoying problems I hope are fixed in 10.5.6—the aforementioned Automator/iCal issue and the ability (which we had in 10.4) to add more columns to Spotlight’s results view are the two at the top of my list. But even without these fixes, 10.5.5 brings welcome improvements to the table, and it seems to do so without any obvious downsides.

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