OS X updates not only introduce new applications—they also update the existing programs built into the OS with new features and enhancements. Such is the case with Leopard, which offers across-the-board improvements for a number of the apps you already know and love.
Apple’s instant messaging software, iChat, has made quick communication easy with .Mac users or those on the popular AIM system. Each iteration of iChat has added new capabilities with every major OS X upgrade; the Leopard version is no exception, as iChat picks up a number of tools—some productive, others more fanciful
The big changes
iChat 4.0 adds some useful features, as well as some you might not normally associate with a chat program. Many of them were first unveiled by Apple during the 2006 Worldwide Developers’ Conference, with a few more added at this year’s conference. As a refresher, those major additions are:
iChat Theater To help you share visual information with others, Mac OS X 10.5 adds iChat Theater, which lets you display an iPhoto slideshow, a Keynote presentation, a QuickTime movie, or anything else that works with Leopard’s new Quick Look feature as part of your video chat. It’s ideal if you want to add media to their video chats.
Video Effects Worried you’ll look too “normal” in your video chats? iChat adds effects out of OS X’s Photo Booth application so others can feel like they’re viewing you through a thermal camera or x-ray machine, or with a comical bulge, twirl, stretch, or mirror effect added to your image.
iChat backdrops also act like a green screen to put a fake background behind you so you appear to be floating in the clouds, standing on the moon, hanging out underwater with fish, or traveling along a roller-coaster. You can add your own images or videos instead of just using Apple’s built-in backdrops as well. In order to get the backdrops feature to work, you need to step out of view of your iSight and select the option you want. When you come back into view, you’ll see the cool effect in your preview window. These effects require a hefty processor, however.
Recording iChat has been able to save logs of your text chats for some time, but the latest version adds the ability to record audio chats as AAC files and video chats at MPEG-4 files. These recording features could be useful for inserting audio or video into podcasts, or just keeping a record of your conversations.
Multiple Logins The previous version of iChat let you add several different accounts in the Accounts pane of iChat’s preferences, but you had to choose which one was active at any given time by selecting the Use This Account option. iChat 4.0 lets you have multiple active accounts at the same time, and each shows up with its own buddy list. You can even drag-and-drop buddies between lists to move people from one to the other.
Chats can now be collected into a single tabbed window in Mac OS X 10.5.
Buddy List Changes You can now animate buddy pictures. There’s also an Invisible status option that keeps you hidden from view but still lets you see your buddies and their status. The new version also lets you manually reorder your buddies instead of relying on first name, last name, or availability.
Tabbed Chatting The Messages pane of iChat’s preferences has two very useful additions. The first is Collect Chats Into A Single Window, which solves the problem of having multiple chat windows scattered across your desktop when you’re chatting with a few people at once. Enabling the option automatically grows your chat window when you go from one chat to a second one, with the name and icon of each buddy you’re engaged in conversation with in a blue-tinted pane to the left of the message window. While you’re chatting with one person, any new replies from others will show up as speech bubbles next to their icons in the side pane—clicking on that person causes the bubble to vanish and brings you into an active chat with that person.
The other cool option found in the Messages pane is Remember My Open Chats Across Launch, which saves you when you accidentally quit iChat mid-conversation. Once you relaunch iChat, the program will reestablish communication with the slighted parties.
Leopard’s iChat adds a screen-sharing feature that lets you grant or request shared access of a screen. It’s a great collaboration tool.
Screen Sharing Taking a page from Apple’s Remote Desktop software, iChat’s Buddy menu gives you the option to share your screen with another user, or request permission to get shared access to his or her screen. Once you have access to a shared screen, you can control mouse movement and open folder and applications, to name a few activities; you can even drag files between computers.
Apple says the feature is good for collaborative work on presentations or research, but its also a somewhat easier way than the Finder’s Screen Sharing feature to help your less tech-savvy friends and family troubleshoot problems.
What you may not know
The big ticket changes in iChat have pretty much been in place since that August 2006 preview of Leopard. But if you poke around the app—or scan Apple’s list of changes, you may find some other appealing enhancements. A Hide Local Video feature, for example, removes the picture-in-picture view from iChat video conferences, in case you find the image of yourself too distracting. You can set your iChat status as Available from the moment your Mac starts up. And there are other minor tweaks here and there, from a file transfer manager to more smiley options.
What we think
iChat has always made quick work of chatting with people. The new version is fast and responsive, but Screen Sharing functions a little oddly—switched to sharing mode from a video chat kept only an audio chat going, and ending the session cut off my chat altogether. And iChat backdrops don’t work as well as you might hope (although they are more fun than useful anyway).
Heavy chatters will appreciate the latest version of iChat—those who carry on multiple chats at once will particularly enjoy features such as tabbed chats, multiple logins, and recording options. And those looking to expand iChat’s use into collaboration and presentation will also want to take a close look at the new version.
Great or Wait?: In some ways, iChat has grown outside of its comfort zone, but the new features make it a worthwhile update that brings it on a par with third-party chat software in some areas, and beyond them in others. Great. —JONATHAN SEFF
The changes in Mail range from the functional to aesthetic, but they will all affect the way you use the application on a daily basis.
The big changes
While not all of Mail’s new features will appeal to everyone, there are enough changes to guarantee users will find something to like. Apple’s previous public pronouncements about the Leopard version of Mail focused on Notes and To-Dos.
Have you ever opened up a blank e-mail message to take notes on and then save it as a draft? I do that all the time, but no more. Mail now includes its own built-in Notes application. Notes can handle colored text, graphics, and attachments, so you can keep everything you need to jot down close at hand. You can also group notes into Smart Mailboxes or folders, and access them using IMAP from a Mac, PC, or iPhone.
For many people, To-Dos are as important as Notes. Apple made it easy to add a new task from an e-mail message or note within Mail. All you have to do is highlight a bit of text in the message and then click on the To-Do button in Mail’s button row. You can also set a due date, alarm, and priority if you wish.
To-Dos get instantly added to iCal when you add an item to Mail. This integration is great because it lets you do something in one place instead of switching back and forth or trying to remember to add it to your calendar later. When you check something as completed in Mail, it is similarly checked as completed in iCal. The reverse is also true.
Other previously announced features in Mail include:
Leopard’s Mail offers a To-Do feature; create a To-Do in Mail, and it’s added to iCal, as well.
Data Detectors A very cool new feature, Data Detectors automatically detects snippets of text within a Mail message that you can perform an action on. For instance, if someone sends you an e-mail with an address in the body, you can click on the arrow that appears when you mouse over the item and create a new contact using that information. You can also add that information to an existing contact. This is a great time saver for those who like to keep their Address Books up-to-date.
Duplicate a Smart Mailbox Mail now lets you duplicate a Smart Mailbox. This comes in very handy if you want another mailbox similar to one you already made, but with a some different criteria you can tweak.
RSS Apple may be late to the RSS game, but the company has finally included a way for users to check feeds in Mail. RSS feeds show up as a folder in Mail and are checked on an interval you specify. New items in the RSS list show up in a similar way to new mail messages. with the total number of unread stories displayed on the folder.
I’m not sure how popular RSS will be in Mail because most people probably already have their favorite RSS readers set up. However, for those that want everything all in one place, RSS in Mail will be a good feature.
Stationery and Rich Formatting I’m not a big HTML e-mail sender, but if you are, the new stationery feature in Mail was made for you. Apple has included more than 30 professionally designed stationery templates in Mail that make sending an HTML e-mail a breeze. The templates include fonts and the ability to drag-and-drop photos—a must for personalizing your e-mails. Most importantly, the templates use standard HTML, so all of your Windows using friends can read them too.
What you may not know
With Leopard now out in the wild, a few more notable Mail features have emerged.
The new account setup in Mail lets users of popular e-mail services get started just by typing in their e-mail address.
Simple Account Setup One problem that many users have when starting off with an e-mail application is getting their accounts setup. Knowing all of the SMTP, POP, and IMAP servers can be daunting, especially if you have several accounts.
Apple’s new account setup will allow many users to start using Mail by simply typing in their e-mail address. Mail already knows the settings for 30 of the most popular e-mail services including Yahoo, AOL, Gmail, Verizon, AT&T, and Comcast. After you type in your e-mail address, Mail takes care of everything else for you. If you don’t have one of the services that Mail automatically recognizes, you will have to set up the accounts manually, just as you would with the previous version.
Archive Mailboxes The ability to archive a mailbox is something I’ve wanted for several years. I try to keep my most important mail in a folder so I can search through it, but there are times when I need to go back a year or two to find an particular message.
The problem is that I have four years worth of e-mail that I just don’t want to throw away. Archiving gives me the perfect option and it’s very easy to use. All you have to do is highlight a mailbox or folder you want to archive and select Archive Mailbox from the Mailbox menu.
Improved Search Apple says the search has been improved with smarter relevance for everything in Mail including To-Dos, Notes, and e-mail messages. The search certainly is a lot quicker in Leopard and the relevancy of the messages has always been good for me.
Preferences Apple included a few handy items in the preferences, too. You now have the ability to make Mail show you the total count of unread messages in the dock for all folders, just the Inbox, or the Unread Smart Mailbox. This is a great for me because I have 10 or 12 folders for filtering my e-mail as it comes in. My dock count was never correct because it only showed the number in the Inbox.
The RSS tab in preferences is new, letting you choose your default application, when to check for new stories, and when to remove articles.
And those using Notes and To-Dos can set their preferences on which account to create the items in the Compose preference pane.
What we think
I’ve been using Mail for years and have watched it mature with each new version. In addition to all the new features in Mail, Apple has done a lot to help out users with day-to-day activities.
For instance, Mail’s new Connection Doctor helps you diagnose a problem with sending e-mail. This isn’t exactly the most flashy feature in the world, but it shows that Apple understands the importance of e-mail and the need to guide us through some situations.
Overall, Mail has become more useful while maintaining its ease of use. Using To-Dos and Notes is drop-dead simple and syncing to iCal happens automatically—just the way it should be.
Great or Wait? The addition of things like Notes, To-Dos and deeper integration make Mail more useful. Users that receive less e-mail than I do every day will still appreciate the features that Mail has to offer. The stationery and ease of setting up accounts will win a lot of people over right away. Great. —JIM DALRYMPLE