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.
In this article, we’ll look at the changes to the iChat instant messaging program, the
built-in Mail client, and
other assorted OS X applications.
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:
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
feature as part of your video chat. It’s ideal if you want to add media to their video chats.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Other apps of note
The newest version of Preview, OS X’s image and PDF viewer, adds a number of image- and PDF-manipulation tools. For example, you can reorganize PDF pages or merge multiple PDF documents. Preview also features improved annotation tools for commenting on documents. Of the program’s imaging tools, one of the most useful is an Adjust Size option that brings up a dialog box similar to what you’d find in Adobe Photoshop or Photoshop Elements. There you can adjust an image’s resolution, set dimensions in inches and pixels, and resample it to create a larger image—a feature I’d love to see iPhoto take advantage of.
The Extract Shape tools lets you paint a border around the edges of an object to select everything within, while the Instant Alpha tool selects masking areas based on tones, similar to Photoshop’s Magic Wand tool.—KELLY TURNER
At first glance, Leopard’s Font Book looks nearly identical to its Tiger counterpart. But Apple has made some significant changes to the OS X font manager that greatly enhance its utility.
Automatic font activation in Leopard enables fonts in documents on-the-fly.
While Font Book still cannot compete with the various third-party font managers on the platform, the improvements in Leopard—which include print functionality, language specification, auto activation, system font protection, and Braille support—will be welcome additions for many users. In addition, new WYSIWYG icons and instant Get Info previews are helpful because now you don’t have to launch Font Book to get a quick look at your fonts.
This upgrade approaches the printing functionality of some third-party programs by letting you print out previews of your fonts via the Print command. You get a nicely formatted sample of the font you selected in all of the available characters. It also makes it easy to identify and disable unwanted built-in foreign language fonts so they don’t show up in your font menus. And a new Braille font now works with the VoiceOver application to assist visually impaired Mac users.
Potentially the most useful new feature of Font Book is automatic font activation, which enables fonts in a particular document on-the-fly. Say you have a display font disabled, and someone sends you a document that requires it. Opening the document should automatically launch the font. In my tests, however, this feature was glitchy. It worked as expected with some fonts and some documents, but mysteriously, not with others.—JACKIE DOVE
With Leopard, Apple has added a few simple—but notable—features that turn this basic dictionary into a more serious and practical reference tool.
To begin with, the menu items have been revamped and renamed. The History menu choice is gone. You can, however, navigate to Dictionary
you’ve previously viewed via the back button in your toolbar. In this way—and in many others—the new Dictionary is more like using a browser than perusing a dictionary.
For example, nearly every word you see in Dictionary functions like a hyperlink; click on that word, and you’ll be taken to its dictionary entry. Also adding to the browser-like look is a bookmark bar, just as you would find in Safari. Each bookmark represents your different dictionaries; click on one, and you’ll exclude all of the others.
In addition to this new navigation scheme, you have more dictionary choices. A new Apple dictionary provides entries for computer-related terms, although it is extremely limited. Also included are a Japanese dictionary, a Japanese-English dictionary, and a Japanese Synonyms dictionary. It’s a safe bet that additional language dictionaries—and perhaps additional reference tools—will pop up in future updates to Dictionary.
While searching for just the right word, you can scour specific dictionaries according to your Preference settings, or you can search all of them at the same time to get a comprehensive page of results. Perhaps most interesting, though, is the ability to search the online, user-edited Wikipedia. You’ll need to have an Internet connection to use this feature, but all of your Wikipedia searches happens right in the Dictionary program, not your browser. This is very quick and handy, and it elegantly turns this simple dictionary program into an amateur encyclopedia.—ERIC SUESZ
OS X’s DVD Player application has a pretty simple purpose—letting you watch DVDs on your Mac—but it has quite a few options and features that make it worth a look. Most of the changes in Leopard are interface-oriented, but there are some new features as well.
DVD Player 5.0 (the version in Leopard) adds and changes some of the familiar application menus. In Tiger, the menus were File, Edit, Video, Controls, Go, Window, and Help. Leopard changes things to File, Edit, Controls, Features, Go, View, Window, and Help.
DVD Player’s new time slider lets you scrub forward or backward with your mouse, allowing you to find the exact scene you want.
Within these menus are some changes as well. For example, the File menu’s Get Disc Info option adds more information about audio and media and adds a Parental Control tab; the Go menu adds Skip Back 5 Seconds and Skip Ahead 5 Seconds commands to DVD Player (as well as the keyboard shortcuts option-command-right arrow and option-command-left arrow, respectively, to control them). The View menu adds a Viewer Above Other Apps selection to keep your movie from being buried under windows; and the Controls menu adds a Slow Motion option as well as a place to set slow motion rate (1/2 speeds, 1/4 speed, or 1/8 speed). To start playing in slow motion, you choose Slow Motion from the Controls menu, and pressing the space bar returns the playback to normal speed.
Those who are used to DVD Player’s keyboard shortcuts for changing the size of the playback window will have a few changes to contend with. Previously found under the Video menu, Half Size used command-1, Normal Size used Command-2, Maximum Size used Command-3, and Enter Full Screen used Command-0. The new app puts these commands under the View menu, with Half Size using Command-0, Actual Size using Command-1, Double Size using Command-2, Fit To Screen using Command-3, and Enter Full Screen using Command-F. Although the commands have changed, users may recognize these same shortcuts from another Apple app—QuickTime Player. It makes sense for Apple to bring these commands for video playback in step with each other.
When you’re watching a DVD in all views other than full screen, pausing it brings up a progress slider, similar to the one in QuickTime or even iTunes. Adding a slider is a great idea, since it means you no longer have to just use chapters or the fast forward or rewind options to get where you’re going. It makes watching a DVD more like watching any other video within QuickTime.
In Full Screen mode, mousing to the bottom of the screen makes on-screen controls pop up just as the dock does. (Entering Full Screen also automatically removes the floating remote, which in Tiger required you to press the escape key or wait until it faded away on its own.) This dock includes some controls and Menu and Title buttons in a box on the left; volume, fast forward, rewind, play/pause, stop, previous chapter, next chapter, streams/closed captioning, player settings, eject disk, and exit full screen buttons in the middle; a toggling display of chapter info, elapsed time, and remaining time on the right; and a progress slider on the bottom. (This dock is similar to the Navigator in Tiger’s DVD player, but with some different information).
Mousing to the top of the screen, which brings up only the OS menu bar in Tiger, does that in Leopard; it adds the ability to display chapters, bookmarks, and video clips. Both pop-ups are very similar to those in iPhoto’s full screen editing mode.
Just like in Tiger, DVD Player lets you define bookmarks and video clips. Bookmarks lets you set your own chapter marks, while video clips lets you define and play back custom clips. The window still shows you previews, but in Leopard it has an updated look.
The video clip interface is much improved from Tiger. Instead of a sheet that drops down with a simple way to choose your clip, Leopard has a Video Clip window with current video, start video, and end video windows in it. You can scrub to your start and end points easily, and play and fast forward or rewind the current video as well as step back or forward one second for more precise scene selection (all without changing your start and end points).
The same window also adds a Chapters option with thumbnail previews, similar to what you get at the top of the screen during full screen playback (Tiger let you choose chapters, but without visual cues).
There are also a few changes in DVD Player’s preferences. In the High Definition tab, it removes the section on Hybrid Discs that was in Tiger; the Windows pane loses its Status And Navigation Windows area, and the Full Screen pane adds a Use Current Video Size In Full Screen option.—JONATHAN SEFF
In the newest version of Photo Book, you’re no longer limited to just taking photos—you can use your Mac’s built-in camera to record videos with sound. When you click on the camcorder icon, you can choose to use any of the visual effects available to photo users, including image distortion and colorization effects.
Like iChat, Photo Booth also now offers background effects which attempt to give the illusion that you are on a roller-coaster or in Paris. When you select one of these backgrounds, Photo Booth asks you to step out of the frame so it can see what’s behind you. It then masks out this information, leaving just you and anything new that you bring into the scene. It’s a fun idea; however, it doesn’t work flawlessly. The program often identified parts of my hair and clothing as background and masked them out.
Photo Booth ships with eight backgrounds. You can also drag your own images in to create new backgrounds. There’s also a multi-photo option that will take four photos in quick succession, giving you a true photo-booth experience.—KELLY TURNER
Jonathan Seff is senior news editor; Jim Dalrymple is online director; Kelly Turner is senior features editor; and Jackie Dove is senior reviews editor. Eric Suesz is associate reviews editor.