We’ll say it upfront, right at the start of this review, that everyone should definitely upgrade their Macs to Leopard. It’s simply the best version of OS X yet, and there’s no reason we’ve found not to upgrade, provided your Mac meets the minimum system requirements. Leopard isn’t a Windows Vista-style bloatware addition that nobody actually wants – the new features in Leopard are genuinely worth the asking price.
Now we’ve come clean about our love for Leopard we can get down to what we did and didn’t like. For instance, the installation wasn’t as smooth as we’d have hoped for. For this review we installed Leopard on a variety of Macs we had lying around the office and the results were mixed.
There are basically two main ways to install OS X – you either perform an Upgrade (which is the default setting) or a Clean Install. The Clean Install option wipes your hard drive completely and installs Leopard on the now-empty drive. The Upgrade option installs Leopard on top of your existing version of OS X, so you don’t lose any of the programs you’ve installed, or your data. You can also choose to Archive & Install, creating a new, fresh system and moving the information from your old one to a folder on your hard disk, from which you can copy out any support files you find you need.
The gorgeous new 2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo iMac with 1GB of RAM sitting on our reviews bench performed an Upgrade installation without a hitch, as did the 2GHz Intel Core Duo MacBook Pro. In fact, things were looking promising for the Upgrade option until we tried it on a slightly older system – a Power Mac with a 1.25GHz PowerPC G4 processor. The upgrade informed us that it had successfully completed but after the reboot all we got was a blue screen and we could proceed no further.
In the end we had to boot from the Leopard CD and perform a clean install, losing any data on our Mac that wasn’t backed up. An Apple Knowledge Base article acknowledges this fault can occur on systems where Unsanity’s Application Enhancer has been installed. However, we’re pretty sure we haven’t installed that on our test Mac, and the blue screen problems reported on the internet seem to be more widespread than can be accounted for by that one program. In any event, a clean install solved the problem.
Our final test was on a 13-inch 2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo MacBook, and here we bumped into another Leopard problem that stopped the installation in its tracks. At the point in the installation where you choose which hard drive to install Leopard on, a red exclamation mark appeared on our hard drive, preventing us from installing.
It turns out you can’t install Leopard onto a volume that isn’t partitioned using a GUID Partition Table. The MacBook uses Apple Partition Map, which was compatible with Tiger, but not Leopard. This meant our only option was a clean install, partitioning as a GUID Partition Table using Disk Utility first.
In summary then, with Leopard we encountered a few installation problems that we’d never had before with OS X. While Tiger was rock solid when performing an Upgrade install, it seems Leopard is much happier with the Clean Install option, so we’d recommend you back up your data first then do a clean install of Leopard, if you want to ensure a trouble-free set-up.
Look and feel
We’re big fans of Leopard’s unified look and feel – the same slate grey windows that first appeared in iTunes are now standard across the system – but the new Leopard blue folder icon design is strangely uninspired. It looks worse on ‘special’ system folders such as Applications, Movies and Music, where the identifying icon on the folder is embossed in a low-contrast way, which makes it hard to identify at a glance.
The most obvious change, though, is the new ‘3D’ Dock with its stylish glass shelf. Except that it’s not really three-dimensional, it’s just a visual trick: there’s no way of positioning the Dock icons behind each other, as the shelf suggests you can. We’re left wondering what the point of the shelf is? When the Dock is placed on the side of the Desktop it disappears altogether, replaced by a uniform black background, which most people seem to prefer anyway.
Gone are Tiger’s small pointy black arrows to indicate which programs you’ve got open, and in their place Leopard gives you indistinct blue orbs. On the default ‘space’ background they’re too hard to distinguish from the background stars to be useful.
Also making their debut on the Leopard Dock are Stacks. These are pop-up folders that fan out of the Dock, showing you their content. They can also be arranged as a grid if there are too many to fan out. They’re nice, but a bit of a gimmick. Their most obvious use is to create one for your Applications folder, so you can launch any application straight off your Dock. There’s also a genuinely useful Downloads Stack, which is where every file downloaded from the internet gets sent by default.
The last big visual change in Leopard is to the menu bar. Making the menu bar transparent, with no option to turn this effect off, has to be one of the most bemoaned of Apple’s design decisions. Apple’s reasoning is that it means the menu bar blends in more with your Desktop background pictures.
However that’s precisely what you don’t want from a menu bar. If we want to look at pictures then we’ll open them in Preview or iPhoto. So please, Apple, let the menu bar stick to what it’s doing best – being a menu. When you’ve got lots of program windows open at once, the new Leopard menu bar looks weak, when it should be standing out. Interestingly, on our older G4 system the menu bar wasn’t transparent at all, presumably because it didn’t have the necessary graphics capabilities.
Beyond the Desktop, the big new features of Leopard are Time Machine, Spaces, a new-look Finder and upgrades to iChat and Mail. There are actually over 300 new features in Leopard – way more than we have room to talk about here.
Time Machine, Apple’s neat, no-brainer backup solution, is unquestionably brilliant, and if it helps more Mac owners to start to make backups of their data then it’s worth Leopard’s asking price alone. The only downside is that you’ll need to plug in a new hard drive to use with it, but with 500GB drives going for around the £90 mark these days there’s never been a better time.
As soon as you plug your hard drive in, Leopard asks if you’d like to use it for a Time Machine backup. Say yes, and that’s all the setting up you’ll ever need to do. Time Machine will run in the background constantly and archive your Mac to the hard drive.
Search the past
Should you ever want to retrieve a file you’ve lost from Time Machine then simply hit the Time Machine icon on the Dock and you can travel back in time on your Mac to a particular date and see the contents of a folder. As well as Finder, it also works on iPhoto albums, Mail and Address Book. You can even use Spotlight to search your Time Machine backup. It’s a brilliant solution. Sure, it could do with a few more options, but part of its brilliance is its simplicity – the more options you added the less simple and easy to use it would become.
Spaces is also brand new in Leopard. It can run up to 16 different workspaces on your Mac, so you don’t have to clutter up your Desktop by having all your open programs in one small area. Spaces is nicely implemented, but we haven’t really found ourselves using it much. Maybe it’s the sort of thing that will grow on us the more we use it, but it seems destined to the same fate as Automator in Tiger – a powerful and nicely implemented feature that ends up being neglected.
What Apple has done with iChat in Leopard is really impressive. There are a few fun things like new backgrounds and effects that can make it look like you’re swimming with fishes or flying in the clouds as you chat, but it’s the more useful tools that have grabbed our attention.
For instance, iChat Theatre mode makes it easy to view files with the person you’re chatting with, without interrupting your chat session. Just drag and drop pictures or videos onto your chat session and they get displayed in the background. It’s beautifully simple.
Even better is the ability to enter Screen Sharing mode during your iChat session so you can take control of the other’s Mac, or give them control of your Mac – this is the sort of feature that used to be available only as part of Apple’s expensive Remote Desktop program. In iChat you’re limited to sharing your Mac with just one person at a time, but that still makes it ideal for solving a friend’s Mac problems without having to visit their house. Remember that both of you will have to be running Leopard, however.
Notes and lists
Mail sees plenty of new features in Leopard. To Do lists, which integrate with your iCal, and Notes, which act as yellow sticky notes-to-self, are both new and genuinely useful. The new RSS reading ability of Mail is also welcome, as is the new progress bar that shows you the sending and receiving statuses of your email.
Our favourite feature of the new Mail is its ability to detect addresses and times in the body of emails, then turn them into iCal or Address Book entries in an elegant way: simply hover your cursor over an address and you get a drop-down menu from which you can add the address to your Address Book or see where it is on Google Maps. If you hover your cursor over a time or date then you get the option to create an iCal event. It’s even clever enough to work out what date “tomorrow at 3:00pm” should be.
The new-look Finder is another great improvement over Tiger. It borrows the Source List idea from iTunes, making it easier to get at all the different devices and folders on your Mac. All the computers on your local network appear in a new Shared category and you can easily connect to any of them, and even do Spotlight searches across all connected computers.
Finder also has the iTunes Cover Flow method for viewing files, which shows a preview of their contents in the same way iTunes displays cover art, in addition to standard list, icon and column viewing modes. If you’re flicking through a folder looking for a particular file then it can really help you find it quickly. Another great timesaving feature is Quick Look, which enables you to preview files in Finder by tapping [spacebar].
Finally, a new feature called Back To My Mac enables .Mac subscribers to use the Leopard Finder to connect to your Mac at home when you’re out and about, just as if it was on your local network. We’d like to say what we thought of it, but unfortunately we just couldn’t get it to work, and a message on Apple’s support site indicated that we weren’t the only ones. Let’s hope Apple gets this feature working with a larger range of users than it currently supports soon.
When it comes to compatibility with other programs we had no problems whatsoever. We tried all the big hitters including Office, iLife, InDesign, QuarkXPress and Photoshop and didn’t experience any problems. On the whole, Leopard felt pretty speedy on all the systems we installed it on, both old and new.
A final word about security. The Leopard firewall is turned off by default, which was also the case in Tiger, and some security specialists have flagged this up as a concern. The firewall is also different to Tiger’s version. You can’t block or open specific ports anymore; instead it works on a per-application basis. You need to give specific applications permission to access the internet. It’s a strange choice and we’d have preferred the option to manage specific ports ourselves.
These niggles aside though, Apple should be applauded for another great update. Leopard has enough new features to tempt any Mac user and also persuade a Windows Vista user that the grass really is greener on the other side of the fence.