Leopard hits the spot

GCN Lab Test Drive: Mac OS X's new environment makes just about everything easier

IF IT'S TIME TO GO HUNTING for a new operating system, you might want to set your sights on the big cat. The latest edition of the Mac OS X platform, code named Leopard, is arguably the most anticipated software release from Apple in recent memory ' and for good reason. Mac OS X Version 10.5 is the sixth release of an OS X platform in just six years, but it boasts the biggest update Apple has ever completed on its operating system, with more than 300 new features including a complete 64-bit architecture.

When I heard this was a 64-bit cat with an extensive rebuild of a virtual environment ' including features such as a new system menu with a semitransparent background resembling frosted glass floating over the top of the screen ' I thought I would need a supercomputer to run it.

I am used to Microsoft Windows, so I scoffed when Apple told me that it would run well on my four-year-old, 14-inch iBook with a mere 933 MHz of processing power and only 512M of RAM. For you Windows-only fans, that would be like running Vista Ultimate or Home Premium on a 900 MHz PC with 512M of RAM. I have tried running Vista in such an environment, and let's just say it didn't work out.

Leopard, on the other hand, was almost as fluid on the iBook as it was on a 2.2 GHz Mac Book Pro with 2G of RAM.

For all its advancements, the most impressive feature is the new environment. The new dock, which is where users store their most common applications, rests on a reflective surface, and a running application is marked by a glowing blue orb under the application icon.

Stacks, or collections of icons that expand outward from the dock when you select them, make it easy to find files you frequently use or have recently downloaded.

The new finder, similar to the C:\ drive in the My Computer section of a Windows environment, has been redesigned so you can flip from file to file as if it were a centralized virtual Rolodex in which each slide shows a detailed image of the file. This new feature is called Cover Flow and is complemented by another new feature called Spotlight, which lets users search for documents on other Mac systems or servers on a network simply by selecting the Shared button in the Search bar.

After using Leopard, it becomes obvious that Apple worked hard to make it easier to find, organize and view files on your computer. Quick Look, for example, gives users an instant view of the contents of a file without taking the time to open it in an application. Quick Look gives users the option of viewing a preview of the contents in a larger-than-normal thumbnail or a full screen shot. You can even view multiple documents on a grid.

One of the best features of Leopard is Spaces, which you'll enjoy if you're a multitasker. This feature divides the desktop into a number of virtual desktops, where you can operate different applications with different files open. Microsoft has a similar applet called Virtual Desktop Manager that will segment your desktop and open files in different environments, but Leopard also lets you run different applications, which Virtual Desktop Manager will not.

Another important feature is Time Machine, a built-in backup solution that requires a separate external, internal or network-based drive.

Time Machine is incredibly easy to set up ' I plugged in an external hard drive and confirmed that I wanted to use it as a backup disk, and that was it. As you make additions to your applications, Time Machine adds a copy of those files and data to the backup drive. Quick Look lets you preview files you have backed up, and Spotlight lets you find them easily.

In this review, we have only scratched the surface of the more than 300 changes to the new, $129 Mac OS X. But the important takeaway is how orchestral Leopard is in using its new features. It's a powerful operating system.

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