Leopard: The Inevitable Review

Being the hardcore Mac nerd that I am, I of course had Leopard pre-ordered, and have now had the chance to play around with it a bit. The bottom line is this: Leopard is a worthy upgrade. Nothing revolutionary, but it doesn’t have to be. Many of the biggest changes are under the hood. I haven’t yet played with all the features yet, and I’ll update this review as I have a chance to see how they work.

Installing Leopard

Insert DVD, click on a handful of prompts, and wait. I decided to live on the edge a bit and not do the whole “Archive and Install” routine that I did on the Tiger upgrade, installing Leopard without backing up my old system files. So far, it seems like a backup isn’t necessary—but your mileage may vary.

The longest part of the install process seemed to be verifying that the DVD didn’t have any errors. The actual install went quite fast on my machine (a first-gen Intel iMac). I would suggest going into the settings and removing things like extra language packs (I don’t need to use Portuguese language files, thanks…) and the extra printer drivers unless you have a need for them. The size of the printer drivers is obscene, over 1GB. Unless you know that you’ll be connecting a bunch of different printers, it makes sense to ditch those and save yourself a few hundred megs of space.

The intro movie is just gorgeous, keeping with the space theme that pops up in Leopard—it’s a really nice introduction to the system.

One caveat: after the install Spotlight reindexes the drive, which causes some annoying stuttering. It’s a bit irritating, but the same thing happened with the Tiger upgrade. It would be nice if there was an option on launch to index right away or wait until something like 3a.m. when it won’t get in the way.

The Desktop

The Good: Spotlight is much improved. It’s still not quite as good as a third-party launcher like Quicksilver, but it’s definitely improved. It now indexes network shares, and seems to be just as speedy as it was in Tiger.

iCal is much, much improved. The interface is much cleaner (taking some visual cues from the iPhone). iCal is one of the apps I end up using the most, and it’s nice to see that Apple has given it some much-needed attention. Now that it has its own Calendar Server behind it, perhaps Apple can start making some serious inroads into the business market? I know I would much rather invest in an office full of Macs with OS X Server than pay through the nose for a Microsoft solution right now. For large corporations the switch is difficult. For something like a small business or law firm, going with Macs would make things like setting up a network so much easier.

Safari 3 is very speedy, and my favorite browser, even above Firefox. The Leopard version seems just as speedy and so far seems less flaky than it was on Tiger.

The new version of Mail is gorgeous, useful, and generally speedy. Now that GMail supports IMAP, all my accounts are in one place and searchable with Spotlight. What’s really nice is that Mail can see an address or an event in a mail message and with one click import that into iCal, my Address Book, or show the location in Google Maps. That is one of those little timesavers that makes a huge difference in your personal workflow.

People familiar with iTunes know Cover Flow, which lets you scroll through a 3D representation of your album covers. Leopard allows that for general files now too. In some cases, it’s useless. For large directories of oddly-named images it’s absolutely brilliant.

The Bad: The visual look of the desktop is a little darker, although not nearly as dark as Vista. The new folder icons are pretty bad, however. Mac OS X has been progressively more restrained from the bright white pinstripes in 10.0. As much as I like dark themes, I’m not quite sure that the new look works. The default wallpaper is just too dark to match with the darker theme—but with a lighter wallpaper the increased contrast makes everything look better. I know complaining about the default wallpaper seems pretty pendantic, but given that every little impression counts it would be nice to see Apple include something brighter. (Like what happened to the cool leaf wallpaper from the beta versions? Fortunately, you can still the beta wallpaper here.)

I’m also not a fan of the semi-transparent menubar either.

Space is also somewhat of a letdown. I love virtual desktops, and I use them all the time on Ubuntu, but Spaces just doesn’t seem as fluid as the Compiz version I use on Ubuntu 7.10—and my Ubuntu machine is significantly less power than my iMac. Spaces isn’t a bad feature, and it works as an implementation of the virtual desktop idea, but Compiz actually does it better. To see an open source application beat Apple at a user interface design is a bit of an existential shock…

Under The Hood

There are a lot of nice technical additions to Leopard. At the same time, Leopard doesn’t feel noticeably slower than Tiger. OS X upgrades tend to get faster over time, and while Leopard doesn’t feel noticeably faster, it’s not like Vista, which seems downright sluggish and unresponsive. Other than the stutters caused by Spotlight updates, Leopard feels just as responsive as one would expect OS X to be.

There are some nice frameworks for application developers to take advantage of, and there has apparently been some work at restructuring the code. Leopard is fully UNIX compliant now, which means absolutely nothing to those who don’t fondly remember their first pocket protector, but it does prove that Leopard has gotten some work under the hood to bring it into the UNIX fold.

The Inevitable Vista Comparison

Windows Vista was like dating Jessica Simpson. Yeah, she’s pretty, but she’s also irritating as hell and prone to flake out at the slightest sign of trouble. Leopard is a much more pleasant experience. Yes, it’s had a little cosmetic surgery, some of which is a little too obvious, but at the core it’s still the same system you know and love. Yes, maybe the look is a little colder, but at the end of the day that slickness isn’t cover for a mess underneath.

Vista is designed to give control to Microsoft—if you don’t play by their rules, they quite literally lock you out of your own computer. Leopard has no serial numbers, no anti-piracy measures, and no infuriating product activation schemes. Apple treats their customers like partners—Microsoft treats their customers like criminals.

Both Leopard and Vista are incremental upgrades, but Leopard adds something to the experience, while installing Vista over XP is a definite downgrade. Furthermore, Vista adds a new learning curve for existing PC users—so if you’re thinking about getting a computer, you’re going to encounter a new learning curve anyway. You might as well have an experience where at the end of that learning curve you have a good experience rather than learning to deal with Vista’s endless frustrations and anti-consumer B.S.

The Big Picture

Leopard may be an evolutionary upgrade rather than a revolutionary one, but it does exactly what it’s supposed to do: make using a Mac a better experience. There are still a few rough edges, but nothing like the transition from XP to Vista. And unlike that transition, I feel no need to rush out and uninstall Leopard. Leopard shows that Apple is still committed to putting out a quality product, still is interested in advancing OS X as a software platform, and still has an impressive eye for detail.

Leopard is a worthy upgrade in itself, and even more it’s a good excuse for potential switchers to see why so many people have moved over to the Mac platform in the last few years. I’m certainly glad I did.

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