Because Apple pre-announced most of the marquee features of the latest version of its Macintosh operating system more than a year ago, the arrival of Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard seems almost anti-climactic.
But the more time I spend with Leopard, the more convinced I am that it is the most significant upgrade to Mac OS X since Jaguar (version 10.2, for those keeping track).
As Leopard is the sixth version of Mac OS X, major change was not likely. At the same time, almost every part of OS X has been revised - cosmetically, with new capabilities, or both. Although I was expecting an incremental upgrade, Leopard has impressed me as much more than that.
In fact, the many less obvious refinements in Leopard (Apple lists more than 300 on its Web site) represent at least as much value as the gee-whiz features.
For example, the Dictionary application now has separate buttons for the old dictionary and thesaurus functions, as well as two more: one marked Apple, which searches Apple's online help files; and one marked Wikipedia, which allows the user to search the online encyclopedia without switching to a Web browser. A fifth button, All, searches all four simultaneously.
The utilitarian programs Mail and iCal are now more integrated; To-do items created in either program appear automatically in the other. Mail now has Data Detectors (Mac OS 9 had a similar feature - what's old is new again) that recognize an address in the text of a message so you can map it on the Web. Data Detectors can also recognize dates. When the cursor hovers over such data, a gray dotted line appears around it with a triangle to the right indicating a pop-up menu with options, such as adding the event to iCal.
So how about those gee-whiz features? They're not so shabby, either.
Quick Look, which allows you to preview any document in the Finder, may be the most useful of them all. It lets you see images, read documents and watch videos without launching a single program. Not only does it work when browsing through a folder of documents, but a keyboard shortcut allows you to use it on files sitting on your Desktop. This is extremely helpful when hunting through a crowded folder in a quest for that one particular item.
Time Machine may be the most hyped feature in Leopard. Once activated it creates automatic backups to a secondary hard drive, such as a drive connected to a USB or FireWire port. (You can also back up wirelessly, but only to another Mac running Leopard on your home network.) It maintains incremental copies each day, so that if you accidentally delete a file Monday you can "go back in time" to Friday and retrieve it.
Spaces is a way to have up to four different desktops active, but not occupying your computer's screen. You can be editing a video in one space while browsing the Web in another and writing a novel in another. Clicking the F8 key shows you all four desktops in a grid format; you can see which program is running in which space and can switch to the one you want by clicking on it. The other three desktops then whisk away as your selection fills the entire screen.
A few other things I like about Leopard:
Safari: Leopard delivers a new version of the Web browser, and Apple has optimized it for speed. The version of Safari 3 on the Leopard DVD is an order of magnitude faster than even the Safari 3 beta I've been using for months. Apple also added a tool for clipping a piece of any Web page to create a widget. You can keep this clip on your desktop and it will update automatically whenever the original Web page does. Cool.
Parental Controls: The new, improved Parental Controls now has its own preference pane, making it easier to find. Parents can not just limit a child's access to Internet sites, iChat pals and system files as before, but can schedule when each day the child is allowed to access the computer.
Performance: Leopard predictably feels faster on my 2006 vintage MacBook, but it even purrs on my barely qualifying 2001 867 MHz G4 Quicksilver tower Mac. Subjectively I'd say it's actually more responsive than Tiger.
About the only thing not to like about Leopard is that it kills compatibility with the old Mac OS 9 programs (Classic mode) even on PowerPC-based Macs. (None of the newer Intel-based Macs can run Classic anyway.)
Also, Leopard's system requirements are a bit steeper than expected: an 867 MHz G4 CPU, 512 megabytes of memory and nine gigabytes of hard drive space.
Overall, however, Leopard is a winner.
Leopard retails for $129 for a single user and $199 for the Family Pack, good for five household Macs.