Apple's Leopard Hits the Spot

The new operating system is no revolution, but it's an upgrade well worth the price

The art of writing software involves a lot of borrowing from the work of others. Everyone does it, but Apple (AAPL) is the master. Over the years, it has taken the best ideas from Windows and other programs and made them better. The latest result of this process is the new Leopard version of Mac OS X, which strengthens Apple's claim to have the best consumer computer.

The changes introduced with Leopard ($129 for upgrading one computer, or $199 for as many as five) mostly affect how people organize their information. While Windows and Linux encourage the use of folders and directories to tuck information out of sight, Mac users tend to store more and more stuff—programs, documents, videos—right on their desktops, until the screen calls to mind a teenage boy's bedroom. Leopard gently nudges you to keep the mess under control. Another borrowing from Windows Vista is the extensive use of detailed graphical icons to tell you what's in a file. And Apple adds Quick Look, a nearly instant full-size preview of the contents for most file types.

Time Machine: Smart Backup System

A new concept called Stacks also creates an incentive for neatness. A Stack is really just a folder that has been dragged to the Dock, the row of readily available programs and files at the bottom of a Mac display. When you click on a Stack, a column of icons representing the contents pops up and you can select the one you want. (If there are a lot of icons, they are displayed in a grid.) Two very useful Stacks are Downloads, the default destination for downloaded files, and Applications, which becomes—diehard Apple fans, forgive me—the equivalent of the Windows Start menu.

The Finder, Mac's way to manage files, gets a badly needed overhaul. Here Apple borrows from itself. The new Finder bears a more than passing resemblance to iTunes. A panel on the left side of the window contains a list of devices such as disk drives or other storage media, places (desktop, home folder, etc.), and saved searches. The main window shows the files and folders, with a new Cover Flow option swiped from iTunes. In this view, icons representing files and folders rotate to the foreground, the same way album covers do in iTunes.

The most significant innovation in Leopard is Time Machine, the cure for Apple's lack of a good backup system. It has always been easy to back up files, but Time Machine makes it simple to retrieve them. It gives a Cover Flow-like view of all of your backups and a vertical time-line down the right side of the screen helps you quickly find the backup from which you want to restore files. You have to see it to appreciate it, but it is very clever.

Easy Installation

Of course, Time Machine also embodies Apple's "my way or the highway" approach to how things should be done. You can only use an external hard drive plugged into your Mac or to another Mac running Leopard: You can't back up to a stand-alone networked drive. And many drives bigger than 500 gigabytes will only work after some obscure manual reformatting.

One feature still missing from OS X is something like Windows System Restore, which lets you recover from such problems as a failed hardware or software installation by returning the system to a known good state without affecting your data. Ken Bereskin, senior director of OS X product marketing, says Mac's "robust system reliability" makes something like System Restore unnecessary, but I've had enough problems on Macs to convince me it would be useful.

Users will applaud how easy it is to install Leopard. I upgraded two iMacs and a Mac Book Pro without a hitch, and I have not encountered any hardware or software compatibility problems. Leopard is an evolutionary improvement of a product that was already very good—not a great leap forward. Still, it's rare in the software world to find something with this many pluses and no big minuses.

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