What I Love, and Loathe, About Leopard

Features like Stacks, Time Machine, and Cover Flow are marvels, but they have irritating downsides

I'm usually among the first to install a new version of the Mac OS after its release. So it was with the Apple's (AAPL) latest OS, Leopard. Apple released it on Oct. 26, a Friday. I had Leopard installed on my MacBook Pro by the following afternoon. Having used it for the better part of two weeks, I know exactly what I like about it, and more importantly, what I don't.

The features I favor probably won't surprise you much, because by and large they are the same ones everyone else likes. But there are a few things I dislike—some of them linked to the things I like.

Hard Drive Hassle

Take Time Machine, probably the most talked-about and eagerly anticipated feature in Leopard. I'm probably not alone in having struggled with the finer points of backing up important data. I can't begin to count the money I've spent on external hard drives and various software applications that promise to automate the backup process. None has really worked, and now I have caches of important data scattered all over the house in various drives I've acquired over the years. I'm still not sure what I'll do with them all, but from here on, I know I'll be using Time Machine to prevent a widening of my digital diaspora, and I'm delighted that Apple created it.

But Time Machine has a big, glaring weakness. It's great if you use it on a desktop machine like an iMac or Mac Pro that doesn't move around much. But many Macs sold these days move frequently. Of the 7 million Macs sold in the fiscal year that ended in September, 4.3 million were notebooks. And if your Mac of choice is one of these notebooks, using Time Machine is a slightly more arduous process.

In order to take full advantage of it, you'll need to carry an external hard drive with you—a fair option considering the compact size of good hard drives from LaCie and G-Technology. Or you'll regularly have to reconnect your notebook to an external hard drive in the place you use it most. It's not a big deal, but who needs the extra task in the midst of a busy day?

Seductive Stacks

Nor is Time Machine compatible with network-connected hard drives, It's an unfortunate shortcoming, considering the rising popularity of this method for sharing information among the various several computers on a local network. I use one from Iomega (IOM) and have been seeing network-ready backup drives hit the market from LaCie, Seagate (STX), Buffalo Technology, and others. Apple's own Airport Extreme wireless router supports just such a drive to one of its Ethernet ports. After first hearing about Time Machine I had visions of setting up one huge networked drive that could store a terabyte of data and letting Time Machine make convenient backups to it from my MacBook Pro via Wi-Fi. Until and unless Time Machine supports network drives, it will remain just a vision.

Time Machine is among a handful of Leopard features, good as they are, that may not be fully baked. While these features should have been in time for the release, I am hopeful that new capabilities will be added in the updates that are certain to come in the weeks and months ahead.

Here's another example of a shining Leopard feature that has a downside: Stacks. Having suffered from a desktop I would describe as pathologically cluttered for years, I love Stacks, which gives you a better way to organize stuff that would normally end up loose on the desktop. Instead of downloading files to the desktop from the Web, they end up in a "Downloads" file that is embedded in the Dock. Great idea.

I also embedded my Documents and Applications folders in the Dock and set them both to display contents in a grid that appears and disappears at a single mouse click.

The problem? The more stuff I put in those folders, the more their dock icons change, and visually, I find it confusing. Taking the word "stacks" perhaps a little too literally, the icons that get embedded in the Dock change depending on what is considered to be the "top" of the stack.

By default, the items are organized alphabetically, so a file that starts with the letter A will be at the top and become the temporary icon for that folder. It may be the thumbnail image of a photograph, or a document, or a video file. Put something new in that folder that goes to the "top" and the icon in the Dock changes to match, meaning the icon lacks the kind of visual consistency that something used so often really should have.

Leopard: Still the Cat's Meow

And if you look really closely, you'll see those icons are really "stacked" atop the icons of other items in the folder. As I look now at the icon for my Applications folder, I see Firefox stacked on top of a folder, and under that I see the top of the pointy hat used in the icon for Emailchemy, an e-mail utility.

My question about Stacks is: Do they really need to look like stacks? Why can't they just look like folders, or something else, that never changes. Again, an otherwise great idea gets watered down by sloppy execution. Could the way they work now be made optional?

These are, however, in the grander scheme of things, rather minor complaints. (Though not the only ones, as you'll see in the slide show accompanying this feature.) Leopard blows the doors off any other operating system. Features like Cover Flow, adapted from the feature of the same name that is used in iTunes and on the iPhone and iPod touch, gives a gorgeous animated method to browse through files of every type quickly, and Quick View even lets you look at them closely without having to go to the trouble of launching an application. And the multiple desktops offered by Spaces is, in time, going to change my day-to-day working life. Or so my editor hopes.

In short, I love Leopard, though not without reservations. And I am confident that Apple can fix the system's shortcoming fairly easily.

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