Leopard at six months: Does it live up to the early hype?

Though some thought it was released too soon, Mac OS X 10.5 has matured into a solid operating system

It has been just over six months since Mac OS X "Leopard" first shipped, bringing with it a slew of new features, a tweaked user interface, revamped underpinnings and -- as is often the case -- a healthy batch of complaints from users about problems. At the time, some in the Macintosh community even argued that Apple Inc.'s new operating system was released before it was ready for prime time.

Given that this was the first major update of the Mac operating system since early 2005 and that it had already been delayed once -- from April to late October -- Apple clearly didn't want to announce another delay. But did the company do a rush job in an effort to push its crown jewel out the door?

Apple has taken steps in recent months to iron out any wrinkles that users have found. With two major updates now under its belt (a third update is due out soon) as well as the release of numerous code tweaks and security fixes, Leopard has gained ground and maturity and has grown into a solid computing platform.

Leopard promised enough new features to tempt Mac users to upgrade. Apple touted some 300 changes, major and minor: Time Machine for automatic backups; a more powerful search tool, Spotlight; virtual desktops called Spaces; new Parental Controls to help users track what their kids are doing on the computer; Quick Look, which allows users to open files without having to first fire off an application; an updated user interface with a new Finder and Dock; elegant tweaks to mainstream Mac programs like Mail and iChat; and behind-the-scenes changes aimed at helping developers improve their own applications. (For my money, Time Machine, which makes something as dull as backing up your system easy and fun to do, makes the move to Leopard a no-brainer.)

Finally, with Leopard came the official version of Boot Camp, which allows you to run later versions of Windows XP or Vista natively on a Mac. (An earlier beta version of Boot Camp received no further updates once the new operating system was available.) Boot Camp does limit you to running one operating system at a time. However, if you want to run more than one, you need virtualization software such as Parallels or VMware.

Problems emerge

While Leopard's feature list tempted Apple fans into purchasing Leopard, within days of its release, reports flooded blog and news sites about Leopard installations gone awry, resulting in blue-screened Macs -- a technological irony, given the grief Mac users have given Windows users throughout the years. These issues were soon tied to Unsanity LLC's APE software -- the remedy involved uninstalling the software from single-user mode.

The most alarming of Leopard's initial crop of bugs was a rare but reproducible glitch that involved data loss under specific circumstances. If a user moved files from one disk to another while holding down the Command key, and one of the disks became unmounted during the move, both the original and the copied items would delete themselves.

While the bug was fixed just days after it was found, it raised questions about Apple's quality control and only amplified fears that Leopard had been pushed out of the door too soon. Although nothing as nasty has shown up in Leopard since then, the data-loss issue put off some buyers, and in fact, a lot of Mac fans weighed in on online forums and in blogs, saying they would wait a few weeks before spending their $129 on the operating system.

Less serious were the complaints about changes to the operating system's user interface, which offered a more unified look by ditching the "brushed metal" look used in Tiger. Coming under fire were the changes to the Dock and modifications to the Finder, including a new way to navigate the Mac's file system called Cover Flow. While this new feature allowed for iTunes/iPhone-like album browsing through files in the Finder, many fans in online forums dismissed it as needless eye candy, while others debated its merits. Even something as minor as the newly transparent menu bar divided Mac users.

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