Leopard's hits and misses: A spotty record

Now that we've used Apple's new OS for a week, what do we like and what falls short?

Macintosh fans can be a peculiar lot. They may follow Apple's every move with rapt attention, but they're not shy about sharing their thoughts when they think the company has fallen short.

That even applies to such feverishly anticipated developments as the release of a new version of OS X: Just check out almost any Apple OS forum these days for a sampling of Leopard-related snark, mere days after it shipped.

Here at Computerworld, we've been spending a lot of time with Leopard ourselves, peering under the hood and poring over the various changes, updates and tweaks, and we're ready to weigh in, too. As good as it is -- and it is a nice piece of code work -- Leopard isn't perfect. No operating system is.

So here's where we point to a few of the things we think Apple missed on the way to its Leopard launch, or things that weren't missed but simply could have been done better. (There are surely others we haven't found yet, so feel free to propose your own candidates in our Comments section below.) Of course, it wouldn't be fair not to offer a few thoughts on what Apple did extremely well, so those are included as well.

First up: The Leopard misses.


Time Machine

Time Machine is the coolest app included in Leopard, but that doesn't mean it's perfect. In fact, it can be a tad confusing when you're first setting it up using the System Preferences pane.

By default, Time Machine backs up everything on your computer, and is even smart enough to know not to copy files on the external hard drive you're using as your backup.

So far, so good. But let's say you have more data on your computer than there's room for on your backup drive. That means you're going to have to pick some things for Time Machine not to back up. Here's where things get dicey.

To deselect files, you have to click the + button to add items to your "Do not back up" list. It's counterintuitive; you click "add" to subtract. It would make more sense to use the + button to add whichever drive, folder or file you want saved, or use the button to delete items from the backup list.

No doubt Apple intends Time Machine to back up everything by default, which is why it's set up this way. Just make sure you buy a large enough hard drive, and this won't be an issue.

The Dock

Before Apple released the final version of Leopard last Friday, some of those with access to prerelease builds had complained about the Dock; in particular, the way looked when it was placed on the left or right side of the screen.

Running it up the side seems natural in this era of widescreen monitors, as that's where the extra screen real estate is. Why force windows to be smaller than they need to be by sticking the Dock along the bottom of the screen? And yet, that's where Apple seems to naturally think it should be.

The result, at least before the final version of Leopard came out, was a shelf-like Dock that looked anything but a shelf when positioned on the right or left. Apple's ungainly solution in the shipping version: Transform the Dock when it's placed vertically.

Instead of a sideways glass shelf, you get a dark, sleek, translucent strip ringed in white -- basically, a modernized version of the old Tiger "Scotch tape" look. Some people don't like it, some do. But it's a little weird to have such a major part of the user interface change its look based on where it's located. It feels too much like an afterthought.

(If you really don't like the shelf-like Dock, there are Terminal commands and scripts available to get it to appear as a strip even when it's at the bottom.)


The stacks that reveal the contents of a folder in the Dock are a nice idea, but some of their behavior is annoying. First, if the Dock is on the bottom of the screen (where a lot of people tend to keep it), a stack will display as a curving column of icons or as a rectangular grid, depending on how many items are in the folder.

For folders where the number of items changes regularly (such as Downloads), you never know which display you're going to get. Furthermore, stacks displayed as columns sort items alphabetically beginning at the bottom of the stack, while stacks displaying as a grid sort items alphabetically beginning at the top left. Between that and the changing shape, you can rarely find what you're looking for immediately.

Another miss with stacks is the fact that there's no easy way to navigate within them. In previous Mac OS X releases, folders placed in the Dock functioned as pop-up hierarchical menus for navigating their contents. It would be nice to get this functionality back.

Mail mis-delivery

When you first launch Mail in Leopard, it imports and converts your e-mail database and all your mailboxes. But some people who went through this process then found that rather than seeing all their mail in all their in-boxes just by clicking on the main Inbox header, they had to view each Inbox's mail separately, by clicking on each mailbox individually. Needless to say, that's a serious inconvenience.

Active Directory

Active Directory support doesn't seem to be completely reliable so far. Many users are reporting problems with Active Directory binding under Leopard. Binding to a domain and logging in both seem to be slower across the board for most users, and a number of people have reported other problems beyond just sluggishness. Given that for many people and organizations Active Directory support is a priority, this is a major miss.

Cover Flow

Admittedly, Cover Flow in Finder windows is cool. It allows you to visually scan files and folders the same way you flip through songs and albums in iTunes or on the iPhone.

Here's the annoyance, though: You open a Finder window in Cover Flow mode, then drag the lower-right corner of the window down to see more files. Oops! Watch instead as the Cover Flow icons grow to gargantuan size while the list of files you're actually trying to expand remains the same size.

We don't want behemoth-size icons, no matter how pretty. We want to see the rest of the list of files in whatever folder we're perusing. Once you set the size of the Cover Flow window pane, it should remain that size in all Finder windows until you enlarge it.

Lack of imaginative iPhone integration

When Steve Jobs first unveiled Leopard's features, he said there were still some Apple had not yet announced. One thing that many Mac users expected was further integration of the iPhone and Leopard.

While the iPhone currently plays nicely with iTunes (on both Macs and PCs), we want more. If my iPhone rings, why can't my Mac automatically display Caller ID information right on the screen? When I come into Bluetooth range of my Mac, why can't that set off a script or two that turns off my screensaver, fires up my music and launches the apps I need?

Third-party applications that better tie mobile phones and Macs have been around for years, but none support the iPhone. So Apple should.

The good news is there's still a good chance of this sort of integration happening. Given Apple's software roots and its continuous efforts to enhance the user experience, this is probably more a matter of when and not if.

Orphaned hardware

For those who are a couple of generations behind in their hardware, the prospect of a Leopard world is bleak. For one, any Mac with a G3 chip is automatically left out. This includes all of the original translucent iMacs; you know, the ones that helped get Apple back on its feet.

The blue towers that ran Tiger respectably (given a lot of RAM) are also out of the picture, as are all first-generation iBooks -- remember the orange and blue ones? Leopard also leaves behind the Generation 2 White iBooks as well. All black G3 PowerBooks? Gone.

But the carnage doesn't stop there. A lot of G4 machines won't make the cut, either. Any machine without 512MB of RAM and at least a 867-MHz G4 processor isn't supported. This includes some Mac Minis sold before July 2005 that shipped with G4 processors and 256MB of RAM. While you can upgrade the memory via putty knife and third-party chips, there is no official Apple upgrade available. Just over two years old and already obsolete!

Other G4s that Leopard doesn't support include Quicksilver and earlier Power Macs and Cubes released before January 2002; eMacs sold before October 2003; Titanium PowerBooks older than November 2002.

"Does not support" really means "will not install," by the way. The Leopard installation program won't run on a machine that doesn't meet the specs. But you can put Leopard on an older machine, if you want to try it. Attach it to a supported Mac via FireWire, start it in Target mode, and you'll be able to install Leopard on it from the supported Mac. We were able to get an unsupported Mini working that way, albeit slowly.


Time Machine

OK, so maybe we grumbled a little about how the user interface works in the Time Machine preference pane. So what? You'll eventually figure it out. Once you do, Time Machine does basically one thing -- back up your files -- and it does that really well and in the most graphically appealing way possible.

You may never have backed up files before, or maybe you only do it when you sense trouble and are worried your hard drive is about to blow up. Now Apple has taken the most mundane of chores and turned into something akin to a video game. You'll want to back up your files just so you can show your friends the celestial Time Machine browser. They'll be impressed, and more importantly, your files will be safe.


Another "Yes, but ..." here: As annoying as the shape-shifting Dock is, the addition of stacks is both useful and visually impressive. They let you see what's in a folder in the Dock without having to actually open the folder or even find it in your system.

Just click once on the folder, and icons representing all of your files sweep out in an arc across your screen. Click the file to open it, or click the arrow to immediately go to it in the Finder.

Front Row

For Apple's Media Center fans, Front Row was a hit from Day One. It provided a great interface for browsing the iTunes media library and operated from a minimalist remote control that had a similar form factor as the original iPod shuffle. However, its inability to play non-iTunes Media was widely criticized; also, it only was installed only on new machines and ran a bit slow.

Leopard changes all of that. Any machine that runs Leopard now runs Front Row -- it's right there in the Applications folder. You can control it with the keyboard, a Bluetooth remote or the traditional Apple Remote.

It now also boasts the improved AppleTV Interface that allows you to browse your whole machine. With the proper codecs, it can play a much wider array of movies as well -- and not just from the host machine, but also from other machines and media servers on your network. Quick Look

For many file types, the Finder has provided some preview capabilities for a while in column view, but Quick Look makes virtually every file preview-able. For Microsoft Office files especially, it makes it possible to just quickly skim a file for specific pieces of information without waiting for any of the Office apps to actually launch.

It's also great for getting a quick preview of attachments from within Mail rather than having to open or save the file first. All in all, it's a cool feature that turns out to be quite a timesaver in any number of situations.

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