The Mac is on a roll. Apple Inc.’s perennially praised but slow-selling Macintosh computers have surged in popularity in the past few years, with sales growing much faster than the overall PC market, especially in the U.S. By some measures, Mac laptops are now approaching a 20% share of U.S. noncorporate sales, up from the low single digits where they once seemed stuck.
There are several reasons for this, including the security problems in the dominant Windows platform from Microsoft; spillover from Apple’s blistering success with its iPod music players; the fact that Macs can now run Windows programs; and Apple’s highly successful chain of company-owned retail stores.
But another key factor has been the Mac operating system, called OS X, which came out in 2001. It has proved to be as powerful and versatile for mainstream consumers as Windows, yet easier to use and more secure. And Apple has upgraded OS X far more rapidly than Microsoft Inc. has upgraded Windows, bringing out major new releases roughly every 18 months, while Microsoft struggled for more than five years to produce the latest Windows iteration, Vista, which came out in January.
On Friday evening, Apple will release yet another new version of OS X, called Leopard, to replace the current version, known as Tiger. I’ve been testing Leopard, and while it is an evolutionary, not a revolutionary, release, I believe it builds on Apple’s quality advantage over Windows. In my view, Leopard is better and faster than Vista, with a set of new features that make Macs even easier to use.
Leopard will come preinstalled on all new Macs. It can also be purchased for $129 as an upgrade to existing Macs that, depending on configuration, can be as many as six years old. Unlike Vista, which is sold in four noncorporate upgrade versions ranging from a $100 stripped-down “basic” edition to a $259 deluxe “ultimate” edition, there’s only one version of Leopard. It includes all the features, from those aimed at novices to those aimed at power users.
For me, the marquee features in Leopard are a new function called Time Machine that automatically backs up your entire computer in the background; two new methods, called Cover Flow and Quick Look, for rapidly viewing the contents of files without opening any programs; and new techniques that allow you to access the files in, and to remotely control, other computers on your network or connected over the Internet with a few clicks and no technical expertise.
Plus, Apple’s free software for running Windows on a Mac, called Boot Camp, which was formerly an add-on users had to download and install, is now built right into the operating system. And, in my tests, the third-party Fusion program for running Windows and Mac programs simultaneously continued to work fine in Leopard.
I did notice a few drawbacks, but they were minor. The menu bar is now translucent, which can make it hard to see the items it contains if your desktop picture has dark areas at the top. The new folder icons are dull and flat and less attractive than Vista’s or their predecessors on the Mac. While Time Machine can perform backups over a network, the backup destination can only be a hard disk connected to a Mac running Leopard. And, on the Web, I ran into one site where the fonts on part of the page were illegible, a problem Apple says is known and rare and that I expect it will fix.
While Apple claims the new system includes more than 300 new features, there is nothing on the list that could be considered startling or a major breakthrough. Some of Leopard’s features are unique, but many others — such as backing up data and quickly viewing files — have been available on both Windows and the Mac via third-party programs or hard-to-find geeky methods buried in the operating systems. Leopard has made them easy to find and use.
When I upgraded my personal iMac desktop to Leopard, it took less than an hour, and after the process was complete, all my programs, including the Mac version of Microsoft Office, the Firefox Web browser and Adobe Reader, worked rapidly and fine. I was still able to run Windows XP via Fusion. And my previous installation of Boot Camp, which turns the iMac into a speedy, full-fledged Vista machine after a reboot, worked perfectly. All my Vista programs and files continued to function properly.
In fact, every piece of software and hardware I tried on two Leopard-equipped Macs — a loaned laptop from Apple and my own upgraded iMac — worked fine, exhibiting none of the compatibility problems that continue to plague Vista. My old Hewlett-Packard inkjet printer, for which Vista lacks the proper software, worked instantly in Leopard, even over the network. And, unlike with Vista, it was able to print on both sides of the page. I popped my old Verizon cellphone modem card into the test Leopard laptop and it worked, too, with no software installation or tweaking.
Leopard felt about as fast as Tiger, and it started up much faster than Vista in my tests. I compared a MacBook Pro laptop with Leopard preinstalled to a Sony Vaio laptop with Vista preinstalled. Even though I had cleared out all of the useless trial software Sony had placed on the Vaio, it still started up painfully slowly compared with the Leopard laptop.
It took the Vista machine nearly two minutes to perform a cold start and be ready to run, including connecting to my wireless network. The Leopard laptop was up, running and connected to the network in 38 seconds. In a test of restarting the two laptops after they had been running an email program, a Web browser and a word processor, the Sony with Vista took three minutes and 29 seconds, while the Apple running Leopard took one minute and five seconds.
Here’s a rundown of some of Leopard’s key features. Much more detailed information is available at apple.com/macosx.
File management: Apple’s Finder, the equivalent of Explorer in Windows, now offers two new ways to quickly see what your files contain. You can still view them as icons or lists. But you can also use Cover Flow, the same system Apple uses in iTunes and on the iPhone to display album covers for music. In Leopard, a large preview of each file you select appears above the list of files in a folder, and you can rapidly scroll through these icons. These previews are live, and their contents can be viewed without opening the program that is normally needed to display them.
For instance, if the file is a video, you can just click on it, and it will play. If it’s a multipage PDF file, you can click on it, and arrows will appear allowing you to flip through the pages.
An even better and deeper look can be obtained using a feature called Quick Look. Just hit the space bar or click on a toolbar icon, and a preview of any selected file zooms out. You can even view multiple sheets in an Excel file via Quick Look without launching Excel.
Another quick new way to see your files is available in the Dock, the Mac’s equivalent of the Windows Task Bar. Here, any folder you place on the right side of the dock will display its contents, after a single click, either as a grid of icons displaying miniversions of the file or as a “fan,” or arc, of such icons. These special Dock folders are called “Stacks.” Leopard includes one by default that is the destination for everything you download from the Internet, so your desktop will no longer get cluttered with downloads,
Time Machine: This built-in feature will continuously back up all of the contents of your Mac to either an external hard drive directly connected to the computer, or to a hard disk connected to another Mac running Leopard that’s on your network. The initial backup, in my tests, took all night, but after that, the system updates the backups hourly and I didn’t notice any slowdown during the process.
To recover any file you deleted, you simply click on the Time Machine icon, and you are taken to a view that shows file folders — or your email or address book or photo collection — in a stack of windows that appear to go on infinitely. You click on an arrow and the stack of windows zooms until you arrive at the last view in which the missing file existed. Then, you click “restore,” and the file is recovered in your normal desktop view. You can also restore whole folders, groups of files, or even an entire hard disk.
Shared computers: In Leopard, any computer that has been set to be shared on your network shows up on the left side of every Finder window. Click on it, and you can access whatever folders have been shared on those machines. Depending on the remote computer’s security settings, you may first have to enter a user name and password. It’s the simplest method I’ve ever seen for accessing other computers on a network. And it works with Windows PCs as well as Macs. When I first turned on the Leopard laptop in my office, it immediately found a shared folder on my colleague’s old Dell running Windows XP. She hadn’t even remembered sharing the folder, which contained files from 2003.
You can copy or move files to and from these shared computers, or view their contents with Cover Flow and Quick Look, or open them in programs on your own computer.
If you are a member of Apple’s optional .Mac service, which costs $100 a year, you can use a feature called “Back to My Mac,” which can access your Macs from thousands of miles away over the Internet. However, this feature works only over certain kinds of routers (not all of them Apple’s) and, as my router didn’t qualify, I couldn’t test it.
Remote control: For any Mac in your shared-computers list for which you have permission, you can take over the screen by simply clicking on a button called “Share Screen.” You can also remotely control distant Macs over the Internet using Apple’s built-in iChat instant messaging program, as long as you have permission and the Macs are running Leopard.
iChat: Apple now allows you to use its instant messaging program with Google Talk as well as AOL’s AIM service, and you can set up a video chat in which you can present a slide show or display a document. You can also add special backgrounds that can make it look as though you’re someplace else, like Paris. In my tests, this even worked with someone on the other end using a Windows XP computer running the latest version of AIM.
Spaces: In order to cut down desktop clutter, Leopard lets you set up as many as 16 different desktops that can run simultaneously, with different programs open in each. You switch among these desktops by using keyboard commands or a menu.
For instance, you might have your iPhoto and iTunes running in one “space,” or desktop, your Web browser and email program in another, and Windows XP in another.
Leopard isn’t a must-have for current Mac owners, but it adds a lot of value. For new Mac buyers, it makes switching even more attractive.