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Ten Days With Leopard: Coolest Cat Ever

By Chris Maxcer MacNewsWorld ECT News Network
Nov 12, 2007 4:00 AM PT

Apple is known for the stability of its operating systems and its nearly seamless ability to deliver upgrades and enhancements that only rarely break existing applications.

Ten Days With Leopard: Coolest Cat Ever

Still, before I upgraded from Mac OS X Tiger 10.4.9 to Leopard, I made a complete bootable backup copy of my MacBook's hard drive. At this point, I hadn't heard about any of Leopard's installation woes, and I almost didn't bother to take the time to create the full backup.

I'm glad I did.

The OS Upgrade Blues

Rather than completely erasing my hard drive and doing a fresh install, I chose to simply upgrade to Leopard, letting the Leopard install disk run its default installation. The upgrade appeared to install just fine, up until it was time to restart. After restarting, my MacBook hung and never recovered -- not on the "blue" screen that has reportedly plagued users of a particular kind of enhancement application, but something similar to that error.

I cut the power and restarted. Same problem. I tried to remove the Leopard installation DVD, but could not, of course, because the screen was locked, so I had to boot from the Leopard DVD itself. At this point, I had to assume that my data was either irrecoverable or difficult to get to, so I had a choice -- wipe the hard drive clean and do a fresh install or do an archive and install where my system settings would be saved, along with my data, in a separate folder, but Leopard itself would be installed essentially on its own. Usually archive and install is a pretty good method, but I'd already had problems, and I didn't want to risk more.

Only One Backup

At this point, I was trusting that my backup of 9,000 photos, 1,000 songs, a hundred podcasts and dozens of movies and TV shows, documents and notes -- not to mention years of e-mails from multiple accounts, applications, and even Web browsing cookies -- to a single hard drive. Not good. My regular upgrade had failed for some unknown reason ... could it be due to some problem I had unwittingly just cloned to the backup drive? Was my only copy also doomed to be lost?

My MacBook is my workhorse -- I pound on it hours at a time every day of the week. I use a second monitor with screen spanning, and I push the MacBook's built-in graphics processor to its limits. By all rights, I should be using a MacBook Pro. Regardless, I use a MacBook, and I couldn't afford to be out of commission, so I plowed ahead. I booted from the Leopard install DVD, and using Disk Utility, I completely erased my MacBook's hard drive.

I installed a fresh copy of Leopard on top of the clean drive.

A Breakthrough

I restarted into Leopard, and it worked fantastically. I opened up Apple's Migration Assistant application, and prepared to copy over my user data and files from my backup disk. That worked fine until I got to a file error. Turns out I had a .jpg file that was somehow incomplete or corrupt, and the whole transfer process hung on the fact that the file couldn't be read. I wasn't overly surprised because I had run into a similar problem before -- iPhoto would hang when it attempted to read an unreadable file, which likely came from an upload issue or memory card issue with my digital camera. I previously had to delete a dozen or so files before I was able to make the bootable backup in the first place. However, now I had a problem file on the external hard drive, which had me wondering: How'd that slip by?

So I booted up using a FireWire connection to my bootable external hard drive and deleted the offending file. Everything seemed to be intact -- sigh of relief. Then I restarted into Leopard and ran the Migration Assistant again. This time around ... it stopped and told me that I didn't have enough disk space to migrate.

Somehow data had been copied over ... and it wasn't showing up in Leopard, but Leopard still thought the data was there -- I only had 10 GB of available hard drive space! Rather than attempt to find and remove the data, perhaps by deleting a folder to screwing up myself as a user, I rebooted using the Leopard install DVD, launched Disk Utility and wiped the hard drive clean again, this time overwriting all of the data -- a feature built into Disk Utility. Then I installed Leopard again and used Migration Assistant again, which worked flawlessly the second time around because the offending file was gone. I checked my apps -- all there. I checked my e-mail -- all there. I checked my Internet connection -- working -- and my photos and songs ... yup, it was all there.

So I went to bed.

The Next Morning

I had work to do so, so I couldn't play around with Leopard. Boom, into the fire. Much of Leopard is slightly different, but it's all intuitive. Stacks was the first feature I tried, and it's darn handy, especially the feature that puts all of your downloaded files into an automatic downloads stack. However, why does the stack have to curve to the right? For an operating system that bears the inherent elegance of all Apple products, why the banana curve? It just looks stupid.

Still, you can customize your stacks so they pop up into squares, which is handy and easy to use. There are other key features that will change how you interact with your Mac -- here are the ones that will jump right out at you.

Searching and Finding

Apple's iPhone introduced a feature called "Cover Flow" that lets you view music album covers to browse through your music library on your iPhone. It's cool on your iPhone, but not particularly handy -- browsing through dozens of albums is only useful if you're trying to impress someone who's never seen an iPhone or wants to listen to a particular song.

Apple delivered the same feature to iTunes, and it was only moderately functional there, too.

In Leopard, though, the Cover Flow feature is built into every folder's window -- by opening a folder, you automatically use Leopard's built-in Finder. Instead of album covers, Cover Flow gives you high resolution previews of all of your documents -- MS Word files, Excel files, Adobe .pdf files, movies and photos. It's not only visually amazing, it's outstandingly useful. You can read the first page of a document or step through many multi-page documents without actually opening up the file or starting up the application that created the file in the first place. Got a home video? You can watch it in the Finder. It's a totally new way of interacting with the documents on your Mac, and it makes searching -- and finding -- more efficient than ever.

The new Finder sidebar makes it super easy to navigate your Mac, external hard drives and flash storage, iDisk and shared Macs on a network. In addition, a built-in "Search For" section lets you perform pre-defined searches of all the documents and applications you've used today, yesterday, or in the past week. Leopard's built-in Spotlight search function will search across any connected Mac or storage device.

Once you think you've found the right document, you can use another feature called "Quick Look" that will let you view the contents of the document without opening it. It works in a similar way to Cover Flow, except all you have to do is press the space bar or click the Quick Look button. The bottom line: Searching and finding documents has become vastly easier.

Time Machine

After my issues with installing Leopard, I was particularly keen on Apple's new Time Machine backup system. Previously, creating backups using Apple's built-in solutions was esoteric and sometimes difficult -- so much so that most of the small minority of users who actually backed up their systems used third-party applications like Carbon Copy Cloner or SuperDuper.

To use Time Machine, all you have to do is connect an external hard drive. Time Machine will ask you if you want to use it to back up with Time Machine, and if you do, Time Machine will make a complete backup of everything on your Mac -- and then it will check every hour for changes and make backups of the changes. Even better yet, Time Machine lets you go back in time to find documents as they were backed up at any given time. So if you screwed up a document, you can go back in time to the moment before you messed it up. Or, if you've lost or a deleted a file, you can go back to the last time you remember using it -- say, Tuesday -- and retrieve the file. The interface lets you move forward and backward in time, and when you think you've found the file, you can use Quick Look to check it out. It's like a backup system on steroids -- and you'll get addicted. Plus, it's so easy that average Mac users might actually start using it.

Places and Spaces

Mac OS X Tiger already has built-in features that let you whip between documents and applications, the key of which is Exposť, which lets you create a hot corner of your screen that instantly shrinks all open windows into pictures you can select to jump from e-mail to a Web page, to a different Web page, to a Word document -- to anything you're using. That feature alone is awesome, but Apple has gone a step further, and that's to carve out your desktop into virtual "Spaces."

With Spaces, you can dedicate certain applications and documents to Spaces environment, so if you're editing a home video, you can create a clutter-free area to do that, and separate it from your e-mail and work environment. There are several ways you can switch between Spaces quickly, and if you've ever used your Mac for more than one thing at a time, you'll fall in love with Spaces.

In the Mail

Apple added To Do and Notes features to its e-mail program, Mail, and it took a cue from the iPhone again, which boasts a super easy method for accessing e-mail accounts. With Mail, setting up the application to access e-mail accounts is easier than ever. Not a big deal for experts, of course, but for newbies, it'll open up a world of possibilities.

There are other features in Mail that highlight the interactive ability between applications and documents in Leopard, like the ease of which you can add photos to messages. Plus, Apple has included 32 design templates that let you send e-mail messages that use HTML and look like postcards, birthday invitations or newsletters. Your family will think you're so cool.

In addition, Mail is contextually smart. I was surprised the first time I saw a little box with a drop down arrow surrounding the word "tomorrow" in an e-mail message -- by clicking on the drop down, I could add an iCal calendar event to tomorrow ... based on the content of the e-mail. Along the same lines, you can hover your mouse over contact information -- names, addresses and phone numbers -- and you'll get another box drawn around the data with a drop-down button. Clicking on the button lets you create a new Address Book contact -- rather than cutting and pasting -- or add a new phone number, for example, to an existing contact.

It's crazy how integrated every part of the user experience is put together in Leopard, and more importantly, how intuitive it all is to use.

Faster Overall?

In addition to new features, my MacBook seems to run cooler, seems to be faster, and it definitely spends less time "thinking" when the mouse turns into the dreaded spinning beach ball. I can run a dozen applications with dozens of open documents and not worry that my MacBook is going to overheat and melt into a gooey mass of plastic.

The things I've mentioned in this review are just the highlights -- there are tons of surprising little features that keep popping up. For instance, searching and finding words in Apple's built-in TextEdit tool results in a subtle animation when the search find the wanted word -- it highlights the word in yellow, expands and flashes a bit, then settles back to a simple highlight. The net result -- finding words in large text documents -- is faster and more user friendly. I love it. Any Leopard user is bound to run into little improvements like this that match their own quirks of Mac use, too.

Overall, if I'd lost all of my data ... I'd still be crying. At least I'd have Leopard, and that would provide some measure of consolation. If you back up your data first, Leopard is an easy decision: Get it.

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