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For Apple the next few months are critical following the release of their new Leopard operating system. Key is whether traditional Windows users will now migrate to their new ambidextrous operating system that allows users to run both the new Mac OS and Windows Vista in a native environment.

If succesful it will drive sales of Mac PC’s up against several other Intel powered PC makers who run the Windows OS.

A first look reveals that Leopard’s new features are compelling and largely a success, but you won’t miss out if you wait a while to make the change.

This week, we got a sneak peek at the full retail version of Leopard, and on the whole we liked what we saw. If you’re familiar with Mac computers, then the changes will be subtle rather than earth-shattering.


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The first thing you’ll notice is the slick new desktop, with program icons arranged along the bottom of the screen in a transparent, three-dimensional mirror-effect “dock”. It’s purely cosmetic, but it does show Leopard’s computing power.

Crucially, Leopard is the first Apple operating system that will also allow you to install a Windows operating system alongside it. The BootCamp program has been available for download on some other Apple machines, but it required a level of technical expertise to install and run that some novice users may have found daunting. In Leopard, it’s all built in: you just need to buy a copy of Windows and let the BootCamp assistant guide you through the installation process. This is an important development for Apple; Microsoft’s latest operating system, Vista, got a lukewarm reception following its February launch, and Apple will be hopeful of attracting disappointed Windows users with Leopard. BootCamp provides a “safety net” for those wary of switching operating systems.

 

In another canny move, the Finder tool, which helps you to locate files and software, has been redesigned to more closely resemble the iTunes interface, with folders and devices ranged along the left-hand side of the menu like playlists. Cover Flow, the iTunes feature that allows you to “flick” through album art, also makes an appearance in Finder, this time allowing you to whiz through files and documents, with the album covers replaced by mini-thumbnails showing the front page of documents. You can hover over these thumbnails to scroll through multi-page documents; if it’s a movie file, you can even play the film clip in Finder. Similar to this is Quick Look, in which you can scan through a preview of documents without having to open the associated program.

Stacks, another useful addition to Leopard, is a virtual “stack” of documents that lives in the dock area, giving you one-click access to files. You can create your own Stack; when you click on it, the Stack will display all the documents in a cascading pile. Downloads are automatically added to the download Stack so you can find them easily.

Mail, Apple’s take on Microsoft’s Outlook email program, also has a few tricks up its sleeve. Data detection software will spot key words in messages, such a appointments, dates and times. Run your cursor over those details, and it will ask whether you want to add them to your calendar application as an event. If it senses an address, it will even generate a Google Map. Some of the other tweaks, such as creating sticky notes and to-do lists in this application, are perhaps a little gimmicky, but people who use their email program to organise their lives as well as send messages may welcome such additions.

 

 

For me, the stand-out feature is Time Machine. We all know we should back up our computers, especially as they contain more irreplaceable music and photos than ever. But how many of us back-up regularly? Very few, which is where Time Machine comes in. Hook up your Apple computer to any external hard drive and Time Machine will automate the back-up of all your files. If you need to recover something or restore it to your computer, click the Time Machine icon and you will find yourself whizzing through a virtual galaxy, flicking through windows that show how your machine looked on previous days. It’s simple and intuitive, and the clever graphical user interface makes restoring files much easier than rifling through root directories or complicated menus. This feature is worth the money on its own, especially if your usual “housekeeping” routines leave something to be desired.

Power users will be impressed by some of the high-end improvements. If you have a .Mac account – a subscription-based membership scheme that gives you access to a host of additional features, such as online storage and web space – you can synchronise dock items and system preferences between all your Mac computers, with any changes on one machine automatically reflected on all the others. And the Back to my Mac feature allows you to use your .Mac account to log into any of your Apple computers that run Leopard, including those at work or home, and access files stored on them via the internet.

I was also impressed by the flexibility and security offered by Leopard’s Parental Controls panel. If you set up multiple user accounts on your Mac, including individual ones for children, you can manage and control the amount of time they can spend online (including different allowances for weekends and school nights) and the kind of websites they are allowed to access. It has content filters to weed out inappropriate content, and activity logging so you can monitor their web use.

 

So, what’s our verdict? Should you rush out and upgrade to Leopard? There’s no denying that Leopard is slick, shiny – and certain new features have the “wow factor”. CoverFlow in Finder looks great and works seamlessly, while Time Machine makes data back-up idiot-proof. But most of the major functions differ little from the previous version of OS X.

Leopard represents evolution rather than revolution. Given that its predecessor, Tiger, was widely considered to be one of the most stable and cutting-edge operating systems, is there a good reason to upgrade? It depends what you’re looking for: if you’re a Mac devotee, you’ve probably already placed your pre-order; if you’re a disgruntled Windows user or looking to buy a new computer, Apple’s machines are worth a look, especially with Leopard pre-installed. You can buy one safe in the knowledge that you can dual-boot Vista or XP on your laptop while experimenting with the look and feel of a very different operating system. If you own a Mac and are running an older operating system, there’s no need to rush to upgrade if your computer is working smoothly. Leopard’s new features are compelling and largely a success, but you won’t miss out if you wait a while to make the leap.

Claudine Beaumont Of the UK Daily Telegraph put it through its paces: Under Syndication from Telegraph Publications.

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