Monday, May 17, 2021

The 20 Best New Leopard Features

Apple proudly advertises the fact that Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard has more than 300 new features. That’s marvelous, but after reading the list and playing with as many of those features as I could since Leopard’s release, I’ve got to say that a lot of them are sort of unexciting.

(I know, it’s really great that AppleScript now has more descriptive error messages—it is, seriously, if you happen to use AppleScript. But that’s not really the sort of thing that’s going to produces millions of sales or get the geek juices flowing in the world’s propellerhead population.)

So of those hundreds of new things, what are the real stand-outs? In my highly biased opinion, the following 20 features are the ones most likely to make my own computing life easier, more efficient, and more enjoyable:

#1: Time Machine
You could quibble (as indeed I have) about the limitations and deficiencies in Apple’s new built-in backup program. But anything that gets more people to back up is a very good thing in my book.

For starters: the interface for restoring files is a work of genius: absolutely beautiful. Makes me want to go around recklessly deleting random files just for the pleasure of restoring them. And for people who have struggled with configuring conventional backup apps, you can’t get much simpler than one-click setup. Yes, sure, there’s fiddling to be done beyond that, and everyone—everyone—should also have bootable duplicates, which Time Machine doesn’t provide. But by erasing pain that comes from both human and machine error, Time Machine makes a tremendous stride in reducing stress and increasing happiness.

#2: Spaces
I’m a complete screen real estate junkie. I’ve always gone for the largest displays I can afford—and the more, the better. I always seem to have a dozen large windows open, and no amount of careful positioning, minimizing, or hiding has ever been able to make sense of that clutter for me, not even with Exposé.

But now, Spaces gives me the cleanest, most efficient multiple-desktop system I’ve ever tried—and I’ve tried quite a few. It’s almost like having three extra monitors—or as many more as I need. With a keystroke or a click, I can go from, say, email and chat to Web browsing—or from a few Terminal sessions to a nice big spreadsheet.

#3: Screen Sharing
Screen sharing is nothing new. I’ve used Timbuktu Pro since way back when, and occasionally VNC in any of its many incarnations. But as with most things, when Apple decides to build a new feature directly into Mac OS X, they do it with a degree of elegance and simplicity that is hard to find anywhere else.

If I want to control the screen of another Mac in my home or office, I can do so with just one click. It’s only slightly harder to control a Mac running Tiger, or a computer of any sort running VNC. And, for the easiest remote tech support yet, I can (with permission) control the Mac of a friend or family member right in iChat.

#4: Spotlight Improvements

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As Matt Neuburg aptly put it, “Spotlight in Leopard is what Spotlight in Tiger should have been but wasn’t.” Which is to say: Time Machine in Leopard is, surprisingly, very, very good. Most importantly, it’s not annoying. That by itself is an immense improvement.

But it’s gone far beyond that to genuine usefulness. Put a search in quotation marks to look for a whole phrase! Use all the Boolean goodness of AND, OR, and NOT to your heart’s content! Search the full text of Web pages you’ve visited! Search the built-in Dictionary from the Spotlight menu! Even search on mounted network volumes! Yeah, OK, you could do most of this months ago using third-party tools such as Google Desktop. But it’s awfully nice to see Spotlight finally live up to its initial billing and become a tool I’m happy to use many times a day.

#5: Improved File Sharing
Finally, after all these years, Users and Groups makes the transition to the client version of Mac OS X! You can now actually assign arbitrary access to any given folder, just like you could, um, a decade or so ago.

That’s marvelous, but what I really like is being able to connect to shared volumes on nearby computers with zero clicks. They just show up there in the sidebar of Finder windows, and log me in automatically either as a guest (the default) or a registered user (if I enter my credentials just once and store them in my keychain). It took some getting used to, simply because it was far easier than I was accustomed to. It’s just…there. Cool.

#6: Resizable Text Fields in Safari
How many times have you been typing something into a form on a Web page—a blog editor or a contact page, say—and found that the designer in his or her wisdom had only left you four lines for what should clearly be an entire page’s worth of text? The Leopard version of Safari nicely fixes that by putting a little resize control in the lower right corner of text entry fields in Web forms. If the field isn’t big enough, just drag to resize it as you wish. Such a tiny thing, but I’ve already used it dozens of times and found that it significantly reduces the amount of clicking and scrolling I have to do.

#7: iChat Theater
I live in Paris now, which makes it just a teensy bit more complicated than it was last year to give presentations at Mac user group meetings in the U.S.—one of my favorite things ever. I’ve done it remotely by video, using an iSight camera, but I had to have a confederate on the other end running my slide show, switching windows, and so forth.

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Now, however, I can run everything on my end: pop a Keynote presentation right into a live video chat and run it myself, show PDFs, graphics, or other files…pretty much anything I want, with all the 3D goodness we’ve come to expect from Apple. I can even ask for permission to take control of the remote machine in order to demonstrate software. It’s great for my travel budget, if not so good for eye contact and personal interaction.

#8: Quick Look
To be honest, I thought Quick Look was kind of silly the first time I saw it. “Oh, look: you can get a preview of a PDF without opening it!” Well, great, but it only takes 1.5 seconds longer to launch Preview; what’s the big deal? It turns out that those 1.5-second delays add up. Sometimes you just want to know what’s in a document—whether it’s a Word file, a Photoshop graphic, a text file, or whatever—without so much as a tiny delay to open an application, and without cluttering your Dock and your RAM with yet another thing you’ll probably forget to quit.

It truly doesn’t get any easier than this: select a file and hit the spacebar. As Steve Jobs would say, “Boom!” There’s your document. Or at least a full-size, scrollable preview of it.

#9 To-Dos in Mail
There’s a strong temptation to use one’s Inbox as a to-do list. I’ve fought this for years; it seemed like I could never clean out my Inbox because a lot of those messages represented tasks I had to complete, and I wanted them to stay there as a reminder of what needed to be done. I didn’t want to keep looking at the actual email message, of course, but the notion of opening iCal (or whichever other schedule program) and creating a new to-do tem for each message seemed cumbersome and silly. Well, no more.

Now I can take a message in Mail (or even an individual line in one of Mail’s new notes) and, with a click, turn it into a to-do task. I can assign alarms, categories, and a due date if I wish; it’ll then sync automatically with iCal and with .Mac. It’s a boon to my productivity, plus it helps keep my Inbox itself down to a more manageable size.

#10 Data Detectors in Mail
Another classic Mac OS feature from Way Back When, Data Detectors recycles an old idea in a much more useful form. This actually happened: someone wrote to me and asked if we could do a podcast interview at noon the following Wednesday. All I did was hover my mouse pointer over the text “noon next Wednesday” in the message, and a pop-up menu let me turn it into a schedule item on my calendar in just one click, with the subject of the email message as the title. (iCal even figured out the time zone difference for me, which I thought was extremely clever.) Sweet.

Basically, Mail can look at the text in your email messages and find things that look like names, locations, dates, and so on—and then offer to do useful things with them, such as add them to your Address Book (for contact info) map them (for locations), or put them on your calendar (for dates). It works surprisingly well, and I expect it to save me a lot of clicking and typing as time goes on.

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#11 Enhanced Find in Safari
Many times each day, I find myself looking for some particular word or phrase on a Web page I’ve loaded in Safari. Previously, Safari had a run-of-the-mill modal search dialog; it worked, but it wasn’t especially pretty. Now you can search without opening any new windows. Press Command-F and type a word.

It appears in a narrow bar at the top of your window, and each instance of that word is instantly highlighted on the page. You can cycle forward or back through the found instances by pressing Command-G or Command-Shift-G, respectively. Yes, it’s sort of a knockoff of a feature Firefox has had for a long time, but Safari does it with more style.

#12 Movable Tabs in Safari
If you’re going to have tabbed browsing, it just stands to reason you’ll offer your users a way to rearrange the tabs. Seems like common sense to me. But before now, it took a third-party hack to get Safari to reorder its tabs. Safari 3 not only lets you move tabs around within a window, it lets you drag tabs from one window to another—or into a new, stand-alone window.

In other words, tabbed browsing finally works almost exactly the way you’d intuitively expect it to. It’s about time!

#13 Back to My Mac
Subscribers to Apple’s $99-a-year .Mac service now have a bit more justification for all that money they’re spending. Back to My Mac takes some freakishly complex technology and wraps it up in a pair of features so simple, you might not even realize they’re there.

You can now do something that may have been either extremely difficult or impossible before: access your home Mac, even with intervening routers, firewalls, NAT gateways, and wireless networks, from somewhere else. Or access your office Mac from home. Or whatever.

Basically, as long as any two Macs running Leopard are logged into your .Mac account, you can see either one from the other—for one-click file sharing or screen sharing—as easily when they’re in different cities as when they’re in the same room. All right, it’s a bit more complex than that—you’ll have to select a couple of checkboxes and make sure your networking gear is set up correctly. But the end result is super easy remote networking without weird, confusing, and expensive software.

#14 Improved iCal UI
Under Tiger, I used iCal as little as possible. The user interface was just so annoying! It looked and acted like it was designed by people who had never used a real scheduling program. Ick. Well, the ick is (mostly) gone!

The Leopard version of iCal is quite tolerable, with some very clever UI flourishes that enable you to make most edits in a highly direct fashion. It’s not just that it looks nice, of course; it’s actually fairly easy to use, even when you’re doing fairly involved scheduling. I could wish for a few more refinements, such as a reworking of the alert window, which is about the worst piece of Mac OS X UI I can think of. But still, it’s an excellent move in the right direction, enough to make it truly useful.

#15 Instant Alpha Background Removal in Preview
The versions of Pages and Keynote in iLife ’08 have been able to do this trick for a few months now, but Leopard brings it to everyone. Along with Preview’s new Extract Shape feature, Instant Alpha is the easiest way ever to punch the subject of a photo out of its background, complete with smooth, semitransparent edges, and then save that image for use in other places.

Needless to say, Photoshop gives you a lot more precision control over this sort of thing, but for the price and the simplicity, you just can’t beat Preview.

#16 PDF Manipulation in Preview
Speaking of Preview, it’s becoming quite the little PDF processing powerhouse. You can now rearrange the pages of a PDF, delete pages, or combine multiple PDFs into one file—not to mention adding annotations, highlights, shapes, and other doohickeys.

Sure, Acrobat Pro can do all those things, and free or low-cost third-party utilities can do some of them. But with PDF becoming a more and more important standard, it’s mighty nice to be able to do all these basic tasks right in Preview.

#17 RSS in Mail
I’m a big fan of NetNewsWire for RSS, and seeing how poorly Apple implemented RSS in Safari, I was prepared to hate Mail’s implementation too. But actually, it doesn’t suck!

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It’s still nowhere near as good as a stand-alone news reader, no question there. But it’s actually quite acceptable for simple RSS browsing, and I like the capability of using other Mail features, such as Smart Mailboxes, on my news feeds. All things considered, I think RSS fits better in Mail than in Safari, and if you don’t need lots of bells and whistles, it can enable you to have one less application running—usually a good thing.

#18 Quick Print Preview
You’re about to print a document, and you have a sneaking suspicion the margins or page breaks are going to be screwy. Under Tiger, the solution was to hit the Preview button in the Print dialog, which created a PDF of the document and opened it in Preview.

That got the job done, but at the expense of opening another application. Now, in Leopard, most applications show a nice large thumbnail of the final document right there in the Print dialog; you can even page forward and back through the whole preview. Just a little thing, but it potentially saves a few steps several times each day.

#19 Tabbed Chats in iChat
I know there are some people who habitually have a dozen or more iChat sessions open at once. I’m not one of them—I max out at two or three—but even then, I get irritated at the clutter of windows proliferating all over my screen.

The Leopard version of iChat lets you optionally combine all your chats in a single tabbed window, increasing tidiness and saving a bit of clicking and rearranging.

#20 Alex
It’s been a very long time since Apple touched their text-to-speech voices. At the time Victoria first appeared, it (she?) sounded a lot more realistic than the standard synthetic voices of the day. But Apple had fallen way behind other providers of synthesized voices over the years, including Microsoft. It’s not just geeks who like to have their computers talk to them, of course; people with impaired vision rely heavily on text-t0-speech, and get rightly annoyed when those voices sound too artificial.

The Alex voice in Leopard finally puts everything right: it’s very, very realistic—including breath sounds, which is a bit freaky if you think about it too much. Just one big complaint: where’s Alexis? (Or Alexandra, or even Allie?) Come on, you have to have a high-quality female voice too!

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