A few weeks ago, my brother-in-law asked me if I wanted to purchase into a family pack for Mac OS 10.5 (aka Leopard). Family packs cost a little less than twice as much as two standard versions of an OS but offer you 5 licenses. I hadn't really considered upgrading before this as I wasn't sure if my Mini would run it adequately, and, being a lapsed Mac fanatic, I wasn't exactly itching to taste the newest OS. I had also been reading some reviews on MacWorld and, while positive, they weren't raving about it.
The lack of over-the-top talk on MacWorld is actually a good thing and a direct reflection of the fact that the Mac as a platform is much stronger than it was about a decade ago. When times were lean, MacWorld was more inclined to slant all articles about Apple hardware and software in the most positive fashion. Now, they can be a bit more even-handed because the platform to which they tether their continued existence looks secure and they no longer need to relentlessly convince everyone that the Mac is superior in every regard.
Despite the fact that I knew it wasn't going to be an awe-inspiring upgrade, I decided to take the reduced-rate plunge, though not without reservations and taking precautions. Since some of my previous OS X upgrades have resulted in some disastrous losses, I decided to clone my hard drive using Carbon Copy Cloner. This creates a disk image of whatever drive you tell it to copy. For my 100 GB drive with about 38 GB of occupied space, this took about 3 hours to create a "read-only" (non-compressed) image. It took another hour for me to copy this image over to a networked back-up hard drive due to the shortcomings of my LAN set-up. If Leopard really didn't run well or hosed my computer, it was my hope that I'd be able to completely restore the previous version of my OS from this image.
My Mini's internal DVD drive was rather sensitive to the installation disc and, in fact, spit it out in disgust a few times so I decided to try to install it off of an external double layer burner that was attached via Firewire. In the past, I couldn't persuade my Mac to let me install from an external drive so I was pleasantly surprised that permission was granted this time. The disc read slower than molasses in January but it went smoothly enough. Installation took about an hour and a half.
Most tech folks recommend a clean install rather than an upgrade but I couldn't be bothered to go to that trouble so the first test was going to be whether or not the contents of my drive remained intact after the installation. I'm pleased to say that, aside from my printer driver which disappeared (though I did successfully reinstall it), everything seems to be there. Well, OS 9 vanished but I expected that since Apple decided to no longer support its former OS. If I need to run anything in OS 9 in order to access legacy files, I'll run it on my old orange iBook.
My first visual impression of OS 10.5 is that everything was smaller and fuzzier. The dock was refashioned to give the appearance of icons sitting on a reflecting glass surface in a faux 3D fashion. The indication that an application is open is far more subtle now. It used to have a black triangle under an open application. Now, there's a reflective little blue droplet. This is the sort of visual tweaking that Apple excels at and why their OS always looks more stunning and beautiful than others though it doesn't do anything extra for functionality.
My next test was to see if anything that used to work stopped working or ran badly. I haven't tried everything but all the commonly-used applications (Photoshop, InDesign, Filemaker Pro, Toast, Mail, Skype, Adium, Excel, Word, iCal, and Diablo II: Lord of Destruction) were fine though launch times seemed a bit slower. Oddly enough, some of these applications, once launched, actually seem to run a little faster, particularly Diablo II. However, I can't say the programs have been put through their paces as I just did a quick launch, type a bit, click around a bit and quit test. The only exception to applications running faster or at the same speed has been Firefox which was rather noticeably kludgy until I updated it.
Running multiple applications has gotten slower when I have more than 3 running (or one of them is a memory pig) but this isn't too shocking since, with 1 GB of RAM, my Mini isn't exactly overloaded with free memory nor is it a speed demon at 1.42 Ghz. However, it is decently over the minimum requirement of 512 MB of RAM and 867 Mhz (G4 or Intel processor) for Leopard. I think Leopard is the last meaningful upgrade I can install on this particular machine unless I want to appreciably sacrifice performance on the altar of Apple's ever-demanding eye candy.
The visual differences which I have found unappealing include the miniaturization of certain Finder elements. The names and icons on the side bar are much smaller than before (see the screen shot a few paragraphs down to see to what I'm referring). This is very likely a means of accommodating more items in the list such as the "search for" portion at the bottom. Also, the blurry font smoothing in its default setting just about drove me crazy and I had to change it to "standard" (which I believe means it is actually "off" but Apple didn't make that clear by their wording in the System Preferences panel as there is no "off" option). Keeping smoothing on made the font in my blog look about 3-feet thick and made me wonder how others see my site's lettering with font-smoothing on.
The big gun in Leopard is the backup utility named "Time Machine". Unfortunately, my hard disk is not partitioned and I don't have an external drive directly connected to my Mac so I can't use it. I do have a networked hard drive which is currently tethered to my PC via USB 2 but that drive is not recognized by Time Machine and I cannot use it for backing up unless I do so by dragging things to the drive myself (the Mac does recognize the drive, only Time Machine does not). For the moment, I can't really take advantage of the most impressive feature so I'll have to continue to do manual backups until I'm willing to fork over some money for a dedicated external drive for the Mac, move my external drive to the Mac (not bloody likely), or partition the hard drive (also unlikely). I'm not going to go through one type of trouble (changing my existing back-up set-up) to avoid another (manual backing up), particularly when I can't be sure the two PCs that also currently access my external drive will recognize it if it's hard-wired to the Mac.
I can see the benefit of some of the visual aspects for select users even if they aren't doing much for me. There are probably some people out there who think the "cover flow" view option is better than other views, for instance. If you have a ton of pictures and want to be be able to rotate through them rapidly to see them rather than look at thumbnails, it probably has a higher utility factor than using Apple's "Preview" to open them all up and scroll through a list of thumbnails. Personally, I think using Preview is better as it opens the thumbnail you select at a large size in the main preview window.
By clicking a folder in the dock (red box in t he screen shot), you get a pop up of all the contents of that folder as part of the "stacks" feature.
By far, my favorite thing in Leopard is the "Stacks" feature in grid view. The "fan" view just looks stupid but the grid allows you to see the contents of all folders within a folder that is stored in Dock with a click. This means you don't have to store as many frequently-accessed folders in the Dock (which shrinks the icons to ever tinier sizes as you cram it full of more of them) or tunnel through nested folders.
There are a lot of cool-looking things in Leopard and I can't say I regret the upgrade at this point in time. However, I also cannot say it's a must-have upgrade for any particular user of Mac OS X unless there is a compatibility issue at play. In the end, the biggest reason to upgrade generally ends up being the fact that software developers will write to the newest version of an OS and running older versions increases your chances of having problems if you don't upgrade. However, that does not yet appear to be the case with Leopard but only time will tell.