Data backup is only one example of a polished, logical Leopard app that outshines its complex, clunky Vista counterpart. Quick Look lets you press the space bar to get a nearly instant pop-up preview of photos, Office documents, PDFs, and other documents, saving you the bother of launching a full-blown application if all you want to do is sneak a peek. Vista offers a preview pane that's theoretically similar, but it's turned off by default and hard to find, and its placement to the right of the folder list leaves it tight on space. (Quick Look will fill the entire screen with a preview if you ask it to.)
Two other high-profile Leopard features aim to make it easier to wrangle applications and folders, and mostly succeed. Stacks lets you drag folders full of programs or other files onto OS X's Dock for easy access; Places are a new twist on the old concept of divvying up large numbers of open applications into multiple desktops for easier window management. Neither is the least bit revolutionary, but it's striking how Apple has added them without futzing with OS X's familiar design. Vista, by contrast, reshuffles much of XP without clearly improving upon it, imposing a learning curve that Leopard just doesn't have.
With 300-plus new items to account for on the Leopard DVD, it's impossible to detail them all or compare them with Vista's counterparts, although this chart at Engadget is a good try. I'm partial to Web Clips, a feature that lets you snip pieces of Web pages and turn them into auto-updating widgets for OS X's Dashboard applet feature. iChat, OS X's instant-messaging client, is bulging with additions, from the practical (the ability to conduct presentations and otherwise share applications over a video chat session) to the fanciful (a virtual green-screen effect that lets you place yourself in front of any photo as a backdrop). Even Leopard's DVD player is a meaty advance on its predecessor.
Are there areas where Vista has a clear edge over Leopard? Sure, but many of them relate less to the OS itself and more to side benefits of Microsoft's pervasiveness. Vista comes on everything from econobox desktops to ultrasleek executive notebooks; Leopard is available on a grand total of seven computer models from one company. Windows users have access to the widest array of applications and, unlike Macheads, need never fret about software developers discontinuing support for their platform. Whole categories of industrial-strength business applications exist only for Windows. And Windows' dominance as a gaming platform is so overwhelming that there's no such thing as a hard-core OS X gamer.
All of which reminds me to mention Boot Camp, the Leopard feature that lets you turn a Mac into a full-blown Windows machine by installing a copy of Microsoft's OS alongside Apple's and booting into either one. Prior to Apple's 2006 switch to Intel CPUs, that would have sounded downright magical. But Apple first released Boot Camp in beta form almost 17 months ago, and in the interim it's had its thunder stolen by Parallels Desktop and VMware Fusion, two virtualization products that let you run Windows and OS X applications at the same time on one desktop. Most people who are serious about intermingling OS X and Windows will be much better off with one of these packages than with Boot Camp.
The fact that Boot Camp was rendered largely obsolete before it ever appeared in final form points out a basic conundrum with the whole idea of operating-system upgrades. In a world in which Google can roll out new features daily to every user on the planet, the pace of OS development feels increasingly glacial. I'm convinced that both OS X and Windows will soon morph into products that are part software and part Web service, with enhancements delivered on an ongoing basis via the Internet rather than once every few years in a shrink-wrapped box. In other words, Leopard may be as much dinosaur as feline. It's an extremely likable dinosaur, however, and one that was worth the wait. If only Microsoft's creation were so highly evolved.
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