Apple's Leopard demolishes Microsoft Vista.

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Oct. 31 2007 12:28 PM

Apple's Microsoft-Devouring Jungle Cat

How Leopard demolishes Vista.

Leopard. Click image to expand.
The Stacks feature in Apple's OS X Leopard

Steve Jobs may be the undisputed grand master of technology hype, but when it comes to numbering operating systems, he's oddly self-effacing. With Leopard, the new version of OS X, Apple has nudged the version number forward from 10.4 to 10.5. Most companies would assign such a teensy increment to an update with a few minor bug fixes, but Leopard includes more than 300 new features by Apple's count. Even after you weed out several dozen pieces of ephemera such as Kerberized NFS—if you don't know what that is, you'll never need it—the $129 Leopard is a big deal with plenty of meaningful enhancements over its predecessor Tiger.

Apple is smart to underpromise and overdeliver. Its approach stands in contrast to that of Microsoft, which trumpets each new version of Windows as an epochal breakthrough, thereby raising expectations so high that it can't possibly meet them. Windows Vista, for instance, has been saddled with the slogan "The Wow Starts Now" and an ad campaign that claims the OS leaves users speechless with wonderment. It turns out that "wonderment" isn't quite the emotion that Vista has evoked. Nine months after Microsoft's new operating system reached consumers, it's been forced to reassure customers that they'll be able to order new machines that run Windows XP, not Vista, well into the foreseeable future.

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It's easy to understand why many PC users are clutching onto the six-year-old XP. The new version of Windows is rife with new features that are half upside, half downside. The 3D Aero user interface is slick and modern … but it's such a resource pig that the $1,000 PC I bought after Vista shipped can't run it reliably. On the security front, a feature called User Access Control can help keep you safe from hackers … but its in-your-face nag notes are so irritating that it's tempting to turn the whole thing off and take your chances. Vista offers better technical underpinnings than XP for sophisticated applications yet to come … but many existing programs and add-ons won't ever work with it.

Leopard isn't all cheery news. Some early adopters report Microsoftian-sounding installation meltdowns involving a blue screen of death, for instance. Paul Boutin's advice back in January, to hold off on buying a new OS until the first round of fixes has been released, is equally sensible here. But Apple's upgrade is far closer to unalloyed goodness than Microsoft's. For years, I've been urging friends, relatives, and acquaintances who ask me for computer-shopping advice to consider Macs as well as Windows machines. Leopard is a classy, coherent upgrade that makes the Mac alternative that much more compelling.

Its flagship feature is Time Machine, a utility that makes backing up data so painless that people might actually start to do it. Turn Time Machine on, and it'll silently copy hourly snapshots of your Mac's state of being to an external USB hard disk. If disaster strikes, you can reach back to restore old files that would otherwise have been lost, courtesy of a simple yet idiosyncratic interface that involves whizzing through space and time.

Time Machine isn't perfect: When I plugged a new Seagate hard drive into my MacBook, OS X could see it, but Time Machine couldn't. (Reformatting the drive did the trick.) And some Leopard leapers are reacting as negatively to its playful look and feel as XP users did to that operating system's search tool, which inexplicably involved a tail-wagging canine search assistant. Still, the basic concept and execution are so solid that Microsoft is no doubt working on copying it as we speak.

As well it should—Vista's backup features are archaic by comparison. From a technical standpoint, they're in some ways superior to Time Machine. For instance, you can recover old versions of files without having to back up your data to a secondary drive, as Time Machine requires. But Vista confusingly scatters its backup capabilities between multiple OS features, some of which aren't available in all half-dozen versions of Vista. Most users will never have their bacon saved by the useful Previous Versions file-recovery option, since Microsoft has chosen to withhold it from all consumer editions except the $399 Windows Vista Ultimate.

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.

Harry McCracken is editor in chief of PC World.

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