Leopard, Apple's new Mac operating system, hits all the right spots

When Steve Jobs unleashes Mac OS X Leopard on Friday, Mac fans and others considering an Apple computer for the first time will have questions. Is the new Leopard operating system worth the $129 upgrade price? Is it the reason to splurge for a new Mac?

Long before Leopard pounced onto the scene, I rated OS X superior to Windows for most consumers. With Leopard, Apple's operating system widens its lead aesthetically and technologically. Whether the sixth major release of OS X in as many years puts a dent in Microsoft's dominant market share is another matter entirely.

Moreover, people who need Windows at least some of the time can take stock in the fact that Boot Camp is included in Leopard; Boot Camp is the Apple program that lets anyone with an Intel-based Mac run Windows XP or Windows Vista. You'll still have to buy a copy of Windows.

Also, Boot Camp still doesn't let you run the two operating systems simultaneously. And at year's end, Boot Camp will no longer be available as a free beta program to people who don't upgrade to Leopard; you're fine if you already installed Boot Camp.

I migrated to Leopard from the last OS X version, Tiger, without pain on a MacBook laptop and my own iMac desktop; there's mercifully none of the software driver and other hassles associated with a Windows operating system upgrade. Leopard was pre-installed on an iMac that Apple provided for testing. Apple says Leopard has more than 300 new features in all. Here are highlights:

Time Machine

The Time Machine feature automatically backs up your computer on an (optional) external hard drive. From then on, recovering lost files is — thanks to beautiful special effects — like flying back in time.

Say you're peering at your inbox through Time Machine. You can see what the same inbox looked like days or weeks ago, to restore any missing e-mail. You can move the mouse along a visual timeline to land on a specific date. Or you can use Spotlight search to find where and when a file last existed.

It took many hours, and at least one hiccup, to back up a packed iMac. I received an "unable to complete backup" error message before I was successfully able to complete the job overnight.

Time Machine captures hourly backups up to the past 24 hours. Daily backups are kept for 30 days and replaced by weekly backups. Once the space on your hard drive is exhausted, the oldest weekly incremental backup will be deleted.

You can use Time Machine to restore your entire Mac or to migrate files and settings onto a brand-new machine. For security reasons, you can make sure specified files do not get backed up.

Cool video chat

Really slick video conferencing through iChat has been part of OS X for several years. Leopard makes it more fun and useful. The fun part comes from dozens of Photo Booth special effects. These can make your face twirl or stretch or appear as if it were shot through an X-ray or thermal camera.

You also can digitally superimpose a chat background with pictures or videos. Choices include a rollercoaster and the Eiffel Tower.

A feature dubbed iChat Theater lets you display files during the video conference, including photo slide shows with music and presentations. With permission, you can remotely control a buddy's computer desktop to collaborate on a project. You can hear but no longer see the person you are chatting with; you can display only one desktop at a time.

Pretty e-mail

Leopard includes more than 30 stationery templates in its Mail program, covering baby announcements, party invitations and more. An integrated photo browser makes it easy to drag your own pictures onto template place holders.

You can also create and organize Notes and To-Dos inside Mail.

Another handy feature: Mail can detect addresses, phone numbers and dates inside a message. Roll the mouse over these, and a little menu lets you quickly create contacts or appointments.

Through selected RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feeds, you can search for topics of interest and have them routed to updated Smart Mailboxes.

As before, you can use Apple's Mail program with your own e-mail accounts.

A dandy desktop

Macs are as much about style as substance. The quick-launch icons on the three-dimensional Dock — a strip of programs and other icons — now reflect off the surface. To tidy up your desktop, you can create collections of icons called Stacks for programs and files you often access. The contents of Stacks can be fanned out in an arc or displayed as a grid.

The Finder program in OS X is where all your files, programs and disks are managed — kind of like Windows Explorer on a PC. With Leopard, the Finder borrows a neat trick from iTunes: namely, Cover Flow. Now, you can rapidly ruffle through your stuff inside Finder the way you look at album art in iTunes. You can peer through multipage documents and even play movies in Cover Flow.

Another useful new feature, called Quick Look, lets you view a document (even full screen) without opening a separate application to do so.

If you join the $100-a-year .Mac online service, you can access your machine remotely through the Back to My Mac feature. You use another Mac running Leopard. I was able to use the feature at times but also ran into snags trying to remotely connect from a computer in a hotel and from USA TODAY offices in Virginia to a Mac in New Jersey. Apple says it is possible that firewalls may well block such a feature; the company plans to give instructions to corporate tech administrators and Internet service providers on how to allow the service through their networks.

Lastly, you can carve your Mac desktop into customizable areas known as Spaces. To reduce clutter, you can arrange these mini desktop Spaces to include only the programs needed to tackle the project at hand.

Clipping a widget

You can highlight and copy any portion of a Web page inside the Safari browser and turn it into a live Dashboard widget. For example, you might copy a train or bus schedule and know it will be updated if the timetable changes.

These and other features should satisfy new and old Mac fans. Leopard is one cool cat.

E-mail: ebaig@usatoday.com