On Apple's Leopard, New Tricks and Some Treats
Apple seems to be doing a lot of things right these days.
In many lecture halls and coffee shops, Mac laptops outnumber those of any other manufacturer. The Mac share of the U.S. market is nearing 10 percent -- a feat that seemed unimaginable at the start of this decade, when Apple was mired at 2 or 3 percent.
This transformation might seem like a triumph of marketing, especially to those versed in Windows. But Apple's success doesn't come from those cute "Hi, I'm a Mac" ads. It's a product of a consistent focus on simplicity and elegance, coupled with a willingness to rewrite perfectly functional software if Apple thinks it can do better.
Those traits have led Apple to ship its sixth system update since 2001, Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard. Despite following so many earlier updates, Leopard (included on new Macs, $129 otherwise) still brings something new. It might save you from losing your data, and it makes it easier and faster to get to programs and files.
Leopard's foremost feature, Time Machine, aims to cure one of the oldest conundrums of home computing: Nobody backs up their data, but everybody should.
Time Machine all but ensures that you can't lose your work, because it automatically and regularly backs up your computer. It also remembers your changes: If you edit a file, it preserves the old and new versions in its archives.
Time Machine then lets you retrieve a lost file by clicking through a nifty hall-of-mirrors view of your computer's past backups. When you've found it, click the "Restore" button to put it back in its place.
You do, however, need an external hard drive -- the one inside your Mac won't do, nor will CDs, DVDs, online file storage or those little USB thumb drives. And if the drive is not big enough to keep a copy of your entire system, you'll have to tell Time Machine what files to exclude.
The same sense of pleasant simplicity shows up in the way Leopard streamlines access to programs and files.
The big deal here is Quick Look, a way to view most documents -- pictures, PDFs and even Microsoft Office files -- in the Finder or Apple's Mail program. Pick a file, hit the space bar, and its contents appear instantly, without any wait for a separate program to run. Tap the space bar again to hide the preview.
That might not seem like much, but it adds up to serious time savings. It shows that somebody at Apple has recognized that people with functioning Internet connections have more information than time.
The Dock, the desktop strip of shortcuts to programs and folders, offers a similar time-saver: You can open programs and files by selecting them from the transparent palettes that appear when you click on your Applications and Documents folders.