Mac Users: Should You Get Mac OS X 10.5 ‘Leopard’?

With Apple’s new OS X 10.5 operating system due to ship at 6PM (wherever you are in the world) tomorrow, the question millions of Mac users are asking themselves is: Should I spend $129 on this thing yet? The short answer is: Yes and no, but probably not in that order.

At Computerworld, we’ve put together the quintessential examination of the new Apple OS commonly referred to as Leopard. Check out: In Depth: Apple’s Leopard Leaps to New Heights. Be sure to check out the First Look at Leopard Image Gallery for a complete visual tour of the new OS, complete with a screencam of the Stacks feature.

I like Leopard. The new OS X has over 300 new features according to Apple (I didn’t stop to count them). There are literally oodles of small tweaks and changes. Things like, when you select Shut Down from the Apple menu, the new default countdown time is 60 seconds, not two minutes. (Yeah, I went for something pretty mundane that you probably haven’t read in a hundred other Leopard reviews.)

A new built-in Mac backup system, Time Machine, is probably the single best new aspect of OS X 10.5. The new virtual desktop functionality, called Spaces, is another noticeable addition. But to sum up Leopard, more than anything it’s a significant usability upgrade both to the operating system’s control surfaces and the bundled applications that come with it.

When you look at it on paper, though Steve Jobs might bristle at this, Leopard is very much like the kind of refinement Microsoft attempted with Vista. To get there, though, Microsoft had a lot farther to come.

I’ll have more to say about Leopard when I’ve had more time with it. The main purpose of this post is give you advice about whether to buy it.

Sooner or later, this is an upgrade most Mac OS X users will want. There’s enough benefit and improvement to pay the money. (Apple’s system requirements specify at least a PowerPC G4 processor running at 867MHz or faster. All Intel-based Macs support Leopard.)

But like any new operating system, this one may have cause some problems with application compatibility, drivers, and interface customization software, such as kernel extensions. (For example, I use DoubleCommand because I like having keyboard buttons on my MacBook Pro that delete both to the left and the right. Call me crazy. But once you work this way, it’s seems silly not to continue. DoubleCommand lets you reassign the functions of some keys.) I don’t expect that it will take very long for most actively updated software products to have updates for Leopard. Most software probably won’t need it anyway. Some hardware products might be a different story. I still find support for the Mac to be weak from many major printer manufacturers, for example.

For new Mac users, little issues with a new version of OS X are nothing like the annoyances and frustrations that some people face with a new version of Windows (Vista definitely included). But it’s a computer; a new operating system may cause some ripples here and there.

Most hard-core Mac users are either planning to line up at Apple stores on Friday evening or wishing they were. My advice is to hang back at least a couple of weeks or months. Make sure everything you use regularly is going to work after your upgrade. Tiger is a fine OS. You can’t even use Time Machine without connecting an external storage device (like a USB drive) or devoting a sizable partition on your hard drive. Don’t get me wrong, Time Machine is a great utility. Every OS should have this functionality. But it’s not really compelling OS content.

For some of us, half the fun is being among the first to use a new version of the Mac OS even if that means coming across some minor issues. If that describes you, there’s no reason not to go for it.

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