posted by Thom Holwerda on Thu 6th Dec 2007 16:27 UTC
IconSince my Cube could not run Leopard, and I did not have any other Macs, I was unable to delve into Leopard right away. Apple NL was kind enough to fix this problem for us, by generously loaning me a brand new MacBook with Leopard installed so I could review it for OSNews. Read on for the findings.

Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard is the Mac OS' 66th release (not counting the 10.x.x releases), dating back to 1984, making it one of the longest running lineage of operating systems available. Obviously, the Mac OS has seen a massive shift between Mac OS 9.2.2 and Mac OS 10.0, but the lineage remains, and is clearly visible. Despite the massive changes over the past 23 years, the visual similarities between the software on the first Mac and this Leopard release are amusing to see. Apple really stuck to their original design. Commendable.

Still, Leopard is probably the biggest visual shift in the history of Mac OS X. They changed the dock massively, the menubar, the finder, the overall theme, the icons, and so on. In this review, I will start by detailing the visual changes, after which I will delve into the various new and updated applications and features, a few words on the MacBook, followed by a conclusion. Seeing I am not a programmer, I will not go into the various new developer features. For more information on those, I redirect you to John Siracusa's outstanding review of Leopard over at Ars.

Seeing this was a brand new MacBook, I did not have to perform an installation or upgrade. After the initial 'new-Mac-setup', and the update to 10.5.1, I was ready to go. I asked Apple to loan me a fairly basic MacBook, as this basic configuration is most likely the most popular.

  • 2.2Ghz Intel Core 2 Duo
  • 1GB DDR2 RAM
  • 120GB harddrive
  • Intel GMA X3100 with 144MB of shared memory
  • SuperDrive

The appearance

Leopard has seen a major overhaul of its graphical appearance. If there is one part of Leopard that received criticism even months before its targeted release date, looks is the one. Many people wondered if the changes made actually had a point, if they contributed to better usability or a better user experience, or if they were just a sort of knee-jerk response to Windows Vista's Aero. I was one of the people who posed a lot of question marks behind all the changes, but I always had, in the back of my mind, the idea that you cannot judge a user interface based on its screenshots. You actually have to use it. In other words, my complaints were based on screenshots, and not on actual usage - which kind of made my complaints rather irrelevant.

Before I detail the changes, I can say that they are not nearly as bad as some people (including myself) have made them out to be. It takes a little bit of getting used to, and yes, their contributions to a better user experience are non-existent, but they do not make it any worse either. This is the central theme when it comes to Leopard's GUI changes.

What I initially disliked the most was the new dock. Instead of it being a sort of pinboard, that works just fine for every dock out there, it is now a sort of pseudo-3D-but-not-isometric-either plank, with a reflecting mirror-like surface. After a few weeks of usage, though, you kind of just get used to it, and it does not seem to bother me at all - despite a number of annoyances that I will detail here. As said, it does not add anything either, and because of that, you might wonder "why change it in the first place?" This is the question that keeps on wandering through my mind when using the dock.

Sadly, though, the new look has some weirdness too. First of all, what kind of perspective is the dock using? It is not 3D, it is not isometric, what the heck is it? Even though you get used to it, it is still a very unnatural thing to look at. Secondly, the icons in Leopard's dock are a bit odd. Especially annoying is the dynamically generated shadow atop the icons; on what surface are those shadows falling? They sure do not fall on the desktop! Consequently, it seems as if each icon has a little black cloud hovering on top of it, which only adds to the weird feeling of the new dock. Another irritating niggle is that the dock labels can be very hard to read on some backgrounds (esp. backgrounds with text).

A special note has to be made about the new dock indicators. They used to be clear but unobtrusive black triangles. They worked, they got out of your way, and looked fine. They have been replaced by weird looking blue-ish white lights, whose visibility depends on your choice of desktop background. Not very optimal.

The dock looked fine the way it was, it worked fine the way it was (save for the common problems with the dock paradigm). There was little need for change, and as such, it really does kind of feel as if Apple needed a way to tell its users: look, we changed some stuff around, Leopard is all new! You know, newer is better, different is better, that kind of thing. However, the dock is such a central element to the Mac OS X user experience, and as such, you should not mess with it too much. Apple had a serious opportunity to truly fix some of the problems associated with the dock paradigm, but they blew it. They did not make it any better, but they did not make it any worse either.

Apple also changed the menubar. A lot can be said about the merits and problems of the global menubar (I like it) - it makes sense because of Fitts' Law, it is cleaner, it sucks for multiple desktops, and so on and so forth. Apple changed little about the menubar, except for that one tiny bit about making it slightly transparent. It is not that bad at all, but again, it is not anything useful either. It does not improve the user experience or usability in any way. It will not kill you, but it will not make you dinner either. This is another case where Apple could have done something really substantial - like fixing the odd behaviour of the global menubar on multiple screen setups - but again, Apple blew it.

Apple also - finally! Sanity! Praise Jobs! - decided to consolidate the ten million billion different themes available in Tiger into one. Sure, they chose the one I personally find the least attractive of them all (the 'plastic' look), but I am already thrilled they decided to standardise in the first place. Sure, the standardisation process is long from over (they still mingle those pill toolbar buttons with normal toolbar buttons, iTunes still sports its own widgets, among other things), but it is a huge step forward. The plastic theme itself has been changed here and there too, and I could not help but notice it being influenced by... Platinum from OS9 - which is a good thing, as I love the OS9 artwork. A related change is the easier identification of the active window, even though I personally never had a problem with that in OS X.

The icon set in Leopard has also been changed massively, and sadly, it is not for the better. The program and file icons have all been reworked and look a little bit different (and better), but where Apple really went all-out is the folder icons. And they messed it up badly. The general-purpose folder icons look just fine, that is not where the problem lies; the problem lies in the special folder icons, like ~/Pictures, /Applications, ~/Documents, and so on. Instead of being clearly distinguishable, they now all look alike, and that is such a tremendous error I am not really sure how Apple gave this the green light. It is a major step backwards from the previous icon set, and I'm also not sure how Apple is going to fix this issue. Especially when you place stacks (more on that later) on your dock for easy access to your Documents/Pictures/Applications/etc. folders, you will have to consciously look at the icons in order to differentiate them. A fairly major usability error.

Leopard's special folder icons.

Conclusion

All in all, it is difficult to escape the feeling that Apple made changes to Mac OS X's look just for the sake of making changes to the look. The changes were surely not dictated by an objective of improving usability. Do not get me wrong, the changes will not really degrade the user experience that much either, but one has to wonder: why change something just for the sake of changing it? Especially seeing they could have been fixing so many substantial things, things that users have been asking for for years?

Table of contents
  1. "Introduction; The appearance"
  2. "The Finder, Quick Look, Stacks, Spaces, and Spotlight"
  3. "Time Machine"
  4. "Safari, Mail.app, iChat; Misc."
  5. "A few notes on the MacBook; Conclusion"
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