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Leopard: Is it worth the upgrade?

CNET Blog Network contributor Don Reisinger tackles Mac OS X Leopard and aims to help you decide if an upgrade is in order.

Mac OS X Leopard
Leopard is right around the corner, should you update?

With all of this week's hype surrounding Mac OS X Leopard, some can't wait for the upgrade. In fact, some people are claiming that the follow-up to Tiger will become the most popular and user-friendly operating system ever created. And while I have a hard time accepting that notion before the operating system is even released, I believe Leopard will change the operating system landscape for quite some time. Unfortunately, it won't change things in the way I had hoped.

In a New York Times article over the weekend, CEO Steve Jobs was quoted as saying that he was excited for the release of Leopard and is quite happy with the current timeline Apple operating systems are on. Most notably, Jobs mentioned that he likes releasing new operating systems "every 12 to 18 months" so Apple can "polish and polish and improve and improve."

But it is here that I must disagree with Jobs. Why do we need a new operating system ever year or so? If my current operating system works quite well, do I really need another new operating system just to add some new features or capabilities? I certainly don't think so.

Through the cover of improvements, Jobs is pointing out one important fact about operating system updates--it's all about the money. Apple is a public company that relies on maximizing shareholder value. Can it do that if it leaves Tiger in place and upgrades it every so often to make it even better? Not a chance. Operating system upgrades have nothing to do with improvements and everything to do with revenue.

Regardless, Leopard is on its way and unfortunately, it will be replaced by Apple just when we get comfortable using it. Operating system upgrades are usually quite problematic for most people. More often than not, some of your favorite programs won't work and peripherals will be relegated to the junk bin until a new update is released to work with the new operating system. Of course, Apple claims the transition will be relatively painless, but can we be so sure? If you ask me, you may want to update any and all products now and make sure you have a backup in place--you never know what might happen.

But alas, we are here to discuss whether a Leopard upgrade is worth it. Of course, the mileage on my opinion may vary and some may definitely find use in some of the new features, while others will scoff and hold on to Tiger. Besides that, I obviously can't discuss the 300 new features in Leopard, but wanted to share some of my thoughts on the most important new upgrades. And in the end, offer my thoughts on whether you should upgrade. As for me? I've already ordered Leopard and will install it on just one of my Macs. The others will run Tiger until they die.

Time Machine
Without a doubt, Time Machine is one of the most anticipated new features on Leopard. With the ability to quickly backup your entire computer, this is the first time in years I can say that an operating system has gone above and beyond what I expected of it. Think of it this way--almost 50 percent of consumers lose valuable information on their computers each year and half of those can never recover it. With the help of Time Machine, that number could fall significantly.

Now, I know what you're probably saying--people can backup files and folders now, why is this so special? Well, backing up files has never been so emphasized as it is right now and, to be quite honest, it may actually make people aware of the fragile nature of hard drives. People need to be aware of the threats of hard drive failure and I think Apple has finally done something about that.

Leopard effect: Buy

Mail upgrades
All in all, I think Mail is one of the worst applications on Mac OS X. It isn't nearly as useful as Thunderbird or Gmail, and it simply doesn't do anything special that would make me want to use it. Simply put, it's Apple's version of Outlook Express.

Unfortunately, it looks like Mail on Leopard will be just as bad. Notes and to-do? Who cares? Even worse, Apple keeps promoting RSS feeds in the program now, but it's too far behind the curve on that one to even make it relevant.

Leopard effect: Stay with Tiger. You're not getting much improvement here.

Am I the only person who thought Finder was in serious need of an upgrade? Luckily for me, Apple came through and improved it to such a degree that it's one of the main reasons I decided to buy a copy of the new OS.

Unlike Tiger's Finder, you can now view all of your files and folders in a Cover Flow view as you do on the iPhone or iPod Touch. For those of you who don't know about Cover Flow, it's probably one of the most useful additions to any Apple device since the scroll wheel. Even better, you can now use search engine syntax to get better search results when you use Spotlight. As someone who has spent far too long searching for one file on my computer, you can imagine how happy I was to hear that I can make better queries and find files faster. Generally speaking, Finder is what I'm most excited to use.

Leopard effect: Buy now

Spaces is a new feature on Leopard that should help you eliminate much of the clutter you deal with when you have a slew of programs open. And while I think this is a nice feature if you're fine with a segmented screen, it's tough for me to say just how useful this will be until I use it. But at first glance, I think it's moderately useful, at best.

More often than not, I'll have five or six windows open at any given time. And while this may not seem like too many to some, it can easily become quite difficult to handle if I need to keep switching back and forth. And to be quite honest, Tiger is pathetic at handling open windows right now. But according to Apple, all of these issues will be resolved once I get Leopard in-house. If that's true, you can bet I'll be happy to see it. If not, it'll be a huge disappointment. For this one, all I can say is, let's wait and see.

Leopard effect: Neutral

So there you have it--just a quick taste of what we can expect from Leopard. As you know, I'm not a fan of "early and often" operating system updates; to be quite honest, I find this despicable. But by the looks of things, it seems Leopard will be a nice update to an already nice operating system.

That said, do I think everyone should upgrade to Leopard right away? Not a chance. If you rely on software that must work all the time, I simply can't recommend an upgrade until you know all the kinks are worked out. But if there is no mission critical material at your disposal and you don't mind some growing pains, spend the $129 and upgrade to Leopard.

Look for a full hands-on with Leopard all next weekend as I tell you about the installation and use of Apple's new OS, right here on The Digital Home.