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How deep are Leopard's changes?

Apple's Mac 10.5 operating system didn't outpace its predecessor, Tiger, in tests by CNET's Labs, though interface tweaks make it easier to multitask.

Our review of Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard last Thursday lauded its lovely interface innovations but withheld judgment about the operating system's speed until we could put it through its paces.

Tests returned from CNET Labs on Saturday show that Leopard didn't perform noticeably faster than Mac OS 10.4.6 Tiger. (See the chart in CNET's review of Tiger.). Because Leopard's improved speeds of between 1 percent and 3 percent fall within the 5 percent margin of error, it's fair to call Leopard and Tiger even.

GarageBand wouldn't run the first time we opened it in Leopard.
GarageBand wouldn't run the first time we opened it in Leopard.

Lab tests explored Leopard's boot time, multimedia multitasking, and handling of the Quake 3 game. Similarly, the 2005 release of Tiger did not demonstrate vast speed improvements over Panther, a previous version of Mac OS X.

Still, some users commenting on Leopard-related message boards and stories at CNET and elsewhere swore that they detected faster performance with Leopard.

Unfortunately, CNET Labs could not vouch for the performance of Adobe Systems' Photoshop CS3, which, for reasons not yet understood, wouldn't run on Leopard in our usual battery of automated tests. Don't jump to conclusions, however; the photo-editing application seemed to behave under normal conditions, and Adobe insists that Photoshop can run in Leopard.

However, full Leopard support for all versions of Adobe Creative Suite 3 won't become available until Adobe releases updates in three to four months. Among the applications needing updates are AfterEffects, Premiere, Soundbooth, and Acrobat Pro 8.1.2 (PDF). Sadly, Adobe fans cannot count on running earlier iterations of the Creative Suite or Macromedia Studio uneventfully within Leopard.

Although we find Leopard's interface relatively seamless, the same can't be said for everyone's experience getting started. Some people reported installation headaches, including the famed "blue screen of death," which historically has made so many love to hate the rival Microsoft Windows. Apple has acknowledged that issue as a glitch with third-party software.

Another application that won't run properly in Leopard yet is FileMaker Pro 9, due for an update next month. Some at CNET have found other applications, such as Groupcal and Parallels, failing unexpectedly in Leopard. And although only Safari was also running at the time, GarageBand wouldn't run in our first two attempts to open it in Leopard. A reboot seemed to do the trick.

Leopard also appeared to be converting some Mail settings from administrator to standard accounts; MacFixIt explains a solution. We're looking into these and other issues, and will continue to update our Leopard review as we learn more.

Our conclusion remains that you must have Leopard if you need to run Boot Camp, and you'll want it if you eagerly await Time Machine's elegant backup system. Developers will also like the full, native 64-bit support for both Intel- and PowerPC-based Macs.

Yet the majority of obvious improvements are on Leopard's surface. That isn't necessarily a bad thing; interface tweaks like Cover Flow, Quick Look, Spaces and Stacks offer powerful, practical improvements that make it easier to multitask. The operating system overall is a treat to use, even if it's unlikely to deliver preternatural speed.

So unless $129 feels like a trifle to spend, holding off on this upgrade wouldn't hurt. Depending upon your software toolkit of choice, waiting for third-party applications to catch up to Leopard might even save some frustration.