The verdict: Leopard spanks Vista

This story caps off a truly comprehensive wave of Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard coverage from Computerworld. Our readers have asked for more operating system coverage, and we're delivering.

Our Week of Leopard package covers many aspects of what's new in the latest Apple operating system, everything from Leopard Server, improvements for developers and changes to user accounts to nitty-gritty details on Time Machine and the other bundled apps and utilities in OS X 10.5. We've also compiled a comprehensive image gallery of Leopard's new look and features, as well as a rundown of its highs and lows. The stories in our Leopard package have been researched and written by at least half a dozen Mac experts.

The questions that remain are these: Is Leopard a truly great OS? How does it stack up against its predecessor, Tiger, and Windows Vista? Should you get this thing for yourself? Should you recommend it for your company?

Vis-a-vis Vista

Given the timing of Mac OS X's release, the somewhat lukewarm response to Microsoft's Windows Vista by many IT shops, and even the similarity in the areas of concentration pursued by Apple and Microsoft -- a comparison between Leopard and Vista is inescapable. Both companies emphasized efforts to improve usability and add features to their bundled software.

Both added transparency to their user interfaces. Both heavily revised the structure and management of their user accounts. Both enhanced parental controls, upgraded their onboard e-mail programs and added new versions of their browsers. Both did fairly significant behind-the-scenes work to boost their video and animation capabilities, as well as to better support third-party software development.

Throughout the four years of the Vista development process, I tested and evaluated at least 15 different alphas and betas of the operating system, spending hundreds of hours evaluating the late prereleases and the final editions. Likewise, I spent countless hours testing Leopard, both in prerelease form and the final version now available to the public. What I found after all that testing is that despite their similarities on paper, Leopard and Vista are nothing alike.

Vista has a cover-Microsoft's-butt, designed-by-corporate-committee feel, while Leopard tightly adheres to Apple's well-honed user-interface design principles. In numerous small ways, Apple has improved its OS, while Microsoft has, in a plethora of ways, changed Windows -- not always for the better. (For detailed reviews of both operating systems, see Hands on: A hard look at Windows Vista and In Depth: Apple's Leopard leaps to new heights.)

Any residual sense that Apple is somehow above competing directly with Microsoft's Windows is dispelled by Leopard. With OS X 10.5, Apple is clearly going head to head with Microsoft and Vista. With the smoke clearing, it's also apparent that Apple still has a lead on Microsoft when it comes to user interface and functionality.

That doesn't make Apple and its Mac platform or even Leopard an enormous business success. But it's impossible to miss the refinement infused throughout Apple's new operating system, whereas there are compromises in Vista that impinge upon the user experience without giving something back in return. Apple is focused on the user experience, while Microsoft appears to be focused on antipiracy, overengineered security protections, and digital rights management aimed at serving its prospective third-party partners.

There's really no contest. Tiger is a better OS than Vista, and there are no long-term downsides to Leopard. Vista doesn't measure up.

Bigger changes, more reason to wait

Leopard is clearly a far more ambitious upgrade than Tiger was. I was a little disappointed by the Tiger release, whose best and, to my mind, only important feature was Spotlight (perhaps a better top feature than Time Machine). But it did fix some things, and it was a relatively painless upgrade.

The same sentiments don't apply to Leopard. We're still in the early days following Leopard's October 26 release, but we've already seen some upgrade issues, albeit ones that probably weren't caused by Leopard. Apple changed a lot more in this release, especially under the hood, than people may realize. Version 10.5 tries to take a definitive step forward, to raise the bar, improve the value proposition and push the envelope a bit.

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Scot Finnie

Computerworld

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