Ten Things You Should Know Before You Upgrade to Mac OS X Leopard

Click to viewThose of you who haven't been poring over all of Mac OS X Leopard's feature list (because you actually have lives) probably only know a few things about it. There's this new backup software...and...some iChat stuff? That's where we come in. We distill all the features down to ten points to help you decide whether or not the upgrade is worthwhile for you. Here are Ten Things You Should Know before you upgrade to Mac OS X Leopard.

1. Leopard works fine on old machines as long as they're not too old. Leopard only works on Intel, G5 and G4 Macs that are 867MHz or faster—meaning your really, really old PowerBooks or iBooks are borderline. You can try rigging up an install on Macs that aren't too old (like the one we tested on), but you don't get the Core Animation or other fancy effects. It's slightly slower to start up and shut down compared to Tiger, but you get more features.

2. Veteran Windows users probably won't change their minds about switching. If you're thinking of making the switch to OS X, Leopard doesn't provide a dramatic change over Tiger—so if you didn't like OS X before, you're probably not going to change your mind now. That said, the improvements over Tiger just makes it all the more worth your while to give OS X a shot. Depending on whether you absolutely need certain Windows apps (you can find many Mac equivalent apps), you can have the option of dual booting with Boot Camp or running both operating systems at once with Parallels like myself.

3. Time Machine provides the easiest built-in backup software on any OS. Even compared with the built-in backup software on Vista, Time Machine is super easy and super automated—all the while keeping functionality high by including easy-to-use file versioning as well. If you're not already backing up your Mac with apps like the similarly powerful SuperDuper, Time Machine is a big reason to upgrade. All you need to do is plug in an external USB hard drive and everything's taken care of for you, all in the background without any input from you. If you're already happy with your backup method, this will be a marginal feature, but if you're tired of dealing with backups or losing data, Leopard is for you.

4. iChat gives you powerful video, screen and document sharing. Another one of the major improvements in Leopard is in the iChat app. Not only do you get video effects, there's lots of work-focused document sharing and screen sharing as well for working with people over long distances (totally would have been useful when I was writing my book). There's also iChat recording for recording your video chats or meetings for later viewing. That's a killer feature for some, totally useless for others. But if you're going to be doing any kind of screen-viewing with other people, iChat is probably the easiest way to do it since it launches right from your chat application.

5. Leopard is the only way you can dual-boot Windows on your Mac. Boot Camp may have been free before, but your old copy will expire at the end of the year. That means you need Leopard to dual-boot Windows and OS X. You can still use virtualization software like Parallels or VM Ware for using Windows at the same time as your Mac, but you're sharing system resources between the two applications. If you only need to use Windows—and you need to maximize your RAM and CPU—you're better off with Boot Camp.

6. Leopard probably will work with your applications. It's likely that Leopard will work with just about all your applications and plug-ins, but there are going to be a few bumps along the way. For us, our Griffin PowerMate, a NAS driver (which caused us a massive chain of consecutive kernel panics), various Unsanity add-ons and Mail.app plug-ins all have to be updated for Leopard before we can use them again. You should make sure all your critical apps are Leopard-compatible before you upgrade by checking their web sites, otherwise you're going to find yourself actually downgrading back to Tiger while you wait.

7. If you use your Mac every day you should upgrade now. On the other hand, if you use your Mac for more than just a few hours a day, chances are you're a hardcore user. If this is the case, you should definitely buy Leopard. There might not be one glaring feature that makes you rush for your credit card, but all the small improvements—from iCal to Mail to Address Book to Finder—will make your day-to-day computer use that much more convenient that you'll be glad you upgraded.

8. Leopard is not much more resource intensive than Tiger. We've noticed slightly more RAM usage compared with Tiger, but as long as you have more than 1GB of memory it's not a huge deal. You do need about 10GB of free space to install Leopard, but after you're done there's no real noticeable storage increase demands. In fact, we're pretty sure that our MacBook Pro runs faster now after upgrading to Leopard than it did back on Tiger. You probably don't need to buy more RAM for this, but it couldn't hurt.

9. 64-bit performance speeds up newer Macs. If you're on a Core 2 Duo Mac (that's pretty much all new Macs purchased in the last year or so), Leopard will eventually give you 64-bit versions of your apps. It's a bit technical when we get down to talking about frameworks and the building blocks for new applications, but just know that 64-bit versions of the same applications will run faster than 32-bit versions. Plus, you have no performance penalty for running 32-bit applications along-side 64-bit ones.

10. You might not need Leopard right now if you're on an old machine. Although Apple lists 300 new features in Leopard, on a few of them are critical—and none of them are showstoppers. If you're going to buy a new Mac soon, the new Mac will come with a copy of Leopard, saving you $129 in the process. Plus, the cost of iLife '08 isn't included in Leopard, meaning you're going to have to shell out another $79. If you buy a new Mac, you get both of these for free. Even if you're not planning on a new machine, you need to take a good look at the features listed above and see just how important they are. If they're only marginally crucial to your every day usage, it's safe to wait until you really need Leopard for something before upgrading.

Bonus: There are three very tangible reasons to upgrade to Leopard: Time Machine, iChat and Finder/Quicklook upgrades. If you have a good backup solution now, or don't use iChat video, and don't have to browse a lot of multimedia files in finder, you might not need to upgrade.