In Depth: Apple's Leopard leaps to new heights

A refined look, revamped apps and new options build on an already solid OS foundation

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Audio and video chats have been a feature of iChat since Version 2.0, but now iChat can record those conversations. After clearing permission with the other person first, iChat is able to save the session to a movie file that is supported on Apple's other products, including the iPhone and iPod family.

Most useful is iChat's newfound ability to share anything Quick Look can access via iChat Theater mode. This mode allows you to host anything you wish to present, including your documents, movies, pictures and music. The recipient sees a full-screen version of your presentation as well as a small video feed of you hosting.

Automator: AppleScript for the rest of us

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Apple's workflow-automation tool also receives some nice upgrades. Automator, in case you haven't used it, can be used to automate repetitive tasks -- think of it as a graphical AppleScript builder -- saving you a lot of time. Like other Leopard apps, it loses the brushed-metal appearance, and its launch time has been dramatically cut -- working with the app itself is no longer an exercise in waiting.

The first difference in this version is obvious immediately after launching: Leopard's Automator instantly prompts you for what Apple calls a starting point. This starting point presents you with a list of icons whose options are Custom, Files & Folders, Music & Audio, Photos & Images, and Text, each selection offering context-based options, a helpful jumping off point for creating your Automator workflow.

Automator starting point screen
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The Automator provides a starting point for creating a workflow. (Click for larger view.)

The Library in Automator is now split into two sections: Actions and Variables. Despite the new organization, you use them the same way as in Tiger: From the Actions library, select the category you plan to manipulate, such as Photos, and from there drag individual actions (like Download Pictures or Crop Images) from the library section of the app to the workflow area, filling in the appropriate information when needed. If you're looking to fill your workflows with variables such as file paths, e-mail addresses or applications, that task is now easier, thanks to the new Variables selection.

creating a workflow
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You can drag and drop actions to create a workflow. (Click for larger view.)

Automator's tool bar offers five buttons: Hide/Show Library, Media, Record, Stop and Run. Hide/Show Library allows you to put away the Actions list, so that you can focus on the details of the workflow, which expands to take over the main window. The Media button gives you access to your iTunes and iPhoto libraries and your Movies folder.

The Record, Stop and Run buttons enable you to record and then play back the actions you're automating. Clicking Record shrinks Automator to a small, unobtrusive widget of sorts, with a simple animation to let you know it's recording and a stop button for when you're done. Once you click the Stop button, the Recording widget disappears, and the main Automator window appears.

We recorded a sample workflow and tested it by clicking the Run button: Just as it was supposed to, it launched Safari, went to eBay.com by actually clicking the bookmark, minimized the window, opened iCal, clicked on Safari in the Dock to unminimize, and then quit Safari. As the workflow runs, you can see your cursor dart back and forth on the screen as the actions you recorded are carried out. But Automator still isn't intelligent in Leopard, meaning it will record any errors you make in workflow and repeat them every time it runs.

Automator also gets more useful Automator actions, such as Take Video Snapshot, which takes advantage of your Mac's built-in camera. And for those who use Apple's Numbers application, you'll be happy to know it gets Automator support in Leopard.

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