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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Core technologies: Lots of updates under the hood

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Some of the best features in Leopard are the ones users will never directly encounter: new additions and optimizations to the operating system's underlying framework. And while most people might not need to know how Mac OS X works under the hood, they will benefit from Apple's advances.

Starting with the first version of Mac OS X in 2001, Apple wanted to make developing for the operating system as simple as possible, so it set out to create frameworks -- an assortment of components premade by Apple -- that allow developers to more rapidly develop for OS X. Some of these early frameworks included Quartz, QuickTime, OpenGL and Core Audio. Together, they enabled Apple to create the iTunes Music Store, build in the smooth transitions, add motion that make Mac OS X so graphically appealing and more.

In Leopard, Apple offers up major improvements to its core technologies. Core Audio gets a boost, with OpenAL 1.1 extensions, media hardware control and a new panner audio unit all built in and ready for developers to use. Quartz 2D and PDF functions have also been improved, including a whole new PDF Kit, enhanced print dialogs, CUPS 1.3 and an optional QuartzGL acceleration layer. The Quartz2D and PDF Kit enhancements in particular allow for the feature-packed Preview update.

Since this framework's ability to manipulate images on the fly was unveiled in Tiger, Core Image has learned some new tricks, including native RAW processing, Automatic UI for filters, improved scalability and some updates to the built-in Image Units. It also sports a debugging and performance tool, which should help developers troubleshoot their apps.

The QuickTime framework has gained ground as well; it supports more USB cameras and can capture video from devices, including simultaneous captures. The updated QuickTime framework also allows for recording to multiple outputs.

Best of all, this framework now supports alpha channels in H.264. Alpha H.264 allows for compositing and layering video with alpha channels that are much smaller than current coder/decoders can create. Picture a news broadcast with flashy graphics and talking heads. Alpha H.264 allows for that type of broadcast-quality composition without resorting to the typically huge stock background videos based on .png or animation codecs. While Alpha H.264 allows for the trade-off between size and quality, the results are high-quality composites with much smaller file sizes.

Core Animation is the result of everything Apple has learned from working with Aqua's compositing window system. Simply put, the Core Animation framework is a really fast layering engine. It allows developers to produce animations in their applications with high production values without needing a separate graphics division. Core Animation's easy programming model and dynamic generation of animation between start and end states made its debut on Apple's iPhone. Now it comes to Leopard, allowing developers to tap into the very same technology that powers the iPhone's amazingly fluid and responsive interface.

Finally, Leopard introduces a new high-level framework for image manipulation called Image Kit, based on Core Image and Core Animation. Meanwhile, Core Image, Core Video and Core Animation all tap into the power of the computer's GPU. The result of all these changes will mean even more graphically stunning apps in the years to come as developers incorporate them into their work.

And the rest

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In addition to those 10 major changes in Leopard, Apple offers up scores more. Here's a look at some other noteworthy updates.

 
Parental Controls
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Parental Controls help you keep your kids out of trouble. (Click for larger view.)
 

Parental Controls: Mommy's watching

This new feature, which is accessed in System Preferences, allows you to turn off certain features in the operating system to keep kids -- or guest users -- from getting into trouble, either by surfing to sites you don't want them going to or by performing tasks on the computer. While some of these tools were available in Tiger, this pulls them together in one place for easy use.

Options include turning on a "simple Finder," hiding profanity in the built-in dictionary, restricting which sites are accessible, restricting the apps little Johnny can use, limiting iChat and Mail use, and -- perhaps most useful -- setting time limits on how long and when the computer can be used.

And for those who really want to spy on what the kids are up to online, Parental Controls also allow you to track Web sites visited, sites blocked, apps launched and iChat conversations. It'll be interesting to see whether enterprise users try to turn this on for employees. No more shopping online when you're supposed to be working!

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