Leopard apps and system tools offer subtle, yet powerful, changes

Mail, iCal and Parental Controls offer greater productivity, protection

The changes in Apple's Leopard touch every part of the Mac OS, including its built-in applications and its system tools. The tweaks made to the Safari Web browser, which has been out in beta form for months, have been well documented, and we won't go into them further here. Likewise, the impressive Time Machine backup tool and even speedier Spotlight have already been amply covered.

But there's a lot more to talk about. The productivity applications Mail and iCal have both been upgraded with many powerful features. And OS X's Parental Controls tool, introduced in Tiger, has been made even more flexible and given enough new features to warrant its own identity in System Preferences. These improvements should make mundane daily activities much more productive for individuals and companies alike.

Mail

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Simplicity is the theme of the new Mail. The core application and its functionality haven't changed much from Tiger, but there are a lot of new extras that will make your e-mail and productivity experience more enjoyable.

The first thing you'll notice about the new Mail is that creating and adding accounts is much simpler. If you use Gmail, Yahoo Mail or AOL Mail, as a lot of us do, you can now just enter your e-mail address and your password instead of looking for server names, SMTP addresses, port numbers and security settings.

At the same time, if you are using proprietary settings, the fields are laid out in a very functional way with hints to help you along with the details.

If you're upgrading existing accounts from Tiger, as most Mac users will be, Leopard Mail will upgrade your e-mail database when you first open it, just as Tiger Mail did during the upgrade from Panther ( Mac OS X 10.3). After this relatively quick process, you will likely notice that searches run much more quickly -- both from inside the Mail application and from Spotlight -- and Smart Folders assemble their contents more briskly.

For instance, on a MacBook Pro with three IMAP accounts and a few thousand e-mails in each, it took about three minutes to update the database. Your mileage will, of course, vary.

When you get to the main window, you'll notice two new buttons added to the row along the top: Notes and To Do. Down the left side are the same Inbox and other mailboxes that were in Tiger, but you will also notice new Notes and To Do folders below them inside a Reminders folder, as well as an RSS Feed box. Until now, built-in support for RSS feeds was part of Safari.

Leopard Mail comes with some new mailboxes, including Notes, To Dos and RSS feeds
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Leopard Mail comes with some new mailboxes, including Notes, To Dos and RSS feeds. (Click for larger view.)
 

The RSS folder lets you subscribe to and view feeds the same way you look at e-mail. This is very similar to the popular open-source Vienna and NetNewsWire (NewsGator, $30) or Outlook 2007 (part of Microsoft Office 2007) on the PC. If you set your default feed reader in Safari Preferences to be Mail, anytime you subscribe to a feed, it will be pushed into the Mail RSS Folder.

Apple now has two built-in ways to read feeds -- the old way in Safari and now in Mail -- and the two will sync, meaning if you read a feed article in one, it will be automatically marked as read in the other. The decision to offer two methods will likely be cheered by some but could be confusing to others. I'm sticking with Vienna for now.

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