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Leopard: What Does It Offer Musicians?

Apple Notes By Mark Wherry
Published August 2007

Apple CEO Steve Jobs outlined many visually interesting features this month for the next major version of OS X. However, it's perhaps the features that lurk beneath Leopard's glossy exterior that will prove the most useful to Mac-based musicians and audio engineers.

At Apple's annual Worldwide Developer's Conference (WWDC) in San Francisco this month, it seemed as if the company might be paying rather too much attention to the old adage that a leopard doesn't change its spots — or, in the case of cat-themed operating systems, its features. When Steve Jobs took to the stage a year ago at WWDC 2006 to unveil Leopard, the next major version of Mac OS X, in addition to showing some of the new features he promised there were many other 'secret' features that would be announced nearer to Leopard's launch. This year, however, with Leopard's release now scheduled for October, the Apple CEO showed only two significantly new features, and you were left wondering if Apple's ability to keep these secret over the last year was helped by the fact that nobody was interested enough to leak any information about them.

Two New Spots

We previously covered the original Leopard announcements in last October's Apple Notes (www.soundonsound.com/sos/oct06/articles/applenotes_1006.htm), and many of the features discussed back then were also talked about this year. For example, there's Spaces, a new way to arrange your desktop, offering many virtual desktops with which to organise your windows (although if you're anything like me, it'll just give you more than one desktop to fill with clutter). But speaking of the desktop, one of the new features announced at this year's keynote was actually a new Desktop...

While the new 3D appearance of the Dock and the semi-transparent menu bar might not initially seem exciting, there are plenty of features under the bonnet in Mac OS X Leopard, such as 64-bit support and improved technology for taking advantage of multiple processing cores.While the new 3D appearance of the Dock and the semi-transparent menu bar might not initially seem exciting, there are plenty of features under the bonnet in Mac OS X Leopard, such as 64-bit support and improved technology for taking advantage of multiple processing cores.From the demonstration, the new Desktop doesn't look so different from the old one, except that the Dock has gained a little perspective, with the icons it holds now being presented sitting on a translucent shelf that reflects the content of the screen (a good use of the Graphics Processing Unit, I'm sure). The new Dock also incorporates a feature called Stacks, which, from the demo, seems to be a new way to look at folders placed in the Dock.

In current versions of OS X, placing a folder in the dock allows you to Control-click on that folder to get a pop-up menu of its contents; I use this feature to gain quick access to my Applications and Documents folders. However, with Stacks the folder is presented as a series of 'stacked' icons, and when you click a Stack its contents will either 'fan' out (to use Apple's word — I would describe the leaning placement of the icons as merely drunken!) or appear in a grid. To get you started, Apple will provide some predefined Stacks in the dock, such as a download Stack where, by default, files you download from the Internet will be stored. Of course, you could do this now by setting a default download folder in your browser that has an alias in the Dock, but with Stacks it seems to be more about the presentation, as the icon for a Stack in the dock is a number of stacked icons that dynamically updates based on the content of the Stack, conveniently showing the most recent icon at the front.

Another new feature of the Desktop is that the menu bar has become semi-transparent. I really question the usefulness of this, but apparently the new semi-transparent menu bar will adapt its appearance to suit your desktop picture. I really want to see this in action before I become too negative.

In addition to the new Desktop, there's also a new Finder, which promises to deliver much better performance than the existing Finder. If you use the latest version of iTunes, the look and operation of the new Finder should seem quite familiar as it essentially has the same basic interface used in iTunes, complete with Coverflow, the graphical navigation tool that lets you flick through your music (or, now, any file on your computer) with the same ease as flicking through your physical CDs or records.

Taking A Quick Look

With new graphics-centric features like Stacks and Coverflow in the Finder, it's important to note that Leopard can now show a preview of a file's content as its icon — Coverflow would, after all, be of little use in the Finder if all of your JPEG icons looked the same. Applications will need to offer support for this feature, but it seems to work hand in hand with a new Leopard feature called Quicklook, and although this was also discussed a year ago, it seems to be quite an important part of many Leopard features.

Quicklook lets you see a preview of the contents of a file without having to actually open the application that created that file. This can be a big help with applications that take more than a few seconds to load, like the current version of Word, or, indeed, pretty much any music or audio application. However, in order for Quicklook to provide an instant preview, developers will need to create special Quicklook plug-ins that can be used to interpret the data in a file. So it will be interesting to see whether common audio applications will be able to preview anything useful in an instant, without initialising a complex audio engine or any plug-ins. What's perhaps promising, though, is that there is support for video and audio in Quicklook, and Jobs demonstrated the playback of a Quicktime movie using this new feature. However, it's obviously easier to preview a Quicktime movie than a Pro Tools Session, although score-writing applications like Sibelius and Finale should be able to take advantage of Quicklook.

In addition to letting you preview content in the Finder, Quicklook is also used by Time Machine, Leopard's back-up solution previewed last year, to preview files that might have been modified or deleted from your current system, and a new version of iChat. In Leopard, as also mentioned last year, iChat has a new feature called iChat Theatre, where you can show the contents of a file, such as a movie or photo, to the person you're chatting with, and this also relies on Quicklook. While Quicklook might not be perfect for instant previews, it is possible to see how iChat Theatre could become the modern equivalent of trying to play a tune to a client down the telephone if you're desperate!

More Cores

Jobs also recapped how Leopard will be the first version of Mac OS X to support 64-bit applications that take advantage of the whole operating system, and it has also been revealed that Leopard will feature a new 'under the bonnet' scheduler that allows applications increased performance on multi-core systems. This point is actually really important for audio software. This is because when an audio application splits its processing into groups (or, to use the technical term, threads) that run on different processor cores, it's up to the OS's scheduler to make sure all these threads run efficiently on the available cores. So an improved scheduler should mean that a well-written audio engine that takes advantage of multiple cores gets a performance boost of some degree.

Apple have also improved other parts of the operating system to take advantage of multiple cores, such as the new multi-threaded network stack that allows network input and output communications to happen simultaneously. And thanks to new features in the Cocoa API (used by many developers to create applications for OS X) that make it easier for programmers to take advantage of multi-core technology, applications such as OS X's own Mail will also see improvements when running on multi-core Macs. Given that every Mac Apple sell these days has at least two processing cores, it's likely that these improvements alone will give musicians and audio engineers a reason to make the leap to Leopard.

One new feature that I'm also looking forward to (not mentioned in the keynote) is the new DVD Player application that offers the ability to locate time with a slider. If you've used the currently supplied DVD Player and you watch DVDs on your Mac, as I do, you'll know why this somewhat insignificant-sounding feature is so appealing!

New Macbook Pros?

Despite a slightly uneventful WWDC keynote this year, perhaps the most exciting Apple announcement this month, which came a week before WWDC, was the introduction of new Macbook Pros featuring Intel's latest mobile technology, code-named Santa Rosa. While the new models feature slightly faster Core Duo 2 processors, it's the architectural changes in Santa Rosa that promise to give an impressive performance boost to music and audio software. With its faster 800MHz system buss and the ability to have 4GB of memory installed, Apple claim the new Macbook Pro will offer a 50 percent improvement when running Logic Pro, compared to the original Macbook Pro. What's more, Apple have added the option for the 17-inch Macbook Pro to be ordered with a 1920 x 1200 display — the same resolution you'll find on a 23-inch Cinema Display or 24-inch iMac. I'm fortunate enough to have received one of the new 17-inch Macbook Pros to play with, so expect a full review soon. 

More Windows For More Macs

As with last year's WWDC keynote, it was again confirmed that Apple's still-in-beta Boot Camp software, that lets you boot your Mac to natively run Windows XP and Vista, will see its final release in Leopard, although there was no word on whether support will be extended to the 64-bit versions of Windows as well. However, Apple did release a 1.3 update to Boot Camp this month, that offers many improvements, such as support for keyboard backlighting on Macbook Pros, updated graphics drivers, and pairing for the Apple Remote so that it can be used in Windows.

Leopard: What Does It Offer Musicians?Here's VMware's Fusion running Windows Vista on Mac OS X. While you can't run Logic on Windows any more, you can run Windows with Logic Pro on a Mac. Who'd have thought it? Although I use Boot Camp on a pretty regular basis to run Windows XP on my Macbook Pro (and juggle both XP and Vista on a Mac Pro), I have to confess that I've never bothered to install any of the recent Boot Camp driver updates since the original installation. However, with the release of Boot Camp 1.3 I thought it was time to get up to date, especially since I never found the Macbook Pro's trackpad worked particularly well under Windows XP, forcing me to always use an external mouse.

Of the new version, all I can say is that if you've been tempted to try Boot Camp in the past, it seems to be reaching a safe level of maturity, especially for Macbook and Macbook Pro users, such that you might want to give it a try. For example, I still find there are many useful applications on Windows — Steinberg's Wavelab being one example — that I prefer compared to Mac-based alternatives. And now in Boot Camp 1.3, not only does the trackpad work much better, but Boot Camp 's new Windows software allows you to properly adjust Function Key settings (such as brightness and volume) with the appropriate transparent, Mac-like overlay graphics. The only slightly confusing thing is that the Function Keys have the opposite behaviour under Windows to their behaviour on Mac OS X; so in Windows the Function Keys act as F1, F2, and so on, and you need to press the 'Fn' function key in order to access the notebook's hardware controls.

In addition to mentioning Boot Camp in the keynote, Jobs also praised both VMware's Fusion and Parallels' eponymous virtualisation software as solutions for running Windows (or Linux, or any Intel-compatible operating system) alongside Mac OS X without rebooting. Both VMware and Parallels have been busy recently, with the former releasing the fourth beta version of Fusion, with support for hardware-accelerated 3D graphics and a feature called Unity that enables you to run Windows applications as if they were stand-alone Mac applications. Parallels have had this feature for some time (they call it Coherence), and their software saw a major update to version 3 this month, also introducing support for hardware-accelerated 3D graphics and generally making the virtual Windows environment more seamlessly integrated with Mac OS X. As we've seen in the past, virtualisation software can also be a useful way to run Windows music and audio software on the Mac, and both VMware and Parallels offer so much more than when we first discussed this subject a year ago.

Published August 2007