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Shiny! Two of Leopard's Practical Improvements

Sharing files with a Mac got much easier and much more robust with the release of Leopard. And if you're on the fence about Time Machine, don't be: It's pretty good despite the eye candy.

Networking Notes

A few weeks ago a page highlighting 300 new features in Leopard started circulating. Because 300 is a big number and because it's one thing to read a list and another to play with things once they're actually running on your own machine, here are two practical things that caught my eye right away after installing Leopard earlier this week:

Improved Sharing

Figure 1. It's easy to set up shared folders in Leopard.
(Click for a larger image)

I never understood why even Windows 98 had a relatively intuitive way to share just a single folder over the network while OS X didn't. In fact, I'd say file sharing has been my biggest OS X peeve. I tended to defer the task to my Linux server because I got much more fine-grained control of shared files, even if most of the files I'd want to share are sitting right here on my Mac.

Apple has fixed all that this time around, and it's now very easy to share a folder using either AFP (the Appletalk Filing Protocol), FTP or SMB (the latter two of which are useful for networks with something besides Macs running on them.

You can share a folder one of two ways:

You can bring up the folder's properties in the Finder by clicking on it then pressing ⌘-i then checking "Shared Folder" (right underneath the Label colors). That will make the folder sharable to you elsewhere on the network.

For more access choices (to share folders with other users, for instance, or control whether a folder is readable, writable or both), you have to visit the Sharing pane in System Preferences. You can add the folder you want to share by clicking the "+" underneath "Shared Folders."

Once you've added the folder, you can control who can do what with it in the "Users" list, and that reveals a nice touch.

One thing admins give Microsoft a lot of credit for is its Active Directory (AD). Using AD, networkers get a lot of power in terms of setting access levels for different users and groups. Something like AD is overkill for a desktop machine, so Apple provided a way to delegate file sharing access via the Address Book application that ships with OS X.

Clicking on the "+" button underneath the "Users:" column provides a popup window with two columns: One for the user's address book and another for users and groups on the Mac. So for a small office, all you have to do is make sure your coworkers are in your address book, then add them from the popup. Another window will prompt for a password to assign to that user.

By default, the files are offered up over AFP. To add SMB or FTP access, click the "Options..." button in the lower right of the Sharing panel and check the protocols you'd like to use. Make sure to read the warnings, especially about FTP, if your network is not particularly secure. Your login and password go out unencrypted.

Time Machine

Figure 2. Time Machine is backup the Apple way, but don't throw out what you're using right now.
(Click for a larger image)
Handling backups is a burden. It might be a burden you're indifferent to now because you figured out something that works and automated it to the point that you don't think about it much. It might be a burden that still makes you wake up in the dead of night hoping that you won't pay for skipping your weekly backup.

There are a number of good backup choices in the Mac aftermarket already. I favor Shirt Pocket's SuperDuper because it's incredibly well supported and achieves "set it and forget it" perfection. In fact, when Apple announced Time Machine I felt a pang of panic for Shirt Pocket: My experience with SuperDuper has been so positive I hated to think Apple might crowd the company out of a market it serves so well.

Shirt Pocket, it turns out, wasn't particularly perturbed. The two products are very different. SuperDuper specializes in backing up entire disks in an efficient manner, then providing a bootable drive you can fire up on the spot in case you have a disastrous mishap and lose an entire hard drive.

Time Machine, on the other hand, does not provide that bootable functionality. Some might try to say that doesn't make it a "serious" backup utility, and that's true to a point: It is not a very good disaster recovery tool. But it does provide backup in a away the mythical "average user" is more likely to respond to.

With Time Machine you just hook up an external USB or Firewire hard drive, tell Time Machine it may use that drive to perform backups, and away it goes. Each time a file is changed on your machine, Time Machine makes a backup and remembers when it did so. If you end up needing to restore that file later on, either because you deleted it or made changes you wish you hadn't, you just invoke Time Machine and get a very pretty (and resource intensive) full-screen view of the folder you're currently in. Click the file, click "Restore" and the file is put back where you last left it.

The Time Machine interface provides a time scale on the right side of the screen that allows you to zoom back to where you think you last had the file, and it allows the use of two valuable Finder tools: The traditional file info window (select a file, press ⌘-i) and Leopard's new Quick View (select a file, press ⌘-y). So if you're trying to recover a digital photograph, for instance, you can travel back to the file then take a quick peek to make sure it's the right one, and that whatever revisions you now regret aren't in the version you're about to restore. There is one small bug for people with two monitors: You can't drag the Quick View preview window over to the other monitor in case you want to preview multiple files by leaving Quick View open and clicking from file to file: It disappears into the, er, black depths of the Time Machine continuum. Sorry ... Any backup utility that provides a field of stars and a swirling nebula in the background demands we play along as best we can.

Time Machine keeps track of how much space you've got on your backup drive, so as it does its thing it will allow older files to drop off into that swirling nebula in the background, where they will not be recoverable. Treat Time Machine as a short-term "Doh!" recovery tool, not a way to correct anything you've ever done.

A lot has been made of how cheesy Time Machine looks (that screen capture can't do justice to the animated, shiny eye candy it produces while it zooms back in time), and yet more has been made of how clever Apple is to lure users into using backup software at all by providing all that eye candy as bait. I'm inclined to say that it's cheesy, probably didn't need that much eye candy (even as a clever lure) and is potentially very useful.

If there's one big "issue" with Time Machine, it's this: You might end up going for a second external hard drive. You'll want one for the sort of efficient disaster-proofing you can get from a solution like SuperDuper, and another for the dead simple and very practical Time Machine. Disasters of the sort SuperDuper is a hedge against come along once every few years. Mishaps of the sort Time Machine is designed to deal with happen all the time. I wouldn't want to trade one for the other.

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