You could hear the wails from Mac users last month when Apple announced that Mac OS X 10.5, known as Leopard, would not ship until October 2007, rather than this spring as originally promised.

Apple had announced Leopard at its Worldwide Developers Conference in August 2006, touting a number of new and improved features, including the following:

– Spaces, a system that will allow users to group applications into different virtual desktops and easily switch among them.
– Time Machine, an easy-to-use backup application with a radical 3-D interface.
– A revision of Mac OS X's Dashboard that will make it easier to create and manage widgets.
– A new version of iChat AV with support for piping presentations and real-time screenshots to others, along with a number of visual effects that can be added to video chats.
– A new version of the Spotlight search tool with a technology called Quick Look that gives full-size previews of any document without opening it.

These announcements were enough to get eager Mac users drooling, so the delay hit them hard. But while they will have to wait for Leopard, they don't have to wait to add some Leopard-like features to their Macs. Shareware and commercial tools already make it possible to add many of these features (or something similar) to the current Mac OS X 10.4, known as Tiger.

Getting the jump on Dashboard

According to Apple's Leopard Sneak Peek, Dashboard will sport two major new features in Leopard. One is Dashcode, a template-based tool that is supposed to make creating widgets easier. If you want to try it out, you can download the beta version of Dashcode from Apple's developer site.

(As noted on the Dashcode beta page, the beta is currently designed to generate only Tiger-compatible widgets. Leopard-specific features will likely be included in a public release after Leopard ships.)

Dashboard's other new feature in Leopard will be the ability to create widgets from portions of an existing webpage in Safari. If that sounds like something you want to do right away, check out Amnesty Generator from Mesa Dynamics. Amnesty Generator doesn't allow you to create widgets quite as easily as Safari will in Leopard, but it does enable you to create widgets out of web content from a number of sites. Google Gadgets, YouTube videos and more can easily be turned into Dashboard widgets without needing to write any code.

BitBlasters Software's Virtual Dashboard and JBear Technologies' MultiDash don't add any new features to Dashboard, but rather apply the concept of virtual desktops. Both utilities allow you to create multiple sets of widgets in virtual Dashboards and easily switch among them. (Virtual Dashboard also allows you to display widgets on the desktop.)

Both work well and are a huge help if you frequently use a bunch of widgets and want to keep them activated and available all the time. The shareware Virtual Desktop installs as an application that is managed from the menu bar. MultiDash, on the other hand, is freeware, installs as a Dashboard widget and manages virtual Dashboards from within Dashboard itself.

Spaces: So what's new?

Virtual desktops are not a new concept in computing, and they are not new to the Mac. In fact, Mac virtual desktop solutions date back to the late ’80s and have come in two forms: Spaces-like multiple separate desktops that you can switch between, and tools that make a single desktop function as a larger one by adding scroll bars to it. Here are some ways to enjoy the virtual desktop experience even before Leopard arrives.

You Control: Desktops from You Software is a universal shareware application that allows you to easily create and manage multiple virtual desktops, including defining whether each desktop has its own background and/or Finder items displayed. You Control: Desktops puts a thumbnail of each desktop in the menu bar, and you can rotate through them with a hot key or switch to one by clicking its thumbnail.

The utility is highly customisable and allows you to configure more advanced navigation options such as switching to specific windows or applications – all from a single menu in the Mac OS X menu bar.

VirtueDesktops by Tony Arnold is a universal open-source application that lets you create multiple desktops and set keys and a map for switching among them. You can use custom desktop pictures and visual overlays to identify each desktop when you are working in it and bind running applications to a particular desktop.

Although VirtueDesktops functions well, its setup is not as intuitive as You Control: Desktops, and it doesn't provide menu bar icons for easy identification and switching. Also, even the most recent release is a beta, and the developer has halted further development.

Desktop Manager by Richard Wareham is a PowerPC-only open-source application that has also never emerged from beta (though it works well using Rosetta on Intel Macs). Its simple interface includes optional menu-bar thumbnails of each desktop, a floating window for easy identification and switching, and the ability to switch desktops by simply positioning the mouse at the edge of the screen in much the same way that you would switch among multiple displays.

You can also assign hot keys for desktop switching and move active windows and applications from one desktop to another.

CodeTek Studios' VirtualDesktop Pro is a commercial universal application (a demo version is available) that offers a menu bar item, a floating window and hot keys for easy switching among desktops. You can also arrange desktops in a map-like grid.

VirtualDesktop Pro offers the option to switch desktops by moving the mouse off an appropriate edge of the screen and supports easy dragging of items from one desktop to another. It includes support for multiple displays – including the option to determine whether additional displays are treated as part of a single large virtual desktop or as independent desktop spaces – and can be set to trigger AppleScripts when switching desktops.

Presenting iChat special effects

The Leopard version of iChat is slated to add special video effects and the ability to send presentations. The following add-ons won't get you all the way to the new iChat functionalities, but they'll make the wait easier.

ChatFX from Script Software is a fun bit of shareware that allows you to apply compositions made with Apple's Quartz graphics technology to your video chats in the same way that Photo Booth allows you to apply effects to photos. ChatFX, however, enables a much wider variety of compositions than those built into Photo Booth.

When installed, ChatFX displays a drawer under the iChat camera window, from which you can choose among the various compositions.

ShowMacster by Eberhard Rensch is a commercial iChat add-on that enables you to send image, video and sound files over iChat, temporarily replacing the video from an attached camera with the media that you are transmitting. It also includes the ability to take and send screen captures.

Better search, preview and Finder experiences

Leopard's version of Spotlight promises to support more-complex search queries using Boolean expressions, and Quick Look will provide direct previews of documents without opening the creator application. There aren't any existing tools that directly mimic the behaviour of Spotlight and Quick Look, but there are some that offer alternative search and file management interfaces that enhance many functions of Spotlight and the Finder in Tiger.

Google Desktop is probably the most talked-about alternative to Spotlight. With a double press of the Command (Apple) key, Google Desktop gives you a transparent, floating search dialogue box with which you can search for files (including, like Spotlight, text within files and file metadata), old and deleted versions of files that Google Desktop stores in a cache file, emails in your Google Gmail account, and web pages that you've visited (as well as the web in general).

Both the interface and the ability to search recently visited websites as well as old versions of documents make it an attractive Spotlight alternative.

Blacktree's Quicksilver is another search and file-management tool with a large following. Like Google Desktop, Quicksilver can be accessed with a hot key, and it can act merely as an excellent search tool that complements the Finder and Spotlight.

But it also provides the ability to combine search results with common file management tasks in a responsive interface that can be faster than using the Finder. Quicksilver also includes plug-in modules that enable it to search for items beyond just files. Address Book contacts, the contents of emails, music in iTunes and many more items can be just as easily searched for and worked with from the clean and simple interface.

LaunchBar from Objective Development Software is a third tool to make locating files, folders, and applications on your Mac faster and easier. It is designed less as a search tool and more as an application launcher and a tool for quickly navigating the file structure on a Mac. Although it takes a little getting used to, LaunchBar makes an interesting alternative to using the Finder to navigate to specific folders and open files or applications.

Butler from Many Tricks places customisable items in the menu bar to give you instant access to folders and files, applications, bookmarks from any installed web browser, contact information (from which you can launch new emails), iTunes playlists and other library items, and more. One particularly nice feature is that Butler's menus are always accessible, regardless of the application you happen to be using.

Backups: Don't wait five months

Maybe Leopard's built-in Time Machine backup system will mean that everyone will finally back up their files. Maybe. But waiting another five months is not a good idea for anyone. Here are a few low-cost backup options that are both effective and easy to use under Tiger, though none of them sports an interface anything like Time Machine's. If you want more customisable backup options, however, consider a commercial tool such as EMC Insignia's EMC Retrospect.

Apple's Backup application is available for download by subscribers to its .Mac service. Backup offers the ability to configure multiple backup sets. Each set can contain any number of items, can be backed up to a variety of locations (CD or DVD, external hard drives, network locations, or a user's iDisk) and can be set to run at a variety of intervals.

Backup is a solid solution that is relatively easy to use, but to be an effective tool, it requires an annual $99.95 .Mac membership. (When a .Mac membership is canceled, Backup will continue to work, but backups are limited to 100MB.)

iBackup from is a donationware backup solution based on the ditto and rsync Unix command-line tools. IBackup is simple and straightforward. While it doesn't offer many advanced options, it makes it very easy to choose items to back up – particularly the most common folders, files and settings – set a single schedule and perform a backup.

One drawback is that while iBackup can back up to external drives and file servers, it doesn't offer CD or DVD backup directly, though it can back up to Burn Folders that can then easily be burned.

Lifeboat from Mojave Shade Software is a simple shareware backup tool that offers good consumer-level backup and restore capabilities. Lifeboat is easy to set up and manages multiple backup jobs with customisable schedules. It can back up to CD or DVD, external hard drives, iDisk, and Mac or Windows shared folders.

Qdea's Backup Simplicity is a simple but powerful backup tool. It copies a Mac's entire startup disk to an external hard drive and provides a basic interface and a setup assistant for scheduling. Backup Simplicity also offers a History feature that retains backup copies of all files in a user's home folder, even if they are deleted from the source disk.

These offerings may not get Leopard into the hands of Mac users any sooner, but they do provide features similar to the most exciting enhancements that Apple has so far announced in the next generation of Mac OS X.

Ryan Faas is a freelance writer and IT consultant specialising in Mac and multiplatform network design and troubleshooting. He is the co-author of Essential Mac OS X Panther Server Administration and the author of Troubleshooting, Maintaining and Repairing Macs. For more information, visit