For stability and performance Snow Leopard is the cat’s meow

Snow Leopard is Apple’s latest operating system release, making this the seventh version of Mac OS X (eighth, if you count the two versions of 10.4 “Tiger” that bridged the PowerPC-to-Intel transition).

On sale for $29 beginning yesterday, Snow Leopard offers slimmed-down code, a smaller footprint and a raft of under-the-hood technologies designed to bring additional stability and performance. It also lays a strong foundation for the future.

Nearly two years ago, in October 2007, Apple released Mac OS X 10.5 (Leopard) a full six months behind its original ship date. (Apple blamed the delay on the need to prepare for the launch of the first iPhone.) Leopard brought more than 300 new features and tweaks to Apple’s long-evolving OS. With the release of Mac OS X 10.6 — this time, Apple unveiled its new OS ahead of schedule — Apple builds on the underlying technologies it began to unleash in Leopard.

What it didn’t do is change the look. Unless users know where to look, they won’t see much difference between Leopard and Snow Leopard. The vast majority of the changes are under the hood, but they position Apple to take advantage of hardware advances for years to come.

Apple has included new desktop background images, including this one of a Snow Leopard.

Apple has included new desktop background images, including this one of a snow leopard.

This time around, the value of Snow Leopard isn’t based on a checklist of new features. In fact, according to Apple, there aren’t many. Tacitly acknowledging that it’s tough to get people to buy something they can’t see, Apple reversed directions on pricing, forgoing the usual $129 upgrade fee for a significantly more consumer-friendly $29 (unless you’re upgrading from Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger, in which case you’ll pay $169 for the OS and a box set of Apple apps). For households with more than one Mac, Apple offers a five-pack Family Upgrade for $49.

To compare: Microsoft’s Windows 7 Ultimate upgrade costs $219, and the full version is $319 (there’s no Family Pack for the Ultimate edition). Why compare Apple’s latest with Ultimate? Because on the Windows side, Ultimate is the full-featured version. Snow Leopard comes in just one full-featured version.

Will your hardware run this OS?

Snow Leopard has the distinction of finishing the job Apple started with Mac OS X 10.4: It’s finally moving away from the old PowerPC based-architecture it dumped in 2005 when it moved to Intel processors. If you’re not on an Intel-based Mac, Snow Leopard won’t install.

If you’re not sure whether your computer can run Snow Leopard, click on the Apple menu and check “About This Mac.” If your processor is a PowerPC G4 or G5, your Mac cannot be updated with the new OS. Snow Leopard still runs older PowerPC-based applications, but it will not boot a PowerPC-based Mac.

For everyone else with Intel-based hardware, Apple requires 5GB of available disk space, 1GB RAM, and an optical disk drive capable of reading DVDs (or, in the case of the MacBook Air, a DVD drive accessible via Remote Disk).

For enterprise customers, a new operating system usually means compatibility issues with at least some mission-critical apps, and Snow Leopard is no different. IT departments will want to do some testing before rolling out Apple’s latest OS, because it’s almost certain that some apps will need updating. For example, Cisco Systems has noted compatibility issues with its VPN software when using Snow Leopard’s optional 64-bit kernel; a Computerworld editor has confirmed that issue.

Even so, most major applications and software drivers appear to work as they should, based on our testing and reports from testers during Snow Leopard’s development cycle.

Installation simplified

The Snow Leopard experience begins with the installation, which works a little differently than in the past. You can still start the Mac by holding down the C key to boot from the disc, but Apple has simplified the process.

Instead of offering several installation options as in the past, Snow Leopard is smart enough to upgrade your system without having to be told exactly how to go about doing it. And if you ever need to reinstall this OS, Snow Leopard will not write over system files which are more current than the ones being installed.

Now when you pop the installation disc into the optical drive, the installer offers just two basic options: a Utilities button that lets you run basic programs like Disk Utility and restore from Time Machine backups, and a Continue button that takes you through the license agreement to a window from which you select your hard drive.

Customizing options include Printer Support (with optional installs for Printers Used by This Mac, Nearby and Popular Printers, and All Available Printers); additional fonts; a host of language translations; X11 (the windowing system for Unix environments); Rosetta (which allows Intel Macs to use software written for PowerPC-based ones); and QuickTime 7 (for compatibility with older media formats).

For more about the upgrade process, see Upgrading to Apple’s Snow Leopard OS: What you need to know.

If a program (such as Mail Status Control) requires Rosetta, Software Update will offer to install it.
If a program (such as Mail Status Control) requires Rosetta, Software Update will offer to install it.

After choosing where to install the new OS, Snow Leopard will copy a large chunk of the data needed for installation from the DVD to your hard drive. That helps speed up the whole process — Apple says it’s 45% faster than the old installation routine because the installer reads the data copied to your hard drive rather directly from the DVD.

About halfway through the installation, the Mac reboots and finishes up the task at hand. You may notice that the screen goes dark during the installation. That’s because the whole process is automated and you don’t have to monitor what’s happening. If you move the mouse or touch the trackpad, the screen wakes up and you can see where things stand.

Note that you cannot install 10.6 onto a hard drive that reports a S.M.A.R.T. failure. If a power outage occurs during installation, the installation picks up from where it left off.

After the installation is done, you get the traditional Apple intro movie and registration, and a desktop that looks just like Leopard: same menu bar, same Dock, same translucent menu at the top of the screen, and the same space-themed background.

Apple made few changes to the overall look of its OS; this screenshot was taken using the Grab application.
Apple made few changes to the overall look of its OS; this screenshot was taken using the Grab application.

Fear not: Snow Leopard has some serious changes, even if they’re not apparent.

What’s waiting under the hood

Upgrading to Snow Leopard gives you additional hard drive space. Because it removes all of the old operating system files — in previous OS X upgrades they used to go into a “Previous System” folder — hundreds of megabytes, if not gigabytes, of space are freed up. The OS also takes up less room because the Universal code that was built into Tiger and Leopard to run PowerPC Macs is no longer needed, since Snow Leopard is Intel-only. According to Apple, most users will gain back 6GB of space. (AppleInsider delved into this issue right after Snow Leopard was announced in June 2008.)

While there are a few UI changes, the true value of Snow Leopard lies in the technologies waiting to be unleashed in applications: the ability to run programs in 64-bit mode, the use of OpenCL and the incorporation of Grand Central Dispatch.

The use of 64-bit computing will greatly improve the capabilities of computers. For example, 32-bit software can access only 4 GB of RAM at a time; 64-bit computing expands that ceiling to 16 exabytes. That’s 16 billion gigabytes. Plus, 64-bit applications run faster on computers with Intel Core 2 Duo or Xeon processors. They can crunch 64-bit code twice as fast per clock cycle as computers running in 32-bit.

Apple touts Snow Leopard as being first Mac OS to finally support 64-bit from top to bottom, although the default kernel status for all consumer Macs is the 32-bit kernel. Snow Leopard supports 64-bit applications even while running 32-bit drivers. Basically, whether the machine is booted into the 32-bit kernel or the 64-bit kernel, any application that can run at 64-bit will run in that mode automatically.

By having Snow Leopard boot into the 32-bit kernel, Apple improves software compatibility. That’s because kernel extensions must match the kernel’s mode, or they don’t work. While Apple did a fine job porting over its native applications for 64-bit compatibility, there are still some third-party vendors that haven’t released updates for their software (such as the aforementioned Cisco VPN software) yet.

OpenCL, GPUs and Grand Central Dispatch

Another technology new to Snow Leopard is the OpenCL standard (download PDF), which promises to speed things up without any changes to your hardware needed.

While CPU manufacturers have shifted from increasing processor clock speeds to adding more cores to processors, graphics chip makers have continued pushing the boundaries to boost the processing power behind their graphics cards. Years ago, Apple began offloading animation effects from the CPU to the graphics processing unit (GPU), freeing up the main processors for actual data-crunching.

Every version of Mac OS X in recent years has increasingly utilized the GPU for computationally expensive tasks. In 2006, Apple unveiled Core Image and Core Animation with Mac OS X 10.4, technologies that allow real-time image and video effects to be handled by the graphics cards. With Snow Leopard, Apple takes GPU acceleration to another level by developing and publishing an open standard to offload even more work to GPUs.

Enter OpenCL, a language and runtime framework that allows developers to crunch any data-parallel algorithms on any free processing core, automatically, without needing to code for specific circumstances. The best part for Mac owners is that OpenCL works with all GPUs and CPUs available in Apple’s current line-up. The best part for developers is that only the most performance-intensive aspects of their software need be rewritten to take advantage of the new technology.

While OpenCL bridges the gap between software and the available processing cores on a computer, the new problem is how to account for all these cores and software instruction threads.

That’s where Grand Central Dispatch (GCD) comes in.

Grand Central Dispatch is the foundation for keeping everything running smoothly; it acts like a built-in air traffic control center, dynamically adjusting computer workload based on available hardware and resources. If the resources are available, GCD speeds things up. If the computer is busy, GCD backs off. In concert with OpenCL and 64-bit, Grand Central Dispatch should lead to a big jump in performance and optimization as applications are updated.

Snow Leopard includes new account avatars. The desktop background image in this picture is also new.

Not all the changes are under the hood: Snow Leopard includes new account avatars and desktop background images.

A new Finder, finally

The Finder — Mac OS X’s file manager — has been rewritten in the Cocoa development language. It still looks the same and behaves the same, but it is not the same. The new Finder supports all of the core technologies in Snow Leopard, including full 64-bit support, better live preview of files, and Grand Central Dispatch. The result is a Finder that is much more fluid with animations and much more responsive, and doesn’t become hung up if, for example, network shares inadvertently become disconnected.

The Finder has learned a few other tricks. It has the ability to restore files to their original folders, which is useful if you moved a document to the Trash and want to quickly return it from whence it came. Larger icon sizes up to 512 x 512 pixels are now supported, which is good for aging eyes and the ever-increasing resolution of modern monitors.

512 pixel icons

The Finder now supports larger icon sizes.

You can change search locations in Finder preferences and permanently sort results the way you want. And when you click the oval button in the upper right-hand corner of a Finder window — you need to be viewing files as icons — you get a slick animation that minimizes the window size and prominently displays a slider used to increase the size of the icons. (Icons can also be resized using the pinch gesture on Apple’s laptop trackpads.)

The Finder also now displays a hard drive’s calculated size differently than before, to better correspond to marketing labels on hard drives. In other words, a 500GB drive now indicates there’s 500GB of space, not 465GB. You don’t really have new space, just a more consistent way of calculating it.

Those aren’t the only visual tweaks: Command-click (or right-click) on the desktop and choose “Change Desktop background.” After the System Preferences launch, you can click through some stylish new desktop wallpapers, including some gorgeous shots of plants, artwork, outdoor scenery and — not surprisingly — snow leopards.

The Dock matures

Snow Leopard allows app windows to be minimized to an application's icon in the Dock, reducing Dock clutter.

App windows can be minimized to an application’s icon in the Dock.

The Dock’s preference pane now sports an option called “Minimize windows into application icon,” which does exactly that. Normally, minimized windows are stored on the same side of the Dock divider — with this option selected, minimized windows slide into their Dock icon instead, reducing Dock clutter.

Clicking an application’s Dock icon brings up the first window minimized, but clicking and holding on the Dock icon reveals another new trick: built-in Exposé.

Dock Expose

Viewing thumbnails of all the open Safari windows via the Dock.

Exposé is a window-management feature (available since 2003) that allows a user to quickly locate an open window. With a button press or a gesture, all open windows shrink to fit the screen so you can select the one you want.

With Snow Leopard, the Dock has picked up the ability to display windows belonging to a single application; just click and hold the corresponding Dock icon for that app. Doing so darkens the screen and gathers any windows belonging to the application, à la Exposé — even if there are minimized windows.

You can also press the Command and Tab keys to move to the next application, whose open windows spring into view. And Dock folders and windows finally support drag and drop.

The Dock now sports a sleeker-looking contextual menu with white text on a semi-transparent black background. The Keep in Dock, Open at Login, and Show in Finder menu options have been consolidated into an Options submenu, but Quit and Hide are still easily clickable, and multiple windows that are in use by the app still display. (It looks good, and Apple should have extended the new Dock menu look to contextual menus.)

Drilling through folders in the Dock is easier, too. You can scroll through items using Grid view.

Stacks windows in the Dock can now be scrolled. (Note scroll bar to the right of the icons.)

Stacks windows in the Dock can now be scrolled in Grid view.

System Preferences get tweaks

There are a number of changes in System Preferences that generally build on the features already present in Leopard:

  • In the Security preference pane, you can now set a delay time for sleep or screen saver password entries. “Use secure virtual memory” is now enabled by default, and you can disable Location Services.
  • The Keyboard preference pane features a new Shortcut interface, making it easier to assign shortcut keys and activate specific options, such as which abilities are displayed in Services.
  • The Date and Time pane allows you to set your location automatically using Snow Leopard’s built-in Location Services. Safari also taps into this feature, showing the closest results for certain search queries. These should be handy for people who travel a lot.
  • The MobileMe preference pane gets an update: Syncing iDisk now gives you the option to always keep the most recent version of a file, which will automatically resolve syncing conflicts based on that criteria.
  • The Accounts pane now features more account avatars.
  • The Trackpad pane doesn’t offer new features in terms of gestures, but these gestures are now supported on laptops with first-generation multi-touch capabilities, including the original MacBook Air and 2008 MacBook Pros.
  • And while the Time Machine preference hasn’t gotten any new features, it has gotten faster, according to Apple. (I haven’t had time to confirm this.)

Some third-party preference panes haven’t yet been rewritten to take advantage of Snow Leopard’s native 64-bit operation. If you try to open one that’s not been updated, you’re prompted to relaunch System Preferences so it can run in 32-bit mode.

Beefed up security?

Although Apple hasn’t said much about efforts to beef up security in Snow Leopard, reports started circulating this week about a little-known addition that could be used down the road to strengthen the OS. Users with access to the final build spotted an unusual file that extends a File Quarantine feature already part of Leopard. Currently, if you download a file using Safari, Mail or iChat, Leopard warns you that it’s from the Internet when you open it — sort of a cautionary “Do you really want to open this file?”

Snow Leopard takes that warning a step further and will scan all files downloaded by Safari, Mail, or iChat for Trojan horses or other malware. It will then put up an alert saying the file could damage your computer. The warning also apparently tells you to put the file in the trash.

Intego, which makes anti-virus software for Macs, highlighted the addition, as did Gizmodo. At this point, the feature offers limited protection, as it apparently checks for just two known Mac trojans, according to the Register.

Updated signatures for newly discovered Trojans will apparently be downloaded by Software Update and added to the “XProtect.plist” file. Computerworld confirmed that the the XProtect.plist file is indeed part of Snow Leopard.

The apps get some attention

Apple’s built-in apps have been updated as well. Not only are most of them rewritten to take advantage of Snow Leopard’s core features, making them more responsive, but Mail, iCal and Address Book have all gained native compatibility with Microsoft Exchange. Mail now supports Exchange 2007 servers, something that Windows doesn’t do. (In fact, Microsoft is dropping a built-in e-mail client from Windows 7 altogether; users will have to download what’s now called Live Mail separately.)

It’s interesting that Microsoft recently announced that Outlook is coming to the Mac next year, complete with better Exchange compatibility. I’ve been a Microsoft Office user my entire career and I’ve used — and supported — every version of Office for Mac and PC since Office 97. On the Mac side, Entourage has long been reviled for its sluggish interface, barely acceptable Exchange support and inefficient, easily corrupted database storage method. Microsoft has every reason to fear that businesses are looking for alternatives.

But the move to replace Entourage with Outlook on the Mac may come too late. Now that Exchange compatibility has hit the iPhone and Snow Leopard’s built-in communication apps, my users and I can enjoy a Microsoft-free user experience.

Safari now runs in 64-bit mode, even if the kernel is in 32-bit mode. And it’s fast. I saw recent reports that Google’s Chrome browser is the fastest browser on a Mac, so I did a quick test using the SunSpider JavaScript benchmark.

In my results, Opera 10 was the slowest, Firefox 3.5 was faster, and Chrome was faster still, but it runs in 32-bit mode. Safari was tops in terms of speed. And Safari now runs plug-ins like Flash in a sandbox — that is, its own memory space — so if a site playing a Flash movie crashes, the browser doesn’t crash with it. Anything that adds stability like this to a browser is good.

QuickTime X

In Snow Leopard, QuickTime makes the leap from version 7.x to version 10.0. In Mac OS X, QuickTime isn’t just something for playing movies; it is Apple’s media layer, the entire foundation for anything relating to audio or video in the operating system. Apple rewrote QuickTime in Cocoa with support for Snow Leopard’s technologies in mind, including the Core technologies (Core Audio, Core Video and Core Animation), Grand Central Dispatch and 64-bit computing.

QuickTime X sports a brand new player application that looks something like Apple’s iTunes when playing video. The QuickTime Player’s interface is clean and refined, with minimalist controls that fade away when not needed. It now plays files with greater quality and efficiency, even using ColorSync to ensure proper color reproduction when viewing across devices such as iPhones or Apple TVs.

Snow Leopard includes a new version of Quicktime that uses fewer CPU cycles and features a minimal UI.

Snow Leopard includes a new version of QuickTime that uses fewer CPU cycles and features a minimal UI.

H.264 media plays without slowing down the Mac, using full hardware acceleration for playback and real-time video manipulation. For instance, holding down Shift and minimizing a currently playing movie shows the active video being squeezed and transformed in slow motion without stuttering or loss of quality; processor usage doesn’t even blink under those normally stressful conditions.

The QuickTime X application can now record audio and video from connected microphones and cameras (and the hardware built into Apple’s portables and display hardware), and screen captures can be done within the program. Like Safari 4, QuickTime X also supports the media streaming capabilities of HTML 5, dynamically adjusting playback quality on the fly for optimal viewing under static or changing conditions. It’s also possible to share movies and audio to iTunes, YouTube, and MobileMe directly from the Share menu.

Final thoughts

Unlike previous operating system upgrades, customer-facing features aren’t the focus of Snow Leopard. Buying Snow Leopard represents something of a leap of faith. That’s one reason for the $29 price tag. But this OS lays the foundation for much faster and more efficient applications on the very same hardware you’re running now. Technologically, it draws a line in the sand and dares software developers to join it.

If your Mac has a Core 2 Duo processor, dropping $30 for this upgrade isn’t really a difficult decision. This time around, you’re not buying eye candy. You’re buying a stable operating system that will allow your applications to perform better on the same hardware you’re using now.

If Mac hardware is the cool cat in the zoot suit, Snow Leopard is that cat’s meow.

Michael deAgonia is an award-winning writer, computer consultant and technologist who has been using Macs and working on them professionally since 1993. His tech-support background includes tenures at Computerworld, colleges and Apple, and in the biopharmaceutical and graphics industries. He has also worked as a Macintosh administrator at several companies.

Ryan Faas contributed to this report.


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