As the name implies, Snow Leopard appears to add just a little dash of flavor to Apple’s previous operating system, Leopard. But OS X 10.6, as it’s officially known, is paws-down the best Mac OS yet, and it costs a dirt-cheap $30 for those who are already running Leopard.
It also adds significant new features that don’t make much of a difference today, but will in the year to come, as both software developers and hardware manufacturers catch up.
The question, therefore, is not whether to upgrade, but when?
From our testing, Snow Leopard indeed delivers on its promises of speedier performance and superior memory management, which in turn results in longer battery life. Thinking ahead, the OS focuses on maximizing the power of future systems armed with multiple processor cores, and its 64-bit addressing will support massive amounts of memory. With that said, the benefits combined with the OS’s low price tag make Snow Leopard definitely worth buying — but there’s no rush, even if you own one of the latest Macs.
Before Snow Leopard’s Aug. 28 launch, gave you an early glimpse at the OS. We highlighted performance boosts, minor tweaks to the user interface and subtle improvements to smaller tools. Today, we take a deeper dive into the OS, where we discovered some more welcome changes along with a few annoying issues.
An Easy Upgrade Process
Upgrading Mac OS X has never been difficult, and with Snow Leopard it’s even easier. On our unibody MacBook Pro (with a Core 2 Duo processor), all we had to do was insert the disc and double-click the “Install Mac OS X” icon.
Here’s something you probably didn’t know: Before booting into the setup process, the installer downloads any necessary software updates. That’s pretty nifty and should help guard against buggy upgrades.
Our test system showed no problems in general usability after upgrading, but there were some applications that became incompatible. For example, MediaLink, a third-party application that wirelessly streams video from the Mac onto a PlayStation 3, launched but no longer worked properly. That means the developer didn’t test the app to ensure Snow Leopard compatibility; with luck, future versions will be compatible. Apple has said Snow Leopard would detect incompatible apps and move them to a folder labeled “Incompatible Software.” But we found that three of our third-party apps, including MediaLink, were incompatible with Snow Leopard, yet the OS provided no notification. (If you’re curious about whether all your third-party software is compatible, we suggest you check the Snow Leopard compatibility list on WikiDot.)
For the most part, however, the install process was smooth. Despite Apple’s claim that Snow Leopard is “an upgrade for Leopard users,” we were even able to complete the upgrade on a MacBook running Mac OS X Tiger (10.4). Much to our surprise, it ran fine.
A Slight Performance Boost
Yep, Snow Leopard is faster, but not in the most obvious way. In everyday use, you’ll notice only minor speed boosts when performing tasks such as shutting down, starting up, waking up from sleep, opening Finder windows, reconnecting to Wi-Fi and so on. We’re talking about a difference of a few seconds — nothing huge.
More processor-intensive tasks also showed little improvement: Exporting an iMovie video was roughly the same, taking two minutes; zipping a folder stuffed with high-density JPGs was about 20 seconds faster in Snow Leopard, taking 4 minutes and 10 seconds in Snow Leopard; importing images to iPhoto was only about 10 seconds faster, taking one minute.
The most significant performance boost was seen when making a Time Machine backup: 30 minutes in Snow Leopard versus 45 minutes in Leopard to backup 60 GB of data via a FireWire 800 connection. (To be precise, 57 GB of data in Snow Leopard because the OS saves some space thanks to fewer included printer drivers and compressing some code). Averaging all our tests, Snow Leopard showed an overall improvement of 9 percent when pitted against Leopard.
We even saw a subtle difference after installing Snow Leopard on a three-year-old, 32-bit MacBook. Overall, it ran snappier with multiple windows and browser tabs open. Launching applications or importing tracks from a CD in iTunes? Barely a difference.
You’re probably asking, “Then why should I care?” Because this is a forward-thinking OS souped-up for newer and later machines running newer software. The biggest improvement you’ll see in today’s computers has to do with memory management. That’s because a 64-bit application can juggle much more memory than a 32-bit one, better exploiting your RAM. Example: Say you have 4 GB of RAM, and you’re editing a ton of photos. Snow Leopard isn’t going to make opening and editing a single photo faster, but the entire experience of editing multiple photos will be snappier because the OS knows how to handle more RAM.
Here’s the problem: iPhoto ’09, Apple’s photo-editing app, is written in 32-bit and thus won’t take full advantage of better 64-bit addressing. Same deal with iMovie ’09. We’re sure updates are coming soon, but this is why we say there’s no rush to upgrade: We might as well give the software landscape a little bit of time to catch up. Here, we have an OS capable of incredible acceleration, but we’re waiting for consumer software that can push the gas pedal hard enough.
Looking ahead in terms of hardware, Snow Leopard incorporates two potentially performance-enhancing technologies called Grand Central Dispatch and Open CL. Grand Central Dispatch will matter most for software developers: It enables applications to make use of the multicore processors in modern machines without having to write complex management code. A developer doesn’t have to know the complexities of parallel processing; he can just point his software at GCD and let it take care of dividing tasks up into simultaneously executed slices. The upshot: In the near future, when you’ve got a four-, eight- or 16-core processor, it can use all of those cores to make your software run faster.
And then there’s Open CL, which gets some extra mileage out of the graphics processing unit on your graphics card. Ordinarily, the GPU is used only for rendering graphics, which makes a big difference in Quake 4 but matters less in Excel. With OpenCL, the GPU can be utilized for more mundane computing tasks, like number crunching, converting file formats, compressing data and the like.
Changes in Interface and Usability
In our first look, we mentioned some minor changes to the user interface that we liked. For example, clicking a Dock icon and holding it down will show only the windows of the selected app using Exposé, Apple’s screen-management tool. That’s a welcome change.
Also, there’s a tweak to Stacks, a feature in the Dock that lets folders expand into a vertical box showing what’s inside them. We were never very fond of Stacks, because it’s little more than a fancy shortcut to see a folder window. But with Snow Leopard, Stacks has been improved so you can navigate up and down within each stacked folder, whereas before you only had an annoyingly static view of the box. We still don’t find Stacks very useful, but if you’re a fan, it’s a little better now.
Something longtime Mac users will appreciate is is called Smart Eject, an enhancement that’s part of the new-and-impr
oved Finder. In previous versions of OS X, you could give the OS the command to eject a thumb drive or external drive, only to be greeted with a nagging warning when you physically removed the device. That problem is no more. Smart Eject ensures the eject signal is immediately sent to your device, and you can pull it out of your USB port right away.
Of course there are some uglier spots of Snow Leopard’s design: Exposé has been tweaked so when you trigger the show-all-windows function, all the windows are arranged in straight rows, regardless of their true size (see screenshot above). That looks neater, but in terms of usability it was easier to select and click your desired window in the older, Leopard way, when Exposé scaled down these windows based on size and scattered them intuitively. The new Exposé looks better, but it requires a lot more finger work to navigate among your windows.
As for QuickTime X, whose new features we liked (audio and video recording along with screencasting), we have some nits to pick with the interface. The stealthy, charcoal window polished with a silver gradient looks cool, but it doesn’t match the rest of the operating system’s gray, white and blue color scheme. It doesn’t look like it should be a native Apple application, even though it is.
For owners of MacBooks featuring multitouch trackpads (i.e., unibody MacBooks), there’s something funky going on with four-finger gestures. Swiping upward with four fingers is supposed to trigger the show-desktop function in Exposé; swiping down should show all windows. The behavior of this feature is erratic: By instinct, you’ll probably swipe back up after swiping down to return to your normal view, but doing so will only repeat the action and put you back in Exposé mode. You have to instead remove your hand entirely, which is completely awkward and unintuitive. This disturbs the otherwise intimate experience of using a MacBook.
When to Upgrade
If you upgrade to Snow Leopard today, it’s not going to change your life. The improvements are invisible and not yet exploited by most of today’s software. However, we’re excited to see the impact that this OS will eventually have on Mac computing. With Snow Leopard, Apple gives its tagline of a “next-generation” operating system a new meaning: It’s truly next-generation, because the software industry needs to catch up.
However, Snow Leopard is just a $30 upgrade, so do put it on your shopping list. If you’re worried about compatibility issues, wait a little longer so software developers can update their applications. Otherwise, install it now, enjoy the minor improvements, and look forward to the real performance benefits further down the line.