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What You Get

The operating system, and a bunch of useful programs and utilities

System Requirements

  • Mac computer with an Intel processor
  • 1GB of memory
  • 5GB of available disk space
  • DVD drive for installation

MacOS X, Snow Leopard, 10.6

By Monte Ferguson

Snow Leopardís introduction was pretty low key for an Apple release. Apple introduced Snow Leopard as a ďbetter LeopardĒ. Their purpose was to convey that this was not another major release with tons of new features, and potentially a bunch of new bugs. Instead this was a time for Apple to improve upon an already good foundation, in Leopard, and provide a foundation for further innovation in the future. To encourage adoption Apple also reduced the price for the upgrade to an unheard of $29.

The net result is you get the comfortable feeling of being intimately familiar yet many things work better and faster.

Features Big and Small
Snow Leopard does introduce some major feature overhauls and additions. Though limited in number they do offer some solid new abilities.

QuickTime X
Snow Leopard features a completely reworked QuickTime. Apple has leveraged work it did to streamline and fine tune QuickTime for the iPhone. The first thing youíll notice is the new interface. Gone is the legacy brushed metal look. The new look is a floating window. Once you start watching a video the controls, and title bar, disappear. Very reminiscent of the iTunes video interface.

The new Quicktime also gains some features that you previously had to pay for. It allows you to capture screen movies. It also lets you export video, albeit in just a few fixed formats. It also allows you to do some very basic video trimming. Itís a nice step up from the old QuickTime Player but folks who are used to the old QuickTime Pro are not going to be happy with the lack of features.

Speaking of the old QuickTime, you might still need it. The new QuickTime X doesnít support all of the file formats the old model did. If needed MacOS X will download the older player for you. Anyone who had a QuickTime Pro license will be able to use it with the QuickTime 7 player. Itís a tad confusing with the mix of the old and the new. Most folks wonít notice it. Hopefully Apple will get this all sorted out for 10.7.

Exchange Support
Another feature that was brought over from the iPhone development was Microsoft Exchange support. Many Enterprise shops use Exchange for their internal email, global address books, meeting invitations and calendaring needs. By adding direct Exchange support Apple is wisely working to court the business market.

Thanks to licensing Microsoftís Active Sync Macís are now full fledged clients for Exchange Servers, without adding any extra software. What a coup! PC users have to buy a premium package of Office to get Microsoft Outlook, MSís Exchange client. Mac users can just setup and use Mail, iCal and Address Book.

There is only one downside. Your corporate network has to be using the latest Exchange Server software, version 2007.

Safari 4
Safari 4, also available for Tiger, Leopard and Windows, comes pre-installed with Snow Leopard. It boasts impressive speedups in JavaScript and HTML rendering. That speed up in JavaScript can really come in handy for web sites like Google Docs. Apple says it loads pages several times faster than Safari 3. (My own subjective testing bears out this claim.) New features of Safari include Top Sites, a gallery of most visited web sites, and Cover Flow browsing style, especially useful for browsing your history of web sites visited. Apple is also very proud to announce that they achieved a significant milestone with Safari 4. They are the first company to produce a browser that scores 100 out of 100 on the Acid3 standards compliance test. This means itís the first fully standards compliant browser out there. In comparison Internet Explorer 8 achieved a score of 21 out of 100.

There are some unique benefits to running Safari under Snow Leopard. Apple says that it is optimized for Snow Leopard. They claim this translates into a 50% speed boost vs running it under Tiger or Leopard. It also gains ďcrash resistanceĒ when running under Snow Leopard. Appleís engineers determined that most crashes are due to plug-ins, say Acrobat Reader or Flash. Under Snow Leopard when one of these plug-ins crash Safari wonít hang. It will notify you that a plug-in crashed and allow you to continue working.

Improvements on the Original
There are a number of improvements, which Apple calls Enhancements and Refinements. In fact Apple claims there are 100 of them. They are the small improvements. Taken one by one they are not that impressive. But add them up and they can really make your day easier.

The Finder has been rewritten in Cocoa, and is a 64-bit program. This translates into a faster, more responsive Finder. But it still retains the same appearance and behaviors from Leopard. Finder icons can now be scaled up to 512 x 512. Thatís big enough to use them as a preview of a document without resorting to Quick Look. You can page through a multi-page PDF, or play a movie or sound file directly from the fileís icon. If youíre looking at a Finder window in Icon view, if any file names overlap, the ones in the back turn gray. Previously the names would be unreadable as theyíd quickly turn into a big block of black.

The Finderís, Spotlight, search window is now configurable. You can choose the type of view and what columns appear in that view. Your changes are remembered the next time you do a search. Open and Save dialog boxes, in List view, can be customized. You can add and rearrange columns, and sort on them.

By far the biggest rewrite that users will see lies with Services. Services let one application supply its powers to another; for example, a Grab service helps TextEdit paste a screenshot into a document. For the most part users have been unaware of this potentially powerful feature. Possibly due to awkward placement or the fact there were so many of them. Also new in Snow Leopard you will be able to to manage services for the very first time. You can enable and disable them, and even change their keyboard shortcuts.

Under Snow Leopard Services will be contextual. That means only Services that pertain to the data youíre working with will appear. They are also easily found and used thanks to the new custom contextual menu items. The only downside being that older contextual menu plug-ins wonít work in Snow Leopard.

Expose has seen some major work to make it more polished. It is now integrated right into the Dock. Click and hold on an application icon. That will show you all of the windows for that app. They auto unshuffle so they are easily displayed side by side. Windows are displayed in an organized grid, even minimized windows. (In a related note: Stacks, a special quick view of items from the Dock gains a scroll bar. This is a minor, if welcome refinement. Previous Stacks were worthless for folders that contained more than a couple dozen items.)

iChat gains some very nice improvements. One of the biggest improvements comes to iChat Theater. If youíve never used this feature, itís a blast. It allows you to push a presentation, pictures, or other Quick Look-supported media to a remote party. In Snow Leopard, Apple says you can now push iChat Theater - and any iChat video - at up to 640 by 480 pixels while using as little as 300 Kbps upstream, about a third of the previous requirement for a lower resolution.

Snow Leopard makes file sharing easier and more active. For example, iChat now displays a progress circle when you send an image to another party. The circle fills radially.

Screen sharing has expanded security features, improved support for multiple monitors, and beefed up help resources for diagnosing connection issues. If both parties use Mobile Me, and have turned on encryption via iChatís preferences, then a screen sharing session can be encrypted end to end. If you use multiple monitors, dragging the tiny inset preview of your screen to another monitor also shifts the remote screen to that monitor. Screen sharing now properly handles transmitting keyboard commands to the remote computer. For example using Command-Tab only switches applications on the remote Mac. The Connection Doctor has added a Network Status item in the Show pop up menu. It explains what kind of router setup you have, which can be a real time saver when youíre having connection issues.

Smart Eject
Itís embarrassing to say that it took a major system update to fix a couple of long standing MacOS X problems. Knowing when the system has ejected a hard drive, thumb drive, disk image or network drive. The other is knowing why it sometimes refuses to eject a disk. For the first issue MacOS X now dims the icon of the drive being ejected so you know it is in process. After itís ejected the icon disappears. If it canít be ejected, because an application or a process is either accessing or has opened a file on that volume, it brings up a dialog box that tells you what is in use. Lastly a Force Eject button lets you override MacOS X when you think itís in error, or that disk needs to go. (Warning! Ejecting disks that are truly in use can corrupt open documents.)

Location via Wi-Fi
Your Mac can now automatically determine the correct time zone. It does this using Wi-Fi, most likely using the Skyhook Wireless positioning system that's also part of the iPhone OS. Enabling this requires going into Date & Time preference pane, click the Time Zone view, and check the Set Time Zone Automatically box. A progress spinner shows up while Snow Leopard sends information off about Wi-Fi signals in your vicinity and receives data back. This can also be useful when using Google Maps to find items, like restaurants, as it will automatically know your current location.

Wake on Demand
When a computer is not in use, putting it to sleep saves power and wear and tear. But a sleeping Mac canít be used as a file server, or to share other assets like a central iTunes library or iPhoto library. Wake on Demand gives you the best of both worlds. You can set your Mac to go to sleep. But if a network request comes in it will wake up. Setting this up requires that several criteria be met.

First off you have to be using an Apple base station. The base station continues to announce Bonjour services the sleeping Mac offers. After that it gets more involved. You must have firmware release 7.4.2 installed on either an AirPort Extreme Base Station or Time Capsule. If WPA or WPA2 encryption is turned on, the base station can't be in bridge mode. That means this only works for the main router. Only late 2008, and all 2009 and newer models, can be woken over Wi-Fi. However all Macs can be woken over Ethernet, I.E. a wired network. You turn this feature on in the Energy Saver preference pane. Itís called Wake on Network Access for computers that can be roused either via Wi-Fi or Ethernet; Wake on Ethernet Network Access or Wake on AirPort Network Access for wired or wireless only machines, respectively.

Performance Now
Apple has worked hard to make Snow Leopard more efficient and a snappier performer. One thing Apple improved was the amount of time it takes to install the MacOS. Apple claims theyíve shaved 45%, compared to Leopard. Apple also says that Snow Leopard is up to 75% faster when shutting down, twice as fast waking from sleep, and up to 55% faster at joining wireless networks than Leopard was. Yet it also takes up 6GB less space than Leopard did on the same Mac.

Performance for the Future
Apple has been working on several projects that enhance under the hood performance. These steps are in their infancy. There is yet to be wide spread developer buy-in. Therefore these promising technologies will likely hit their stride in the near future. By the time you buy your next Mac they should be making our computing experience richer and more productive.

All of todayís Macs come with more than one processor under the hood. Yet developers are still writing programs that do not take advantage of the second processor. Thatís because it has been hard work, and required some expert knowledge in writing code for multiple processors. Appleís Grand Central addresses that problem. Apple has created a high level programming structure that allows anyone to create an app that can use multiple processors. Grand Central Dispatch handles the hard work of scheduling and keeping track of applications processes.

Another gold-mine in potential performance lies within the graphics cards that ships with every Mac. Every year they get more powerful. And yet traditionally theyíve mostly sat idle. Apple has created a programming language, OpenCL, that allows developers to tap into this lightly used power house. OpenCL will make it possible to use those powerful graphics cards to do general computing tasks, say processing a filter in an image editor. Apple has released this as open source. Widespread adoption would be a boon, as it would lead to innovations in applications and hardware that would just work better on a Mac.

The main point of this release was to tidy things up, make it run better and overall improve upon Leopard. There are a number of improvements that show Apple was examining all aspects of MacOS X.Yet all of my legacy programs just worked. (A few did require a free update for full compatibility.)

As advertised, the system does feel faster. It does use less RAM and hard disk space. And it feels more solid and more cohesive than Leopard did.

There are so many little tweaks and refinements to the OS that Iím still finding new ones.

Appleís tendency for secrecy was the biggest irritation with the Snow Leopard release. Developerís found out at the same time as users when the OS was shipping. This lead to delays in updates to programs.

The new printing and scanning architectural changes also caused some upset. It lead to a scramble to find out which printers and scanners were supported. In my personal case, my printer and scanner were supported. Then that changed at launch to only the printer. Four months later an innocuous printer update brought scanner support.

Apple has made a bold decision with Snow Leopard. It is working to consolidate gains that were made with Leopard. It is also striving to fix bugs and improve upon existing features. Thatís not a sexy thing to do. Yet by doing so the company is laying the ground work for future releases. Getting people to update to an admittedly low key update is a tricky matter. Apple is very keen to migrate everyone over to Snow Leopard. To encourage users to update Apple has made them a very tempting offer: upgrade for just $29. At that price Snow Leopard is a steal.

Posted: Friday, February 26th, 2010

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