Snow Leopard: The In-depth Review

Apple has spent the last decade building and improving Mac OS X, fusing the classic Mac OS and technology acquired from Steve Jobs's Next into an impressive mainstream operating system that's widely considered the best in its class. But after a decade of constant advancement and regular operating-system upgrades, Apple has taken a pause with the release of Snow Leopard, also known as Mac OS X 10.6. Instead of adding hundreds of new features, Apple has chosen to use Snow Leopard to cut ties with the past, plan for the future, and take dead aim on its present competition.

The result is a Mac OS X update unlike any in recent memory, one that boosts speeds, reclaims disk space, tweaks dozens of features, and lays the groundwork for a new generation of computers that feature 64-bit multicore microprocessors, ultra-powerful graphics processors, and massive amounts of memory. These features, combined with the low upgrade price of $29, make Snow Leopard the biggest no-brainer of an upgrade since Mac OS X 10.1. (And that upgrade, the aged among us will recall, was completely free.)

Making the upgrade

Unlike previous editions of Mac OS X, which could be freely installed on any old Mac, Snow Leopard's license specifically limits it to users who are already using Leopard, which has been shipping since October 2007. If you are a Leopard user, you can upgrade a single Mac for $29, or up to five Macs in one household with the Snow Leopard Family Pack for $49. Users of Tiger--essentially people who bought Intel Macs before Leopard was released and never upgraded--are supposed to purchase the Mac Box Set, which includes Snow Leopard, iLife '09, and iWork '09, for $169. (Snow Leopard doesn't run at all on PowerPC-based Macs.)

However, in contrast to Microsoft--which offers a confusing array of full and upgrade versions of Windows, all of them requiring that users enter a unique serial number in order to prove they're not pirates--Apple continues to rely on the honor system for Mac OS X. Not only does Snow Leopard not require the entry of any serial numbers, but the standard version of Snow Leopard is a bootable "full install" disc that doesn't actually check for the presence of Leopard in order to install. This also means that if, at a later time, you want to wipe your hard drive and reinstall Snow Leopard, you won't have to first install Leopard and then run a separate Snow Leopard upgrade on top of it. (That sound you hear is a thousand IT managers sighing with relief.)

The Snow Leopard installation process is somewhat different from previous OS X installers. Rather than requiring an immediate restart, a lot of it takes place as soon as you double-click the installer. In essence, Apple has taken the wait out of the process: Now you set up all your installation settings and walk away; the rest of the process (including a reboot) can take place without your direct intervention. And the installation process itself takes less time in Snow Leopard than it did in Leopard.

If you choose to customize your installation, you'll notice that the installation of printer drivers is entirely different in Snow Leopard. In previous versions of OS X, you had the option of installing drivers for the printers of particular vendors. That was always a bit confusing: If I don't install HP drivers now, does that mean I won't ever be able to use HP printers? But Snow Leopard doesn't work that way. Instead, it automatically installs drivers for printers your computer has used in the past. If you're on a network, it installs drivers for the connected printers it finds out there, too. And it installs drivers for printers Apple considers popular.

Apple has boasted that Snow Leopard requires less hard-drive space than earlier versions of OS X; believe it or not, this revamped print-driver system is the reason for most of that space savings. Turns out most of us are wasting gigabytes of hard-drive space on printer drivers that we don't need.

What happens if you encounter a strange, new printer? If you've got an Internet connection at that moment, you shouldn't have much trouble: Snow Leopard will automatically download and install the drivers it needs.

If you really need bullet-proof, instantaneous compatibility with a vast array of printers, you can opt to install all the drivers--you just won't realize the disk-space savings you might have otherwise. But for most of us, Apple's new printer installation method should be all but invisible--except for the reclaimed disk space.

There are some other notable options in the customized installation window. Rosetta, the technology that enables code compiled for PowerPC chips to run on Intel chips, is available--but is not installed by default. Rosetta only takes up a few megabytes of drive space, and without it older programs simply won't run, so if you have such programs, that option is worth checking. To find out if an App is PowerPC only, select an old app and choose Get Info; if its Kind is listed as Application (PowerPC), it needs Rosetta.

If you don't, and if you later try to launch a PowerPC app, Snow Leopard will pop up a window to explain that you need Rosetta and offer to install it for you (via Apple's Software Update utility). I can only assume that making Rosetta optional is an attempt by Apple to goad users to upgrade their apps and to shame developers who still haven't recompiled their apps to run on Intel chips. But given that most everyday users have no idea which of their apps are Intel-native and which are PowerPC, this seems unnecessarily harsh.

Another technology making a surprise appearance in the installation-options list is QuickTime. No, QuickTime hasn't suddenly become optional in Snow Leopard. But Snow Leopard's new QuickTime Player is as radical a departure from the old model as iMovie '08 was from iMovie HD: it's a complete reimagining of the app, one that strips away many features that many of us find useful. If the Mac you're upgrading to Snow Leopard includes a QuickTime Pro key, you'll find that QuickTime Player 7 is still on your Mac, but has been moved to the /Applications/Utilities folder. If you don't have a QuickTime Pro key but still want access to the classic QuickTime 7 player, you'll need to do a custom install in order to get it.

A familiar face

Unlike previous OS X updates, which offered major new additions or modifications to the Mac interface, Snow Leopard looks largely the same as Leopard. There's been no radical rethink of the color scheme or toolbars and menu items. However, Apple has done some functional tweaking, most particularly with the Dock and Exposé.

Snow Leopard's Dock, which underwent a face-lift in Leopard, appears unchanged at first glance. I'm ambivalent about one cosmetic difference: If you Control-click on any item, you'll see that the contextual menus are no longer the standard black-text-on-white-background seen elsewhere in OS X. Instead, they sport white text on a translucent black background. It matches the look of the Dock, I guess, but that's about it.

On a more substantial note, the Dock's Stacks feature is now a lot more useful. You can now scroll through Stacks when in Grid view. That enables you to see much more of what's in a particular folder--which helps a lot if your Stacks folders contain lots of items. You can also click on a folder to drill down into its contents, displayed right within Stacks. It's been enough to make me actually use Stacks' Grid view regularly for the first time, with my Downloads folder.

I've never been a big fan of OS X's handling of minimized windows (which dates back to the original release of Mac OS X). Despite the whizzy animation effect, I never liked the business of pressing a yellow button in the upper left corner of a window to banish it to a Phantom Zone in the corner of the Dock, where it would hang around with the other banished windows, along with other files and folders I had dragged there. It made the Dock a mess, I could never remember what I had stuck down there, and if I clicked on the wrong one windows would fly out of the Dock, unbidden. Which is why I never, ever press that little yellow button.

Fans of the yellow button, fear not: by default, Snow Leopard still minimizes windows the same stupid way Mac OS X has for the last ten years. For us complainers, though, there's a new alternative: A Minimize Windows Into Application Icon checkbox in System Preferences' Dock pane. With that box checked, when you click on that yellow button, your window will still fly away into the Dock. But instead of disappearing into the mess on the right, it will minimize into the icon of the application it belongs to. That makes it easy to bring the window back. (Minimized windows are indicated in most programs by a diamond in an app's Window menu; you can see that same list by Control-clicking on the app's icon in the Dock.) Even better, this feature works with Exposé: When you invoke Exposé, all minimized windows line up together at the very bottom of the screen.

Exposé's been improved, too. My favorite addition is that, when you click and hold on an app's icon in the Dock, Exposé displays all the windows belonging to a given app. For people who use the mouse more than the keyboard (sorry, geeks, we keyboard-dominant types are in the minority here), it's much more natural than fumbling for a function key. (Or, if you're like me, punching all the function keys in turn until you finally find the right one.) It even works via drag and drop: Drag an item onto an app's Dock item and hover there for a split second, and Exposé kicks in. You can drag your item over a particular window, which will bring it to the foreground. Then you can drag and drop that item wherever you want it within that window. It's a smart addition that makes Exposé much more of a productivity boost.

This Finder icon is not only gigantic (512 x 512 pixels), but it's playing back live video.If Snow Leopard is all about keeping outward appearances the same while making big changes under the hood, the Finder is the epitome of the new OS. The original Finder was built back in the early days of system development using the Carbon development frameworks; the main goal then was to ease the transition from the classic Mac OS to Mac OS X. In the past few years, though, Apple has sent a clear message that building apps in Carbon doesn't have much of a future, especially when it declared that the next generation of 64-bit applications would all have to be built using the rival Cocoa frameworks.

Almost every app in Snow Leopard is now 64-bit-capable; that means old apps that relied on Carbon frameworks had to be rewritten using Cocoa. And that's what Apple has done to the Finder--though you wouldn't know from looking at it. With the exception of some changes to icon display (they can be as huge as 512 by 512 pixels, you can adjust icon sizes right within the window via a handy slider control, and you can page through PDFs and play videos right within their Finder icons), there's not much new here. Those giant icons are generally useless in most instances, at least until Apple finally makes Mac OS X resolution-independent, so that gorgeous 512-by-512-pixel icons can be small and incredibly detailed, rather than the computing equivalent of the oversized novelty check traditionally given to lottery winners.

Apple says the Finder should feel more responsive now that it's running in 64-bit mode and takes better advantage of multiple processor cores due to its use of Grand Central Dispatch (more on that later). The Finder still has its occasional hiccups, but Apple has done a good job of making it more efficient.

And Finder dilettantes will be thrilled that Apple has finally gotten the behavior of the oblong button at the top right corner of the window bar right--it makes the toolbar and sidebar vanish with a neat animated effect, but otherwise leaves the window looking just like it did before.

Exchange without Entourage

When Apple first decided to embrace Microsoft's popular Exchange server software, it did so with a major software update--for the iPhone. The iPhone 2.0 software update brought support for Exchange calendars, contacts, and mail directly onto Apple's mobile platform. Now, with Snow Leopard, the Mac gets the ability to directly connect to Exchange servers, too. In practical terms, that means that Mail, iCal, and Address Book can all be configured easily to connect to corporate Exchange servers. (Apple has not been shy in pointing out that the Mac now provides better Exchange connectivity out of the box than Windows does, with no additional software required.)

I've been using Snow Leopard with an Exchange server for a couple of weeks now, and it's been quiet, stable, even pleasurable. I was able to acknowledge meeting invitations from within Mail and check a colleague's free/busy status in iCal in order to schedule a meeting. Because my organization doesn't yet use Exchange, I couldn't do a large-scale test; users in massive Exchanged-based enterprises will certainly be able to evaluate it more rigorously than I could. (We'll be publishing an in-depth look at Exchange on Snow Leopard from an IT professional in a few days.)

Several months before I started testing Snow Leopard, my company's IT director suggested that at some point in the future we might move to Exchange. I admit that I was full of trepidation when he said so, largely because I'm not a big fan of Microsoft Entourage, which at the time was the only real way to get Exchange support on the Mac. But with the release of iPhone 2.0 and now Snow Leopard, my views on Exchange have taken a 180-degree turn. If our IT department wants to move us to Exchange, I now say bring it on. (No wonder Microsoft announced--and just in advance of Snow Leopard's release!--that it would be replacing Entourage with Outlook for Mac sometime in the next 15 months. If I were Microsoft's Mac Business Unit, I'd be deathly afraid that by the time late 2010 arrives, every Exchange-using Mac around will be running Mail, iCal, and Address Book.)

App changes

Mac OS X ships with about four dozen applications and utilities, large and small, that form the foundation of the Mac user experience. Most of them have been tweaked, at least a little bit, in Snow Leopard. If you've got a favorite, you'll probably notice at least a few minor changes.

The biggest changes are probably in Preview, Apple's catch-all utility for viewing images and PDFs. I've been using Preview as my default PDF viewer for years now, and find it superior to Adobe Reader in terms of speed and interface. Snow Leopard's updates to Preview include improved selection of text within PDFs, especially those with multiple columns of text. There's also a new Annotations toolbar for users who need to mark up PDFs with comments.

Several programs, including TextEdit, Mail, and iChat, can take advantage of a new systemwide Substitutions service that can autocorrect common mistakes (think teh to the), convert straight quotes to curly and vice versa, and turn double-minuses and triple-periods into em dashes and ellipses, respectively. Even better, a tab in the Keyboard pane of the System Preferences app lets you add shortcuts of your own.

System Preferences is also where you'll see the ugliest evidence of Apple's conversion to 64-bit applications throughout the system. If you're using Apple's stock preference panes only, everything will work just fine. But if you click on a third-party preference pane that hasn't yet been upgraded to a 64-bit version, System Preferences will tell you that it has to quit and reopen itself in 32-bit mode in order to open that preference pane. While it's nice of System Preferences to go to that trouble, it gets frustrating after you do the launch-quit-launch dance a few times. The solution is for developers to update their preference panes, which presumably will happen quickly. But it makes me think Apple should have just forced System Preferences to open in 32-bit mode by default, at least for now.

Snow Leopard ships with Safari 4, the latest version of its Web browser. That version has been available for Leopard for some time now, but in Snow Leopard it runs in 64-bit mode. That accelerates some JavaScript math routines. More importantly, Apple says that browser plug-ins such as Flash run as separate processes within Safari on Snow Leopard, meaning that plug-in errors won't kill your whole browser. However, in a few weeks of using Safari on Snow Leopard, I never encountered a case where a plug-in actually crashed this way. Several times, however, the entire browser did crash, leaving me with no recourse but to relaunch Safari and browse my History menu for the pages I was reading before the cataclysm.

Apple's QuickTime Player, long a stalwart tool for playing back audio and video, has been completely revamped for Snow Leopard. As I mentioned earlier, this new QuickTime Player X app lacks so many of the features of the previous version that Apple has made QuickTime Player 7 optionally available as a separate installation.

Apple says the new QuickTime Player is focused on media playback, and it boasts about the new interface. That interface is actually almost nonexistent: Open a movie and you'll see it appear all by itself, with only a small black window bar at the top to indicate its name. When you play the video, the interface fades completely away, leaving you with a movie playing all by itself on your screen. All the playback controls--volume, forward, play, reverse, full screen, and a scrubbing bar--are located in a floating palette within the movie itself.

It's a nice interface if you're running in full-screen mode, but it's an utter disaster otherwise. Any alteration to your settings, including a slight increase or decrease in volume, makes that floating palette and the window bar appear, obscuring some of your video. (And on small movies, it obscures a lot of your video.) Every time I wanted to make my video louder or quieter, even via a keyboard shortcut, that floater appeared--and then remained for a second or two until finally fading away. Contrast this to the old QuickTime player, which (when not in full-screen mode) placed all of your controls right below the video, where you could get at them without actually obscuring what you were watching.

I don't think the fade-away interface really works. When you're playing a movie, even the movie's title bar disappears, at least until you move your mouse over it. Over the years, I've become trained to identify every single window on my Mac by the window bar at the top, which tells me the name of what I'm looking at. Now here comes this strange QuickTime window, unbounded by any sort of frame, playing off on its own. It looks, quite frankly, like a mistake. I'm all for getting the controls out of a user's way when you're viewing something in full-screen mode. But when I'm watching something that's mixed in with all of my other Mac's windows, I'd rather the movie look like a window, not some anonymous video escapee with no window bar to call its own.

Despite its focus on playback, QuickTime Player X does offer some editing tools. There's trimming, but it's extremely basic, no more complicated than what you'll find on the iPhone, where you can set start and end points. QuickTime X's Sharing feature is also far more limited than what you used to get with QuickTime Pro: you can choose from three video-export presets, or share files with MobileMe or YouTube. In general, if you've ever used QuickTime Pro to cut up, export, or massage media, you'll be disappointed by QuickTime X.

QuickTime X also includes new recording features, letting you grab the contents of your computer screen and save it to a QuickTime movie. QuickTime X failed completely when I tried to capture my MacBook Air screen, despite the fact that I've successfully captured video on this same system using both Ambrosia Software's Snapz Pro X and Telestream's ScreenFlow.

Nifty small touches

Failing a massive makeover, then, we've got to take joy in the little gifts that Snow Leopard gives us. And there are a lot of them. I'd like to pick my favorite, but the fact is, they're all small enough that I can't really choose one. But if I could gather up the whole lot of them in my arms, I'd give them a hug.

Ejecting disks is much easier now, and given that I connect to an external drive every day at work, I know the pain of trying to dismount that volume only to be told that something, somewhere on my Mac, believes that my external drive is vitally important and is clinging to it like a child does a security blanket. Now when you try to eject a disk, its Finder icon dims and the system sends a message telling all running apps that they should let go unless they've got a really good reason not to. Most of the time, the result is a clean ejection moments later. But if, for example, iTunes is playing music from that drive, the system instead will display a helpful window telling me that it can't eject the disk and naming iTunes as the culprit, allowing me to decide if it's more important to eject the disk or keep the music playing.

As a full-time MacBook user, I'm endlessly putting my Mac to sleep and waking it back up. In Leopard (and previous OS X versions), mounted servers generally didn't withstand the wake-up process. Leopard was nicer about it than previous versions; the old OSs tended to hang my Mac for half a minute before declaring that my server had vanished (which it hadn't), while Leopard just displayed an alert announcing that some servers had gone away.

Snow Leopard handles this situation a lot better. That alert window still appears--but as it sits there, Snow Leopard is attempting to reconnect to those servers, to bring me back to where I was before I so cruelly closed the lid of my laptop. And generally it works like a charm, reuniting me with my servers without forcing me to reconnect to them.

Snow Leopard is also much smarter when it comes to sharing files with sleeping Macs. If you're on a network with an AirPort base station or a Time Capsule, Snow Leopard will work with those devices to wake up when another Mac wants to share files, and then put itself back to sleep when the file-sharing session is done. This means that if you can get the network settings to work right, you can put your Mac to sleep and still access its files when you need them.

Programming geeks who also love fonts (and, yes, we exist) will be interested to note that in Snow Leopard, the venerable default monospaced font Monaco has been displaced by the new Bitstream font Menlo, based on the typefaces Bitstream Vera and Deja Vu. I'm sure there are people out there who love Monaco, but as someone who used it for many years, I'm not one of them. (For the past couple of years I've been using the excellent Consolas [which is included with Microsoft Office, of all things] as my text-editor font of choice; my text editor of choice, BBEdit, integrated Consolas late last year.) Fonts are as much about personal taste as haircuts or ironic T-shirts, but after a brief time with Menlo I can definitively say that it might possibly be, potentially, a good alternative to Consolas. It's vastly better than Monaco.

Finally, scripting and automation has received a nice update with Snow Leopard, thanks to a long-overdue overhaul of Mac OS X Services. Anyone who dared to visit the OS X Services menu (located in the Application menu) in past versions saw a hodgepodge of different and often mysterious commands--let's be honest, very few of us ever ventured in there. The new system of Services seems more likely to reach a broader (albeit still somewhat geeky) audience. Users can create new services via the Automator utility, and then run them either via the Services menu or a contextual-menu item within any relevant application.

There's just one catch: Although the Services menu appeared reliably, the contextual-menu items appeared on some of my test systems, sometimes, and on others, not at all. Once Apple fixes this bug, Services could become the Mac power user's efficiency tool of choice.

A stealth feature of Snow Leopard is its limited ability to check downloaded files for known malware, the catch-all name for evil software such as viruses and trojan-horse programs. This new scanning ability is tied into the existing protection system that warns you before opening apps or mounting disk images you've downloaded from the Internet. It's minimal protection, but it's a good line of defense for unsuspecting users, and Apple should be congratulated for providing it. However, Apple's system is no match for third-party virus checkers, and even Apple admits as much. For much more more information about this feature, read our in-depth look at Snow Leopard's hidden malware protection.

Upgrade to go faster?

Most of the time, software upgrades add new features at the expense of speed. (Imagine if Microsoft Word 2008 was as efficient on my 1.86GHz Intel processor as Word 5.1 was on my Mac SE's 8MHz processor--I could finish National Novel Writing Month in three hours!) But since Snow Leopard was announced, Apple has repeatedly said that this update is about not just fixing bugs and making tweaks, but improving performance.

When it comes to speed, there are actually two Snow Leopard stories. One is about the speed boosts the system provides today. The other is about the potential speed boosts that users may see in the future, as both software and hardware continue to evolve.

Let's start with the present. Macworld Lab compared Leopard to Snow Leopard in 16 different speed tests on three different systems. On half of our tests, Snow Leopard showed definite speed improvements when compared to Leopard.

Among the tests that Snow Leopard outperformed Leopard on were a Time Machine backup (Snow Leopard was 32 percent faster on average at that task than Leopard), shutdown time, encoding a video file in H.264 format, scrolling a PDF in Preview, running the Sunspider JavaScript benchmark test, zipping a 2GB folder, importing photos into iPhoto, and scrolling a document in Pages. In two other tests, Leopard was slightly faster than Snow Leopard; in the rest, the results were either a mixed bag or identical between operating systems.

My subjective experience using Snow Leopard for several weeks is essentially consistent with those lab results. Some tasks simply feel faster in Snow Leopard than in Leopard, while others seem no different at all. In general, I think most users will find that Snow Leopard feels faster and runs smoother than its predecessor.

In the future, however, the software than runs on Snow Leopard has the potential to become dramatically faster. That's because Apple has provided two technologies for software developers that should enable them to give their apps a speed boost, provided they put in the work to take advantage of the new technologies.

The first technology, Grand Central Dispatch, helps programmers split up their programs into smaller chunks so that they can more effectively use the power of computers with multiple processing cores. It's still quite a bit of work for programmers to break up tasks into chunks, but Apple says it hopes that developers will find the work a lot easier than it was before--and that the end result will be faster software, since every current Mac model has at least two processor cores.

The second technology, OpenCL, is a system programmers can use to take advantage of the massive amount of processing power locked up in a computer's graphics processor. By targeting certain tasks on the graphics processor, programmers can harness even more power to improve the speed of their programs.

The long-term direction of the computer industry is toward computers with many more processing cores and incredibly powerful (and increasingly flexible) graphics processors. Your current computer might only have a couple of cores and might not even have a snazzy graphics processor. (My MacBook Air certainly doesn't.) But by building Grand Central Dispatch and OpenCL into Snow Leopard, Apple is placing a bet on that future, and asking its community of third-party developers (as well as the developers of all the applications bundled with Snow Leopard) to embrace it. There will be small payoffs now, but next year's Macs will undoubtedly exploit these features to a much greater extent.

In truth, neither of these features is a reason to buy Snow Leopard today. But they will help make the next Mac you buy be much faster than it would have been otherwise.

And finally, a word about stability. Generally every major operating-system upgrade steps forward in terms of features and backward in terms of stability. Apple's engineers have had nearly two years to wring the bugs out of Leopard; the new features introduced in Snow Leopard will have no doubt introduced some new ones. But I'm happy to report that, in general, Snow Leopard seems as stable as it seems fast. Yes, I did see a few crashes from Safari, and I also experienced more crashes in Mail than I had experienced when using Leopard. Presumably Apple will address these sorts of bugs with forthcoming updates to Snow Leopard, but stability issues have never made me feel regret about switching from Leopard to Snow Leopard.

Macworld's buying advice

Snow Leopard is Apple's lowest-priced OS update in eight years. Granted, it's a collection of feature tweaks and upgrades, as well as under-the-hood modifications that might not pay off for users immediately. But the price of upgrading is so low that I've really got to recommend it for all but the most casual, low-impact Mac users. If you've got a 32-bit Intel Mac (that is, one powered by a Core Solo or Core Duo processor), the benefit of this upgrade will be a little less. But for most Mac users, especially the kind of person who reads a Web site devoted to the subject, the assorted benefits of Snow Leopard outweigh the price tag. I'd pay $30 just for the improved volume ejection, the ability to create services with Automator, and the improvements to the Dock and Exposé--though I admit I'd pay slightly more to not have the misguided QuickTime Player X as a part of the package. If you're a user who connects to an Exchange server every day, upgrading to Snow Leopard really is a no-brainer. For everyone else, maybe it's not quite a no-brainer--but it's awfully close. Snow Leopard is a great value, and any serious Mac user should upgrade now.

Summary

Product: Snow Leopard

Rating: 4.5 (5 - Superior; 4 - Very Good; 3 - Good; 2 - Fair; 1 - Poor)

Pros: Generally faster than Leopard; supports Exchange; rudimentary malware checking; most applications run in 64-bit mode; improvements to Exposé and Dock.

Cons: Lackluster QuickTime Player update; many features won't truly be exploited until Mac hardware evolves.

Price as rated: $30 (single-user upgrade from Leopard); $49 (five-user upgrade from Leopard); $169 (Tiger upgrade as part of Mac Box Set with iLife '09 and iWork '09)

(Jason Snell is Macworld's Editorial Director and has been writing in depth about Mac OS X since day one.)

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