Should Creatives Upgrade to Snow Leopard?

Whenever Apple releases a new operating system, the first thing creatives consider before updating is whether or not the new OS will play nicely with their existing investments in hardware and software. For most designers and artists, that means Adobe Creative Suite, font managers, and Web browsers, not to mention their existing Macs.

While previous versions of Mac OS X offered numerous new features that enticed users to update based on expanded capabilities, Snow Leopard offers little in the way of sexy doo-dads. So your only considerations for upgrading are speed and compatibility. Fortunately, the news is positive.

I decided to play it safe and install Snow Leopard on my 13-inch MacBook Pro with 4GB of RAM for testing purposes before I installed it on my Mac Pro ( Macworld rated 4.5 out of 5 mice ) where I do most of my graphics work. For the sake of comparison fairness I chose the straight upgrade route, rather than a clean install. This would give me a level playing field for comparing my existing 10.5.8 installation to the upgraded system with regard to fonts and other previously installed applications that may affect performance.

Comparisons

While I rarely shut down my desktop Mac, I do shut down my MacBook Pro when I'm not using it in order to preserve the life of the battery, so startup and shutdown times were of interest to me.

As you can see in the chart below, startup time was fairly similar between Leopard and Snow Leopard; only a seven-second difference. However shutdown under Snow Leopard took less than half the time to complete.

When comparing the launch time of the major Creative Suite applications, Extensis Suitcase Fusion 2 ( Macworld rated 4 out of 5 mice ), Safari ( Macworld rated 4.5 out of 5 mice ) and Firefox ( Macworld rated 4 out of 5 mice ) between Leopard and Snow Leopard; the chart below shows the results to be less than stellar, though still improved.

An app's launch time is not a complete reflection of its performance though. Using these apps in Snow Leopard did show speed improvements across the board, but not in any way I could accurately measure. They just felt more fluid while I was using them. I realize that there are lab tests that could quantify these assertions, but for my informal tests, I'm just going to go with how things feel rather than trying to make a quantifiable case.

Should you upgrade?

Here's the key question. After all, upgrading still takes time and money. From my perspective as a designer, I experienced no show-stopping issues while upgrading to Snow Leopard; the process was relatively smooth for the most part. After upgrading, I got an error message the first time I launched Suitcase Fusion 2 alerting me that Suitcase couldn't find my font database. However, when I dismissed the error message, all my fonts were loaded and Fusion's auto-activation worked perfectly. The error message has not appeared again, so I'll write it off as a minor hiccup.

Most Safari add-ons ceased to function after the upgrade. This is not because SIMBL (Smart InputManager Bundle Loader) doesn't work with Snow Leopard; rather, it's because Safari runs in 64-bit mode by default and the add-ons were written for 32-bit mode. In theory, you can Get Info on Safari and click the button to force it to run in 32-bit mode to gain access to the plugins, but in my tests that trick rarely worked. We'll just have to wait for the developers to release updates.

Snow Leopard is worth the upgrade, if for no other reason than it's so cheap. The speed increase we get now is probably nothing in comparison to what we'll see when the applications we use every day get updated to take advantage of 64-bit processing, and all the other under-the-hood improvements Apple has made available to developers.

In my period of testing, I experienced no issues that would prevent me from using Snow Leopard on my desktop every day.

[James Dempsey runs The Graphic Mac, which offers tips, tricks and more on all the Adobe Creative Suite apps.]

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