Review: Apple Mac OSX 10.6 Snow Leopard

Posted by Minnaar Pieters 31 Aug 2009
The prowling Snow Leopard

On the 28th of August Apple finally released its latest version of its Mac OSX – called Snow Leopard. While it is a new version, the changes are very subtle, but those little things add up to highly revamped experience of using your Mac. While the traditional Apple fanboy/journalism bigshots like Walt Mossberg and David Pogue got hold of it a while ago, we regular little people had to wait.

First thing you notice it is quite cheap - at $30, it is much cheaper than any release of OS X up to now (except 10.1, which was free...). While this “new” price for an OS seems great, the honest fact of the matter is that Apple could not actually ask more for this OS upgrade. The typical user will not necessarily notice any of the changes, except for the big speed increase...

Installation:

The typical user will simply insert the Snow Leopard and click on install. Thereafter it asks you your password and thats it. On my machine the entire install took about 39 minutes, which is pretty brisk for a machine which has a lot of software and customizations running. No mess no fuss. Seriously, I cannot think how this can be easier. Even though the licence permits only a upgrade from Leopard, supposedly the upgrader updates Tiger without issue as well. (Microsoft might want to take note of this, their new Windows 7 install process does not allow a straight upgrade from Windows XP).

Apple tells us that we can expect up to 6 gigs extra back after the install of Snow Leopard, and reviews everywhere seem to concur with it. I got back 10 Gigs, which is always great. Apple gets this right by not storing all printer drivers on disk anymore, and also not installing Rosetta, which is now a optional install on the install DVD. (Rosetta is the translation software which enables you to run older PowerPC based applications that has not been coded in Universal code).

Speed, Glorious Speed:

After the first boot up you will notice that the interface is much quicker. Objects and buttons just seem to react quicker in all day to day activities. Opening up large files such as videos open instantly, thumbnails get generated much quicker and you don’t really ever feel that their is a lack of power in the machine. I am running Snow Leopard on a stock standard Macbook unibody with 2.0GHz processor and 2 Gig RAM. I only upgraded the hard drive to a 7200 rpm model. Things that used to crunch the little guy in the past like Time Machine is much, much quicker now.
My Snow Leopard desktop
Talking of Time Machine, not only is it quicker, but it clearly uses less processing power in Snow Leopard. (Apple says 80% faster, but that sounds a little optimistic. I would say 50%) In fact, I noticed many apps use less processing power than before, and the machine does run a little cooler because of it. However, I did notice that apps that are dependent on pure processing power like Handbrake run about the same, and CPU use might have even gone up, because there are more idle CPU power available. Whether it indeed results in faster encoding, I am not sure.

Apple has also rewritten all (or most) of its core applications in 64 bit now, which does make them faster in environments where machines have large memories (more than 4GB). I could not however test this, seeing as I did my testing on a Late 2008 Macbook. However, all the built in Apps do launch much quiker than before.

The other reason why things happen a bit quicker in Snow Leopard is down to a few things, most importantly Grand Central Dispatch and OpenCL. Here is Apple’s official statement on GCD:

“With GCD, threads are handled by the operating system, not by individual applications. GCD-enabled programs can automatically distribute their work across all available cores, resulting in the best possible performance whether they’re running on a dual-core Mac mini, an 8-core Mac Pro, or anything in between. Once developers start using GCD for their applications, you’ll start noticing significant improvements in performance.” Well that beats the technical explanation.

OpenCL is a new way of employing graphics processors in modern Macs to assist with everyday processing jobs. Considering the amount of processing power in new GPU’s, it is really a great thing – instead having a graphics card that sits idle waiting for the next game, it can now continually contribute to all apps that have OpenCL code. This however only works on newer Macs with relatively modern GPU’s.

Ever since I started using a Mac, I was always dumbfounded at how well sleep works with a Macbook. I have not had any Windows machine that have worked so flawlessly for travelling – Snow Leopard makes that even quicker. Not that I have ever considered Leopard slow for sleeping and waking.

New Features:

Not counting the major changes in the background, Snow Leopard does not have a lot of new features – in fact, you have to look pretty hard to spot them. Most of the changes are small enough that you will only run into them m
Apart from the speed increase, the only major interface change you will notice is that the “stacks” in the dock is suddenly a whole lot more useful. Clicking on a icon within a stack reopens the stack with new icons, instead of opening up a Finder window as in Leopard. Also, you can scroll around in the stack if you use the Grid view. I find this much quicker than in Leopard.New Stacks in Snow Leopard

One of Mac OS X’s standout features – Expose, has been changed slightly as well. Doing the traditional four finger swipe now works the same as before, but holding onto a icon in the dock now gives a quick preview of what it’s window looks like. Very similiar to Aero Peek in Windows 7, yes, but it does not feel as well implemented. Using traditional Expose is still way better than anything in Windows though.

The application with the biggest changes however is Quicktime Player. When I first read about the changes coming I could not care less – after all, who cares about Quicktime? In my mind, Quicktime has never been something more than a useless app that comes with iTunes. However, Quicktime X is completely different beast. Seeing as the preview function (which opens movies, documents and pictures quickly) is built on Quicktime, I find myself using preview a lot more. Where in the past I would fire up VLC for any video file, preview is now much, much quicker. In fact, opening up a multiple gigabyte HD file takes a matter of seconds. H264 files also seem to play very smooth thanks to Quicktime now using the GPU for decoding.
Snow Leopard has now also got support for Microsoft Exchange built in – but it requires that you run Exchange Server 2008 in your organization. I tested it and did not find a single problem – Addressbook and Calendar synced easily enough and it was easy enough to set up as well. I have never been a fan of Entourage for Mac, and this change is most welcome. (Luckily MS is going to switch to Outlook now for Mac as well in its next release). Funny bit of irony: Apple’s operating system comes with support for Microsoft Exchange out of the box, Microsoft’s own OS does not. Office for Mac is suddenly becoming a much tougher sell for the average user.

Issues:

To be honest, Snow Leopard has not given me any headaches so far. Some users have been complaining of incompatible apps, but I have not found any. My productivity software like Microsoft Office 2008 is functioning without issue, and Adobe CS4 is also problem free. However, I did find that these apps did not get the great speed boost I so wanted from Snow Leopard. I reckon the next version of Office for Mac will have better use of technologies like GCD and OpenCL. (Office for Mac is not exactly quick to launch).

I only had a small issue with a Wifi network using VPN for authentication at work, but I sorted it out within 5 minutes. Other than that, it has been problem free.

Wrapup:

Overall, I am very impressed by Snow Leopard. The entire upgrade process was hassle free, and the changes are apparent almost immediately. I commend Apple for keeping the upgrade prices low at $30 (not so much Core, who charges R329, I guess the tiny double CD sized boxes are very expensive to ship here.), but after reviewing it, it becomes apparent that the question is rather whether they should charge for it at all.

The fact of the matter is that yes, Snow Leopard is a service pack when you are looking at features. On the other hand, the speed increases are so welcome that I would easily pay the money. I am trying not to sound like a fanboy, but if you use Leopard, you are pretty silly not to make the upgrade.

Rating:

9 out of 10 (10 if it was free, but again, would it even warrant a review then?)

PS:

Then of course there is the constant comparison with Windows. Windows 7 is arriving end of October in stores and is already complete in RTM guise. We all want the next Windows to cost $30 as well, but Windows has to cater for such a broad range of hardware, that it obviously takes a much larger effort to refine its operating system than Apple. (Face it, Windows 7 is as much a service pack to Windows Vista as Snow Leopard is to Leopard.). While Microsoft will not bring it to market at $30, it will release a Family Pack for multi PC households. I am actually very excited by these two very mature new operating systems now available. (See my review of Windows 7 here.)

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I am a R&D Analyst in Stellenbosch South Africa who has a immense passion for all things tech related. I embrace technology, open source and web standards, and I participate and contribute to the social web.