Mac OS X Snow Leopard: Perfection, refined

New releases of Apple's Mac OS X operating system are highly anticipated because each one upgrades the Mac platform in the best way. That is, for Mac users, a new Mac OS X release is always like getting a new computer. Apple generally brags of hundreds of new features folded into each release, and post-upgrade exploration is an enjoyable exercise that marks cultural and design differences between the Mac and the PC.

If the question on your mind is whether to buy Snow Leopard, Apple has made it a no-brainer. The price -- $29 for a single machine license, $49 for a pack of five -- brings overdue sanity to runaway client OS pricing. Owners of Intel Macs should consider Snow Leopard a must-have because it's optimized for their hardware to an extreme that Apple could not approach before.

[ Perfection? Find out what's wrong with Snow Leopard [1]. Discover the 7 best features of Mac OS X Snow Leopard [2] and get the details on all the new Mac OS X features in InfoWorld's "What's new in Mac OS X Snow Leopard [3]" slideshows. ]

Apple uses the term "refinement" to describe Snow Leopard, downplaying the sweeping scope of change in the new OS. While Apple asserts that "at least 99 percent" of the 1,000 or so projects that make up Mac OS X saw improvement (I buy that; just streamlining the PowerPC branches out of the code would touch most projects), much of that change cannot be seen as added functionality. Apple's efforts are, however, quite palpable to users.

[ If you can't see the screen images in this article, view the original story at InfoWorld.com [4]. ]

This is an upgrade that most users will feel more than see. Some users, such as the visually impaired and developers of performance-sensitive applications, will now see the Mac as the only rational platform choice. For everyone else, Snow Leopard is a total rush, a shot of adrenaline to a platform that was already perfect in design. Every part of the user experience is palpably accelerated so that you can do more with just the core platform, apart from applications. Snow Leopard is scaled up to run more applications and have more Web sites open simultaneously while easing navigation and protecting stability.

Let Apple do it

The upgrade to Snow Leopard couldn't be easier: Pop in the DVD, open the Install Mac OS X app, and let it rip. You can also boot from the installation DVD to perform either a clean or upgrade install. If the install is interrupted or encounters an error, your Mac isn't left in an unusable limbo. If something goes wrong, just repeat the install from the beginning.

Installation is much quicker than before, and disk requirements have dropped substantially. Snow Leopard's installed footprint is about 7GB smaller than Leopard's. Internationalization data is compressed on disk to save space, and Snow Leopard installs a more limited set of default printer drivers based on detected and popular devices. Apple will automatically download basic printer drivers through Software Update the first time you try to access a new printer.

After you get Snow Leopard installed, it pretty much takes care of itself. Apple's Software Update service keeps up with the latest fixes and enhancements, and it maintains the internal catalog of malware signatures against which Snow Leopard checks new applications before their first execution. This extends the protections built into Leopard and Safari against suspicious Web sites and software downloads.

Windows, take it or leave it

The timing of Apple's release of Snow Leopard nearly coincides with Microsoft's delivery of Windows 7, so comparison is unavoidable. Personally, I like Windows 7, despite the hassle of having to do multiple clean installs. It thoroughly obsoletes Windows XP and shows Vista to be a poorly planned and bloated mistake. If you own a PC of any type, Windows 7 is the OS to run on it.

That said, will Snow Leopard cause more habitual commercial and professional PC buyers to divert their investments to Macs? Yes. I'd like to say it's because more organizations are enlightened to the markedly increased worker productivity and creativity the Mac brings to the table, but the uptick in commercial Mac uptake will have more to do with Microsoft Exchange.

Apple tantalizes PC shops with Snow Leopard's integrated Mail, Address Book, and iCal client support for Exchange Server. These are already gorgeous apps, tightly integrated with one another, but now they're enterprise-ready. The Mac exposes collaboration as system services, so applications and scripts that look up contacts, send or search e-mail, or deal with appointments gain access to Exchange without having to be written for it. Snow Leopard uses Outlook Web Access to hook into Exchange Server 2007. Setup is fully automated; all the user needs to know is the server's URL and their login credentials.

Snow Leopard still supports Boot Camp, a configuration wizard and driver package that sets up any Mac to boot into native Windows. I have tested Windows 7, including the final retail release, for Boot Camp compatibility across Apple's notebook, desktop, and workstation line. Windows 7 installs without difficulty when you choose Windows Vista as the OS type. VMware Fusion, Parallels Desktop, and Sun's VirtualBox all run Windows as a virtual guest of Mac OS X, with hardware acceleration of 3-D graphics. VMware and Parallels will let you use a Boot Camp partition as a virtual drive so that one Windows install will let you run Windows either native or virtually.

Speed with a purpose

As I said, everything about Snow Leopard is noticeably faster. Booting, waking from sleep, shutting down, scrolling in Finder, logging in and out, Quick Look document previews, app launching, PDF rendering, searching with Spotlight, and browsing with Safari rank highly among everyday tasks that run significantly faster in Snow Leopard.

In two cases, Finder and QuickTime X, Apple refined by rewriting. Both were redone from scratch using Objective-C 2.0, Grand Central Dispatch, and Apple's latest tools and frameworks. In Leopard and prior releases, Finder was written in C using Carbon libraries and remnants of the Metrowerks PowerPlant runtime, while QuickTime did video and audio "by hand," without leveraging Apple's Core frameworks.

The rewrites are stunning. Finder app and folder icons and file previews are now scalable up to 512 by 512 pixels within Finder's scrollable view using a simple slider. Finder renders previews of images, videos, and PDF, Office, and iWork documents so quickly that there's no need to resort to an external app to manage large collections of files. It's possible to page through a PDF in its preview, without tapping the spacebar to open the larger Quick Look, and leave the PDF preview thumbnail parked on a particular page to compare two documents. Preview and icon scaling happens smoothly and in real time, and it doesn't cheat by resorting to fat pixels. Just drag the slider.

QuickTime X

QuickTime X modernizes and optimizes Mac OS X's media services layer. The new QuickTime Player pops up almost instantly and has a completely new interface. Transport controls overlay the video, fading in when you move the cursor and out again when you point away from the controls. An iPhone 3.0-style filmstrip interface lets you trim clips within Player. Dragging the playback marker across the trim window scrubs the video in real time.

The new Player can reencode QuickTime movies with canned settings optimal for Web, iPhone Wi-Fi, or iPhone cellular delivery. If you require more control over video encoding parameters, the Leopard QuickTime Player is on the Snow Leopard DVD as an optional install. The QuickTime X Player has no Pro functionality. If you have a Pro license, it will unlock advanced encoding features for the Leopard QuickTime Player as before.

A sleeper feature in the new QuickTime X Player is the screen recorder. This captures full-resolution JPEG video of your entire display, along with live audio from the source of your choice. I was surprised to find that it works even when an OpenGL app takes over the display, so games, visualizations, and presentations can be captured as QuickTime movies.

A new Dock

Snow Leopard's dock has gotten an overhaul as well. Pop-up context menus (right-click or two fingers on the track pad) attached to Dock icons are now drawn in iPhone 3.0 cut/copy/paste menu style, inside semi-transparent tooltip balloons. I rarely used the Dock menus before, but now I'm a regular.

I didn't make much use of Expose, Apple's approach to managing multiple document windows, when it was mapped to a function key, either. Now, clicking and holding any Dock icon spreads out all of the open windows for the associated application so that you can navigate randomly among them rather than shuffling through a pile of overlapping windows. The new Expose lets you do a Quick Look magnified view of a selected window by pressing the spacebar, and shortcut keys allow you to sort the windows in your preferred order.

Reading comprehension

Snow Leopard's services for rendering PDF and HTML documents are now imbued with intelligent dissection of their layout. This work was done for accessibility so that the Voice Over screen reader could figure out how to read multicolumn documents. With HTML content, text flow could be derived from the underlying Document Object Model, but with PDF, Apple would have to reverse-engineer the rendered page.

That's precisely what Apple does. You can now drag a text selection cursor through a complex PDF layout and have it track the flow of text within frames and columns, around objects, and across pages. Many's the time I've had to print a PDF and run it through OCR to suck the text into an editor. That's no longer necessary.

Alas, copying text from PDFs doesn't always work perfectly. My attempts to lift text from Apple's Reviewer's Guide only pasted blanks even when text-only paste was selected. You often need to insert paragraph breaks and line endings by hand, but that's easier than retyping.

And that's not all...

There is more to Snow Leopard's user-facing enhancements than I've described here, but I've hit the highest of the highlights. In the next installment, I'll give you a look at Grand Central Dispatch, 64-bit support, OpenCL, and the other under-the-hood technology enhancements that really make Snow Leopard shine.

This story, "Mac OS X Snow Leopard: Perfection, refined" was originally published by InfoWorld.

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