Snow Leopard opens door to a fab future

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With the development of Mac OS X 10.4, Apple began insisting that developers rewrite their applications using Cocoa. Snow Leopard completes the pictures because the core technologies inherent in it can be accessed only by applications written in Objective-C and Cocoa.

The Dock matures

The Dock's preference pane now sports an option called "Minimize windows into application icon," which does exactly that. Normally, minimized windows are stored on the same side of the Dock divider -- with this option selected, minimized windows slide into their Dock icon instead, reducing Dock clutter.

Clicking an application's Dock icon brings up the first window minimized, but clicking and holding on the Dock icon reveals another new trick: built-in Exposé.

Exposé is a window-management feature (available since 2003) that allows a user to quickly locate an open window. With a button press or a gesture, all open windows shrink to fit the screen so you can select the one you want.

With Snow Leopard, the Dock has picked up the ability to display windows belonging to a single application; just click and hold the corresponding Dock icon for that app. Doing so darkens the screen and gathers any windows belonging to the application, à la Exposé -- even if there are minimized windows.

You can also press the Command and Tab keys to move to the next application, whose open windows spring into view. And Dock folders and windows finally support drag and drop.

The Dock now sports a sleeker-looking contextual menu with white text on a semi-transparent black background. The Keep in Dock, Open at Login, and Show in Finder menu options have been consolidated into an Options submenu, but Quit and Hide are still easily clickable, and multiple windows that are in use by the app still display. (It looks good, and Apple should have extended the new Dock menu look to contextual menus.)

Drilling through folders in the Dock is easier, too. You can scroll through items using Grid view.

System Preferences get tweaks

There are a number of changes in System Preferences that generally build on the features already present in Leopard:

* In the Security preference pane, you can now set a delay time for sleep or screen saver password entries. "Use secure virtual memory" is now enabled by default, and you can disable Location Services.

* The Keyboard preference pane features a new Shortcut interface, making it easier to assign shortcut keys and activate specific options, such as which abilities are displayed in Services.

* The Date and Time pane allows you to set your location automatically using Snow Leopard's built-in Location Services. Safari also taps into this feature, showing the closest results for certain search queries. These should be handy for people who travel a lot.

* The MobileMe preference pane gets an update: Syncing iDisk now gives you the option to always keep the most recent version of a file, which will automatically resolve syncing conflicts based on that criteria.

* The Accounts pane now features more account avatars.

* The Trackpad pane doesn't offer new features in terms of gestures, but these gestures are now supported on laptops with first-generation multi-touch capabilities, including the original MacBook Air and 2008 MacBook Pros.

* And while the Time Machine preference hasn't gotten any new features, it has gotten faster, according to Apple. (I haven't had time to confirm this.)

Some third-party preference panes haven't yet been rewritten to take advantage of Snow Leopard's native 64-bit operation. If you try to open one that's not been updated, you're prompted to relaunch System Preferences so it can run in 32-bit mode.

Beefed up security?

Although Apple hasn't said much about efforts to beef up security in Snow Leopard, reports started circulating this week about a little-known addition that could be used down the road to strengthen the OS. Users with access to the final build spotted an unusual file that extends a File Quarantine feature already part of Leopard. Currently, if you download a file using Safari, Mail or iChat, Leopard warns you that it's from the Internet when you open it -- sort of a cautionary "Do you really want to open this file?"

Snow Leopard takes that warning a step further and will scan all files downloaded by Safari, Mail, or iChat for Trojan horses or other malware. It will then put up an alert saying the file could damage your computer. The warning also apparently tells you to put the file in the trash.

Intego, which makes anti-virus software for Macs, highlighted the addition, as did Gizmodo. At this point, the feature offers limited protection, as it apparently checks for just two known Mac trojans, according to the Register.

Updated signatures for newly discovered Trojans will apparently be downloaded by Software Update and added to the "XProtect.plist" file. Computerworld confirmed that the the XProtect.plist file is indeed part of Snow Leopard.

The apps get some attention

Apple's built-in apps have been updated as well. Not only are most of them rewritten to take advantage of Snow Leopard's core features, making them more responsive, but Mail, iCal and Address Book have all gained native compatibility with Microsoft Exchange. Mail now supports Exchange 2007 servers, something that Windows doesn't do. (In fact, Microsoft is dropping a built-in e-mail client from Windows 7 altogether; users will have to download what's now called Live Mail separately.)

It's interesting that Microsoft recently announced that Outlook is coming to the Mac next year, complete with better Exchange compatibility. I've been a Microsoft Office user my entire career and I've used -- and supported -- every version of Office for Mac and PC since Office 97. On the Mac side, Entourage has long been reviled for its sluggish interface, barely acceptable Exchange support and inefficient, easily corrupted database storage method. Microsoft has every reason to fear that businesses are looking for alternatives.

But the move to replace Entourage with Outlook on the Mac may come too late. Now that Exchange compatibility has hit the iPhone and Snow Leopard's built-in communication apps, my users and I can enjoy a Microsoft-free user experience.

Safari now runs in 64-bit mode, even if the kernel is in 32-bit mode. And it's fast. I saw recent reports that Google's Chrome browser is the fastest browser on a Mac, so I did a quick test using the SunSpider JavaScript benchmark.

In my results, Opera 10 was the slowest, Firefox 3.5 was faster, and Chrome was faster still, but it runs in 32-bit mode. Safari was tops in terms of speed. And Safari now runs plug-ins like Flash in a sandbox -- that is, its own memory space -- so if a site playing a Flash movie crashes, the browser doesn't crash with it. Anything that adds stability like this to a browser is good.

QuickTime X

In Snow Leopard, QuickTime makes the leap from version 7.x to version 10.0. In Mac OS X, QuickTime isn't just something for playing movies; it is Apple's media layer, the entire foundation for anything relating to audio or video in the operating system. Apple rewrote QuickTime in Cocoa with support for Snow Leopard's technologies in mind, including the Core technologies (Core Audio, Core Video and Core Animation), Grand Central Dispatch and 64-bit computing.

QuickTime X sports a brand new player application that looks something like Apple's iTunes when playing video. The QuickTime Player's interface is clean and refined, with minimalist controls that fade away when not needed. It now plays files with greater quality and efficiency, even using ColorSync to ensure proper color reproduction when viewing across devices such as iPhones or Apple TVs.

Snow Leopard includes a new version of Quicktime that uses fewer CPU cycles and features a minimal UI.

H.264 media plays without slowing down the Mac, using full hardware acceleration for playback and real-time video manipulation. For instance, holding down Shift and minimizing a currently playing movie shows the active video being squeezed and transformed in slow motion without stuttering or loss of quality; processor usage doesn't even blink under those normally stressful conditions.

The QuickTime X application can now record audio and video from connected microphones and cameras (and the hardware built into Apple's portables and display hardware), and screen captures can be done within the program. Like Safari 4, QuickTime X also supports the media streaming capabilities of HTML 5, dynamically adjusting playback quality on the fly for optimal viewing under static or changing conditions. It's also possible to share movies and audio to iTunes, YouTube, and MobileMe directly from the Share menu.

Final thoughts

Unlike previous operating system upgrades, customer-facing features aren't the focus of Snow Leopard. Buying Snow Leopard represents something of a leap of faith. That's one reason for the $29 price tag. But this OS lays the foundation for much faster and more efficient applications on the very same hardware you're running now. Technologically, it draws a line in the sand and dares software developers to join it.

If your Mac has a Core 2 Duo processor, dropping $30 for this upgrade isn't really a difficult decision. This time around, you're not buying eye candy. You're buying a stable operating system that will allow your applications to perform better on the same hardware you're using now.

If Mac hardware is the cool cat in the zoot suit, Snow Leopard is that cat's meow.

Michael deAgonia is an award-winning writer, computer consultant and technologist who has been using Macs and working on them professionally since 1993. His tech-support background includes tenures at Computerworld, colleges and Apple, and in the biopharmaceutical and graphics industries. He has also worked as a Macintosh administrator at several companies.

Ryan Faas contributed to this report.

This story, "Snow Leopard opens door to a fab future" was originally published by Computerworld.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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