Review : Mac OS X Snow Leopard

Apple releases a modest but capable Mac OS X upgrade.

MacNN Rating:


Product Manufacturer: Apple

Price: $29 (regular), $49 (family license)

The Good

  • Faster; reclaims drive space in an era of bulk.
  • Worthwhile Finder and Exposť tweaks.
  • Exchange 2007 support.
  • Lays foundation for much faster performance.
  • Hardware-accelerated QuickTime.
  • $29 upgrade price; no version check.

The Bad

  • Some compatibility issues on launch.
  • QuickTime X interface a partial step back.
  • Not a major leap forward two years after Leopard.
  • No Exchange 2003 or earlier support.
Critics have often accused Apple of charging for service packs to Mac OS X where Microsoft has released interim updates for free. While it's true Apple has often tended to release OS releases frequently -- in some cases within a year or less -- these have often been major architectural and interface changes where Microsoft's focus on maintenance. With Snow Leopard, however, Apple itself has signaled that it's content with a more modest upgrade. The question then is whether a less superficially ambitious update is worth paying $29, especially when Microsoft at least initially appears to have a more aggressive (if more expensive) update in Windows 7.

installation and reclaiming space

Loading a new version of Mac OS X has never been especially complicated on the surface, but digging even slightly deeper has usually revealed some problems underneath. Advanced options were potentially confusing, and trying to whittle down unneeded data has often been an exercise in frustration; it's no secret that apps have been written specifically to cull unnecessary language install files or printer drivers.

Thankfully, Apple has touched on both of these in Snow Leopard, albeit not necessarily how you'd expect. Controversially, Apple has taken away the stock options to erase and install or upgrade and install; you can only choose to perform a straightforward installation, which amounts to an upgrade if Mac OS X already exists on the system. It's possible to erase a drive using Disk Utility on the DVD (available in the installer), but it's evident Apple decided that the previous options were too complicated. We didn't have any problems relating to not wiping the disk first, so this appears more a decision to streamline the process and prevent someone from wiping the system clean without understanding the consequences.

What's more notable are the more sensible install options. Rather than ask you to install every printer driver, Apple just installs drivers for any printers it can recognize as attached to the system and lets you choose to either install drivers for more common models or to install every driver. It's less tunable but is also much easier -- and, for the average user, saves them gigabytes of storage.

In fact, it's the amount of space that actually returns to the user that highlights the Snow Leopard install process. Where Windows 7 has swelled to take up about 16GB of disk space, or 20GB if you're using the 64-bit version, Apple's release has actually shrunk from what it offered two years ago. Through a combination of the reduced driver install, the elimination of PowerPC binaries, and some strategic compression, a Leopard user theoretically gets back 7GB of space. In our test, it was even more dramatic: our late 2008, 2.4GHz unibody MacBook went from 100GB of free space to 117GB. Users with cavernous amounts of free space may never notice it, but it could make a large difference on older systems, the MacBook Air, or any other system where it's all too easy to run low on storage.

OS install speeds haven't gotten dramatically faster, though. We timed a complete install on the MacBook at about 36 minutes. This could be faster with a 7,200RPM hard drive or a desktop-sized optical drive, but it doesn't stand out by itself.

speed improvements

From day to day, the one aspect of Snow Leopard you're most likely to notice is speed. Most changes aren't dramatic in and of themselves, but combined they amount to a smoother experience. A cold boot on our MacBook sped up from 52 seconds to 44 seconds; a shutdown took just 5 seconds instead of the earlier 8 seconds. We also noticed that at least some apps tended to load faster. Safari, for example, took 3 seconds, or 2 Dock icon bounces, to load under the previous Mac OS X release; in Snow Leopard, it took a single bounce and 2 seconds.

There are also less quantifiable speed improvements: thumbnails load faster, Wi-Fi reestablishes a connection faster, and links to remote servers restore faster after waking from sleep (not to mention automatically try to reconnect). Time Machine backups are also faster. These advantages are less likely to manifest themselves on systems with large amounts of RAM or on subsequent uses, but they create a cumulative effect that amounts to a lot.

Moreover, the speed-ups are more noticeable than they are in Windows 7. Users with a reasonably recent Windows Vista PC may never notice a difference; it's not unless it's a netbook or marginal upgrade candidate that the difference is obvious. Leopard wasn't slow to start with, and a significant number of quirks have been ironed out.

Finder and Expos? refinements

With no plans to launch a complete overhaul of the Mac OS X user interface in Snow Leopard, Apple was free to tackle minor quirks, and that's what was done here. Besides speed, Finder's changes mostly streamline what was already there: it's now possible to thumb through a multi-page PDF or other document without entering Quick Look if the thumbnail is large enough -- which it can now be thanks to a size slider in Finder windows. Spotlight now has the option of changing search defaults and of better sorting, and items put in the trash can be restored to their original locations. As mentioned earlier, dropped connections to network shares or other resources resume more quickly.

Those who regularly juggle tasks between apps may also appreciate an important change to the Services section in the right-click (contextual) menu or in the main program menu: rather than offer every possible service, it's now sufficiently intelligent to show only the actions Mac OS X thinks can be taken in a given situation. If you select text in a web browser, for example, you'll be given text-related options like making a Stickies note, not image imports. Editors and others who face unusual tasks that come up often, or which have multiple steps, can even create Automator tasks that get pinned to the Services menu.

Stacks have arguably received the biggest help. Leopard owners will recall that they quickly became useless any time they were applied to folders with significant numbers of files. Many files were often excluded from the view as it could only handle a certain amount of data at one time. That's now fixed; whenever Stacks are set to Grid or List view, you can scroll through all files as easily as you would in a Finder window. The simple adjustment now makes Stacks useful for your Applications or Documents folder, not just temporary holding places.

If prospective buyers are expecting a cosmetic reminder that they've bought a new Mac OS X update, though, they'll be sorely disappointed. About the only conspicuous change to Finder itself are translucent black contextual menus for Dock icons. They're pretty and help retain more visual consistency with Dock features like Stacks, but that's roughly as far as they reach.

Much more significant is the change to Expos?. The visual task switcher has always been useful, but in Leopard and earlier it quickly becomes something of a mess when many windows are open. Windows in the past used to scatter in seemingly random directions and could sometimes be so small as to be hard to decipher. Snow Leopard now neatly organizes and labels the windows and lets you zoom into them to verify their contents if they're too small. It's much easier to view just the windows for a particular app, too, as you can now click and hold on the Dock icon instead of having to remember a keyboard or corner mouseover shortcut.

All of these contribute to a perceivably quicker time switching apps. It is one of the few features that feels partly like a reaction, however: Windows Vista and 7 have had visual thumbnails of taskbar items since 2007 and have already had a way to view just a particular app's windows in that context. To call Snow Leopard a copy would be something of a mistake, though: Microsoft still doesn't have a way to see the windows for every running app, and its side-by-side previews are too small. Flip 3D remains a cosmetic selling point rather than truly functional.

the controversy of QuickTime X

Apple has a periodic tendency to overhaul its software in slash-and-burn fashion: it's so determined to refresh the experience that it knowingly purges features for the sake of simplicity. Most Mac users will recall this happening most recently to iMovie, which with its 2008 update scrapped many of the precision editing and transition tools in the name of speedy use.

A similar, but less jarring, transition has happened with QuickTime. For some reason skipping multiple revisions to be labeled QuickTime X, Apple has tried to create as minimal a player as possible. The window frame and its timeline now disappear altogether when a movie is in mid-play; it's only when you mouse over the window that a floating control appears. This can be handy when a video is playing alongside other apps on the desktop but does feel somewhat arbitrary when the video is by itself, especially as you need to temporarily obscure some of the video to pause it (even if you can move the control panel).

Similarly, some of the more advanced features have taken a step back from their particularly detailed prior methods. Editing a video is now accomplished almost exactly like it is on an iPhone 3GS: you can only choose the start and endpoints on a visual timeline. Like with the iPhone, or even iMovie '08/'09, you now have to gauge the ideal cut point visually. This is a boon for those making quick edits but is a problem for pros who may want consistent edits based on the timecode. When it's time to share, you also no longer have fine-grain control over encoding settings. Apple only allows simple iTunes, MobileMe and YouTube upload options that vary in quality depending on the size of the original audio or video and its intended destination, such as an Apple TV (720p) or iPhone (640x480).

That QuickTime 7 is now included as an optional component during the Mac OS X installation suggests that Apple itself knows it isn't quite ready to sever ties with its old way of doing things.

Thankfully, what Apple takes away in interface depth it makes up for in performance. The architecture itself is supposed to be faster, but Apple at last is making use of graphics hardware to drive video. On a basic level, any Mac that can support Core Video or other modern graphics-based technologies in Snow Leopard can offload some of the rendering and scaling work to the graphics hardware and make up for a weak main processor. Any Mac with a GeForce 9400M integrated chipset can even get near-total acceleration of H.264-encoded videos. It's slightly disappointing that no other graphics hardware is currently recognized for this feature, however.

Those who like to use third-party codecs for playback will be glad to know that formats like DivX or XviD will still play in QuickTime X when those codecs are present.

Taken at a wider view, QuickTime X therefore feels very much like iMovie redux. It's a gamble taken that users will like the new features enough to forgive missing features until they're added back, if they're added back at all. All the same, this is more that can be said for Windows Media Player 11 in Windows 7 -- it remains largely unchanged from what ran in Vista.

invisible features: 64-bit, Grand Central Dispatch, OpenCL

An often unheralded aspect of Mac OS X updates is the frequent attention to the underlying framework. For all the obvious additions at the top, Apple usually has at least as many changes that exist to improve the potential of the OS for the future. Some of these are hard to detect -- Tiger brought code changes that reduced the need for third-party compatibility updates, for instance -- but they're commonly more substantial than the changes brought about in Windows' service packs.

In Snow Leopard, these take more of a central role, although it's not always easy to tell. The deepened 64-bit roots are a quintessential example. Some of the performance gains realized in the OS stem from the wider data path, as 64-bit data lets them process more information at once; but it's not a cure-all. Some apps wouldn't benefit at all from the change, and even memory-hungry apps only seldomly can (or even need to) access more than the 4GB per app that was the limit in Leopard. Many of the changes are there mainly to prepare Mac OS X for the soon-to-come day when most apps will want 64-bit access or will see a noticeable gain from more than 4GB of RAM each.

Security does take a step up as well due to the way apps use and reserve memory, but without any attacks yet targeted at Snow Leopard, it's hard to tell whether this will make software more iron-clad.

Much ado has been made about how Apple boots all Macs but the Xserve into a 32-bit kernel in Snow Leopard, even when the hardware supports 64-bit addressing. It's an advantage Windows 7 64-bit has in being largely native. There's an advantage to this, but in practice Microsoft isn't gaining much. Only a handful of tasks, usually server-oriented, currently need the underlying manager to consume the extra system resources. Until a 64-bit kernel is useful in most every aspect of computing, Snow Leopard's implementation is as effective as Windows' for the end user.

Grand Central Dispatch is even more focused on the future. It should give multi-core Macs, or virtually all of them since 2007, a speed boost in apps that can split tasks between multiple cores. Potentially, it's a powerful feature. But since only Mac Pro workstations have any more than two cores as of this writing, much of the technology is currently wasted. It won't be until processors launch with Intel's Hyperthreading, which lets one core sometimes run two tasks at once, that Grand Central Dispatch will make itself useful. Even then, it will depend on developers altering their app code to make use of the better multi-core support.

OpenCL (Open Compute Language) faces a similar situation. It will eventually let supporting video chipsets (mostly from AMD and NVIDIA) take on non-graphics tasks like vector math in scientific calculations or to handle physics in games. Companies have already pledged support, but as of today no apps on the Mac or elsewhere truly support it. Again, it won't be until developers have had time to adapt code to the new feature, although when it's used it should be a significant boost.

a word on Exchange support

Hooks for Microsoft Exchange have been a centerpiece of Apple's Snow Leopard marketing, but for most users this is difficult to test. Like many home users and smaller (or simply less centralized) businesses, we don't use or require Exchange Server in our infrastructure at MacNN and Electronista. It's therefore impractical for us to test the feature.

We will say that it's surprisingly well integrated for a first release and covers all of the common tasks you'd have previously needed Microsoft Entourage to run: you can now edit and sync meeting statuses in iCal, automatically fetch contacts in Address Book or receive push messages in Mail. For companies where a familiar Microsoft experience isn't essential, this could finally make integrating Macs a straightforward process.

Ironically, it actually gives Apple a slight edge over Microsoft itself, as Windows doesn't have built-Exchange support for its built-in apps. Naturally, the company would rather you buy Office instead on a Windows PC. That's often preloaded by PC makers, but it's not guaranteed on the same level as Mac OS X now offers.

There is one caveat: Snow Leopard will only recognize Exchange Server 2007. More aggressive companies won't mind this, but conservative firms running Exchange Server 2003 or older versions will face the same requirement for Entourage that they do today.

compatibility on launch

While the process of updating to major versions of Mac OS X has grown increasingly pain-free over time, there have always been apps that have needed fixes to work with whatever Apple is shipping.

Snow Leopard seems to have made these issues more pronounced, at least on launch day. It's not evident whether this relates to the 64-bit code or something deeper still, but we found a surprisingly notable range of apps that have or need an update to work. Apple's own Aperture and Keynote need to have been recently patched; in third-party apps, users have no choice but to patch some particularly important software, like Parallels Desktop (3.0 won't work) and several antivirus utilities. Apple has a compatibility list for those who want to know what is known to have broken.

Slightly more worrying are that some apps will refuse to load properly or at all without updates that have just appeared or are still enroute. CyberDuck FTP client wouldn't run at all until we installed a beta version with Snow Leopard support. The background notification system Growl also behaves erratically as of press time.

Thankfully, a few compatibility issues have been overblown. Some had feared that Adobe's lack of support for its Creative Suite 3 under Snow Leopard meant it would break. While we hope to verify this in longer-term testing, at least Photoshop CS3 continues to work. Still, we'd still like it if Adobe would support a two-year-old release still in use by many professionals. Certain menubar apps like DropBox and SMARTReporter also seem to run correctly.

This may be one of the few areas where Windows 7 has an unambiguous advantage. Helped in no small part by a plan to avoid the mistakes of Windows Vista by goading developers into having new support code ready, Microsoft has made moving to Windows 7 relatively easy, at least for Vista users. They can more confidently assume that recent apps will work on launch day, although in fairness Apple started Snow Leopard later and released it earlier.

wrapping up and the Windows 7 rivalry

Little doubt exists that Snow Leopard isn't a surprise bargain for an OS release. If Apple had released it at the company's usual $129 price point, there would rightly have been anger at being overcharged for features that don't have a significant impact on how you use a Mac.

But it's selling for $29, and at that price it makes eminently more sense. Despite what some detractors might say, it's not just a glorified patch: there are many noticeable, albeit not dramatic, improvements for the better. Not to mention that many of the architectural changes are deep enough that a patch very likely wouldn't have been realistic. It's easily worth what Apple is charging, and we've heard of buyers ordering multiple copies for their friends to get them onboard.

That recommendation is especially notable as Apple doesn't saddle the install disc with the activation or version checks you might see in Windows. You won't have to reinstall a prior version of Mac OS X just to put Snow Leopard back on in the event of a crash, for example.

It's a qualified success in some areas. We'd advise against installing Snow Leopard right away on a production system until you know the apps you need to use will run. Someone using Microsoft Office and nothing else won't have much trouble. If you depend on an older version of a mission-critical app, check with a friend or online to see if it works (or if you can get an update) before investing in the release. Also, as Apple has repeatedly made clear in the past few months, users of PowerPC-based Macs will have to replace their systems to use the new version. We won't be too mournful: these users have had over three years to upgrade and will probably have another year yet before enough apps require Snow Leopard to force a decision.

Potential switchers to the Mac may face an even tougher choice: do they want to jump into Mac use with Snow Leopard, or stay on track with an upgrade to Windows 7? Having used pre-release versions for months, we won't be shy in saying that Windows 7 is a good release for Microsoft with a friendlier interface, more device support and better performance. If we were serious PC gamers or needed to run Windows for specific apps, we wouldn't hesitate to recommend it.

However, aside from the taskbar and other interface changes like Aero Peek, most of what Windows 7 does is to fix the mistakes made in Vista that in some cases actually scared customers away. The extra performance is needed because Vista was too demanding for many low-end PCs and still won't work smoothly on most netbooks. Device support was a priority because Vista's first year on the market was dominated by stories of hardware that wouldn't work or didn't work properly. Interface changes were made because Vista still largely relied on the same interface mechanics as Windows XP.

As a result, Windows 7 feels more like catching up to where Vista should have been than a genuine step forward. Buying a new PC with 7 is more palatable than just an upgrade, but won't offer a radically different experience -- and unlike Apple, Microsoft still plans to charge its regular upgrade rates. Unless you bought into the early pre-orders, the most common upgrade version of Windows 7, Home Premium, will cost $130. That's a large cost to absorb for what is ultimately getting the OS to what it should have been in 2007.

Apple won't always charge $29 for a Mac OS X upgrade, of course, and switchers should know that Snow Leopard's price is a one-off circumstance meant chiefly to get as many Mac users as possible on the same feature set before the hardware and software move ahead. Whether or not that future expense matters, Snow Leopard in our minds trumps Windows 7 simply because it's building on an already good experience and making it better; for most considering the move, it's a good time to switch.