Written by Topher Kessler
Official announcements have mentioned a September release date for Snow Leopard, but rumor has it we could see it arrive as soon as August 28th (1, 2). In the past when Apple has given a month or season timeframe for a product release they have pushed it back as far as possible in that window, but with Snow Leopard in development for so long perhaps they have finished things up sooner than expected. Recently people have spotted the availability of Snow Leopard in a "MacBox Set" on the Apple Store, which seemed to be a slip by Apple but indicates the release is just around the corner.
This "sooner rather than later" shipping date may be set to ensure people receive their copies in the September timeframe, which would be perfect timing to tackle initial bugs before schools begin, but we will see. One additional supportive component of this is Amazon's move of OS X Snow Leopard literature release dates to August 31st, indicating Snow Leopard will be released sooner rather than later.
So do I install right away?
With any new operating system there will be plenty of bugs and problems, and with Snow Leopard's high level of optimization there may be some incompatibilities with current software; however, if you are eager to have the latest OS then the answer to this question is yes! Go ahead and install the OS, but be sure to fully back up your system beforehand. This wait period before Snow Leopard's release might be a good time to download and figure out how to use a third-party drive cloning program, and start making cloned backups along with Time Machine if you use that. Be sure you know how to restore your system from the backup, so you can be better prepared if problems arise with Snow Leopard.
Realistically, Snow Leopard will not provide much in terms of new features, so while it will be faster than Leopard, if you can live with Leopard and are worried about compatibility, you might wait for the initial reports to flow in about problems. There are bound to be people who have some issues with the new software, and waiting to see if a particular piece of software has problems is a good idea. If you run a fairly unmodified installation of OS X (ie, few third-party programs, and no external devices) then I recommend upgrading sooner rather than later.
How do I prepare?
In addition to backing up your system with Time Machine and clones, there are several things you can do to prepare for Snow Leopard. These include "cleaning house" of all unnecessary programs and add-ons. Download and run cache cleaning utilities such as OnyX, and throw out programs you do not use. Remove third-party "haxie" programs that enhance your system or modify its appearance, and get your system back to being as basic as possible. While Snow Leopard's installer should detect incompatible software and disable it, do not rely on this.
Synchronize your computer as well. If you use iPhones and iPods with MobileMe, synchronize them now and keep them updated until Snow Leopard is in your hands. This will ensure your data is consistent across all your devices as you want it to be. Lastly, keep your applications and system fully updated, and be sure that permissions are set correctly on your Leopard installation. There were permissions problems with the latest 10.5.8 system update that we addressed in this article, but once those are fixed run the permissions fix and keep them updated.
After doing all this, just sit back and wait for Snow Leopard to arrive, then insert the disk and double-click.
What should I expect?
Apple has spent a number of years going through transitions. With the first PowerPC chips there was a wait period before software could take advantage of the hardware. They then switched operating systems to OS X, and did a great job in promoting application development for the platform. Finally, they switched from PowerPC to Intel chips, and in doing so cemented a marriage between hardware and software that should last a while. So what is happening with Snow Leopard? Think of this whole effort as a code-refinement transition, where behind the scenes Apple is cleaning up after years of twisting and turning around various architectures and code-bases. Apple has it's path, and now they've spent time tightening the bolts and getting down to business.
In this light, look at Snow Leopard as just a highly optimized version of Leopard, with a few visual tweaks here and there but for the most part being functionally identical to Leopard. There has been much hype about Snow Leopard, but if you are expecting to be wowed with features then prepare to be disappointed. Current Leopard users will not see much difference beyond performance increases, but then again performance is what this release is all about. Behind the scenes Apple has taken their operating system and refined it, but has not given many obvious new features for people to play with. Imagine your current computer without as many pauses and delays when applications open. Imagine it going to sleep or shutting down immediately, or having minimal instances of some incessant background task causing the hard drive to grind away. This is what Snow Leopard is supposed to bring.
Given this lack of new features, Apple was wise in providing current Leopard users with a very cheap upgrade option. I personally think the pricing is well-worth it, since those running Tiger can upgrade to the Leopard environment for the same price as Leopard users paid, and current Leopard users can get their copy for a cheap $29. People who have purchased current computers with Leopard installed can upgrade for a mere $9.95 (though we expect Apple will start including upgrade disks with new computers for free).
What will happen to Tiger?
While Apple may still provide security updates to Tiger users, expect that they will soon begin phasing out support for Tiger. As such, you may consider now a time to upgrade your operating system. Remember that while Apple has provided discounts to current Leopard users, if you are running Tiger you will not get these discounts and will need to pay the full $129 price for Snow Leopard.
Topher has been an avid Mac user for the past 10-15 years, and has been a contributing author to MacFixIt for just over a year now. One of his diehard passions has been troubleshooting Mac problems and making the best use of Macs and Apple hardware both for family and friends, as well as in the workplace. He and the newly formed MacFixIt team are hoping to bring enhanced and more personable content to our readers, and keep the MacFixIt community going here at CNET. If you have questions or comments for Topher or the other MacFixIt editors, feel free to contact us at http://www.macfixit.com/contactResources