Running OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard: Initial Impressions and Review

Take any used car and tune it up, put new tires and brake systems on it, and rebuild the engine and transmission. When you are done it will feel like a new car even though it looks the same. This is what Apple has done with Snow Leopard: Functionally,

Written by Topher Kessler

Take any used car and tune it up, put new tires and brake systems on it, and rebuild the engine and transmission. When you are done it will feel like a new car even though it looks the same. This is what Apple has done with Snow Leopard: Functionally, it is the same OS as we've all seen in Leopard besides a few new features, but under the hood things have been optimized to a great extent. While this has been discussed in great lengths by Apple and on Mac news sites, it is one thing to read about it and another thing to experience it in person.

After upgrading my 10.5 installation to 10.6 as I described in a previous article, I found myself looking at a nearly identical desktop and system as I had seen in 10.5. Surely there was more to the new OS, even though Apple had claimed this was more about the underpinnings than introducing new features. They definitely were not lying, and while a few interface tweaks and features made their way into Snow Leopard, the overall difference between Snow Leopard and Leopard is that things run much more smoothly and efficiently.

Looking at the storage optimizations, before updating I had 218GB of hard drive space available, but now with just the upgrade and no other "cleaning" efforts of mine I have 246GB available. That's a whole 32GB of space freed up, which is an impressive amount, and at first made me think "Not Bad!"; however, Apple's website claims that Snow Leopard will free up about 7GB of space, which made me concerned I had lost some files, but everything is still there. I was wondering about this until Apple released a knowledgebase document discussing changes in how Snow Leopard calculates file sizes, which I wrote about here.

Built-in Applications

So now I have Leopard installed, and have more space on my hard drive (albeit less than I originally though). I figured the first thing I would do is run Mail, which launched and upgraded its database. I noticed the program runs much faster and is a lot more responsive, with spotlight searching through the interface being a lot snappier. Overall, though, it is still the same Mail application in appearance.

Next up was Safari, which opened with two bounces and showed the "top sites" window. The previews took a while to load, but I attribute that to Safari more than the system software; however, they eventually loaded and browsing is now about the same on Snow Leopard as it was on Leopard running the same version of Safari.

After Safari, I launched iCal, which looks the same but is quite noticeably faster. One of the biggest problems I've had with iCal was resizing the window always lagged and chopped. The Snow Leopard version is smoother, and while there is still a small lag when resizing, it is definitely more manageable.

Since I use the terminal quite frequently, I decided to check that out next, and was very happy to see the addition of a vertical split option for the current terminal session. Now, when terminal items go off the screen, I can split the window and scroll up with one view while still being able to see my input with another view. This is exceptionally useful to those who use the Terminal.

System Preferences

The system preferences are fairly similar to Leopard, with only a few additions here and there. I went through them to see what the major changes were, most of which were found in the Security system preferences. Beyond that, Apple has just done some minor reorganization. The FireWall no longer has three separate security options. Instead, these options are reorganized into two: on and off, with the "on" option having advanced settings to further block all incoming connections. If this is disabled, then the firewall behavior goes to being an application-specific firewall, which shows allowed and denied applications in a color-coded list (red being denied, and green being allowed).

Other changes to the system preferences are the "International" pane is now "Language & Text", and the international system menu is now a "Keyboard & Character Viewer" menu. The new menu takes away the flag from the menubar and puts up a new icon, and though I rather enjoyed having my country's flag up there, I'll manage without it. The "Keyboard & Mouse" preferences have been split into two separate panes, and are more user-friendly. In the Sharing system preferences, Apple has included "Bluetooth" and "Scanner" sharing options, and the "Accounts" system preferences has the option to bind the system to an authentication server for use with networked accounts. There may be more changes to the system preferences, but these are what stand out at first-glance.

Third-party applications

One major concern of mine was being able to run my current applications without any problems, and I am pleased that most run just fine with the default boot options for Snow Leopard. The list of applications I launched and ran without any problems are:

VMWare Fusion 2.0.5
Igor Pro
Adobe Dreamweaver CS4
Adobe Photoshop CS4
Adobe Illustrator CS4
Pages and Numbers
Microsoft Remote Desktop
Apple Remote Desktop (requires the latest version)
VLC media player
TextWrangler
Toast 10 Titanium

Granted I did not try all features of these programs, but they launched and I was able to perform simple tasks with them without any problems. Some programs that did NOT load properly were the server admin tools for OS X 10.5 Server. These unexpectedly quit, and would not load even under Rosetta emulation, so I will need to wait for Apple to release updated versions of these utilities before I can be fully up to speed. Meanwhile I can run them on the server itself using Screen Sharing from my Snow Leopard installation to view the Server, but I would prefer to have the applications running locally.

For more information on what Applications are known to be incompatible with OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard, see this knowledgebase document.

System and Interface features

With my applications sorted out, I tried checking out some of the interface and system features I frequently use.

Software update is almost identical to Leopard, except when you run it the initial "checking for new software..." routine the window is much smaller and is not displayed as a sub-window of the main Software Update window. When updates are found, the smaller window will change to the standard Software Update list, but until then it has a more minimized look.

The Dock is identical to Leopard, with the exception of how Stacks and the Dock menus behave. Menus are now much darker, and appear less like system menus than they did in Leopard. There is some reorganization to the content of the menus, putting many of the useful features in an "options" submenu. I personally appreciated more options in one menu, than having to mouse-over a submenu, but having this is a minimal inconvenience. Beyond the new menus, Stacks now have the option to navigate through enclosed folders, so items in them are viewed in the stack itself, rather than opening in the Finder. This is convenient because it keeps navigation to one location (the stack). Lastly, if you click and hold an open application in the Dock, Expose will launch for the active windows of that application.

The system menus now show the wireless signal strength in the Airport menu, and you can add the date next to the time in the menu bar as well, a feature that I've desired for a long time in OS X. Time Machine also has a few subtle changes, and now says when it is calculating changed files versus actually backing up. Beyond that, there is relatively little different about the menus from Leopard except for the Services section of the application name menu, which now shows more relevant services to the task at hand, and groups them in categories.

64-bit kernel?

I discussed the basics of 64-bit technology in the MacFixIt article "Preparing for 10.6 Snow Leopard: the 64-bit reality", but regardless of 64-bit being something that most people may not need, it does satisfy the geek side of me to have it running.

By default the system will load the kernel in 32-bit mode even though 64-bit mode is supported. The primary difference between these modes is the ability to load 32-bit or 64-bit kernel extensions, with any that are 32-bit only loading under a 32-bit kernel, and likewise for the 64-bit kernel and extensions. As such, for compatibility Apple has set the system to load the 32-bit kernel by default. Even though this is the case, the system will run 64-bit applications just fine, but certain packages that rely on their own kernel extensions (such as virtualization solutions) will not load if you change the kernel to 64-bit, at least until their kernel extension are released in 64-bit versions.

If you would like to change the kernel to load in 64-bit mode by default, you can do this by editing the boot arguments plist file. Just run the following command in the terminal to edit this file:

sudo pico /Library/Preferences/SystemConfiguration/com.apple.Boot.plist

Supply your name and password, and you should see an empty set of "string" tags under the "Kernel Flags" key. Enter "arch=x86_64" between the string tags for this key, and press Control-X to quit the editor, and press "Y" to confirm saving the file. Then reboot your system.

Optionally, at boot you can specify which kernel to load by holding down either the "3" and "2" keys together for "32-bit" mode, or the "6" and "4" keys together for "64-bit" mode. These key combinations will take precedence over whatever boot arguments you have supplied in the "com.apple.Boot.plist" file.

The potential for incompatibilities under 64-bit mode is unfortunate, but Apple has approached it well by encouraging developers to release both 32-bit and 64-bit versions of kernel extensions, and having the system run by default in the mode that is most compatible with current kernel extensions.

Shutting down, Sleeping, and Restarting

Try it for yourself! It's fast!

With Snow Leopard, I've actually enjoyed starting up and shutting down the computer, as well as logging in and out. There are no hangs or slowdowns, and once the hardware initializes and the grey screen disappears after restarting (usually takes 20-30 seconds on my machine) the system software loads in only a few seconds and I am at the login screen. After supplying my password, logging in takes only a few seconds then I am able to launch applications and start working.

Shutting down is even faster, and provided that all open documents have been saved, the system will quickly quit all open applications and take only a few seconds to log out and shut down. The difference between Snow Leopard and prior versions of OS X makes this feel almost instantaneous.

Quirks and Bugs

The system is fast and efficient, but as with any new version of an operating system there are bound to be quirks and bugs, and Snow Leopard is not without them. To start, there have been a couple of graphical glitches on my machine when waking from sleep, with minor visual corruption in areas or the menu bar appearing transparent. Luckily this is easily fixable by activating and deactivating spaces, which refreshes the screen. Another display problem is when the screen's colorsync profile will frequently not reload properly after resuming from the screen saver, leaving the colors washed out. This happens more frequently when I use dual displays, but it also happens in single-display modes.

In the Finder, a few file types will show up with seemingly corrupt preview images, as if the Finder is trying to render them as images when they are not. This is particularly true of Windows ".bat" files, which have random garbled colors as icons. While it is not a glitch, the Finder will also still wait for optical media to spin up before save dialogue boxes become useful. As such, if you have a CD in the drive and wish to save a file to your hard drive, you cannot do anything until the CD is activated and read.

The last item that has a few problems is Expose. While Apple has increased its flexibility, Expose seems to be a little unfinished at times, with windows periodically lagging before zooming to their respective locations in Expose. This is particularly apparent when using Expose and Spaces at the same time. The movement of windows is a bit choppy at times as well, and when you activate spaces sometimes the windows being shown in Expose will trail the movement of the space. Expose and Spaces do function, but are in need of some refining before they fit in with the rest of Snow Leopard's snappiness.

My only complaint in Snow Leopard so far is the changes made to Expose. When you activated Expose in Leopard, all window sizes were preserved relative to each other on the screen. As such, large windows stayed large and small windows stayed proportionally small when viewed in Expose. In Snow Leopard, Expose now maximizes the size of all windows instead of keeping the sizes relative to each other. This is confusing since small windows with the same aspect ratio as larger ones will appear to be larger than they actually are when when viewed in Expose, requiring me to hunt for and identify windows by content and name rather than by size. If I have multiple windows and one small one, I would like to be able to find the window by its size, not by squinting at it or mousing over every to see their names.

Expose is still usable, but is not as intuitive as the previous version. I also preferred having the whole window area highlight blue instead of the new blue outline when a window is selected. While most aspects of Snow Leopard are quite welcome, I could do without these changes in Expose.

Overall Impression and Recommendation

I'm very impressed with Snow Leopard's snappiness, and it is well worth the upgrade price of $30, but if you are looking for a slew of new features that enhance the user experience from what you've been used to in Leopard, then you may be disappointed. From a features standpoint its no wonder Apple offered it at reduced prices.

As far as my recommendation goes, I'd say go for it and install the new OS, but do not expect to be wowed by fancy new features. If you are satisfied with your current system and are unsure about compatibility then you will not miss much by upgrading; however, unless you have a specific reason to avoid it, you'd be missing out on a very robust system by not installing Snow Leopard.

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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/contact

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