Mac OS X Snow Leopard: Our complete test

We've tested the ins and outs of Apple's latest operating system -- OS X Snow Leopard -- and can finally present you with our undiluted, illustrated final thoughts on whether it's worth the upgrade

Mac OS X Snow Leopard is a deep old cove -- the first thing you'll notice after installing it over Leopard is that little seems to have changed. This school of thought underlies almost every other observation you'll make as you first explore Apple's new OS, because the largest alterations are curled up inside the very underpinnings of the system itself.

Our Snow Leopard is prowling on a 2GHz Intel Core 2 Duo summer 2008 MacBook (and this writer's primary computer), with 4GB of Corsair DDR3 RAM and a 500GB Seagate hard disk . Unlike the older Core-based Macs, the Core 2 Duo computers support OS X's new 64-bit technologies. This is one of the more technical changes Leopard has undergone during its evolution to Snow Leopard.

Before talking about the guts of the system though, let's talk obvious changes. Expose no longer presents a screen full of differently sized thumbnails of open windows when you've been working all day. Instead, they're all intelligently sized and lined up proportionally to each other. Minimised windows appear small at the bottom of the Expose view now as well.

OS X's Stacks are significantly better now, too. Stacks were introduced in Leopard to let you browse a list of files or folders right from the Dock. But if you clicked on a folder, for example, it opened Finder. It was annoying. But in Snow Leopard, you can click through files and folders without leaving the Stack in question. If you do land in Finder, enjoy being able to preview QuickTime movies within their thumbnails, or resize icons on the fly with a little slider bar along the bottom of each Finder window.

Snow Leopard Stacks

It seems like hundreds of changes as small as this have been made throughout the OS, and it's for these reasons Snow Leopard may feel like a service pack. As you use the computer you notice little tweaks that save you a few seconds here, a few seconds there. For example, putting the machine into sleep took, for us, just a couple of seconds. But let's look at some of the major new features you'll run into.

Brand-new technology

To take advantage of the 64-bit processors in most Macs and the huge amount of memory the OS can support, Apple has rewritten almost all of its major OS X applications, including Finder, Mail and Safari (but not suites such as iLife and iWork, sadly), in 64-bit. This opens up doors to developers to make their applications 64-bit too.

Finder is noticeably more responsive, and Apple's Safari browser is evidently quicker to render JavaScript-heavy Web pages such as Google Maps and Google Docs spreadsheets (we've covered Safari extensively in a previous feature).

It's an admirable step, but it won't instantly make your machine feel as though it has twice as much RAM. If you want that kind of boost in responsiveness, you'll have to put twice as much RAM in your computer -- here's how .

Another new technology introduced in this version of OS X is Grand Central Dispatch. Essentially it's a system buried deep in the OS that enables developers to intelligently and efficiently squeeze as much juice out of multi-core CPUs as possible, without them having to write time-consuming special code. It's another one of those things you won't really benefit from today, but as your software packages get better, you'll probably notice they really get better.

OpenCL -- a blossoming open-standard technology incorporated into Snow Leopard -- lets software developers exploit the power of the Mac's graphics-processing chips for standard computing tasks. These 'graphics' chips are structured differently to normal computer processors, and are called GPUs -- graphics processing units -- because that's all they've ever done: process graphics. But they're insanely powerful when it comes to crunching certain types of code, and in Snow Leopard, if a developer thinks its software needs to use this power, it can.

Like GCD, OpenCL's benefits right now are marginal. Rather, they're more of a preparation for the future than a radical improvement to the present. But slowly, you'll start to see software that either requires Snow Leopard to function, or can provide significantly better performance.

Installing Snow Leopard

QuickTime X

Conversely, if sharing home video is your bag, Snow Leopard could save you two or three bags of time straight away. The reason is QuickTime X, and together with its front-end -- QuickTime Player X -- it's one of our favourite features of OS X 10.6. The new player has been completely redesigned and looks slicker than any other Mac-based media app on the planet -- think a monkey riding a dog, only even cooler.

But not only does it look better than even the most nimble simian jockey, it blends many features of QuickTime Pro -- a £20 product -- into itself. Loosely speaking, you could argue you're paying the £20 for QuickTime X, and five quid for everything else in Snow Leopard. Seems like good value to us.

QuickTime X is, in many ways however, better than the old Pro version. A 'trimming' feature allows you to load a movie -- perhaps from a camcorder or one of those cheapo Flip Video wotsits -- highlight the section you want to share, then click Trim. Now you've got that little clip saved ready to upload to YouTube, save into iTunes or upload to your favourite amateur pornography hub. Thank you, Apple, for making the sharing of voyeuristic sex tapes easier than ever.

 

In Snow Leopard, QuickTime now lets you record video in one click from the built-in iSight camera, record audio from any audio source available, and even record all activity on your screen as a standard video file, audio 'n' all.

To some people, these features are worth the £25 upgrade in itself (mostly as a result of QuickTime Pro already costing £20), but there are snags still. There's no built-in support for DivX, Xvid or MKV, and video-encoding options -- such as format, resolution and bit rate -- are nowhere to be seen. It's a classic case of Apple picking the settings it thinks you want in the name of simplicity, but alienating users who want more advanced controls.

Exchange support

OS X now supports Microsoft Exchange -- that software your work probably uses to power Outlook. We've heard many people touting this as the best reason to upgrade. We agree, but only if your company has one of two things: Exchange Server 2007, or an Exchange 2003 server with support for Exchange IMAP. Our corporate overlord CBSi has neither, so to us this 'perk' of Snow Leopard is, in three words, not a perk.

We've seen it in action elsewhere, and it works just as advertised. But we strongly advise that if Exchange support is the feature you want the most, nag your company's IT department to ensure it supports the above technology. If it doesn't, you're wasting your time.

Compatibility and problems

Upgrading your operating system often means programs keel over and die from the stress. Also from the fact that they were built to run on something else. Our experience was actually quite painless though. Our O2 3G modem stopped working to begin with, but reinstalling it fixed the problem and added a signal-strength indicator to the OS X toolbar. Also, Dropbox -- the file-sharing app -- was no longer integrated into Finder's contextual menus after the upgrade.

But they were the only problems we experienced. An extremely detailed list of programs supported or not supported can be found on the Wikidot Snow Leopard compatibility list, which details what does and doesn't work in far more depth than we can go into here.

Conclusion

OS X Snow Leopard is more than just a service pack, but on first, second and third glance, you'd be forgiven for thinking it wasn't. Additionally, many of its benefits lie further down the line, once developers start to take advantage of its new underlying technology.

For that reason, it's not necessarily a rush-out-and-buy upgrade like Leopard was in 2007, unless you want Exchange support and know your company's server is compatible. But for the upgraded features, enhancements to OS X's core functionality, and the overhauled architecture it brings to enhance the Mac's hardware, it's absolutely worth the money the next time you pass the Apple store.

 

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