OS X Snow Leopard FAQ: What you need to know

With Apple's next Mac OS just around the corner, we take an in-depth look at what OS X Snow Leopard is, what's new, what's changed -- and how it'll change how you use your Mac

OS X Snow Leopard is the next version of Apple's Mac operating system. It'll be out in September and, by Apple's count, contains 'refinements' to around 900 features, tools and applications inside OS X.

If you bought a new Mac running OS X Leopard on or after 8 June 2009, you can have an upgrade to Snow Leopard sent to you for £7.95. Prices for everyone else are still to be confirmed, but we expect to know more within the next week or so.

Snow Leopard: Quick facts

When is Snow Leopard released?
Early to mid-September.

How much will it cost?
In the US, $29. That's about £20. UK prices aren't official yet, but £20 to £25 is a safe bet.

Is Snow Leopard just a service pack to Leopard?
No more than Windows 7 is a service pack to Vista. It's more like a new engine for the same car.

Will it work on all Mac computers?
No. Only Macs with Intel processors are supported by Snow Leopard.

Will I lose all my files when I upgrade?
No. Backing up data is always a good idea, but your programs and files will be safe.

How much hard-drive space will it use?
Less than Leopard uses now. In fact you'll regain 6GB of space after upgrading to Snow Leopard.

Snow Leopard: The main benefits

The evolution inside Snow Leopard is divided into two camps: additions and overhauls, and tweaks and refinements. Almost everything focuses on subtle improvements to speed and efficiency, but there are a few enormous rebuilds of OS X's foundations.

QuickTime X
There are two elements to the new QuickTime X technology: QuickTime X and QuickTime Player. The former is the rewritten media-processing technology built into Snow Leopard. The latter is simply the video-player interface. The most important change is that QuickTime X will utilise your machine's graphics card to improve video playback, most notably with H.264 video -- the default format for iTunes Store movie downloads, for example.

On top of that, the new QuickTime Player loses its application border, leaving just your video file playing in the middle of the screen without a silver frame or play/pause controls. You can edit video clips right inside the player and directly upload them to YouTube, or save them as files compatible with the latest iPods and iPhones.

Speed boosts
Forget about the initial install of the OS taking half the time Leopard took -- you'll probably only do that once. The real benefits come with day-to-day usage. Resuming from sleep is twice as quick as on Leopard, external drives such as iPods eject faster, searching within Spotlight, Finder and Mail is quicker, Time Machine backups are faster, and when you're finished working, shutdown takes almost half the time it does at the moment.

Much of this is the result of 64-bit code -- something almost every app, bar iTunes, DVD Player and Front Row, has been rewritten to utilise -- which works with Snow Leopard's new Grand Central Dispatch architecture for better managing all CPU cores and graphics chips. Bear in mind older Macs using Intel Core Solo or Core Duo chips don't support 64-bit technology, so they won't experience as large a speed boost.

Exchange Support
Apple has built in support for Microsoft's Exchange Server 2007. This is what, on a PC, pushes and synchronises all your email, contact info and calendar entries to Outlook and your phone.

By doing this, OS X's Mail, iCal and Address Book apps sync up just like Outlook. Note that if your company is still running Exchange Server 2003 (ours is), you will still be able to sync Snow Leopard with your office server. We confirmed this with Microsoft, a spokesperson from which said, "Correct -- it will work with Exchange Server 2003 as well." Our IT boffins here at CBSi confirmed this too.

Snow Leopard: The smaller benefits

If you upgraded from OS 10.4 Tiger to OS 10.5 Leopard, you'll have seen a change as radical as Windows users noticed after upgrading to Vista from XP. Not so in Snow Leopard. Instead of an overhaul, Apple has simply made Leopard's UI more functional without changing how it looks.

In Leopard, Exposé brings all open application windows into view on your screen -- each often very small if you're working on a pile of stuff at once. In Snow Leopard, however, you can use Exposé simply to reveal all windows open within a certain application, but right from the application in question's Dock icon instead of by pressing F10. For example, it'll show you all open Adobe Photoshop windows, or all your IM conversation boxes.

Some other desktop refinements have been made. As well as being faster, OS X's Finder has been rewritten to let you play video files within their thumbnails. Handy to check the file you've found is the one you want to watch, but only if that file is supported by QuickTime, we expect. As VLC users, this may not be a ground-shattering benefit to us.

A small but useful feature for us concerns sleep. Today, if a Mac goes to sleep for just a few seconds, you need to punch in your password to wake it up. Snow Leopard lets you specify how long the computer needs to have been asleep before asking for your password. This simple change in functionality highlights almost everything about Snow Leopard: small updates that make common tasks just that little bit less time-consuming.

Snow Leopard: The unanswerable questions

Much of what we know about Snow Leopard comes from documentation and developer preview editions of the new code. But there are a few major questions we still want answering.

  • iTunes is one of the few apps not to be rewritten with 64-bit code, so will iTunes' video playback fail to take advantage of the new QuickTime X technologies, such as for rendering H.264 video?

  • New QuickTime technologies are, we believe, essentially two umbrella components: QuickTime X (backend) and a new QuickTime Player (frontend). As we understand it, the backend tech is Snow Leopard-only, but does that mean the revised Player could land on Leopard, just without the features such as GPU-accelerated H.264 processing?

  • Finally, Snow Leopard will only work on Intel chips. Are we correct in thinking the Snow Leopard kernel is a hybrid of both 32-bit and 64-bit, and therefore Intel Core Solo and Core Duo Macs will run as a 32-bit OS, but Core 2 Duo Macs will run as a full-blown 64-bit OS?

We hope to snag some answers to this in our full and comprehensive test of Snow Leopard following its release.

So, should you upgrade?

If your Mac runs an Intel Core 2 CPU, then probably, yes. More so if you want to use your company's Exchange server for email without buying Microsoft Office.

But for everyone else, we're going to hold off on our final word until we've given Snow Leopard a full, detailed and thorough test when it's released next month.

Should this be a free service-pack download? Are you going to rush out and cough up the cash? Let us know your thoughts and feelings in the comments.

 

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