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Apple's Snow Leopard: A flurry of changes

Mac OS 10.6 is coming soon with some small changes that you'll like a lot. Here's what you need to know about the OS "refinements."

Snow Leopard
Apple's Bertrand Serlet outlines changes to Mac OS X 10.6 at WWDC. James Martin/CNET

According to rumors, the release of Mac OS X 10.6, Apple's operating system also known as Snow Leopard, might arrive a bit early. Though Apple announced at the Worldwide Developers Conference in June that Snow Leopard would hit stores in September, tech blogs became overly excited when it was whispered that it might be ready to debut on or about August 28.

How much does it matter that it could arrive five whole days before September officially begins? It doesn't. Regardless of when the operating system ships, here's what to expect from Snow Leopard, and why it might matter to you.

What's the difference between Snow Leopard and Leopard?

First thing to know: This is not a complete overhaul of Mac OS X. Rather, it's a series of small to medium-sized improvements, what Apple calls "refinements." Much of the new shine to OS X 10.6 comes from changes that are under the surface, possibly not obvious to the unobservant. But Apple does say that the improvements make the overall OS much faster, including a 45-percent faster installation than the previous version of the operating system, OS X 10.5, or Leopard. Apple is also promising faster boot times, quicker shut down, a speedier process when joining wireless networks, and faster backups to Time Machine. And it's not just quicker, Apple says, it's lighter: Upon install it frees up 6GB of space.

Specific applications have been tinkered with as well, with a lot of attention focused on Quicktime, Expose, and a shiny new Safari 4 browser, which was released in June. For more on that, see here.

Quicktime gets a mysterious new version number, and is now called Quicktime X. It's a bit slicker, and the new interface appears similar to the iPhone's media player. The real change is that many features that were previously in the Pro version of Quicktime are now in the free version. You will be able to edit video inside QuickTime using a video timeline ribbon that appears along the bottom of the screen. And there will be fewer steps involved in video uploading. You don't have to worry about file formats--Quicktime will do any necessary conversion and upload directly to video-hosting sites or MobileMe, Apple's subscription service that syncs personal files on any of its devices. Apple promises it will take just one click to record audio or video (on a Mac's built-in mic or camera) with the new Quicktime. It will also support HTTP streaming of a wider variety of file formats (like h.264 and AAC). It's a feature that many competing media players have long offered, and it automatically adjusts the playback bit rate according to what the connection can handle. It also means you can stream video or audio through more firewalls.

Expose, an operating system UI feature for organizing open application windows, or just the windows from a particular application currently running, gets tweaked a bit too. In Snow Leopard, Expose is integrated with app icons in the dock, which cuts out the need to first switch to the specific application you want before activating Expose to see its open windows. It also means you don't have to use a keyboard, or use a trackpad gesture to call it up. Clicking and holding an app's icon will bring all windows open that are associated with that program to the front.

What's the one killer feature worth upgrading for?

Many people will probably consider support for Microsoft Exchange Server 2007 the most important new feature of Snow Leopard. Improved Exchange support will be integrated into Mail, iCal, and Address Book in Snow Leopard, which means e-mail, calendar appointments, to-do lists, and contacts from Outlook will be viewable on your personal calendar, mail, and address books. It also allows things like dragging and dropping contacts into iCal to schedule meetings, and your Mac will be able to discover time conflicts between personal and work calendars and change the meeting time and location.

Related: Microsoft is improving its Exchange support for the Mac too. This week Microsoft said that Outlook for Mac will replace Entourage, the current e-mail and calendar program in the Mac Office suite. Although it will still differ from the Windows version of Outlook, it will add support for more Exchange features, such as public folders and rights management features.

How much?

Apple surprised people by putting the price to upgrade to Snow Leopard at a very attractive $29 for a single license, and $49 for a five-user family pack. But there's a catch: you have to already have Leopard installed to pay those prices. If you're upgrading from a previous version of Mac OS X 10.4 (Tiger), you'll have to pay $169, which includes an upgrade to 10.5 (Leopard) and 10.6 (Snow Leopard). For a 5-user family pack license, it'll cost $229. And Snow Leopard is only compatible with Macs containing Intel chips. On the OS front, Leopard is the end of the line for PowerPC Mac owners.

Is it worth upgrading right away, or should I wait?

Some people are fans of waiting until the first update, the 0.1 release, which tends to correct any of the immediate issues that inevitably pop up when a new operating system is released to the public. Some who attempted to upgrade to the first version of Leopardran into trouble after the software was installed, and when they attempted to restart their machines a blue screen would appear instead. But it appeared to hinge on a specific piece of third-party software many had installed that was out of date. The majority had a smooth transition to Leopard.

Overall, we think this will be a worthwhile upgrade if the speed claims turn out to be true. Another way of looking at is that for the price of the Quicktime to Quicktime Pro upgrade, you get most of the Quicktime Pro features plus a newly tweaked core OS. We think it's a good deal for Apple OS X 10.5 users.

When will it be available?

So far, Apple has said only "September." Recent rumors have indicated it might be ready earlier than that, but it's mid-August now, so that's mostly inconsequential. No matter what, it's going to be available before Windows 7 is set to roll out on October 22. When it's available, we'll be sure to let you know.