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Is Snow Leopard the new Vista?

Snow Leopard's launch has been plagued by software incompatibility, sluggish performance and a lack of killer features. We're beginning to wonder: is Snow Leopard the new Vista?

Windows Vista was quite possibly the worst operating system known to man. When it launched, it required users to upgrade to expensive new computers, failed spectacularly to work with crucial hardware and software, and didn't offer much in the way of improvement over Windows XP.

Fast-forward to 2009 and we're seeing a similar trend with Apple's latest operating system, Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard. Despite earning positive press reviews, we'd argue its teething problems are reminiscent of those of Vista. Since its launch, it's been riddled with software and hardware incompatibilities. There's a lack of Earth-shattering new features and an air of general mediocrity that was the hallmark of Microsoft's much-abused OS.

All this raises the question: is Snow Leopard the new Vista?

Windows Vista faced a huge backlash for its egregious hardware requirements. Whereas XP ran happily on anything using a 233MHz CPU, 64MB of RAM and 1.5GB of disk space, Vista Home Premium demanded a 1GHz processor, at least 1GB of RAM and 40GB of storage. Worse still, anyone who wanted the fancy new Aero graphics features would need to ensure they had a decent graphics card -- and don't even get us started on the cash outlay required for tolerable DirectX 10 gaming. Understandably, Vista faced resistance from users who felt pressured into upgrading to expensive new hardware.

The resistance was hardly necessary, as most PCs at the time -- even the first wave of netbooks -- easily met Vista's minimum requirements. Microsoft attempted to allay our fears by providing software to test older PCs for Vista readiness and adorning new PC hardware with 'Vista Ready' or 'Vista Capable' livery. But the damage was done. The public knew Vista was greedier than XP, and one way or another, using it meant they'd have to reach for their credit cards.

Surely not Snow Leopard?

Believe it or not, it's possible that an even bigger hardware transition may be required for anyone moving from 10.5 Leopard to 10.6 Snow Leopard, though the backlash has been miminal. OS X 10.5 Leopard requires Macs with at least an 867MHz PowerPC G4 CPU, 512MB of RAM and 9GB of hard disk space.

Snow Leopard is far greedier. It actually refuses to run on any Apple hardware that doesn't use one of the 'new' Intel CPUs introduced circa 2006. Its memory requirements are relatively low at just 1GB, and it actually requires 4GB less disk space than Leopard, but there's no getting away from the fact: to enjoy Snow Leopard, many Mac users will need to buy an entirely new PC costing hundreds, or even -- as is more likely -- thousands of pounds.

Obviously, there are millions of users who won't need new hardware, as they're already using Intel Macs. It's reasonable to assume though, there are more people in the world using PowerPC Macs than Intel ones -- and if those people want Snow Leopard, they're going to have to pay a hefty price.

During its initial launch, Vista struggled massively with hardware and software incompatibilities. Even if you had the right bits in your PC, there was an awful lot that didn't work and everyone, from the IT press to random strangers in the pub, seemed to have a story about this particular issue.

The problem wasn't with Vista itself, but rather with PC vendors who failed to deliver appropriate drivers, or update their software as Microsoft required them to. Consequently, there was no guarantee your existing printer, webcam or sound card would work unless its vendor was quick off the mark with a new Vista driver.

The problem seemed to manifest itself most seriously in Nvidia's almost laughable inability to provide new drivers for graphics cards -- which were crucial not just for gaming, but in some cases to access Vista's fancy Aero visual interface. Several GeForce owners even went as far as to threaten a class-action lawsuit against Nvidia, such was their frustration with the lack of support.

Surely not Snow Leopard?

Here in 2009, similar problems have occured with Apple's latest. Not only does the new OS refuse to run on older PowerPC hardware, but many users, and indeed Apple itself, have reported incompatibilities with software that worked just fine with OS X 10.5.

Upon installing Snow Leopard, any software deemed incompatible is moved to a folder called 'Incompatible Software'. These apps are then prevented from opening in order to 'protect your Mac'.

The applications affected are numerous and varied. Signature apps such as Parallels Desktop are on the blacklist, alongside Adobe Creative Suite 3 -- an app used by millions of creative types (including those at CNET Towers) to edit pictures in Photoshop, or create flashy Web content in, er, Flash. In addition, Snow Leopard automatically installs Java SE 6, so programs that require previous versions (which were present in Leopard and Tiger) may not run properly off the bat. The new OS even downgrades your version of Flash without permission, rolling back to an older version (10.0.23.1) that's full of potential security holes.

Snow Leopard's hardware and software problems aren't as well-documented as Vista's, or ultimately as serious -- but if you're one of the millions of users affected by its inability to work with software you've grown used to, you'll certainly cry foul.

Most users, regardless of their technical expertise, will tell you that Vista is slower than Windows XP. They'd be right, too -- in many respects, Vista trails behind its predecessor when it comes to raw speed. CNET News site reported that Vista -- even with Service Pack 1 (SP1) -- performed significantly slower than XP Service Pack 3 (SP3).

Paul Mockapetris, the man widely credited with inventing the Internet's Domain Name System (DNS), once claimed Vista itself would slow down the entire Internet because it supported two versions of the Internet Protocol -- IPv4 and IPv6 -- which would essentially double Internet traffic.

These factors were potentially troublesome enough, but Vista's introduction of User Account Controls (UAC) really put the apathetic cat among the lethargic pigeons. Many seemingly innocuous actions needed to be user-verified through the use of a pop-up box demanding to know whether we were sure we meant to do the thing we'd just asked it to do.

Surely not Snow Leopard?

All the new features in Snow Leopard point to a far quicker operating system. It takes advantage of 64-bit multicore processors, has better access to RAM, gets high-powered graphics-processing units, and all the major applications in Snow Leopard -- including the Finder -- have been rewritten in 64-bit code.

Despite all this, our experience of Snow Leopard is that it's not noticeably quicker than OS X 10.5. In fact, in CNET.com's benchmark tests of the two operating systems on two sets of identical Apple laptops, Snow Leopard was actually slower than its predecessor.

Our tests of iTunes encoding was distinctly quicker with the old OS, but the most staggering difference could be seen in our QuickTime multi-tasking test. On an older MacBook Pro running Snow Leopard 10.6, the test completed in 1,127.25 seconds. The same laptop with the older Leopard 10.5.8 took just 732.15 seconds.

Snow Leopard isn't a complete dog -- far from it -- but given that it's slower than Leopard in most of our tests, its parallels with Vista over XP are evident.

It's impossible to dispute the fact that Snow Leopard is affected by many of the flaws that dogged Windows Vista. Like the maligned Microsoft OS before it, it's not markedly different to its predecessor, can require expensive new hardware to function, has notable software and hardware incompatibilities and is slower than the OS it replaces. 

With this in mind, it's difficult to explain how and why Snow Leopard dodged the consumer backlash bullet, while Vista was so badly mauled. It's not as if Vista was rubbish. Until Windows 7, it was unquestionably the most advanced operating system Microsoft has ever created. The Mojave experiment -- in which Microsoft tricked some of Vista's fiercest critics into discovering they actually loved the beleaguered OS -- lends weight to the argument that Vista's benefits outweigh its flaws.

We believe the difference in the public reception of the two operating systems boils down to a couple of factors. Firstly, Snow Leopard arrived pretty much on time, and -- though mildly botched -- did most of the things people expected. Vista, on the other hand, promised more and delivered less. Crucially, it was also horribly late. People may have ignored its tardiness if it were otherwise impeccable, but when anything -- man, woman, beast or OS -- turns up late to a party, broken and vomiting on your dog, it's unlikely to win any friends.

Secondly, and most crucially perhaps, Mac users are generally more tolerant of the flaws in Apple's products. As a result, that group was always less likely to show significant hostility towards Snow Leopard. Whereas a Windows user might throw their toys out of the pram, an Apple fan is more prone to accept flaws, no matter how glaring, as mere eccentricities.

Ultimately, it would appear Snow Leopard -- despite having similar problems at its launch -- was always unlikely to receive the spectacularly bad reception endured by Vista. This isn't necessarily because it doesn't have as many teething problems as its older rival, but rather because -- unlike Vista -- its public were more likely to accept it in the first place.