The Snow Leopard cometh. After a modest demonstration alongside a hopped-up iPhone and slightly revamped MacBook at this year’s Worldwide Developers Conference, the long-awaited update to OS X finally gets its time to shine on August 28. While Apple has shied away from painting the new Mac operating system (OS) as a landmark release – even the name implies that it’s just a revision – Snow Leopard will bring with it a slew of upgrades that Apple fans have long awaited, and many that should pave a path to unlock even more performance as developers learn to fully take advantage of them. But with so many features that run more than just skin deep, Snow Leopard isn’t an easy beast to understand. We sat down with senior Macworld editor Rob Griffiths to better explain what’s in store, what could change for the worse, and whether or not most existing OS X users will want to upgrade.
To the average Mac owner though, say experts, the differences may not seem quite so markedly significant. “I don’t think in their day-to-day interaction with the system that people will say, ‘I am so glad this is 64-bit, it’s absolutely flying,’” explains Griffith. “The system is faster, but a lot of it has to do with Apple cleaning up code and taking out a lot of legacy code that was there to support PowerPC stuff.”
Snow Leopard will also introduce a new technique for harnessing multi-core processors called Grand Central Dispatch. As it stands, most applications aren’t written to take advantage of multiple cores, simply because it’s too difficult and time consuming for software engineers to spend time on. The result: Many intense applications max out one core while the other goes unused, creating a frustrating situation. “[The program] is just pegging one CPU. The other one is just sitting there doing nothing,” said Griffith. “Grand Central will help developers take advantage of those additional computing resources much easier than they could before.”
With Leopard, each application had to manage the task of deciding which computing processes go to which cores. GCD will make the process easier by shifting that burden to the operating system, putting less of the load of developers and encouraging them to use it. Users may not notice the difference right off the bat, but as more software is written to support GCD, we should see significant changes. Since developers have had access to beta versions of Snow Leopard with Grand Central for over a year, Griffith believes we’ll see compatible applications released relatively quickly.
But there’s even more unused horsepower left in the brawny Nvidia and ATI GPUs that Apple has made standard across all of its computers. “Unless you’re playing a 3D game, your graphics card is just sort of sitting there twiddling its thumbs,” Griffith says. Snow Leopard will strap a serpentine on that idling pulley to help drive other software. The OpenCL framework will allow graphics cards to perform a broader array of tasks, like chewing on a particularly complex computation, when they’re not busy with pixel-pushing. Like Grand Dispatch, it could be a while until applications take full advantage of it, but Griffith believes developers will be quick to jump on board. “It’s essentially free computing power.”
Apple has also made a number of other, less noticeable speed boosts in other areas. For instance, the manufacturer promises that notebooks will wake twice as fast from sleep as they did under Leopard, shut down 1.8 times as fast, and the upgrade process has been streamlined to go 50 percent faster.
Even the speediest bullet train does no good if it’s prone to running off the rails, however, so Apple has also made some refinements to make Snow Leopard more surefooted than its predecessor.
As it turns out, the number one cause of OS X crashes under Leopard could be traced back to browser plug-ins, so in Snow Leopard, the Apple team has reworked them to run separately. The result: When they crash, you’ll lose one car, not the whole train. But there is a down side. Apple had to kill off a feature – almost a hack – known as InputManagers to make it happen. Hundreds of Safari and Mail plugins, like the popular ad blocker Pith Helmet, use InputManagers, and will no longer function with Snow Leopard. Griffith believes this may actually push many OS X users over to Firefox, which has a different plugin architecture that will continue to function fine under Snow Leopard.
Along the same lines, iChat has been optimized to reduce router incompatibilities. Likewise, disk eject, which used to emit unexplained errors whenever an application blocked it from opening the drive, will actually now tell you what’s going on, so you can close the application and get on with life. Even the Snow Leopard installer will work to reduce crashes by identifying incompatible programs and setting them aside before you run them and figure it out for yourself.
Changing gears is nice, but Mac fans always crave changes that they can see firsthand, and Apple hasn’t completely neglected that part of the equation either. Bearing this in mind, casual users will discover a number of improvements in the user interface and programs that they use every day.
Some of the most dramatic changes will appear in the newest version of QuickTime, dubbed QuickTime X. Though Griffith believes it may be one of the first changes that new Snow Leopard users will spot, he also believes it will be one of the more divisive ones. “Some people will love it, and some people will dislike it,” he said. “They basically stripped out a lot of the complexity and a lot of the features, and left in place a movie-playing tool that has a completely different interface.”
Most notably, the interface now appears directly over the movie being played, which gives QuickTime X a cleaner look, but also obstructs the movie when the mouse is moved to bring up the controls. QuickTime X will also allow users to dice up videos using a quick-trim feature, convert to Web-optimized formats for sharing on YouTube or MobileMe, and even record the screen for making tutorials and other demonstrations.
The all-popular Expose feature has been slightly tweaked to make it more powerful. Rather than simply pressing one key to view every window open – which could be dozens – the new Expose will allow users to hold down the icon for an application on the dock and see just windows for that application spread out in Expose style. They’ll also tile into grids now, rather than haphazardly around the screen. Stacks, which appear when you hover over a file folder open on the dock, will now scroll as well, giving users access to the entire contents of a folder without ever having to open it.
Mail, iCal and the address book have all been upgraded to work with Microsoft Exchange right out of the box, making the Mac a little more workplace friendly. But that’s just one bullet point on a lengthy list of improvements to those apps. You can reorder the sidebar in Mail, plug in your Google password to sync iCal with it, and even have the operating system scan text documents and e-mail messages for flight numbers, then automatically add them to the Dashboard Flight Tracker widget.
Of course, it’s “the little things” that really endeared OS X so many diehard fans, and Apple has sprinkled on plenty more with Snow Leopard, too. The new operating system will automatically adjust your system time when you connect to known WiFi hotspots; allow you to draw Chinese characters using a notebook touchpad; transform blocks of text to all uppercase or lowercase with a single command; automatically read Web pages for the visually impaired; and even intelligently select text from PDF files using AI to detect formatting like columns.
Fortunately for existing Leopard users, Apple has made the barrier to entry for Snow Leopard exceptionally low. Leopard owners can upgrade for just $29, and those who bought Macs on or after June 8 get an even bigger discount, and can upgrade for $10. For existing Tiger users, Apple pushes its $169 OS X box set, which includes iLife ’09 and iWork ’09. But as early reviewers have already pointed out, the $29 version hasn’t actually been coded to block out Tiger users, allowing them to take the cheaper route too, if they so choose.
Despite the lack of obvious visual improvements, Snow Leopard represents a significant stride forward for OS X. Griffith compares it to an iceberg. “You look at the top, the visible part, and there’s QuickTime X, a difference in the dock, some changes in iCal and some other stuff, QuickTime recording, etc.” he said. “But if you look below the surface, there’s Grand Central, and OpenCL, and 64-bit. There’s all this low-level stuff they’ve done to try to make the system better, faster and stronger. As developers take advantage of it, users will see the benefit. The top of the iceberg should get bigger over time as developers push these features out from core technologies.”
Does that mean users should wait to upgrade? Not really. “Unless you’re one of those people who really relies on InputManagers, it’s a no brainer,” Griffith said. “[The OS] is reasonably priced; QuickTime X – despite the interface – is better at playing back a lot of streams; [Snow Leopard] can do things faster; applications launch noticeable quicker; and they’ve made some improvements in Expose that make it much more usable.”
And that’s just a handful of changes. For $29, a ticket to ride the Snow Leopard might just be one of the best bargains this fall.