Snow Leopard more feature-laden than expected

After Monday’s Worldwide Developers’ Conference keynote, we now know that Snow Leopard will cost Leopard users $29 ($49 for the family pack) when it ships in September. In my pre-WWDC OS X Snow Leopard piece, I’d guessed either free or $20—so I was closer to right than wrong, though still wrong. But what do you get for your $29? Are there more features than the five big ones I covered last week?

If you watched any of the keynote coverage, you know the answer to that question is “yes, there are more features.” In addition to Snow Leopard’s already-known features, Apple revealed some very interesting things about the next major OS X release.

On its Snow Leopard page, Apple groups these changes into four major topic areas: Better. Faster. Easier, Next-generation technologies, More accessible than ever, and Exchange support. I dug through these pages Monday, trying to get a sense for what we’ll get to see when Snow Leopard ships in September (not quite “about a year” from last June’s WWDC, but close).

As I loaded page after page, I was thrilled to find this blurb on an additional page of enhancements and refinements: “Adjust view options for Spotlight results just as you can with any Finder window. Modify the default view as well as the size, labeling, and alignment of icons.” This was the No. 1 entry on my list of Leopard annoyances, and it looks like (yes!) it’s finally fixed in Snow Leopard.

Beyond that personal-interest fix, what else is new? In my prior article, I covered the Exchange support and next generation technologies, and though Apple provides some more detail on these changes, there’s really not a lot more to say about them. There are a lot of very cool new capabilities in OS X’s accessibility features, none of which had been disclosed before Monday’s keynote.

The 'rotor' gesture eases navigation through text and web pages.
For vision-impaired users, the track pad in Snow Leopard will now be usable as a virtual screen—pressing on the trackpad will speak the name of the window under the user’s finger as if he or she were touching the screen. To move to the next or previous window, users needs only flick their finger. In addition, there’s support for more than 40 braille devices, better keyboard navigation, and a new gesture (the rotor) that eases navigation through text and Web pages.

To me, the most interesting newly-disclosed features are on the “Better. Faster. Easier.” page. The thing that really caught my eye is that the Finder has been totally rewritten to take advantage of Snow Leopard’s new technologies, such as GrandCentral and 64-bit support. Along the way, Exposé gains some really nice new features, including an organized grid arrangement, and showing all of a program’s open windows when you click and hold on its dock icon. Stacks now appear in scrollable windows, and you can drill down into subfolders. Performance should be better, too, with Apple claiming that refreshing a PDF icon is 1.7x faster than Leopard, and 1.4x faster for a JPG icon.

Other speed increases include Time Machine—up to 50 percent faster than Leopard in general use—and much quicker wake from sleep, shut down, and when joining wireless networks. These are the kind of real-world speed improvements that users should notice; they’re not esoteric benchmarks, but tangible tasks that many people do many times per day.

Another area that has seen speed and efficiency improvements is the OS X installation process. It’s now up to 45 percent faster than Leopard, and uses up to 6GB less drive space (depending on how you configure your installation). The installer will also check applications and disable any known to be incompatible with Snow Leopard. If the power happens to go out during install, the installer is even smart enough to start again without losing any data.

iChat’s video chat support is better as well—more work is done to address common router incompatibilities, and less bandwidth is needed—only a 300Kbps upload speed—for full 640x480 resolution chats. For anyone who's ever cursed at iChat’s somewhat lottery-like ability to start a video chat, these are welcome improvements.

Another area that received a lot of attention in Snow Leopard is the Services menu. I’ve long lamented the poor Services menu. It holds so much potential, but is cursed with perhaps the poorest implementation possible. Every service on your machine appeared in one long menu, with no way to disable those you didn’t need. Chinese text conversion, for instance, doesn’t get much use in my household.

Services in Snow Leopard are now in the contextual menu, and contextual in nature.
In 10.6, you’ll be able to individually disable or enable each service, which is a great improvement in its own right. However, you’ll also be able to get to services from more places—they’ll be available via the contextual menu. What makes this change even better is that the services items themselves are now contextual too. That is, you’ll only see the services that are compatible with the selection you’ve made.

In prior versions of OS X, non-usable services were grayed out, leaving the menu cluttered and ugly looking. In 10.6, the non-applicable services simply won’t show at all. Finally, Automator will let you build your own services, making it easy to turn a repetitive task into a simple mouse-click exercise. I think this may be one of the more exciting areas of change in 10.6, for it really turns the Services menu into something that literally any user can take advantage of.

Two other improvements caught my attention as small changes that many users will welcome. The first is related to selecting text in Preview. If you’ve ever tried text selection on a multi-column document, you know it’s not fun—typically, you wind up selecting text across columns, instead of just down your desired column. In Snow Leopard, artificial intelligence is applied as you make your selection, helping Preview select just that text you’re interested in copying. I would love it if this technology could make its way across every app that supports multi-column documents!

The second small change is to an area many users may not think twice about, but if you work with a lot of removable media, you’ll welcome this one. You know that annoying message that lets you know you can’t eject a disk because it’s in use? It’s annoying because it doesn’t tell you anything about which file may be keeping the disk busy, just that it’s busy. In Snow Leopard, Apple has made changes so that fewer events will cause the disk to report itself as busy. Beyond that, though, if the disk actually is busy, you’ll see a message that—hallelujah!—tells you exactly what it is that’s keeping the disk busy.

One final new feature is actually a really old feature. Snow Leopard will have a Put Back command that moves a file from the trash back to its originating folder. The long-time Mac users out there will remember this command from OS 9 as Put Away (Command-Y; it’s still in my memory banks), and it’s very useful for those times when you change your mind about deleting a file. Score one more for the old timers!

As I read through this list of changes, bug fixes, and new features, and compare it to the list of 300 new features in Leopard, it seems to me that Apple could have easily sold Snow Leopard for $129. At only $29 for current 10.5 users, this upgrade looks to be a real bargain, and I can’t wait to try it out this fall.

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