Review: Snow Leopard
Mac OS X ships with about four dozen applications and utilities, large and small, that form the foundation of the Mac user experience. Most of them have been tweaked, at least a little bit, in Snow Leopard. If you’ve got a favorite, you’ll probably notice at least a few minor changes.
The biggest changes are probably in Preview, Apple’s catch-all utility for viewing images and PDFs. I’ve been using Preview as my default PDF viewer for years now, and find it superior to Adobe Reader in terms of speed and interface. Snow Leopard’s updates to Preview include improved selection of text within PDFs, especially those with multiple columns of text. There’s also a new Annotations toolbar for users who need to mark up PDFs with comments.
Several programs, including TextEdit, Mail, and iChat, can take advantage of a new systemwide Substitutions service that can autocorrect common mistakes (think
the), convert straight quotes to curly and vice versa, and turn double-minuses and triple-periods into em dashes and ellipses, respectively. Even better, a tab in the Keyboard pane of the System Preferences app lets you add shortcuts of your own.
System Preferences is also where you’ll see the ugliest evidence of Apple’s conversion to 64-bit applications throughout the system. If you’re using Apple’s stock preference panes only, everything will work just fine. But if you click on a third-party preference pane that hasn’t yet been upgraded to a 64-bit version, System Preferences will tell you that it has to quit and reopen itself in 32-bit mode in order to open that preference pane. While it’s nice of System Preferences to go to that trouble, it gets frustrating after you do the launch-quit-launch dance a few times. The solution is for developers to update their preference panes, which presumably will happen quickly. But it makes me think Apple should have just forced System Preferences to open in 32-bit mode by default, at least for now.
Apple’s QuickTime Player, long a stalwart tool for playing back audio and video, has been completely revamped for Snow Leopard. As I mentioned earlier, this new QuickTime Player X app lacks so many of the features of the previous version that Apple has made QuickTime Player 7 optionally available as a separate installation.
Apple says the new QuickTime Player is focused on media playback, and it boasts about the new interface. That interface is actually almost nonexistent: Open a movie and you’ll see it appear all by itself, with only a small black window bar at the top to indicate its name. When you play the video, the interface fades completely away, leaving you with a movie playing all by itself on your screen. All the playback controls—volume, forward, play, reverse, full screen, and a scrubbing bar—are located in a floating palette within the movie itself.
Find out more about QuickTime X.
It’s a nice interface if you’re running in full-screen mode, but it’s an utter disaster otherwise. Any alteration to your settings, including a slight increase or decrease in volume, makes that floating palette and the window bar appear, obscuring some of your video. (And on small movies, it obscures a lot of your video.) Every time I wanted to make my video louder or quieter, even via a keyboard shortcut, that floater appeared—and then remained for a second or two until finally fading away. Contrast this to the old QuickTime player, which (when not in full-screen mode) placed all of your controls right below the video, where you could get at them without actually obscuring what you were watching.
I don’t think the fade-away interface really works. When you’re playing a movie, even the movie’s title bar disappears, at least until you move your mouse over it. Over the years, I’ve become trained to identify every single window on my Mac by the window bar at the top, which tells me the name of what I’m looking at. Now here comes this strange QuickTime window, unbounded by any sort of frame, playing off on its own. It looks, quite frankly, like a mistake. I’m all for getting the controls out of a user’s way when you’re viewing something in full-screen mode. But when I’m watching something that’s mixed in with all of my other Mac’s windows, I’d rather the movie look like a window, not some anonymous video escapee with no window bar to call its own.
Despite its focus on playback, QuickTime Player X does offer some editing tools. There’s trimming, but it’s extremely basic, no more complicated than what you’ll find on the iPhone, where you can set start and end points. QuickTime X’s Sharing feature is also far more limited than what you used to get with QuickTime Pro: you can choose from three video-export presets, or share files with MobileMe or YouTube. In general, if you’ve ever used QuickTime Pro to cut up, export, or massage media, you’ll be disappointed by QuickTime X.
QuickTime X also includes new recording features, letting you grab the contents of your computer screen and save it to a QuickTime movie. QuickTime X failed completely when I tried to capture my MacBook Air screen, despite the fact that I’ve successfully captured video on this same system using both Ambrosia Software’s Snapz Pro X and Telestream’s ScreenFlow.
Nifty small touches
Failing a massive makeover, then, we’ve got to take joy in the little gifts that Snow Leopard gives us. And there are a lot of them. I’d like to pick my favorite, but the fact is, they’re all small enough that I can’t really choose one. But if I could gather up the whole lot of them in my arms, I’d give them a hug.
Ejecting disks is much easier now, and given that I connect to an external drive every day at work, I know the pain of trying to dismount that volume only to be told that something, somewhere on my Mac, believes that my external drive is vitally important and is clinging to it like a child does a security blanket. Now when you try to eject a disk, its Finder icon dims and the system sends a message telling all running apps that they should let go unless they’ve got a really good reason not to. Most of the time, the result is a clean ejection moments later. But if, for example, iTunes is playing music from that drive, the system instead will display a helpful window telling me that it can’t eject the disk and naming iTunes as the culprit, allowing me to decide if it’s more important to eject the disk or keep the music playing.
As a full-time MacBook user, I’m endlessly putting my Mac to sleep and waking it back up. In Leopard (and previous OS X versions), mounted servers generally didn’t withstand the wake-up process. Leopard was nicer about it than previous versions; the old OSs tended to hang my Mac for half a minute before declaring that my server had vanished (which it hadn’t), while Leopard just displayed an alert announcing that some servers had gone away.
Snow Leopard handles this situation a lot better. That alert window still appears—but as it sits there, Snow Leopard is attempting to reconnect to those servers, to bring me back to where I was before I so cruelly closed the lid of my laptop. And generally it works like a charm, reuniting me with my servers without forcing me to reconnect to them.
Snow Leopard is also much smarter when it comes to sharing files with sleeping Macs. If you’re on a network with an AirPort base station or a Time Capsule, Snow Leopard will work with those devices to wake up when another Mac wants to share files, and then put itself back to sleep when the file-sharing session is done. This means that if you can get the network settings to work right, you can put your Mac to sleep and still access its files when you need them.
Programming geeks who also love fonts (and, yes, we exist) will be interested to note that in Snow Leopard, the venerable default monospaced font Monaco has been displaced by the new Bitstream font Menlo, based on the typefaces Bitstream Vera and Deja Vu. I’m sure there are people out there who love Monaco, but as someone who used it for many years, I’m not one of them. (For the past couple of years I’ve been using the excellent Consolas [which is included with Microsoft Office, of all things] as my text-editor font of choice; my text editor of choice, BBEdit, integrated Consolas late last year.) Fonts are as much about personal taste as haircuts or ironic T-shirts, but after a brief time with Menlo I can definitively say that it might possibly be, potentially, a good alternative to Consolas. It’s vastly better than Monaco.
Finally, scripting and automation has received a nice update with Snow Leopard, thanks to a long-overdue overhaul of Mac OS X Services. Anyone who dared to visit the OS X Services menu (located in the Application menu) in past versions saw a hodgepodge of different and often mysterious commands—let’s be honest, very few of us ever ventured in there. The new system of Services seems more likely to reach a broader (albeit still somewhat geeky) audience. Users can create new services via the Automator utility, and then run them either via the Services menu or a contextual-menu item within any relevant application.
There’s just one catch: Although the Services menu appeared reliably, the contextual-menu items appeared on some of my test systems, sometimes, and on others, not at all. Once Apple fixes this bug, Services could become the Mac power user’s efficiency tool of choice.
Find out more about Services in Snow Leopard.
A stealth feature of Snow Leopard is its limited ability to check downloaded files for known malware, the catch-all name for evil software such as viruses and trojan-horse programs. This new scanning ability is tied into the existing protection system that warns you before opening apps or mounting disk images you've downloaded from the Internet. It's minimal protection, but it's a good line of defense for unsuspecting users, and Apple should be congratulated for providing it. However, Apple's system is no match for third-party virus checkers, and even Apple admits as much. For much more more information about this feature, read our in-depth look at Snow Leopard’s hidden malware protection.
Upgrade to go faster?
Most of the time, software upgrades add new features at the expense of speed. (Imagine if Microsoft Word 2008 was as efficient on my 1.86GHz Intel processor as Word 5.1 was on my Mac SE’s 8MHz processor—I could finish National Novel Writing Month in three hours!) But since Snow Leopard was announced, Apple has repeatedly said that this update is about not just fixing bugs and making tweaks, but improving performance.
When it comes to speed, there are actually two Snow Leopard stories. One is about the speed boosts the system provides today. The other is about the potential speed boosts that users may see in the future, as both software and hardware continue to evolve.
Let’s start with the present. Macworld Lab compared Leopard to Snow Leopard in 16 different speed tests on three different systems. On half of our tests, Snow Leopard showed definite speed improvements when compared to Leopard.
My subjective experience using Snow Leopard for several weeks is essentially consistent with those lab results. Some tasks simply feel faster in Snow Leopard than in Leopard, while others seem no different at all. In general, I think most users will find that Snow Leopard feels faster and runs smoother than its predecessor.
In the future, however, the software than runs on Snow Leopard has the potential to become dramatically faster. That’s because Apple has provided two technologies for software developers that should enable them to give their apps a speed boost, provided they put in the work to take advantage of the new technologies.
The first technology, Grand Central Dispatch, helps programmers split up their programs into smaller chunks so that they can more effectively use the power of computers with multiple processing cores. It’s still quite a bit of work for programmers to break up tasks into chunks, but Apple says it hopes that developers will find the work a lot easier than it was before—and that the end result will be faster software, since every current Mac model has at least two processor cores.
The second technology, OpenCL, is a system programmers can use to take advantage of the massive amount of processing power locked up in a computer’s graphics processor. By targeting certain tasks on the graphics processor, programmers can harness even more power to improve the speed of their programs.
The long-term direction of the computer industry is toward computers with many more processing cores and incredibly powerful (and increasingly flexible) graphics processors. Your current computer might only have a couple of cores and might not even have a snazzy graphics processor. (My MacBook Air certainly doesn’t.) But by building Grand Central Dispatch and OpenCL into Snow Leopard, Apple is placing a bet on that future, and asking its community of third-party developers (as well as the developers of all the applications bundled with Snow Leopard) to embrace it. There will be small payoffs now, but next year’s Macs will undoubtedly exploit these features to a much greater extent.
Find out more about under-the-hood changes in Snow Leopard.
In truth, neither of these features is a reason to buy Snow Leopard today. But they will help make the next Mac you buy be much faster than it would have been otherwise.
And finally, a word about stability. Generally every major operating-system upgrade steps forward in terms of features and backward in terms of stability. Apple’s engineers have had nearly two years to wring the bugs out of Leopard; the new features introduced in Snow Leopard will have no doubt introduced some new ones. But I’m happy to report that, in general, Snow Leopard seems as stable as it seems fast. Yes, I did see a few crashes from Safari, and I also experienced more crashes in Mail than I had experienced when using Leopard. Presumably Apple will address these sorts of bugs with forthcoming updates to Snow Leopard, but stability issues have never made me feel regret about switching from Leopard to Snow Leopard.
Macworld’s buying advice
Snow Leopard is Apple’s lowest-priced OS update in eight years. Granted, it’s a collection of feature tweaks and upgrades, as well as under-the-hood modifications that might not pay off for users immediately. But the price of upgrading is so low that I’ve really got to recommend it for all but the most casual, low-impact Mac users. If you’ve got a 32-bit Intel Mac (that is, one powered by a Core Solo or Core Duo processor), the benefit of this upgrade will be a little less. But for most Mac users, especially the kind of person who reads a Web site devoted to the subject, the assorted benefits of Snow Leopard outweigh the price tag. I’d pay $30 just for the improved volume ejection, the ability to create services with Automator, and the improvements to the Dock and Exposé—though I admit I’d pay slightly more to not have the misguided QuickTime Player X as a part of the package. If you’re a user who connects to an Exchange server every day, upgrading to Snow Leopard really is a no-brainer. For everyone else, maybe it’s not quite a no-brainer—but it’s awfully close. Snow Leopard is a great value, and any serious Mac user should upgrade now.
[Jason Snell is Macworld’s Editorial Director and has been writing in depth about Mac OS X since day one.]