Snow Leopard: Back to Basics

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All the media attention this week has been on the announcement of the new iPhone 3G during Steve Jobs’s keynote at Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference. But for Mac users there was another huge story that day, one that took up only a few seconds of the keynote: Snow Leopard, a brand-new version of Mac OS X.

Apple has been working on Mac OS X for more than a decade, and the public has been able to use it for eight years. In that time, the replacement for the classic Mac OS has grown through several stages: it began in an awkward, half-functional state, progressed into a fully functional replacement for OS 9 with increasing levels of speed and stability, and finally became an entrenched system that advanced by acquiring whizzy new features such as Spotlight and Time Machine.

Early in Mac OS X’s history, the operating system sped up with each new version, as Apple engineers tuned the code and got it working better. But those improvements have faded, and the last two releases have certainly been no faster than their predecessors. Instability, too, has returned to Mac OS X. (The title of my predecessor Rick LePage’s opinion piece, “What I Hate About Leopard,” says it all.)

So how refreshing was it for Apple to announce—albeit out of the spotlight of the keynote, via press release—that Apple is taking a break from rolling out Mac OS X updates with hundreds of new features. Instead, the next major release of Mac OS X will focus on speed and stability.

One of the challenges the entire computing industry has had to deal with in the past few years is the fact that processors just aren’t getting faster very quickly. Chipmakers have managed to offset this by adding processor cores instead. A few years ago, only the most high-end pro Mac would even have two processor cores, but today every Mac has at least two.

The problem is, operating systems and software just don’t take advantage of chips with multiple cores. Our Speedmark tests, which measure 17 common Mac tasks, show that the eight-core 2.8GHz Mac Pro is only twice as fast as the 1.83GHz Mac mini Core 2 Duo. In terms of pure processing power, it should be at least four times as fast—but in many real-world situations, Mac OS X and the programs that run on it just can’t take advantage of the Mac Pro’s superior hardware.

That’s an area that Apple is focusing on with Snow Leopard. Toss in an additional focus on using the power of your Mac’s graphics processor, and the result should be major improvements in speed, not only now, but in the future.

And Apple says that Snow Leopard will also be smaller, taking up less space on your Mac. That can’t be a surprise, though, when you consider that much of the work Apple is doing to make Snow Leopard faster and more stable will not just benefit Macs. It’ll benefit the other devices that run OS X: iPhones, iPod touches, Apple TVs, and who knows what other future Apple hardware innovations?

Snow Leopard isn’t expected to be ready until about a year from now. Macworld will keep you up to date on what’s going on, as always. But several thousand points out of ten to Apple for having the courage to step off the new-feature bandwagon and focus on making Mac OS X faster and more stable.

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