Snow Leopard gets a September ship date

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Snow Leopard, the next major update to OS X, will be available in September, Apple announced during Monday’s Worldwide Developer Conference keynote. However, OS X 10.6 will only work on Intel-based Macs, leaving the owners of aging PowerPC-based hardware without the ability to upgrade.

The move to an Intel-only OS update seemingly signals the end of the PowerPC era. Apple announced it was moving to Intel-supplied processors at the 2005 developer conference and while Macs released since 2006 have featured Intel chips, Mac OS X continued to support both hardware platforms.

The OS X 10.6 release is unlike most major updates to Mac OS X. While the Jaguar, Panther, Tiger, and Leopard updates introduced a parade of new features to the operating system, much of the focus with Snow Leopard has been behind the scenes. As Apple indicated a year ago when it first confirmed Snow Leopard plans at the 2008 WWDC, the company is looking to improve the performance and increase the power of its operating system with the OS X 10.6 update.

What’s new in Snow Leopard

During Monday’s keynote, Apple senior vice president of software engineering Bertrand Serlet said the next major version of OS X would be characterized by powerful new technologies, refinements to existing features, and support for Microsoft Exchange.

Technologies include 64-bit computing. Nearly every system application—including the Finder, Mail, Safari, iCal, and iChat—are built with 64-bit code so that they can take full advantage of all the memory in a Mac for an overall performance boost. Certain process run twice as fast in 64-bit mode versus 32-bit, Serlet said.

Snow Leopard also features Grand Central Dispatch, a way for software to take advantage of multicore processors. Apple will integrate Grand Central Dispatch throughout OS X 10.6, which will make for a more responsive system, according to the company.

Finally, Snow Leopard features OpenCL, an open standard that lets developers tap into the graphics processing unit for more than just games and 3-D modeling. With more developers using OpenCL in their applications, Apple says, end users will notice improved speed.

As for refinements in Snow Leopard, Serlet says that Mac OS X features more than 1,000 projects—this update refines 90 percent of them. Changes include a more responsive Finder that’s been rewritten in Cocoa, faster-loading Mail, and faster initial backups in Time Machine.

The Dock in Snow Leopard will feature Exposé integration. If you click and hold on an application icon, you’ll see all the windows for that program.

A revamped QuickTime—now called QuickTime X—features playback controls superimposed on video that fade away when you move the mouse. QuickTime X also features the ability to trim and share clips to YouTube, MobileMe, or iTunes for exporting onto an iPhone.

Snow Leopard will ship with the just-released Safari 4. As noted above, the Web browser will run as a 64-bit application in OS X 10.6, meaning better performance from Safari’s new Nitro JavaScript Engine. When it runs in Snow Leopard, Safari 4 will also offer a crash-resistance feature where a crashing plugin will only break part of the page—the browser will remain open.

Finally, Snow Leopard includes support for Microsoft Exchange Server 2007 in Mail, Address Book, and iCal. Users will be able to turn to those apps to send and receive e-mail, create and respond to meeting invitations, and search and manage contacts with global address lists.

What it costs

Snow Leopard will cost $29 for Leopard users, with a family pack available for $49. That’s a far cry from Apple’s usual price on OS X updates—it costs $129 to purchase Leopard, for example.

If you’re still running Tiger on an Intel-based Mac, Apple is offering a Mac Box Set which will include Snow Leopard, iLife ’09 and and iWork ’09. The Mac Box Set costs $169, with a family pack available for $229.

“We want all users to upgrade to Snow Leopard, because Snow Leopard is a better Leopard,” said Serlet of OS X 10.6’s price.”

Updated at 2:02 p.m. PT with more information on Snow Leopard’s refinements and technologies.

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