What Would it Be Like to Go Back to macOS Snow Leopard?

3 minute read
| Analysis

Some have fond remembrances of the halcyon days of Mac OS X Snow Leopard. But what would it really be like to go back to this venerable OS?

From time to time, I see musings by both readers and other authors about how Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard was the pinacle of Mac OS X development and stability. Even I have written about how, before the modern perils of the internet, Snow Leopard was the cleanest and clearest expression of an ultra-modern GUI on top of a UNIX operation system, in this case mostly FreeBSD.

And perhaps a few versions later, especially after the irritations of 10.7 Lion, one might have pondered the practicality of just staying with Snow Leopard. But here we are at macOS 10.13 High Sierra, and not only is going back in OS time impractical from a security standpoint, but we’d suddenly be missing features we take for granted today.

Snow Leopard

Introduced in August 2009, Apple made its first move to declare a maintenance update. It was the follow-on to Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard. Leopard, released in October 2007, introdced Spaces, a built-in facility for multiple desktops, Quick Look, and Boot Camp.

Perhaps most notable for Snow Leopard was that the Finder was rewritten in Cocoa, making it faster. But it lost a few nuances that users loved, remnants of the Finder’s Carbon origins. All in all, Snow Leopard worked out the kinks of Leopard and was very well received. Especially since the price was reduced from the customary US$129 down to $29. I’ve heard stories about people who still run it today.

Grand Central Dispatch (GCD) was introduced, but likely wasn’t widely adopted until later. GCD made it easier for developers to write code that accessed more cores in a better managed way and with fewer bugs. It’s they key to exploiting Macs with lots of cores. We’d miss those faster, less buggy apps.

What We’d Lose Today

There’s a case to be made that Snow Leopard, in its security details and absence of modern features that we have become accustomed to nowadays, would be a real shocker to go back to. Here’s just a partial list of things that come to mind. I’ve probably forgotten many more. (It’s not a history of macOS.)

  1. ASLR. Address Space Layout Randomization is a key security feature that makes it difficult for malware to predict the entry point addresses for system functions and successfully inject its own code. Apple started the adoption of ASLR in Leopard, expanded the implementation in Lion, but didn’t finish protecting the kernel and kernel extensions until Mountain Lion. Because of this alone, one wouldn’t run Snow Leopard in a modern internet threat environment.
  2. Lion. Mac OS X 10.7 Lion got off on the wrong foot by trying to move users away from the file operation “Save As…” and created a firestorm that has long since subsided. Newly introduced was AirDrop, full screen apps, Mission Control (which unified several other disparate functions). Most importantly, in my mind, Lion introduced the essential recovery partition. Prior to this, one had to keep track of a disc or flash drive from which to boot and repair a Snow Leopard Mac.
  3. Mountain Lion. OS X 10.8 added what some consider to be the greatest annoyance, Notification Center. But it also introduced AirPlay mirroring. How could we live without that today? Apple started to enforce the idea it started in XProtect of apps being digitally signed with the use of Gatekeeper GUI.
  4. Mavericks. OS X 10.9 focused on several modern enhancements. It managed multiple displays better, included the Happy Eyeballs implementation in IPv6, focused on power saving techniques for the MacBook line (Timer Coalescing, App Nap, Safari Power Saver). We got iBooks and Finder tabs, which may, in hindsight, not be a big deal for some OS purists.
  5. Yosemite. OS X 10.10. Yosemite introduced the ability to send large email attachments via a link to a download rather than included attachment. Otherwise, the less said about Yosemite, the better.
  6. El Capitan. OS X 10.11. This version introduced System Integrity Protection (SIP). It removes the ability of admin users (or malware that has fraudulently acquired admin privileges) to modify system files and processes. Also, in this release Apple wisely returned to mDNSResponder networking. Yosemite introduced the discoveryd daemon for networking, and it turned out to be nothing but a headache. The IPv6 implementation was better tweaked to emphasize IPv6.
  7. Sierra. macOS 10.12. Sierra continued a tradition of making life better for macOS users using iOS. You could unlock your Mac with an Apple Watch, use Apple Pay directly from Safari, talk to Siri, and optimize and manage disk storage better.
  8. High Sierra. macOS 10.13. Most significant for High Sierra was the introduction of the Apple File System (APFS). It had been in the works for years and finally remedied the weaknesses of the aging HFS+ file system. Now we can move forward with new storage capabilities. We also got support for 4K/UHD/H.265 video. Metal 2 interface to graphics gave is access to Virtual Reality (VR). Here, also, Apple has started to phase out support for 32-bit apps, which probably have security issues impractical to solve.

Just a Memory

This isn’t meant to be a history of Mac OS X/OS X/macOS. Instead, it’s just an overview of some major advances from my remembrances and some research to remind us that the longing for the long-gone days of Snow Leopard is misplaced. We can’t ever go back. Snow Leopard, installed on a modern Mac, would drive us crazy.

Apple adapts. Security challenges continue. New hardware technologies enable a better, more responsive, more intelligent OS. We always move forward into the future, often forgetting that more primitive technologies of the past, while perhaps favored in memory, just wouldn’t cut it today.

19 Comments Add a comment

  1. iJack

    I’d go back to Mountain Lion or even Snow Leopard if it were possible, even if I had to create an external boot drive/partition. But, of course, Apple in their infinite wisdom don’t allow us to do that.

  2. wj45

    Granted, I am not a developer, but I don’t see any reason that Apple couldn’t build a new system using Snow Leopard as its inspiration, throwing out the things they began to break with Lion (new document model, lack of proper scroll bars, and the flat, colorless, hide-and-seek UI), and adding in everything listed above that’s actually GOOD about modern releases, security included.

    The only reason they don’t is that it would mean (gasp)….admitting they made a mistake.

  3. CudaBoy

    Could you repeat this article again only talk slower? I’m getting moist!!!! I have 3 Mac Pro Towers well – one G5 running Tiger; a 1,1 Mac Pro running Snow Leopard and a 5,5 running Sierra. Guess which one gets the most love? Remember being able to listen top the thousands of Internet stations right there in iTunes???? Remember being able to hit Control and a song to convert to MP3 or whatever you pre-set? Gone in Sierra-buried in a menu. Remember being able to run Adobe and Avid software software that wasn’t a monthly subscription? Remember the MUCH better Garageband, iMovie apps that had WAY more features than current GB and iMovie? Remember the MUCH better iMovie that was easier to make video clips with synced audio clips inserted? Gone in new version. Remember MAIL that wasn’t constrained to the CRAP IMAP protocol??? Unlike POP I must log into my Webmail to delete stuff when the mailbox fills up – NEVER HAD TO WORRY ABOUT THAT with SL’s MAIL – empty it in MAIL and it’s gone off server by my choice – can’t empty from server thru current MAIL anymore. Plus SL had much better 3D icons and Skeuomorphism compared to the dumb iOS looking Sierra joke desktop. And that’s just the tip. …..🎼🎹

    • Call-151

      @CudaBoy. Itunes-> File Menu -> Convert . and to set what you want , iTunes preference->general import setting.

      For Me , I miss a lot of thing like iChat that I miss a lot. 4 persons conference, Ichat Theater to easily share picture and video, scripting of ichat..
      Stability for sure.I have started to take video and picture of bug that I found and it is sad to see it grow so fast.

  4. CudaBoy

    Things I like about Sierra: Steam. Also the ability to play World Of Warships – Mac port, that is one SICK beautiful looking game that the PC has had for years. Technically my 5,5 running Sierra is punching above it’s weight because of graphics requirements but it seems to cook just fine even in online real-time battles. Siri? eh. Siri is pretty useless generally – a gimmick, you can tell it’s not “thinking” like Echo and such, it’s just a search engine that talks basically, there is no built in AI like Echo and Assistant has. 🎬

  5. Moselakatse

    The Get Info window in Snow Leopard contained more relevant and useful information, especially about music files. To restore some of that convenience, I have to use the third party app, mp3-Info. And to locate where the music file is stored, in the many instances where I actually don’t wish to just open it up by clicking on it, I have to hold down the Cmd key for what seems like half an hour while Spotlight grinds slowly away to finally reveal the path. Both irritations could possibly be circumvented if I used iTunes I know, but I don’t need or want iTunes for the work I do with music files.
    Also, Apple Mail worked in Snow Leopard. I don’t need to list the issues with the Mavericks version that Apple has never fixed and never will now. It may well work in the latest macOS, but I dare not upgrade my “late 2009” iMac just to try out Apple Mail.

  6. Old UNIX Guy

    There is a massive amount of research that shows that human memory performance is, well, pretty forgettable (if you’ll pardon the intentional pun). That certainly applies to Snow Leopard. Yeah, it was better than Leopard and yeah, it was way more stable than most of the crap that Craig Federighi has brought us.

    But here’s one memory I have of Snow Leopard … my office is upstairs and our data center is downstairs … I’d head down to the data center carrying my open laptop and, as I walked down the stairs, it would kernel panic! And it was repeatable … every single time I went either up or downstairs it would kernel panic.

    So I opened up a ticket with Apple and, to their credit, they got with me … long story short, they had a bug and switching between Cisco wireless access points would cause a kernel panic.

    And that was the last kernel panic I’ve ever had … so much for the good old days…

    Old UNIX Guy

  7. Old UNIX Guy

    And I have no clue why “wireless access points” is a link in the above … it shouldn’t be…

    Old UNIX Guy

  8. graphicdesigner

    Wow, first time to write into a website and it was the subject of Snow Leopard that did it. I still use Snow Leopard, and for one reason – it just works. Sadly, Apple has forgotten the meaning. If Apple spent the time to get an OS right BEFORE releasing it, instead of having to fix, release and re-release a so-called new OS ever other week, no telling how more productive, and profitable we all could be. I still need Rosetta, because I get sent old files that won’t open without older versions of Quark and Freehand. And speaking of Freehand – the best and most intuitive drawing program ever, I still use it too. Sadly, Snow Leopard is starting to show it’s age – not because IT doesn’t work, but because others don’t work with it. Yes, that compatibility issue with new apps. When it does come time to purchase that new MAC I’ll be forced to use the current OS it comes with, but I’ll always keep my previous MAC, with Snow Leopard, sitting close by to save the day.

  9. TitanTiger

    I actually have a small Snow Leopard partition on my 2009 iMac that I use when I get in the mood to play Age of Empires II. I’m not a big gamer but I do still enjoy that one so I keep the SL partition intact for it. Now that I replaced my hard drive with an SSD, SL is screaming fast and so is the game.

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