Snow Leopard: The Slam-Dunk Case for Upgrading

Snow Leopard isn't just a collection of new features. If that were it, Snow Leopard might not be a compelling upgrade. Instead, Snow Leopard builds a new foundation for speed and security combined with a boatload of nice touches that will make you smile. For US$29 from Apple (or only US$25 from Amazon), it has to be the deal of the century. In this review, I'll explain why we consider it a must-have upgrade.

Apple has worked on Snow Leopard for the better part of two years. And yet, at first glance, you won't see anything new or amazing on your screen. Actually, that's a comfort. A major upgrade that changes everything is an affront to the senses, as Microsoft found out with Vista. Instead, Snow Leopard makes little things better in big ways and adds a healthy dose of speed. For US$29, Apple is making it a no-brainer to upgrade, and you should accept the invitation.

At first, at WWDC 2008, Apple said that Snow Leopard wouldn't have any new features. Of course, they were sandbagging. Apple delights in snookering Microsoft. But that's just the politics. What you're wondering is: How hard is this upgrade going to be? How long will it take? Will my apps break? Will I have to reinstall apps and/or licenses? Basically, you want to know if Snow Leopard is a $29 headache waiting to happen.

I can confidently tell you that it is not.

Snow Leopard Mac and Box


In every Mac OS X upgrade I have done in the past, I have done what's called a clean install. You may have done that too. That's basically the process of backing up /Users, erasing the hard disk, and installing a pristine copy of the OS. That's because unwanted plaque built up in the arteries of Mac OS X: preferences for long deleted apps, cache files, kernel extensions for trial-ware, and all kinds of other goop that needs to be periodically cleaned out.

The problem with that approach is that you start with a fresh user Library, but then you'll have to re-enter license info for a lot of apps and, if not that, then at least face losing all your application preferences.

In recognition of that, Apple has gone out of its way to 1) speed up the installation and 2) make an in place update on top of Leopard painless. By default, the installer will just update you to Snow Leopard and, when you log back on, everything will be as it was before. Except for apps that Apple's installer thinks are incompatible. They're all collected in a directory called "Incompatible Software" in the root of the file system.

I did that default install on top of Leopard, and everything went very well. Only a few apps were identified: Norton Internet Security, Intego's framework, and Time Machine Notifier. That's it.

This is a no-headache installation. It'll take well under an hour. And what's more, because the updated files are first moved to your hard disk, if the installation is interrupted, say, by a storm, you can come back later and it will auto-resume. Did I mention no headaches?

A New Mac

Snow Leopard only installs on Intel Macs. I did some research and contacted some developers on this. It seems that only about 11 percent of all Macs out there now are PowerPC-based. At some point Apple has to move on and drop support for those Macs. The 11 percent number seems like a reasonable point.

You'll gain some disk space, several gigabytes. Not only does Snow Leopard dispense with Rosetta (the interpreter used to run PPC only apps), but all the PPC code in Leopard and a whole mess of unused print drivers. If you have a favorite PPC app that was never upgraded, no problem. Just launch it and you'll see this warning:


If an app requires Rosetta, Snow Leopard will help

Just tell the system to install Rosetta, and you're on your way.

The Finder has been re-written in Cocoa, and is 64-bit. Not only is it faster, but it has some improved guts, deep down. For example, in the old Finder you might try to eject a volume, but the Finder wouldn't let you. Worse, it was too dumb to tell you which app was accessing the file. Snow Leopard's Finder can tell you. In addition, the new Finder knows where a file came from when it was trashed, so the "Put-back" command can return it. (Windows has had that for awhile.) Having a Cocoa Finder will no doubt be the portal to improvements that Apple had to place on the back burner with a Carbon Finder.

An Old Mac

In most ways, however, you will be very comfortable with Snow Leopard. There's nothing much to unlearn and re-learn. Instead, little things work better. For example, holding down the mouse on an app in the Dock will bring up all its Windows, the Dock-Exposé feature.

The views we're used to in the Finder are the same, but the icons are more lively. In Icon view, documents can be paged through and movies can be watched.


Doc in Icon

You can page through a document inside its icon!

Movie in Icon

Icons can be 512 x 512 big enough to play a movie inside

Get Info is greatly improved. It happens faster for directories, and Get Info on a volume no longer has the dreaded "calculate" button. You know, the one that you click and then go to dinner.

Screen shots (CMD+SHIFT+4) are now time-stamped instead of just sequentially numbered. The menu bar clock can now show the date. You see where this is going... all kinds of little annoyances are gone.

That said, the Cocoa Finder is no threat to CocoaTech's PathFinder. If you've been annoyed that the Finder can't print a listing, you'll still be annoyed. PathFinder will remain an attractive alternative. (It's been a Cocoa app from the start.)

Also, not much seems to have been done with Spaces, so I suspect I'll still be using Hyperspaces.

The Big Picture: Security

I'm not going to list all the new features of Snow Leopard. Apple has already done that. Just looking at that list should be enough to convince you that your US$29 ($49 for a Family Pack for five users) is money well spent. Instead, I want to give you a feel for why features alone are not the whole story.

For example, we tend to think of 64-bit systems as having more addressable memory and more powerful processing. But the move to 64-bits also provides for some security features that weren't possible in a 32-bit system. This page at Apple describes some of the detail. What they didn't mention was another technique where malware tries to guess entry points in memory and insert malicious code. A 64-bit address space makes that just about impossible. The thing to remember is that Snow Leopard will be a lot more secure than Leopard, and that alone makes the case for upgrading.

Oh, All Right. Features!

Ok, I'll relent. Just a few features. One of the things I really like about Snow Leopard is the ability of QuickTime X to do a video recording of the screen. That's a very nice feature for developers and support people who want to demonstrate how to do something, then distribute a video. I'm trying to guess what the signature feature of Snow Leopard might be, just as it was Time Machine for Leopard. This might be it.

If you have a MacBook (or MacBook Pro) Location Services can detect, via Wi-Fi, where you are and automatically set the time zone. Very nice. Whether that trickles down to iCal, I won't know until I change time zones.

I noted that QuickTime X still honors Flip4Mac, and so WMV files play just fine. You will love the borderless window and on screen controls that fade away as the mouse moves outside the window. Also, there is now a system wide text substitution feature for Apple apps, something like textexpander from Smile on My Mac. It'll take some time to arrive at a verdict on how useful that will be.

QuickTime X

Grab app doesn't capture the full borderless Window - maybe a good idea

Apple says that iChat has been improved to deal with router incompatibilities. I can't keep count of the times I could video chat with one person, and they could video chat with each other, but I couldn't chat with the other. I'll be testing this in the coming weeks.

Another nice refinement is the AirPort menu. I'll give props to Glenn Fleishman over at TidBits for his excellent coverage. This is just another example of the pleasant surprises that keep popping up (!) in Snow Leopard. At TMO, we'll probably be spending the next few months covering them all.

Finally, I suspect that Apple struck an agreement with Microsoft. Just a guess. Apple would assist with the porting to the MS Exchange Server to Snow Leopard and MS would develop a full-blown Outlook for Snow Leopard. This is going to make enterprise users ecstatic. Snow Leopard Server is fairly easy for a small to medium business to run, and having an Exchange back end plus the termination of Entourage (called Outrage by some) plus iCal and Address Book integration is going to be very nice for them.

Leopard Tracks

Apple has done an heroic job of making Snow Leopard familiar but better. More secure. Faster. Delightful in little ways. Features that you may not have exploited in Leopard will present themselves as more compelling and are easier to figure out, so you'll be more productive. Poorly written browser plug-ins won't crash Safari. Printer drivers are automatically installed when Snow Leopard detects an attached printer. Bingo.

Your Mac life will be simpler and more productive and more secure with Snow Leopard. That's why this upgrade is so essential. You'll never look back.