Sweeping Up after Snow Leopard

Snow Leopard (Mac OS X 10.6) is out. The initial reviews and feature summary articles are in. Like the person that sweeps up debris after a party is over, it's time for someone to come along and clean up the Snow Leopard litter — to clarify some points of confusion and offer a bit of troubleshooting advice. It's not a glorious job — but someone's gotta do it. I volunteered.

I'm about to install Snow Leopard. What's essential for me to know about the installation process?

The good news is that the odds of a successful install on your first try are quite high, probably better than for any previous OS X version. And if something does go wrong, just try again. The install should pick up where you left off, without any hassles. I've done four installs now and have not had even one hiccup.

The install sequence may seem a bit unfamiliar, particularly the first step, where it transfers software before asking you to restart. But the end result is the same. 

If you want to revert to the old-style install sequence, including having access to the utilities available from the OS X Install disc, click the Utilities button on the initial Install screen and then click to Restart. Even after doing this, you won't find the option to Archive & Install. It's completely gone. Apple claims it's not needed anymore because of their improvements in how the installer works. We'll see.

Finally, despite what you may have heard, you can install Snow Leopard on any compatible drive, even a completely empty drive. The installer does not enforce any requirement that Leopard (Mac OS X 10.5) be on the drive.

What's all this business about 64-bit code?

The subject of 64-bit code in Snow Leopard can quickly devolve into complex technical details that will leave most users with eyes glazed over. Here is what you absolutely need to know:

Mac OS X includes something called a kernel. It's a key part of the core OS that loads each startup. Prior to Snow Leopard, the kernel was 32-bit. Starting with Snow Leopard, the kernel can be 32-bit or  64-bit. The older 32-bit kernel loads by default. Not to worry. You're better off not using the 64-bit kernel anyway, at least for now. When you have superior hardware combined with yet-to-be-released software, the 64-bit kernel promises faster and more reliable performance. For now, all it will likely do is unnecessarily increase RAM usage and the odds of compatibility problems. In any case, only the most recent Mac hardware supports booting the 64-bit kernel. If you truly want to startup with the 64-bit kernel, or check whether your Mac is even capable of doing so, there are various solutions — such as using the SixtyFourSwitcher System Preferences pane.

That said — and this is the critical point — individual applications can run in 64-bit mode on most recent Mac models even without the 64-bit kernel loading at startup. Software updated to contain 64-bit code runs that code by default in Snow Leopard. This includes almost all of the application software installed as part of Snow Leopard.

If, perhaps to resolve a compatibility conflict, you want to run one of these programs in 32-bit mode instead, you can. To do so, select Get Info for the application; in the General section, you'll find an option to "Open in 32-bit mode." Enable it.

For more background on 64-bit code, check out the Mac Observer articles on kernel boot modes and 64-bit mode requirements.

What are the most common problems I should watch out for after installing Snow Leopard?

The good news here is that, perhaps because Snow Leopard introduces only a minimum of new user interface features, much less is likely to go wrong with the OS than with prior major Mac OS X upgrades.

The most likely problems involve incompatible third-party "accessory" software, such as third-party System Preferences panes and various plug-ins. The cause behind most of these conflicts is the 64-bit code I just described.

System Preferences panes. Let's start with System Preferences. It is almost certain that all your third-party system preferences panes only run in 32-bit mode. As the System Preferences app itself runs in 64-bit mode, this presents a problem. When you select an incompatible third-party pane, you'll see the following message: "To use 'name of pane' preferences pane, System Preferences must quit and reopen."

If you click OK, System Preferences relaunches in 32-bit mode, allowing the pane to work. Alternatively, you can side-step the need to relaunch by selecting "Open in 32-bit mode" from System Preferences Info window.

Unfortunately, some preferences panes don't work in Snow Leopard even when System Preferences is in 32-bit mode. One example is WindowShade X, which causes System Preferences to crash whenever I select it. Unsanity has told me that they are working on an update to fix this, but have no announced time-frame for its release.

Screen Savers. For essentially the same 64-bit reason, current versions of third-party screen savers no longer work in Snow Leopard. There is no work-around to fix this; you'll have to wait for compatible updates to get released.

Extensions. If you have third-party software that installed a kernel extension (into the /System/Library/Extensions folder), a message may pop-up informing you that the extension is not working. Again, an update from the developer will be needed to address this.

Contextual menu plug-ins. Snow Leopard changes the way contextual menus work. As a result, third-party plug-ins, typically located in Library/Contextual Menu Items folders, no longer appear in contextual menus for 64-bit applications. The third-party program, Shortcuts, offers a potential work-around here.

AppleTalk printing. Snow Leopard no longer supports AppleTalk connected printers. As far as I know, this has nothing to do with 64-bit software. It does mean that if you have a old networked printer (such as HP laser printers from years ago), your Mac may no longer communicate with your printer after updating to Snow Leopard. The solution is to set up your printer to connect via an IP protocol instead. See my latest Bugs & Fixes column for all the details on this matter.

Otherwise, almost all printers that ran in Leopard should run just fine in Snow Leopard, as long as the updated drivers were installed as part of the Snow Leopard installation (which is typically what happens by default). In any case, if needed drivers are missing, Snow Leopard should offer to download and install them when needed.

QuickTime Player. The Snow Leopard version of QuickTime Player does not support custom export options or most other QuickTime plug-ins. This means, for example, that Elgato's Turbo.264 won't work with QuickTime Player. The only solution, at least for now, is to use the old QuickTime Player 7 instead. If you have a Pro version of QuickTime Player on your drive when you install Snow Leopard, the older version gets installed by default. Otherwise, select QuickTime 7 from the Customize… window in Snow Leopard's Installer.

As a related oddity, I found that I could not always use QuickTime Player's built-in export options. For example, if you go to Share > iTunes, you'll find options to save a movie in iPhone/iPod, Apple TV, or Computer formats. When I tried to do this with a .avi movie (taken with my digital camera), QuickTime Player refused to do the Apple TV or Computer conversion, claiming that the resulting file would be "larger than the original movie without improving quality." This misses the point of the conversion, which is that the .avi file will not install on an Apple TV or even in iTunes. I did find a work-around here: If I selected HD 480p as the format in QuickTime Player's Save As dialog, I could get the movie to install in iTunes.

In general, you'll find that the new QuickTime Player is far less capable than the Pro version of the old QuickTime Player. Sadly, there is no Pro equivalent of the new QuickTime Player, at least not yet.

PowerPC software. If you have any legacy PowerPC-based software, it won't run in Snow Leopard unless you install the Rosetta software. Apple chose not to have Rosetta installed by default. If you need it, ideally select Rosetta from the Installer's Customize window. If you forgot to do this, don't fret. When you attempt to launch a PowerPC app, you'll likely be given the option to download and install the needed Rosetta software from Apple's Web site.

To force an an application to run using Rosetta, assuming it is able to do so, select "Open using Rosetta" from the application's Get Info window. If it's a 64-bit program, you'll first have to select "Open in 32-bit mode." As an example, you can see this in action if you go to the Info window for Safari.

Applications in general. Most applications that worked fine in Leopard will work equally well in Snow Leopard. Occasionally, you may find that an individual feature within an application doesn't work. Eventually, upgrades to problem software will work out all of these wrinkles. For most people, this will not be a reason to delay upgrading to Snow Leopard.

You may trip over a few Snow Leopard oddities even in applications installed by Apple. For example, when checking spelling in TextEdit, I could not get the Ignore selection to work. That is, after I clicked it, the next instance of the word still showed up; it was not ignored. TidBITS has reported a problem with clicking two-line URLs in Preview. Apple confirms a problem with (and solution for) sending messages in Mail, if you get an "Error 54: Connection Reset By Peer." And so on.

Completely incompatible applications are rare, but they exist. Incompatible software that has already been identified by Apple is relegated to an Incompatible Software folder at the root level of your drive, placed there by the Snow Leopard installer. Apple maintains a list of programs that fall into this category. Not surprisingly, users have reported problems with additional programs not on this list, as indicated here. If you ignore the warnings and try to open incompatible software, Apple warns that it is likely to crash on launch.

Are there any troubleshooting-related improvements in Snow Leopard?

Yes, several. This article is already too long for me to cite and describe them all. Here is a brief description of my four favorites:

New Search Preferences. When using Command-F in the Finder, you can now have the Current Folder be the default choice for a search. To do so, go to Finder > Preferences > Advanced and make your selection.

Smarter disk ejecting. If you've ever had problems ejecting disks in Leopard (typically involving errors about the disk being "in use"), Snow Leopard will bring a smile to your face. The error message now tells you what application you need to quit in order to get the eject to work.

Screen recordings. Despite my overall misgivings about QuickTime Player, it has one great new feature: you can record a movie of the Mac's screen. To do so, select New Screen Recording from the File menu.

Wake on Demand. With this new option, together with a compatible AirPort Base Station or Time Machine, your Mac will wake from sleep when requested, such as for access to a shared printer or iTunes Library. This eliminates the need to keep your computer always awake to maintain the desired access. See this Apple article for details.

More generally, and this is probably the main point of Snow Leopard, features just work better. They work more smoothly or faster or with less hassle. The more you play around with the OS, the more you'll discover that little things that irritated you in Leopard, sometimes so little that you figured Apple didn't even give them any thought, have been improved in Snow Leopard. It turns out that Apple thought about these things after all.