Heeeere kitty kitty: Snow Leopard

Blair Hanley Frank

Score: 4.5/5 ducks

Pros: Fast, lightweight, a great value.

Cons: Most improvements won’t immediately be available due to lack of hardware support.

When Microsoft or Apple releases a new operating system, it’s a major event. Ever since its existence was confirmed at Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC) in 2008, Mac OS 10.6 (better known as Snow Leopard) has been a major discussion topic in the tech world.

At its core, Snow Leopard sports the same feature set as its predecessor, OS 10.5 (aka Leopard) but has several major improvements that show the amount of work put in by the folks down at One Infinite Loop in Cupertino.

Right off the bat, here’s a disclaimer: if you have an older Mac, built around a PowerPC chip, (e.g. iBooks, PowerBooks, and PowerMacs) you won’t be able to run Snow Leopard. Sorry.

First and foremost, Snow Leopard is both faster and smaller than Leopard. According to Apple, Snow Leopard saves  seven Gigabytes over a traditional Leopard install. While that may seem small, seven GB is roughly one and a half times the capacity of a traditional DVD.

Snow Leopard also improves OS X’s agility. The system itself is based around 64-bit architecture, with a revamped kernel, meaning that the entire system has been built from the ground up to work best with the latest, greatest hardware. In addition, Snow Leopard is prepared to support hardware that won’t hit market until much later. While this means that a lot of the best speed increases are yet to come, even with current hardware there’s a noticeable difference.

In addition, the applications included with Snow Leopard have been upgraded. iChat’s native video resolution has been upgraded four-fold to accommodate even better cameras that will most likely be included in the next line of Apple products.

Quicktime 7 has been upgraded as well, to Quicktime X, which incorporates many of the features of Quicktime 7 Pro, such as convenient editing, video streaming over HTTP and screen recording.

On the more technical side, there’s Grand Central Dispatch (GCD), a technology new to Snow Leopard that allows programs to use all of the cores available on the new multicore processors that are driving today’s new generation of computers. (In case you’re wondering, any Mac made after 2006 is using an Intel multicore processor.)

Where GCD really shines is in the possibilities when it comes to third-party applications. Using GCD will allow developers to prioritize and shift processes to streamline their applications, and improve performance by making better use of each processor core.

Now that I’ve extolled the virtues of the new features in Snow Leopard, let’s take a look at some of the problems you may face.

If you have any third-party preference settings in System Preferences, chances are you may experience a few hiccups until all the developers get 64-bit sorted out. As it stands, preferences that are built around 32-bit architecture still work, but you’ll have to restart System Preferences in 32-bit mode in order to be able to load them. Thankfully, Snow Leopard re-opens System Prefs automatically, so there really is not much you need to do.

If you’re using any PowerPC based applications (here’s looking at you, Office 2004), you need to make sure you install Rosetta, Apple’s PPC emulator. It’s an optional checkbox in the install process, but if you don’t install it, your old PPC-based apps won’t work.

Finally, there are still many apps out there that haven’t been updated for full compatibility with Snow Leopard.   This means that they might crash more often than usual or they may simply not work at all. But never fear, developers everywhere are working around the clock to fix any and all Snow Leopard bugs.

All told, Snow Leopard is a great piece of software that’s only going to get better with age.   If you have $30 sitting around, buy it now. It’s well worth the money.

Don’t forget to check The Pioneer’s Web site this week. I’ll be posting tons of Snow Leopard tips, tricks and videos.