Review: Mac OS X Snow Leopard

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Jason Snell, Macworld
PC World
Monday, August 31, 2009; 12:19 AM

Apple has spent the last decade building and improving Mac OS X, fusing the classic Mac OS and technology acquired from Steve Jobs's Next into an impressive mainstream operating system that's widely considered the best in its class. But after a decade of constant advancement and regular operating-system upgrades, Apple has taken a pause with the release of Snow Leopard, also known as Mac OS X 10.6. Instead of adding hundreds of new features, Apple has chosen to use Snow Leopard to cut ties with the past, plan for the future, and take dead aim on its present competition.

The result is a Mac OS X update unlike any in recent memory, one that boosts speeds, reclaims disk space, tweaks dozens of features, and lays the groundwork for a new generation of computers that feature 64-bit multicore microprocessors, ultrapowerful graphics processors, and massive amounts of memory. These features, combined with the low upgrade price of $29, make Snow Leopard the biggest no-brainer of an upgrade since Mac OS X 10.1. (And that upgrade, the aged among us will recall, was completely free.)

Making the Upgrade

Unlike previous editions of Mac OS X, which could be freely installed on any old Mac, Snow Leopard's license specifically limits it to users who are already using Leopard, which has been shipping since October 2007. If you are a Leopard user, you can upgrade a single Mac for $29, or up to five Macs in one household with the Snow Leopard Family Pack for $49. Users of Tiger--essentially people who bought Intel Macs before Leopard was released, and never upgraded--are supposed to purchase the Mac Box Set, which includes Snow Leopard, iLife '09, and iWork '09, for $169. (Snow Leopard doesn't run at all on PowerPC-based Macs.)

However, in contrast to Microsoft--which offers a confusing array of full and upgrade versions of Windows, all of them requiring that users enter a unique serial number in order to prove they're not pirates--Apple continues to rely on the honor system for Mac OS X. Not only does Snow Leopard not require the entry of any serial numbers, but the standard version of Snow Leopard is a bootable "full install" disc that doesn't actually check for the presence of Leopard in order to install. This also means that if at a later time you want to wipe your hard drive and reinstall Snow Leopard, you won't have to first install Leopard and then run a separate Snow Leopard upgrade on top of it. (That sound you hear is a thousand IT managers sighing with relief.)

The Snow Leopard installation process is somewhat different from previous OS X installers. Rather than requiring an immediate restart, a lot of it takes place as soon as you double-click the installer. In essence, Apple has taken the wait out of the process: Now you set up all your installation settings and walk away; the rest of the process (including a reboot) can take place without your direct intervention. And the installation process itself takes less time in Snow Leopard than it did in Leopard.

If you choose to customize your installation, you'll notice that the installation of printer drivers is entirely different in Snow Leopard. In previous versions of OS X, you had the option of installing drivers for the printers of particular vendors. That was always a bit confusing: If I don't install HP drivers now, does that mean I won't ever be able to use HP printers? But Snow Leopard doesn't work that way. Instead, it automatically installs drivers for printers your computer has used in the past. If you're on a network, it installs drivers for the connected printers it finds out there, too. And it installs drivers for printers Apple considers popular.

Apple has boasted that Snow Leopard requires less hard-drive space than earlier versions of OS X; believe it or not, this revamped print-driver system is the reason for most of that space savings. Turns out most of us are wasting gigabytes of hard-drive space on printer drivers that we don't need.

What happens if you encounter a strange, new printer? If you've got an Internet connection at that moment, you shouldn't have much trouble: Snow Leopard will automatically download and install the drivers it needs.

If you really need bullet-proof, instantaneous compatibility with a vast array of printers, you can opt to install all the drivers--you just won't realize the disk-space savings you might have otherwise. But for most of us, Apple's new printer installation method should be all but invisible--except for the reclaimed disk space.

There are some other notable options in the customized installation window. Rosetta, the technology that enables code compiled for PowerPC chips to run on Intel chips, is available--but is not installed by default. Rosetta only takes up a few megabytes of drive space, and without it older programs simply won't run, so if you have such programs, that option is worth checking. To find out if an App is PowerPC only, select an old app and choose Get Info; if its Kind is listed as Application (PowerPC), it needs Rosetta.

If you don't, and if you later try to launch a PowerPC app, Snow Leopard will pop up a window to explain that you need Rosetta and offer to install it for you (via Apple's Software Update utility). I can only assume that making Rosetta optional is an attempt by Apple to goad users to upgrade their apps and to shame developers who still haven't recompiled their apps to run on Intel chips. But given that most everyday users have no idea which of their apps are Intel-native and which are PowerPC, this seems unnecessarily harsh.

Another technology making a surprise appearance in the installation-options list is QuickTime. No, QuickTime hasn't suddenly become optional in Snow Leopard. But Snow Leopard's new QuickTime Player is as radical a departure from the old model as iMovie '08 was from iMovie HD: it's a complete reimagining of the app, one that strips away many features that many of us find useful. If the Mac you're upgrading to Snow Leopard includes a QuickTime Pro key, you'll find that QuickTime Player 7 is still on your Mac, but has been moved to the/Applications/Utilities folder. If you don't have a QuickTime Pro key but still want access to the classic QuickTime 7 player, you'll need to do a custom install in order to get it.


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