Apple releases a modest but capable Mac OS X upgrade. (August 28th, 2009)
Product Manufacturer: Apple
Price: $29 (regular), $49 (family license)
- Faster; reclaims drive space in an era of bulk.
- Worthwhile Finder and Exposé tweaks.
- Exchange 2007 support.
- Lays foundation for much faster performance.
- Hardware-accelerated QuickTime.
- $29 upgrade price; no version check.
- Some compatibility issues on launch.
- QuickTime X interface a partial step back.
- Not a major leap forward two years after Leopard.
- No Exchange 2003 or earlier support.
Critics have often accused Apple of charging for service packs to Mac OS X where Microsoft has released interim updates for free. While it's true Apple has often tended to release OS releases frequently -- in some cases within a year or less -- these have often been major architectural and interface changes where Microsoft's focus on maintenance. With Snow Leopard, however, Apple itself has signaled that it's content with a more modest upgrade. The question then is whether a less superficially ambitious update is worth paying $29, especially when Microsoft at least initially appears to have a more aggressive (if more expensive) update in Windows 7.
installation and reclaiming space
Loading a new version of Mac OS X has never been especially complicated on the surface, but digging even slightly deeper has usually revealed some problems underneath. Advanced options were potentially confusing, and trying to whittle down unneeded data has often been an exercise in frustration; it's no secret that apps have been written specifically to cull unnecessary language install files or printer drivers.
Thankfully, Apple has touched on both of these in Snow Leopard, albeit not necessarily how you'd expect. Controversially, Apple has taken away the stock options to erase and install or upgrade and install; you can only choose to perform a straightforward installation, which amounts to an upgrade if Mac OS X already exists on the system. It's possible to erase a drive using Disk Utility on the DVD (available in the installer), but it's evident Apple decided that the previous options were too complicated. We didn't have any problems relating to not wiping the disk first, so this appears more a decision to streamline the process and prevent someone from wiping the system clean without understanding the consequences.
What's more notable are the more sensible install options. Rather than ask you to install every printer driver, Apple just installs drivers for any printers it can recognize as attached to the system and lets you choose to either install drivers for more common models or to install every driver. It's less tunable but is also much easier -- and, for the average user, saves them gigabytes of storage.
In fact, it's the amount of space that actually returns to the user that highlights the Snow Leopard install process. Where Windows 7 has swelled to take up about 16GB of disk space, or 20GB if you're using the 64-bit version, Apple's release has actually shrunk from what it offered two years ago. Through a combination of the reduced driver install, the elimination of PowerPC binaries, and some strategic compression, a Leopard user theoretically gets back 7GB of space. In our test, it was even more dramatic: our late 2008, 2.4GHz unibody MacBook went from 100GB of free space to 117GB. Users with cavernous amounts of free space may never notice it, but it could make a large difference on older systems, the MacBook Air, or any other system where it's all too easy to run low on storage.
OS install speeds haven't gotten dramatically faster, though. We timed a complete install on the MacBook at about 36 minutes. This could be faster with a 7,200RPM hard drive or a desktop-sized optical drive, but it doesn't stand out by itself.
From day to day, the one aspect of Snow Leopard you're most likely to notice is speed. Most changes aren't dramatic in and of themselves, but combined they amount to a smoother experience. A cold boot on our MacBook sped up from 52 seconds to 44 seconds; a shutdown took just 5 seconds instead of the earlier 8 seconds. We also noticed that at least some apps tended to load faster. Safari, for example, took 3 seconds, or 2 Dock icon bounces, to load under the previous Mac OS X release; in Snow Leopard, it took a single bounce and 2 seconds.
There are also less quantifiable speed improvements: thumbnails load faster, Wi-Fi reestablishes a connection faster, and links to remote servers restore faster after waking from sleep (not to mention automatically try to reconnect). Time Machine backups are also faster. These advantages are less likely to manifest themselves on systems with large amounts of RAM or on subsequent uses, but they create a cumulative effect that amounts to a lot.
Moreover, the speed-ups are more noticeable than they are in Windows 7. Users with a reasonably recent Windows Vista PC may never notice a difference; it's not unless it's a netbook or marginal upgrade candidate that the difference is obvious. Leopard wasn't slow to start with, and a significant number of quirks have been ironed out.