Snow Leopard is Just Plain Cool: Gartenberg First Hands On

This fall will see the introduction of new operating system releases by the two major vendors in this space. For the first time in recent memory, Apple and Microsoft will go up against each other head to head with the newest versions of their platforms, released within weeks of each other. First up is Apple with Snow Leopard. Originally announced for a late September release, Apple surprised the market with an early ship date. Users will be able to pick up their copies starting on the 28th. Pricing for the release is $29 for Leopard users looking to upgrade. For Mac users still on Tiger, Apple offers the Snow Leopard box set which includes Snow Leopard along with the latest versions of iLife and iWork for $169.

For Leopard users, it's a no brainer, pick up a copy. Period. For Tiger users, the $169 box set is a great value and easily worth the price of admission (by comparison, the cheapest copy of Microsoft Office for Mac runs $149 and if you want Exchange support, which is free in Snow Leopard, that will set you back $399).

Apple is officially calling Snow Leopard OS X 10.6 but it would be more accurately described as an evolutionary release with features that are downright revolutionary. Snow Leopard is a full 64-bit OS and has the caveat that it works with Intel Macs only. This is the OS release that spells the final swan song for Power PC. Not a surprise and let's face it, if you're not on an Intel Mac, it's time to move on.

I've been testing Snow Leopard on a variety of machines over the last few weeks, and so far I'm impressed. Apple has evolved the OS in ways that change core infrastructure while preserving and refining the experience that has differentiated the platform over the years. The result is an elegant, modern OS with some new features that help it retain the status of best of breed in personal computing.

The first step to OS migration is installation. While Windows 7 requires a clean install of applications and data (unless you're migrating from a like-version of Windows Vista or using Windows 7 Ultimate over most versions of Vista) Apple actually recommends users do an in-place upgrade over their prior version of Leopard or Tiger. That's pretty unusual. When I asked if it was more desirable for users to start from scratch, I was told "no". The recommended procedure is to upgrade in place. I tried the update on several machines running Leopard and was pleasantly surprised. The install process was straightforward, simple and worked every time (you actually have to look a bit to find the setting to do a clean install).

The result was a 30 minute process on average that resulted in a stable machine with absolutely no issues, even when I tried to do things like interrupt the installer. It might seem like a small issue but Snow Leopard's installer is the easiest, simplest and most reliable I have ever used to upgrade an OS from one version to another. Not having to deal with the hassle of moving data offline, re-installing applications and settings is a huge benefit for Apple's customers and something that will no doubt make many Windows 7 updgraders green with envy. I had no issues post upgrade, all my apps, settings, and configurations worked as they had before, just faster and more reliably.

Even more shocking, I found that on average I recovered more than 10gb of disk space post upgrade (Apple says the average user will see about six to seven back). On machines with less than 100gb of storage, that's significant and it's the only time I've ever seen an OS upgrade reclaim space and not take up more. The only issue I've come across in my use were a handful of third party screen savers which no longer work. It appears that changes in Apple's graphic architecture might be to blame.

Apple likes to point out that Snow Leopard features fall into three categories, Refinements, Technologies, and Exchange.

In the refinements, Apple's made some nice tweaks to the UI. Expose, for example is now integrated into the dock, clicking and holding an application in the dock shows only the windows active in that application. Safari 4 is now the default browser. There's also a new version of QuickTime called QuickTime X that supports hardware acceleration, color sync and HTTP streaming. In addition there's some new features that make it easy to capture a video and easily upload it as well as do screen captures. It's also easy to navigate directly through stacks placed on the dock without the need to open Finder windows. The Finder itself was totally re-written from the ground up and is much speedier in almost every way. I applaud Apple's philosophy to not radically change the UI between releases.

There's actually been a lot of evolution but it's been small steps between releases that only appear huge when you compare multiple releases back. As part of the Snow Leopard process, I dug out my old G4 Cube which still runs OS X 10.1 and was shocked how much the OS has changed since that release and yet at no point in the OS release cycles did I feel that I needed to re-learn or change my behavior. By contrast, I found the changes Microsoft has made from XP to Vista and Vista to Win 7 to be useful but jarring. With Win 7, I once again had to change my behavior to map to what the OS expected of me.

In terms of underlying technologies, Apple's got a lot of new stuff that will definitely appeal to developers. Snow Leopard is 64 bit so there is essentially no memory limit (there is a cap but it's 16 billion gigabytes). All the OS apps are now 64 bit so they'll perform accordingly and that sets a good example for developers to follow. In addition Apple has integrated multi-core support directly into the OS so developers don't have to deal with threads. Called Grand Central Dispatch, developers can deal with this at the app and API level to make their apps perform more efficiently under the new architecture. I was also pleased to find proper OS support for other languages, including right to left. There's other new technologies as well but for the most part they're invisible to the end-user but will provide a foundation for developers to create some rather cool next generation applications.

From an end-user view, the biggest feature in Snow Leopard is Exchange support. Yep, Snow Leopard has direct support for calendar, address book and email for Exchange 2007. This is probably one of the most important things Apple has done recently and now totally opens the Mac to the business market. While Microsoft has supported Mac users with Entourage, as part of Office for Mac, Apple's integration might obviate the need for that going forward. Combined with iWork, for productivity applications, Apple now has very credible software support for business functionality. It's also disruptive in terms of price. The main difference between the Mac Office home and student version and business editions is Exchange support in Entourage. The difference in price is $149 vs. $399. With iWork selling at a fraction of that price and Exchange support now dropped to zero, it will be interesting to see if Microsoft can hold on to their Mac customer base until the next version of Office for Mac ships eighteen months from now. Of course, it's even more ironic that Apple offers free Exchange support in their OS natively while Microsoft insists on charging for that functionality with the required purchase of Outlook for Windows users.

I tested Snow Leopard's integration with our corporate Exchange server and had no problems configuring or using it. All my mail, calendar and contacts flowed seamlessly. Unlike Entourage, I've had no problems with conflicts and more importantly, no issues with calendar events that were mysteriously moved one day off their actual occurrence. Entourage has been the only game in town for Exchange access for a long time and it's nice to see an alternative. As for me, I've totally stopped using Entourage and I don't see myself ever going back to it.

There's an OS war brewing this fall and at this point, it's looking to me like Snow Leopard once again comes out ahead. Apple has produced an evolutionary release, but they've priced it as such making it a no-brainer for users to upgrade. If you use Exchange, that feature alone with worth more than twice the cost of admission. Even for non Exchange users Snow Leopard offers a refined OS X experience that will make your Mac perform even better and set the foundation for the future.

Still curious about OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard? Want to know more? Check out the full SlashGear review of Apple's latest OS X update.