Snow Leopard: A Brief Introduction to the New Big Cat

SnowLeopardInstallI’m now running OS X 10.5.6 on two of my three eligible Macs (the fourth is a 12-inch PowerBook G4), and so far, I couldn’t be happier. I haven’t run into any nasty compatibility issues or really disastrous bugs (although Finder once auto-quit and restarted when I was fiddling with the menu bar), and general system performance seems noticeably improved.

All that said, if you’re looking for big flashy changes, look elsewhere. Snow Leopard is exactly what Apple said it was all along: a nice collection of system refinements and improvements, with a few experience-enhancing features thrown in for good measure.


OS X users will find the installation process very much simplified. For advanced users, probably too much so, in fact. Running the installer from the Snow Leopard disc off of your desktop gives you only one install option: a simple upgrade. In the interest of time, and because I was curious to see how well it would work, that’s the option I used on my MacBook Pro, though I generally prefer doing a clean install with any major point OS change.

To run a clean install, users can boot from the Snow Leopard disc by holding down “C” during startup. From there, you can use Disk Utility to format your target drive and perform a fresh install.

Installation time was surprisingly fast, taking less than an hour start to finish. Apple has streamlined the installation process by removing a lot of drivers that used to be packaged with the OS, since Snow Leopard is programmed to go to the web to find those later if and when they’re required.

System Performance

The best comparison I can make in order to describe the general system performance enhancements Snow Leopard brings to the table is my experience of moving from the iPhone 3G to the iPhone 3GS. Everything felt faster, tighter and more responsive. My Macs running 10.6 feel the same.

Initial boot-up times are improved on both my MacBook Pro and my Mac mini, albeit by only nominal amounts, but once you’re actually up and running, the response times in Finder, Exposé, Stacks and all bundled system applications is markedly improved. Launch times for non-Apple apps doesn’t seem to be much better, nor does in-app performance, but it may take time for developers to incorporate code to take advantage of Grand Central Dispatch and OpenCL technology.

Quicktime X

Aside from a cool icon update, Quicktime X also gets a completely overhauled UI, which puts much more focus on the content. Videos are framed in a minimalist, borderless window that has only a dark control bar at the top, and a playback overlay.

quicktime_xLike iMovie ’09 and iPhoto ’09 before it, Quicktime X is now more social thanks to a new “Share” menu that allows you to upload your movie directly to your MobileMe gallery or YouTube, or to export to an iTunes-friendly format. Selecting the iTunes option brings up a dialog with three conversion options, allowing you to format the movie for use on an iPhone/iPod, an Apple TV or just for general computer use. Export and trim functions are also available from the playback control overlay.


Exposé and Stacks

Two features that have become inseparable from my daily Mac experience are Exposé and Stacks. Exposé gets a major usability boost thanks to the inclusion of Dock access. Under both “All Windows” and “Application Windows” views, you’ll be able to click on open apps in the dock as well as open windows — helpful if you’ve hidden a program, or for changing the active application without leaving Exposé.

exposeStacks are now much more functional, since you can scroll in Grid view and navigate through subfolders instead of having to click through to Finder. Fan view still does things the old-fashioned way, though I’m not sure why anyone would voluntarily use Fan mode with Stacks anyway.


Finder and Preview

A few little things really up Finder’s game in Snow Leopard. There’s an icon size slider in the bottom right-hand corner of every finder window, which is great news for universal access, and for people like me who often have to take application icon screenshots. There’s also advanced icon viewing in Finder which allows you to preview movies and scroll through PDFs without even activating live preview.

finder_previewPreview itself gets some great usability enhancements, such as better, more accessible screenshot and import options and soft preview using any available system color profiles. You can also preview a wider range of documents, even if you don’t have the software that created it on your system. That includes Word and Excel files.

Exchange Support

For you business-types out there, one of the big features of Snow Leopard is built-in Exchange support. This wasn’t one I could test out personally, but Exchange support in 10.6 extends to Mail, Address Book, and iCal, so you no longer have to depend on Entourage to get by.

iCal even does fancy things like detecting scheduling conflicts and suggesting alternate times depending on availability. The best part? You’re doing it all without using Windows or Outlook.

Lots of Little Things

Snow Leopard brings so many little changes that it’s impossible to list them all here, or to uncover them all after spending such a short amount of time with the OS. Among my favorite early discoveries is the new naming scheme for screenshots. Gone are the “Photo 1,” “Photo 2,” etc. that tell you absolutely nothing. Instead, images are now labeled “Screen Shot,” complete with the date and time they were taken underneath.

Another nice touch is always having System Preferences accessible from the dock, even when the SysPref app itself isn’t actually open. In Leopard, you could set your System Preferences to open and auto-hide at startup, and then with a right click on the icon in your dock, access all the preference sub-menus quickly and easily. Snow Leopard takes away the first step, so that right-clicking on the Preferences icon always brings up that sub-menu.

Finally, Core Location tech will automatically update your time zone based on nearby Wi-Fi hotspots it detects, so if you travel a lot, you won’t have to worry about constantly switching your computer clock.

Right now, Snow Leopard is like a treasure box with lots of little prizes to uncover. If you’re spending your Friday poking around and you’ve found anything I’ve missed above, please share with the rest of the class.

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