In between new notebooks and fawning over the iPhone, Bertrand Serlet got up on stage to talk about Snow Leopard, the next release of Mac OS X. Apple (s aapl) took a few digs at Microsoft (s msft) for stumbling with Windows Vista and trying to play catch-up with Windows 7. The picture that our friends in Cupertino are trying to paint is that Leopard has been a huge success and that Snow Leopard will be even better. After listening to the keynote, I find that I have to agree. I am over the moon about the changes coming to the Mac OS.
Apple is justifiably proud of Mac OS X and the excellent combination of power and usability in Leopard. Serlet was quick to point out that in this release, Apple is hoping to build on their success with Leopard and add refinements that will make it even better. There are so many refinements that I will not attempt to list them all here, but will instead refer you to Apple’s page about the refinements in Snow Leopard (be sure to click on the “even more refinements” link at the bottom of the page to get even more details).
Of all these improvements, I am most excited about three of them: Finder, Speed, and Disk Eject.
The new Finder is completely rewritten as a Cocoa native application, built with 64-bit code and Grand Central Dispatch support. This should make the Finder more responsive because it will execute tasks faster and also be able to take advantage of the multiprocessing prowess of Grand Central Dispatch to offload background tasks efficiently to idle processors. Apple says that some operations like icon preview refreshes are up to 1.7x faster. This new Finder is going to breath new life into your computer by making it more responsive.
There are other speed improvements all over Snow Leopard. Time Machine backups are faster. Waking up from sleep, shutting down, and joining a wireless network are all faster. Even installing Mac OS X is faster with Snow Leopard. Just like Maverick and Goose, I feel the need… the need for speed. And Snow Leopard delivers.
And lastly, I am thrilled about the more reliable disk ejection in Snow Leopard. 10.6 will reduce the frequency with which the OS will prevent you from ejecting a disk, and more importantly, it will tell you which application is causing the OS to keep the disk mounted. It’s a small thing, but I cannot tell you how many times I have had to reboot rather than figure out what is holding on to my external hard drive.
Snow Leopard is fully 64-bit, along with a number of the included applications. Moving from 32-bits to 64 means that the addressable memory space is increased to almost 16 billion GB of RAM. This ungodly number means that you do not have to worry about software limiting the amount of RAM that can be used. In the short term, we still have to live with the hardware limits of Macintosh computers, but these will improve over time (as the new MacBook Pro’s demonstrate with an increase to 8GB RAM). And 64-bit goodness also means that some instructions will actually get processed faster on the 64-bit CPU’s that all Macs are built on. More interesting than the RAM limits of incremental performance gains, the new 64-bit memory allocation routines in Snow Leopard are also more secure and less prone to injection attacks.
Grand Central Dispatch (mentioned above as being supported in the new Finder) is a game-changing technology that works to efficiently distribute computing tasks among all available processors. For the last few years, increases in CPU clock speeds have been downplayed compared to increasing the number of cores available on a single chip.
Every Mac now has at least two cores, and some Mac Pros have 16. In the next year or so clock speeds will continue to hang in the 2.2-3.0GHz region, but the standard number of cores should increase to four and Mac Pros may go beyond 16. GCD is a software layer that developers can take advantage of in their applications to help schedule tasks across all these cores. If Snow Leopard can do this better than Windows 7, and developers choose to utilize the technology, then this could open a serious performance gap between the Mac platform and PC’s running the exact same hardware.
OpenCL is another new technology meant to better harness the raw hardware power that is already in your Mac. Today’s video cards or graphics processing units (GPUs) are capable of performing calculations for 3D graphics and modeling at an amazing pace. OpenCL is an attempt to let developers harness that power for use in other applications beyond drawing thousands of polygons on screen with fancy textures. Again, if developers take advantage of OpenCL, then Mac applications may run noticeably faster on Snow Leopard than on the same hardware running Leopard or Windows.
The third piece of today’s announcement is the inclusion of Exchange support directly in Mac applications like Mail, iCal, and Address Book. Apple licensed the Exchange technology for the iPhone, which helped that device make inroads into corporate IT environments. Now that same technology is being baked into Mac OS X so that Mac users can integrate more easily with their corporate infrastructure.
Setup was demonstrated to be quick and easy using auto-discovery of Exchange services and applications were then immediately aware of your accounts and resources on Exchange. You can continue to drag-and-drop people onto iCal calendars to make appointments and so on. Many people will appreciate that you can blend your personal and business information in one interface by seeing both personal calendars and Exchange calendars or personal contacts in Address Book alongside the Global Address List from Exchange.
In my opinion, the new Exchange support is going to do more for bringing the Mac OS into the workplace than Intel processors, Active Directory integration, virtualization, and the iPhone have accomplished in the last several years.
Pricing & Availability
Snow Leopard will be available in September for $129. Special pricing is available to current Leopard users who can buy the new release for the very modest price of $29 for a single user or $49 for a family pack. If you buy a new Mac with Leopard today, you will be eligible for the Snow Leopard Up-To-Date program, which is only $9.95.
With this sort of pricing, I don’t see any reason not to upgrade to Snow Leopard. I’ll be waiting in line myself.