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Snow Leopard: A Brief Introduction to the New Big Cat

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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 (s aapl) 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.

35 Responses to “Snow Leopard: A Brief Introduction to the New Big Cat”

  1. Ted Strutz

    After installing Sno Leopard my computer does not recognize my HP photosmart C2750 scanner. It still prints, although it no longer recognizes the small photo tray. I was able to restore my dict. and Add. Book by dragging the app into the dock. Cannot get the hp app to do it. Anyone have any ideas? Thanks

  2. Asim Esen

    I just installed Snow Leopard in a new MacBook Pro. All seem well. I noted that desktop icon sizes keep changing. I adjusted the size so many times in View Options but it keeps changing (increasing size). This happens when I touch the track pad. This is irritating because icons get so large that some of them are not visible. For example, I cannot see the hard disk icon on my desktop. Is there any way to keep this from happening?

    • If you pinch toward the center, the icons will decrease in size. If you pinch away from your fingers, the icons will grow once again. Like on the iPhone, if you’re in need of augmenting the picture size to see more detail, you pinch. Do the opposite to make the picture smaller. Try it out. Or reply and I’ll get back to you with what I mean in more depth.

  3. Ted Strutz

    Thanks to Andy C. for previous answer… Now a question forC.S. I’m a little leery to try Mail… as before it removed all my mail in gmail and I could not get it back. I like gmail, but would like to use the mail system in contacting companies on their web sites. If I start up Mail… will it remove my inbox from gmail? Thanks

  4. Mail has been completely overhauled. It works flawlessly with Gmail now. Deleting, or reading a message from the iPhone, or gmail webapp is immediately communicated to now…

    One problem elsewhere though: When using either bottom-corner hotspot to disable the screensaver is unworkable in full screen QuickTime. It causes the dock to float to the top and it won’t go away! Thankfully Hulu in Full screen mode in safari doesn’t have the same problem… Not sure about netflix yet…

  5. Ted Strutz

    After a two days I can no longer use my dictionary…

    A message says… You can’t use this version of the application Dictionary with this version of Mac OS X… you have Dictionary 2.0.2.

    Anyone have any ideas? I’m not too computer savvy and can’t spell to well either.


    • Ted: Do a search in spotlight for ‘Dictionary’ and you will find the application location in Snow Leopard. The shortcut you were using before is probably pointing to an old location.

  6. Have Mac, Will Travel

    My list of quibbles and quirks after using Snow Leopard for a couple of days. Just wondering if anyone else is experiencing the same.

    1. Finder seems to be a bit twitchy compared to 10.5 (cursor jumps, clicks seem to be too quick) and at times sluggish (while scrolling). It also “forgot” all the settings for the windows from 10.5. Had to configure my workspace all over again. It also seems to use more memory than 10.5.

    2. Preview starts out at 8-10MB when launched by itself. After opening one PDF doc, it goes to 160MB (the doc itself is <5MB). Opening a 2nd PDF send it to 210MB. What is it doing with all that memory? Also, in 10.5, opening a landscape PDF (like a presentation doc) would frame it around one complete page. Now, it opens in a window in portrait shape with one and a half pages showing.

    3. Both Safari and Firefox terminates when printing out PDF's. Not every time but pretty regularly.

    4. Running sudo periodic weekly in Terminal used to free up memory reliably. Now, it doesn't run as long and doesn't seem to free up any memory.

    Thinking back to every "point oh" release, there are always some strange bugs and quirks (ie Why did they change that? It was fine the way it is.) that are "fixed" by point one and two pretty quickly. Hopefully, that will be the case with Snow Leopard.

  7. I am anxious to see how the two new major (mainstream) desktop Operating Systems compare. Windows 7 is the first MS OS that is remotely close to an Apple product in terms of elegance. Bluntly, it’s the first MS OS that didn’t give my laptop an inferiority complex when sitting next to a Mac (:-{)}



    • Alexander

      I upgraded from 10.5 to 10.6 and had the same problem. Always had the prefs in the dock. After removing, and readding it, the right click thing works..

  8. Just installed. First impression: everything is definitely snappier. It’s super nice to be able to finally be able to minimize windows to apps (in dock preferences) instead of the right side of the dock – I never understood that. Being able to see said windows in Expose is fantastic. I’m glad to see that Witch ( recognizes them too because that’s still my favorite way to quickly browse open windows.

    Stack navigation is definitely welcomed too! I noticed that the key combo Apple + up allows you to take a step back while drilling down through folders in stacks. Anyone found a way to move forwards yet? I love me some key commands :)

    • Tim Brown

      I use Witch with APE and Pulltab to reclaim cmd-tab, but APE now will not load Pulltab since the upgrade to Snow Leopard. Have you found a way around this or do you use a different shortcut key? Is so what shortcut? Thanks…

  9. No discoveries yet but I’d like to figure out why the ‘hold 64 keys’ isn’t working. I have a MacBook Pro 3,1 .. EFI64 so I thought it would. Other then that the system seems peppy and I’m enjoying it so far.

  10. One thing I found, which might be helpful for people with many icons on their desktop, is if you select the finder and then pinch the trackpad like you would if you were zooming in or out on a picture, the desktop icon size will change. I don’t know if this is new or not, but its kind of nifty.