1. The Big Snow Leopard Review

    brian on 2009.09.12
    at 01:36 am

    Since most people who read this blog think of me as an “Apple guy” (I take offense to “fanboy”) I will provide you with my two-week review of Snow Leopard. It will be many, many words (and thus I’m not going to edit this heavily. If you catch a typo, let me know).

    Firstly, do you need to run out and buy Snow Leopard? No. There’s no rush. Should you buy it at some point? Definitely. I mean for the cost of a week of lattes you get back a bunch of space on your hard drive (reduction in print drivers and the introduced use of code compression), can use the machine almost instantly after waking it from sleep, and get useful new integration between the dock and Exposé. That’s totally worth $30.

    A ton of work went into this upgrade but you have to look hard to see many of the changes. Most of the changes were under the hood. Many of the tweaks need software developers to write software to take advantage of the new under-hood tools before you’ll personally benefit from them. That means you get some benefits today, and more later.

    Part of that under the hood upgrade means they threw out a lot of old code. But if you have an old Mac, you won’t be able to install Snow Leopard. You’ll need an Intel-based Mac to take advantage of 10.6. Luckily for you, 10.5 is pretty good OS until you can upgrade.

    Now, let’s go in depth a little more. First, let’s start with the Finder. Completely rewritten in 64-bit Cocoa… and it pretty much looks and works exactly the same as before. Of course, what would you expect for the first rewrite of the core interface to your computer in over 8 years? But in all seriousness, the Finder is noticeably snappier. I’ve yet to see a beachball spin while waiting for something. That’s a big improvement.

    My favorite new feature is the Exposé and Dock integration. Click any app icon that has open windows. After a second of holding, you see a full-screen display of all that app’s open windows. If windows from that app are minimized to the dock (and more on this in a moment) they are shown too, but at the bottom of the display, under a dividing line. This makes Exposé a little more accessible. You can use this to help aid drag-and-drop as well.

    I said I’d mention minimizing windows to the dock… now you have two options. Do nothing and it works the way it’s been since 10.0: windows shrink to the right side of the dock. However, if all those tiny windows look the same to you and you hate the ever expanding dock… you can now minimize windows to their app’s icon instead. I’m using this currently. Right-click and click the window title in the menu to retrieve, or click on the window in the Exposé view. The downside is that there’s no visual indication you have windows minimized to the app’s icon. This hasn’t been an issue for me. I’m still experimenting.

    While we’re in the dock… Stacks (how you navigate folders in the right half of the dock) have been tweaked and they’re much easier to navigate, especially the grid view. Thanks Apple. Much more useful.

    If you’ve ever ejected a drive, physical or networked, you’ve undoubtedly been rebuffed at some point… “The drive was still in use” By what? The total rewrite allowed Apple to address a bug in ejecting disks that, they claim, was only addressable with a total rewrite. Ouch. But, hooray, it works right now.

    Here’s a tiny improvement… when you’re in any application and you have to open a file, you get a system-wide dialog box to find your file. Two useful improvements hide here. First, Quicklook has been added to this dialog. Select most any file and press the spacebar to have an instant preview, before fully opening the file. This is especially useful if you’re using this dialog box to upload a photo in a web browser, for instance… you’ll be extra sure you have the right one.

    Another little tweak here is on the left side bar. The “search for” section has been brought in from the standard Finder sidebar. If you’re looking for something you’ve used recently, click the “Today” search to see a chronologically ordered list of recently changed items. Super useful in a workflow. A free tip that’s not new to 10.6… have the file you need in that dialog box easily visible somewhere else, and don’t want to dig seven layers deep to surface it in the dialog box? Simple trick… grab the file you can already see in the Finder and drop it on the dialog box… the box will instantly navigate to that file and select it. You just have to click “open”.

    Faster Time Machine: I haven’t noticed this, because it always just runs in the background.

    Faster Mail: Hard to say. Seems a little more dependable. Like the Finder, I can’t think of many beachballs… and that’s almost all I remember from Leopard Mail. If you use GMail or Yahoo! Mail, you can now have a live sync between Apple Address Book and your online contacts. Very useful.

    Faster wake… but sleep has dramatically slowed. But you can close the lid and walk away. It’ll sleep within 30 seconds or so.

    Installs faster… though I didn’t notice. Cool tweaks: If your install fails midway, you can restart the machine and the install will resume where it left off instead of starting from scratch. Also, the installer checks for updates before installing from the disc, presumedly saving you time upgrading later. The installer also has a limited list of incompatible apps which Apple will auto-disable for you, so you don’t crash your system. Since there are some serious under the hood changes, there are a number of incompatible programs. Be sure to research your critical apps before upgrading. I used the unofficial Snow Leopard Compatibility Wiki (and even contributed a few apps) and only had to update a handful of apps.

    QuickTime X: I like the new look, but if you tap your mouse at anytime during playback… the controls appear on screen and you have to stare at them, on top of the video, until they feel it’s time to disappear again. They really should have only used that style of controls for full screen videos. For all other videos, the controls should slide down from the bottom of the window… as not to obstruct viewing, especially on small videos.

    One great improvement is that many of the QuickTime Pro (formerly $30) features have been incorporated at no extra cost; things like quick video and audio recording. A new feature is built-in screen recording, super useful for a quick demo. Downside to the all-new QuickTime: many of the old features have not been ported to the new version and Apple had to leave QuickTime 7 on your system. If you had a number of plugins to QuickTime, this’ll likely annoy you.

    Higher Res video iChat: I look forward to trying this out with another Snow Leopard user. Supposedly it’s higher quality with 1/3 the bandwidth. If that’s true… wow.

    Print drivers: I already mentioned that they’ve been reduced, in sheer numbers. But also, they’re now integrated into the Software Update program. That’s great because I’ve never checked for an improved print driver in my life. I’ve had 10.6 for two weeks and I’ve already received an HP update to what were new drivers just two weeks ago.

    Text selection that respects columns: In 10.4, Apple’s built-in PDF viewer, Preview, added the ability to select text in most PDF files, which was super useful. But if you had a file with columns, they weren’t respected… you’d get the first five lines, say, of two columns. Not useful. There was a special way of selecting text while holding the option button, but you had to remember it existed (it’s still there, too, in 10.6). In 10.6, Apple auto-detects the presence of columns, and won’t select across them.

    More stable Safari: You can have Safari 4 in 10.5… but Safari 4 in 10.6 is a different animal. Both use the latest WebKit rendering engine and Nitro Javascript engine, both of which are the best in the world. But the 64-bit version in 10.6 is more stable and resilient about crappily coded pages and runaway Flash ads that freeze up your browser. In 10.6, if that happens, Apple lets the Flash plugin crash, but otherwise it doesn’t effect your day… other than you can’t view the part of that page was Flash-based. Overall, the app is peppier. Lastly, it scans your downloads for malware. Hopefully it’ll never actually need to.

    If you use an Apple AirPort Extreme or a wired network and have multiple Macs, there’s a neat sharing feature… you can wake sleeping Macs to get a file, then it’ll put your remote Mac back to sleep. Hooray for power savings. I’ll try this after I move my Mac mini to 10.6. Speaking of my Mac mini…

    Faster Screen Sharing… so I’m told. I only have one machine on 10.6, because of reported problems with video playback on Mac Minis using Front Row in 10.6. Usually, my screen sharing is to control that Mac mini, since it sits in my entertainment center, and it’s “display” is my “HDTV”. As a Netflix subscriber, I’m holding off until I’m certain I’m not breaking my DVD player.

    Text Tweaking and Services. One of my favorite 10.5 tools was a service I downloaded and used that allowed you to transform selected text… for example, if you typed a line in ALL CAPS by mistake, you could select the text and choose a transform service that would convert the text to all lower, or to titlecase. That’s now built in to the Mac OS, as is are text substitutions, for example, you can have automatic curly quotes and em dashes. Real fractions and ( r ) becomes ® . Hooray typography. Lastly, there’s a very tweaked Services department, where you can now integrate more scripting and context sensitive situations… things to make these text transformations look like cheap parlor tricks. If you can use Automator.

    For several years, I’ve used a trick to display the date in the menu bar. Now you can have that without the trick. See Date & Time in the system preferences.

    Biggest disappointment: all of my third-party screen savers were incompatible and deactivated. I suppose Apple expects people to write 64bit screen savers? Wow, the times we live in.

    Conclusion: Buy it if it won’t interrupt your workflow or break a key app you’re not ready to do something about. You didn’t need to camp out for it though. Get it when it’s convenient. At $30, it’s worth it.

    Remember: have a known good and current backup before installing an operating system! Upgrade your apps before installing the OS for a smoother process.

    Posted in: Apple · Software


    Comments (2)

    1. Hank said on 2009.09.12 at 05:51 am

      Mail Speed

      While might be faster, apparently I am too fast for the new version. I am finding that the New Message numbers found in the mailbox column and on the icon on the dock do not keep up with how many mail messages are actually left unread. There is a good 1-2 second pause, just long enough for me to search for where the unread message might be.

      Everything else about Snow Leopard, though, I am enjoying quite a bit.

    2. Beau Colburn said on 2009.09.14 at 07:32 pm

      Screen Sharing & TM

      Great read. A few things I’ve noticed: Screen Sharing is greatly improved between machines that are both running SL. I end up doing a fair amount of it, and it’s really noticeable and welcome.

      As for Time Machine speed, like you said, it happens in the background, so I don’t usually notice. At home I had my TM drive hooked up via FW and it’s worked very smoothly for a while now (pre-SL). However, when I installed SL on my parents MacBook, I saw a huge difference. They connect to a Time Capsule, and TM always took a long time to mount the remote disk, start and complete the backup process. This time has been greatly reduced under SL. In fact, it responds almost as if the disk was connected instead of wireless. It’s a really smooth process now and a great improvement.

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