But underneath the customary OS X fit and finish there's a lot of new plumbing at work here. The entire OS is now 64-bit, meaning apps can address massive amounts of RAM and other tasks go much faster. The Finder has been entirely re-written in Cocoa, which Mac fans have been clamoring for since 10.0. There's a new version of QuickTime, which affects media playback on almost every level of the system. And on top of all that, there's now Exchange support in Mail, iCal, and Address Book, making OS X finally play nice with corporate networks out of the box.
So you won't notice much new when you first restart into 10.6 -- apart from some minor visual tweaks here and there there's just not that much that stands out. But in a way that means the pressure's on even more: Apple took the unusual and somewhat daring step of slowing feature creep in a major OS to focus on speed, reliability, and stability, and if Snow Leopard doesn't deliver on those fronts, it's not worth $30... it's not worth anything. So did Apple pull it off? Read on to find out!
- Big performance improvements
- Forward thinking switch to 64-bit
- Painless installation
- Incompatibility with applications and plugins
- QuickTime changes not all positive
- No upgrade path for legacy users
Installation itself took about 45 minutes on most of the machines we tried, although we did run into some snags once things were complete. We didn't have any problems with the more pristine MacBook Pros in our fleet, but one of our production machines is a cranky older iMac that's been in constant use for over two years without a system rebuild, and when it restarted the desktop pictures were all set to the defaults, the System Preferences app wouldn't launch from the Apple Menu, our MobileMe sync states were a little confused and Spotlight began reindexing all the external drives. Fixing these problems didn't take much, but if your machine is already acting up don't expect everything to go perfectly.
Other installation notes: We were promised 6GB of storage savings with 10.6, and Apple more than delivered -- we got anywhere from 10GB to a whopping 20GB back after installation. Rosetta is no longer installed by default, so if you're still rocking some legacy non-Universal apps you'll want to make sure and install it. Printer driver installation is much smarter, installing drivers only for those printers you've used in the past and printers that appear on your local network. We have no idea why Apple continues to insist on installing language translations by default, but they're much smaller now at 250MB.
Overall, installing Snow Leopard is just like installing any other major OS update: it works great, except when it doesn't. The process itself is fine (in fact, Apple has even built in some safeguards to let you pick up an install if your computer dies or is shut off half way through), but it's the little kinks you have to work out afterwards that can be tricky. If you haven't loaded up your system with hacks and tweaks chances are you'll be fine -- and if you're living on the edge, well, you're probably used to doing some extra work around upgrade time.
Finder file previews
We'll get to the big Finder changes shortly -- the Cocoa rewrite definitely improved things -- but the big UI tweak here is live file previews. That means you can watch a video, flip through a document, and generally peek at things without having to open an app or even hit the space bar for Quick Look. It's quite handy -- but again, not earth-shattering.
Notable app changes
That said, there are some notable changes with QuickTime Player: there's a new screen recording tool (we made all the videos in this post with it), you can record right off your built-in iSight, and there's a new iPhone 3GS-like "Trim" tool to cut your videos fast.
That glossy title might come at a steep price for some of us -- at least at first glance. QuickTime Player X has certainly added some welcome new options for most, but for QuickTime 7 Pro users, things get a little confusing. If you've already got Pro on your system and do a straight install, you'll end up with the standard new QuickTime -- which means a lot of what you're used to will be missing. Hell, there isn't even a preferences dialog -- so say goodbye to presenting movies on a different monitor, or choosing a default full screen setting. The changes also means that you can't do quick'n'dirty edits by copy-and-pasting anymore (a favorite of Engadget editors), and export options have been reduced to presets for iPhone, iPod, Apple TV, MobileMe, and YouTube.
On top of that, some QuickTime-dependent apps seem like they need a rewrite to work correctly -- we couldn't get our Turbo.264 HD stick to function, and other QuickTime programs we tried seemed similarly stressed. Oh, and those screen recordings? They're encoded with some combination of H.264 and AAC audio that didn't play nice with Viddler out of the box -- and YouTube's uploader refused to load under Snow Leopard (we had a number of server errors), so we ended up uploading all these screencasts from a Windows machine. That may not be the case for all, but it was for us.
This won't be too much of an issue for users who are sticking with the basic QuickTime functionality, but for those of us who've become accustomed to Pro, it may be a little shock. Interestingly, Apple let us know that you can actually re-install QuickTime 7 Pro from the Snow Leopard disc (and from your Utilities folder, oddly), but if you hop right into a standard upgrade, it's amazingly easy to miss (we did on multiple systems).
Here's where it gets a little rough. Although Snow Leopard is ostensibly just a polish and repair job on Leopard, there've been enough changes under the hood so that plenty of things are likely to break -- or at least not play nice. As with the installation, if you're running a stock or close-to-stock system, you probably won't run into any problems, but if you've got a setup as tweaked as most of those in the Engadget labs, you're going to run into some issues.
We also noticed problems with old standbys like Growl, GrabUp and Skitch -- really clutch go-to applications that seemed to buckle under the 64-bit noise. Although we could start them in 32-bit mode, nothing seemed to work exactly right, and we're pretty sure we spotted Growl making off with a ton of free memory when we weren't looking. We also had trouble getting our Sprint Novatel U727 3G stick working, although our Verizon card was fine. Again, we're sure all of this is going to be updated, but if you're like us, the bugginess will prove maddening at times -- enough to make us consider waiting out the upgrade on some of our other machines.
There were some other head scratchers we saw on various systems, too. On a 17-inch unibody we were putting through the paces, the WiFi inexplicably has gone out and we have yet to get it working again. On a 15-inch, older generation MacBook Pro (3,1), Spotlight will only fetch search results in the dropdown -- results in a Finder window come up empty. More annoyingly, on two other, newer models we were testing with, Safari crashes out when booting into 32-bit mode -- meaning even Apple's workaround doesn't seem to... er, work.
That's the bad news, though. The good news is that almost all of our regular, non-plugin, non-third-party-framework, non-hack apps worked just fine. Office, Photoshop CS3 and CS4, Tweetie, Firefox 3.5, Ableton, Fluid -- you name it, it ran without a problem. Like we said, if you're running things close to stock you're going to be fine, but we tend to kit out our rigs with a ton of little hacks to really speed up our workflow, and that's the stuff that's broken in Snow Leopard. It's up to you to decide where on that line you fall before you commit to the upgrade.
Overall speed and stability
Compatibility with our various hackeriffic plugins aside, we found Snow Leopard to be just as stable and free from major hang-ups as Leopard. That cranky iMac we installed it on seemed to perk up a little, and while we don't think anything will ever make Firefox feel perfectly stable, we certainly didn't experience as many beachballs or other hangups while running 10.6. So yes, subjectively things seem fast and reliable, and the new Finder makes day-to-day usage seem positively zippy -- and the objective benchmarks tend to back that up.
As measured by XBench, Snow Leopard affects every Mac a little differently, but the basic outcome is the same: raw CPU performance goes up slightly, while the graphics numbers go down -- OpenGl performance in particular takes a big hit. We're not sure if this is due to our version of XBench not playing nicely with Snow Leopard or something else entirely, but we didn't notice any slowdowns while we actually worked -- or played a little casual CoD4. We're not deep into the benchmark scene, so we'd wait for some hardcore marks to hit before you race into fanboy battle with these numbers -- for now, just know that Snow Leopard certainly "feels" a little snappier than Leopard.
Update: In the original version of the review we noted that QuickTime 7 Pro wasn't available for Snow Leopard. In fact, the software is available as a separate install on the disc itself and via the QuickTime 7 app in the Utilities folder.