Apple's Snow Leopard: Same great UI, refinements under the hood

Most of what's new in Mac OS X 10.6 won't be obvious to users

When it comes to Apple's next operating system, there are known knowns, known unknowns and -- well, you get the idea.

Apple is gearing up to release Mac OS X 10.6, also known as Snow Leopard, on Friday -- beating its own announced plans to ship the operating system in September. And in a break from the recent litany of whiz-bang, arresting-gizmo OS releases like Leopard and Microsoft's Windows Vista, Apple readily acknowledges that its new software will offer few new user features. Instead, it will pretty much use the existing face of Mac OS X and make all of the big changes underneath. (It's the same tack Microsoft has taken with Windows 7.)

Perhaps in an effort to quiet skeptics, Apple has been a lot more forthcoming than usual about what's coming in Snow Leopard. Buyers can reasonably expect what the company has outlined both at keynote presentations and on its Web site since announcing the new operating system last year.

What we know

Apple unveiled Snow Leopard at its Worldwide Developers Conference last year, and it released an updated beta at this year's show. Granted, those betas are for developers and testers only -- and they're covered by tight nondisclosure agreements. But that hasn't stopped leaks to Apple fan sites in recent months. Keeping the OS pretty much under wraps is a smarter move than going the public beta route, as Microsoft has done with Windows. Most of the changes in Snow Leopard involve seriously under-the-hood technologies; Apple doesn't want people judging an insufficiently tested, possibly buggy operating system in public beta form, especially one that looks no different than the one they're already using.

Good luck drumming up sales that way.

In fact, Apple last released a public beta of an operating system in 2000, when it gave users a glimpse of the very first Mac OS X. (The final, formal version debuted in March 2001.)

Eight years later, Bertrand Serlet, Apple's senior vice president of software engineering, is already looking ahead, stressing that "Snow Leopard lays the foundation for thousands more [new features]." He also said that Apple "hit the Pause button on new features."

What he means is that snazzy new end-user features, such as Time Machine in Leopard (and the new Aero UI in Vista), are missing this time around. That doesn't mean Snow Leopard won't be an interesting, and perhaps vital, upgrade for many -- especially for just $29. There are a number of small tweaks that users will appreciate.

Deepest under the hood are the twin technologies of Grand Central and OpenCL. Both should be invisible to users, yet both should be able to leverage pervasive hardware changes of the last few years to make everything just a bit better.

Apple's Snow Leopard OS includes a new version of QuickTime that features a minimalist black UI.
Apple's Snow Leopard OS includes a new version of QuickTime that features a minimalist black UI.
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