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

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The first, which Apple has also been referring to lately as Grand Central Dispatch, moves the responsibility of handling threads -- different program processes -- away from the application itself to the operating system. This ends up being much more efficient, allowing more things to get done concurrently, with fewer bottlenecks at the application level. In addition, the OS-level threading means the computer itself can spread the work out to all available cores; the computer knows how many processors and cores it's sporting. The end result should be smoother applications and some measure of speed.

Of course, applications will have to be updated for this. But Apple has built Grand Central-aware tools into Xcode, the company's development environment for Mac OS X. Sure, the scope of reworking software will vary for each application, but the early buzz is positive and it seems that Apple has committed to this technology going forward. This is one of those tweaks that should pay dividends long into the future.

OpenCL (Open Computing Language -- I know, how generic), in theory, parallelizes the computing environment of any Snow Leopard Mac with qualifying video cards by offloading computing-intensive tasks to a computer's graphics card. Adding them to the mix taps horsepower that was previously left unused. Apple notes that some of those cards may be "capable of over 1 teraflop -- as much [computing power] as the room-size ASCI RED supercomputer of just 12 years ago."

Fortunately, as Apple points out, developers will only need to rewrite the most intensive parts of their applications, such as data modeling or video rendering. Tools for this are also built into the new version of Xcode, and OpenCL is based on the familiar C programming language.

Those are both unseen changes. But Snow Leopard will also feature QuickTime X, a welcome modernization of Apple's venerable media wrapper technology. Not only does it have a name like a supervillain, but it sports a new minimalist interface and should be able to take advantage of GPU acceleration, capture video from cameras, stream online content better, convert media for iPod/iPhone use, and maybe offer enough editing features to eliminate the need for a $30 QuickTime Pro license.

The big news for enterprises is that Snow Leopard will include baked-in support for Microsoft Exchange (though it's only the 2007 version, so far). This is something no version of Windows has, I should add. Sysadmins rejoice.

When properly configured, this should allow Snow Leopard users to see all their corporate Exchange data -- e-mail, schedules and contacts -- in Mac OS X's Mail, iCal and Address Book. And the standard Mac OS X technologies should apply to all imported info: Spotlight can be used to find a "lost" e-mail message, and QuickLook will open it on the fly when you find it.

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