Review: Apple's Snow Leopard opens door to a fab future

Mac OS X Snow Leopard offers a slew of hidden features and lays the groundwork for big advances to come.

Snow Leopard is Apple's latest operating system release, making this the seventh version of Mac OS X (eighth, if you count the two versions of 10.4 "Tiger" that bridged the PowerPC-to-Intel transition). On sale for $29 beginning tomorrow, Snow Leopard offers slimmed-down code, a smaller footprint and a raft of under-the-hood technologies designed to bring additional stability and performance. It also lays a strong foundation for the future.

Nearly two years ago, in October 2007, Apple released Mac OS X 10.5 (Leopard) a full six months behind its original ship date. (Apple blamed the delay on the need to prepare for the launch of the first iPhone.) Leopard brought more than 300 new features and tweaks to Apple's long-evolving OS. With the release of Mac OS X 10.6 -- this time, Apple unveiled its new OS ahead of schedule -- Apple builds on the underlying technologies it began to unleash in Leopard.

What it didn't do is change the look. Unless users know where to look, they won't see much difference between Leopard and Snow Leopard. The vast majority of the changes are under the hood, but they position Apple to take advantage of hardware advances for years to come.

Apple has included new desktop background images, including this one of a Snow Leopard.

Apple has included new desktop background images, including this one of a snow leopard.

This time around, the value of Snow Leopard isn't based on a checklist of new features. In fact, according to Apple, there aren't many. Tacitly acknowledging that it's tough to get people to buy something they can't see, Apple reversed directions on pricing, forgoing the usual $129 upgrade fee for a significantly more consumer-friendly $29 (unless you're upgrading from Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger, in which case you'll pay $169 for the OS and a box set of Apple apps). For households with more than one Mac, Apple offers a five-pack Family Upgrade for $49.

To compare: Microsoft's Windows 7 Ultimate upgrade costs $219, and the full version is $319 (there's no Family Pack for the Ultimate edition). Why compare Apple's latest with Ultimate? Because on the Windows side, Ultimate is the full-featured version. Snow Leopard comes in just one full-featured version.

Will your hardware run this OS?

Snow Leopard has the distinction of finishing the job Apple started with Mac OS X 10.4: It's finally moving away from the old PowerPC based-architecture it dumped in 2005 when it moved to Intel processors. If you're not on an Intel-based Mac, Snow Leopard won't install.

If you're not sure whether your computer can run Snow Leopard, click on the Apple menu and check "About This Mac." If your processor is a PowerPC G4 or G5, your Mac cannot be updated with the new OS. Snow Leopard still runs older PowerPC-based applications, but it will not boot a PowerPC-based Mac.

For everyone else with Intel-based hardware, Apple requires 5GB of available disk space, 1GB RAM, and an optical disk drive capable of reading DVDs (or, in the case of the MacBook Air, a DVD drive accessible via Remote Disk).

For enterprise customers, a new operating system usually means compatibility issues with at least some mission-critical apps, and Snow Leopard is no different. IT departments will want to do some testing before rolling out Apple's latest OS, because it's almost certain that some apps will need updating. For example, Cisco Systems has noted compatibility issues with its VPN software when using Snow Leopard's optional 64-bit kernel; a Computerworld editor has confirmed that issue.

Even so, most major applications and software drivers appear to work as they should, based on our testing and reports from testers during Snow Leopard's development cycle.

Installation simplified

The Snow Leopard experience begins with the installation, which works a little differently than in the past. You can still start the Mac by holding down the C key to boot from the disc, but Apple has simplified the process.

Instead of offering several installation options as in the past, Snow Leopard is smart enough to upgrade your system without having to be told exactly how to go about doing it. And if you ever need to reinstall this OS, Snow Leopard will not write over system files which are more current than the ones being installed.

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