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.

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A new Finder, finally

The Finder -- Mac OS X's file manager -- has been rewritten in Cocoa Apple's preferred application framework. It still looks the same and behaves the same, but it is not the same. The new Finder supports all of the core technologies in Snow Leopard, including full 64-bit support, better live preview of files, and Grand Central Dispatch. The result is a Finder that is much more fluid with animations and much more responsive, and doesn't become hung up if, for example, network shares inadvertently become disconnected.

The Finder has learned a few other tricks. It has the ability to restore files to their original folders, which is useful if you moved a document to the Trash and want to quickly return it from whence it came. Larger icon sizes up to 512 x 512 pixels are now supported, which is good for aging eyes and the ever-increasing resolution of modern monitors.

512 pixel icons

The Finder now supports larger icon sizes.

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You can change search locations in Finder preferences and permanently sort results the way you want. And when you click the oval button in the upper right-hand corner of a Finder window -- you need to be viewing files as icons -- you get a slick animation that minimizes the window size and prominently displays a slider used to increase the size of the icons. (Icons can also be resized using the pinch gesture on Apple's laptop trackpads.)

The Finder also now displays a hard drive's calculated size differently than before, to better correspond to marketing labels on hard drives. In other words, a 500GB drive now indicates there's 500GB of space, not 465GB. You don't really have new space, just a more consistent way of calculating it.

Those aren't the only visual tweaks: Command-click (or right-click) on the desktop and choose "Change Desktop background." After the System Preferences launch, you can click through some stylish new desktop wallpapers, including some gorgeous shots of plants, artwork, outdoor scenery and -- not surprisingly -- snow leopards.

The Dock matures

Snow Leopard allows app windows to be minimized to an application's icon in the Dock, reducing Dock clutter.

App windows can be minimized to an application's icon in the Dock.

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The Dock's preference pane now sports an option called "Minimize windows into application icon," which does exactly that. Normally, minimized windows are stored on the same side of the Dock divider -- with this option selected, minimized windows slide into their Dock icon instead, reducing Dock clutter.

Clicking an application's Dock icon brings up the first window minimized, but clicking and holding on the Dock icon reveals another new trick: built-in Exposé.

Dock Expose

Viewing thumbnails of all the open Safari windows via the Dock.

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Exposé is a window-management feature (available since 2003) that allows a user to quickly locate an open window. With a button press or a gesture, all open windows shrink to fit the screen so you can select the one you want.

With Snow Leopard, the Dock has picked up the ability to display windows belonging to a single application; just click and hold the corresponding Dock icon for that app. Doing so darkens the screen and gathers any windows belonging to the application, à la Exposé -- even if there are minimized windows.

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