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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The apps get some attention

Apple's built-in apps have been updated as well. Not only are most of them rewritten to take advantage of Snow Leopard's core features, making them more responsive, but Mail, iCal and Address Book have all gained native compatibility with Microsoft Exchange. Mail now supports Exchange 2007 servers, something that Windows doesn't do. (In fact, Microsoft is dropping a built-in e-mail client from Windows 7 altogether; users will have to download what's now called Live Mail separately.)

It's interesting that Microsoft recently announced that Outlook is coming to the Mac next year, complete with better Exchange compatibility. I've been a Microsoft Office user my entire career and I've used -- and supported -- every version of Office for Mac and PC since Office 97. On the Mac side, Entourage has long been reviled for its sluggish interface, barely acceptable Exchange support and inefficient, easily corrupted database storage method. Microsoft has every reason to fear that businesses are looking for alternatives.

But the move to replace Entourage with Outlook on the Mac may come too late. Now that Exchange compatibility has hit the iPhone and Snow Leopard's built-in communication apps, my users and I can enjoy a Microsoft-free user experience.

Safari now runs in 64-bit mode, even if the kernel is in 32-bit mode. And it's fast. I saw recent reports that Google's Chrome browser is the fastest browser on a Mac, so I did a quick test using the SunSpider JavaScript benchmark.

In my results, Opera 10 was the slowest, Firefox 3.5 was faster, and Chrome was faster still, but it runs in 32-bit mode. Safari was tops in terms of speed. And Safari now runs plug-ins like Flash in a sandbox -- that is, its own memory space -- so if a site playing a Flash movie crashes, the browser doesn't crash with it. Anything that adds stability like this to a browser is good.

QuickTime X

In Snow Leopard, QuickTime makes the leap from version 7.x to version 10.0. In Mac OS X, QuickTime isn't just something for playing movies; it is Apple's media layer, the entire foundation for anything relating to audio or video in the operating system. Apple rewrote QuickTime in Cocoa with support for Snow Leopard's technologies in mind, including the Core technologies (Core Audio, Core Video and Core Animation), Grand Central Dispatch and 64-bit computing.

QuickTime X sports a brand new player application that looks something like Apple's iTunes when playing video. The QuickTime Player's interface is clean and refined, with minimalist controls that fade away when not needed. It now plays files with greater quality and efficiency, even using ColorSync to ensure proper color reproduction when viewing across devices such as iPhones or Apple TVs.

Snow Leopard includes a new version of Quicktime that uses fewer CPU cycles and features a minimal UI.

Snow Leopard includes a new version of QuickTime that uses fewer CPU cycles and features a minimal UI.

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H.264 media plays without slowing down the Mac, using full hardware acceleration for playback and real-time video manipulation. For instance, holding down Shift and minimizing a currently playing movie shows the active video being squeezed and transformed in slow motion without stuttering or loss of quality; processor usage doesn't even blink under those normally stressful conditions.

The QuickTime X application can now record audio and video from connected microphones and cameras (and the hardware built into Apple's portables and display hardware), and screen captures can be done within the program. Like Safari 4, QuickTime X also supports the media streaming capabilities of HTML 5, dynamically adjusting playback quality on the fly for optimal viewing under static or changing conditions. It's also possible to share movies and audio to iTunes, YouTube, and MobileMe directly from the Share menu.

Final thoughts

Unlike previous operating system upgrades, customer-facing features aren't the focus of Snow Leopard. Buying Snow Leopard represents something of a leap of faith. That's one reason for the $29 price tag. But this OS lays the foundation for much faster and more efficient applications on the very same hardware you're running now. Technologically, it draws a line in the sand and dares software developers to join it.

If your Mac has a Core 2 Duo processor, dropping $30 for this upgrade isn't really a difficult decision. This time around, you're not buying eye candy. You're buying a stable operating system that will allow your applications to perform better on the same hardware you're using now.

If Mac hardware is the cool cat in the zoot suit, Snow Leopard is that cat's meow.

Michael deAgonia is an award-winning writer, computer consultant and technologist who has been using Macs and working on them professionally since 1993. His tech-support background includes tenures at Computerworld, colleges and Apple, and in the biopharmaceutical and graphics industries. He has also worked as a Macintosh administrator at several companies.

Ryan Faas contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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