Walt Mossberg

Apple Changes Leopard’s Spots

For a company known for breakthrough products with cool features, Apple this week is doing something unusual: It is introducing a key product with very few new features that are visible to its users. This new release, the latest major version of the Macintosh operating system, looks and works almost exactly the same as its predecessor, but has been heavily re-engineered under the covers for greater speed and efficiency, and to add future-oriented core technologies.

The new software, called Snow Leopard, succeeds Apple’s 2007-vintage Leopard, which I regard as the best computer operating system out there, and markedly superior to its main rival, Microsoft’s Windows Vista. Snow Leopard goes on sale Friday, Aug. 28, and will be pre-installed on all new Macintosh computers.

The company, which often proclaims its new releases as revolutionary, has been very low key about Snow Leopard. For many months, Apple (AAPL) has made it clear the new OS wouldn’t sport new eye-popping features, but would instead be focused on what it calls “refinements” and “fine-tuning.” Perhaps its biggest new feature is something only a minority of Mac owners will ever use: built-in compatibility with Microsoft’s Exchange corporate email, calendar and contacts service.

Snow Leopard is priced accordingly, at just $29 for people upgrading from Leopard. That’s $100 less than what Leopard cost. And it’s $90 less than what Microsoft plans to charge upgraders for the main consumer version of its next version of Windows, called Windows 7, which is due out Oct. 22. Windows 7 is also an iteration on its predecessor, rather than a revolutionary new product, though it has some nice tweaks and will be a more dramatic improvement due to Vista’s failings. I’ll have a full review of it closer to its release.

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I’ve been testing Snow Leopard on three Macs—an older desktop and a laptop of my own that I upgraded from Leopard, and a new MacBook Pro laptop Apple lent me for testing with Snow Leopard pre-installed. I found Snow Leopard easy to install, faster than Leopard, compatible with my most commonly used software and peripherals, and filled with a number of small, useful refinements and additions.

One delightful change: Snow Leopard takes up less than half the room on a hard disk that Leopard did, and Apple says the average user who upgrades will free up about 7 gigabytes of space. On my 2008-vintage MacBook Pro, I gained back a whopping 14 gigabytes.

But I also encountered a number of bugs and glitches, and a few incompatibilities, including a wildly wrong guess by Snow Leopard about which driver to use for an older, lightly used printer on one of my upgraded Macs. (It did fine with my main printer.)

Overall, I believe Snow Leopard will help keep the Mac an appealing choice for computer buyers, and I can recommend it to existing Mac owners seeking more speed and disk space, or wanting to more easily use Exchange. But I don’t consider Snow Leopard a must-have upgrade for average consumers. It’s more of a nice-to-have upgrade. If you’re happy with Leopard, there’s no reason to rush out and get Snow Leopard.

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For some current Mac owners, Snow Leopard isn’t an option. About 20% of them are still using older models that aren’t powered by the Intel (INTC) processors Apple currently uses. Snow Leopard simply won’t work on these machines, including models designated as G4 or G5 and sold as recently as 2006.

And, for owners of Intel-based Macs who are still using the older Tiger version of the Mac OS, Apple is officially making Snow Leopard available only in a “boxed set” that includes other software and costs $169. The reasoning is that these folks never paid the $129 back in 2007 to upgrade to Leopard. But here’s a tip: Apple concedes that the $29 Snow Leopard upgrade will work properly on these Tiger-equipped Macs, so you can save the extra $140.

Here’s a quick rundown of what I found in testing Snow Leopard:

Installation

Snow Leopard comes in one version, rather than the multiple operating system versions favored by Microsoft (MSFT). And that single version handles hardware and software based on both a standard computer technology, called 32-bit, and a newer one, called 64-bit, which can use much more memory and is faster.

Both my desktop and laptop Macs converted to Snow Leopard quickly and smoothly, in about 45 minutes each. Unlike the upgrade process Microsoft is requiring to get to Windows 7 from Windows XP, the Snow Leopard upgrade preserves all your files, settings and programs where they previously existed, right down to your desktop icons and wallpaper. No disk wiping, file moving, or program re-installation is required. And, as noted above, you actually gain disk space, because Apple has slimmed down the OS and also automatically removes or compresses old system files (not your personal data) that are no longer needed or used often.

However, I did run into a couple of minor problems: on one of my Macs, a screen saver displaying certain of my photos didn’t work after the switch. Other photos did work. Apple says this is a bug it will fix.

Speed

After changing to Snow Leopard, my Macs worked faster. I already considered them pretty speedy, so the overall effect wasn’t mind-blowing. But Snow Leopard’s built-in programs, like Mail, the Safari browser, and the Finder—Apple’s equivalent of the Windows Explorer—have all been rewritten behind the scenes, so these and other specific features are now a lot quicker. I found that email folders stuffed with thousands of messages opened almost instantly, and copying files was noticeably faster, even when the destination was on the Internet or a network. The Safari 4 browser, already very fast with Leopard, is even speedier under Snow Leopard, especially on more complex Web sites that use a popular technology called Javascript.

New Features

True to its word, Apple has built few new features into Snow Leopard, and, except for Exchange (explained below), these are small. One touted feature is called Dock Expose, which allows you to see small versions of all the open windows in any running program by clicking on its icon in the Dock at the bottom of the screen. But this is mostly a reworking of a feature that already has been on the Mac.

Apple’s QuickTime video player has been upgraded, with a clean new interface for playback, and the new ability to record and trim videos. Icons can be more easily enlarged, and you can preview the files they represent, even playing videos in miniature or paging through multipage PDF or PowerPoint files.

My three favorite tweaks, barely mentioned by Apple:

  • “Substitutions,” which is like the auto-correct feature in Microsoft Word, but extends the concept to Apple’s email and other programs;
  • the ability for Snow Leopard to automatically reset the time zone on the Mac’s clock based on your location while traveling;
  • and a new built-in function in QuickTime that allows you to record videos of actions you take on the Mac’s screen.
Exchange

Although Exchange is a widely used Microsoft server product, employed by many, many companies to manage employees’ email, calendars, and contacts, it isn’t built into Windows. To use Exchange, you have to buy add-on software, usually Microsoft’s Outlook for Windows PCs. It also hasn’t been built into the Mac OS, and usually required Mac owners to buy Microsoft’s Entourage program. But, with Snow Leopard, Apple is building Exchange right into the operating system, so it works with Apple’s free, built-in email, calendar and contact programs.

With the generous help of my company’s IT folks, I tested this feature, and it worked very well. All my corporate information flowed into Apple’s programs, very quickly, and I could search the company directory, check the calendars of people with whom I wished to schedule meetings, and more.

However, Apple makes setting up this new feature look simpler than it is. In most cases, I believe, it will require the time and cooperation of corporate IT personnel, who will need time to learn it—especially since, at many companies, relatively few of these folks are Mac experts. In my case, an Apple employee had to help my IT colleagues and me to get it going. But you likely won’t have that aid.

Compatibility and Glitches

Commonly used third-party programs, like the Mac versions of Microsoft Office, the Firefox browser, and Adobe Reader, all worked fine in my tests after the upgrade. But a few things didn’t. Apple admitted I had found a few bugs and said that some software makers will have to upgrade their software because the programs rely on under-the-hood components that have changed in Snow Leopard.

VMware’s Fusion program for running Windows simultaneously with the Mac operating system worked, and I was able to use Windows. But it was a bit glitchy. VMware (VMW) provided me with a forthcoming new version tailored for Snow Leopard’s changed underlying architecture, which worked perfectly.

A Cisco (CSCO) program used to connect to corporate virtual private networks caused one of my test machines to completely crash, a rarity on Macs. But Snow Leopard now contains the same Cisco VPN connector as a built-in feature, and that worked perfectly.

Snow Leopard didn’t properly recognize my older-model Verizon (VZ) cellular modem card, though I was still able to use the card by digging into Apple’s network preferences screen. Apple says this is a bug it will fix.

As noted above, Snow Leopard didn’t work at first with an older networked printer on one of my test Macs, and thought it was a laser printer instead of an inkjet. I did get it working, by manually selecting a different printer driver, but Apple admits this is a bug it will have to fix.

Finally, the Time Machine backup file on one of my Macs stopped working. With my permission, Apple examined the file using a diagnostic tool and claimed it had become corrupted a couple of months ago, before the upgrade, and that Snow Leopard merely exposed the problem. I have no way of knowing if this is true, but Time Machine did work perfectly on the two other test Macs.

Underlying Technologies

In addition to greater 64-bit capability, Snow Leopard has two other big under-the-hood additions. One, called Grand Central Dispatch, makes it easier for developers to write programs that make better use of the multiple “cores,” or processing units, in modern processors. The other, called OpenCL, makes it easier for developers to offload some non-graphics tasks to today’s potent graphics chips. These are very important, especially for power-hungry tasks like video production and high-end gaming, but Microsoft is building similar capabilities into Windows 7, and they won’t really matter on either platform until third-party developers make use of them, which will take time.

Bottom Line

Apple already had the best computer operating system in Leopard, and Snow Leopard makes it a little better. But it isn’t a big breakthrough for average users, and, even at $29, it isn’t a typical Apple lust-provoking product.

Find Walt Mossberg’s columns and videos online, free, at the All Things Digital Web site, walt.allthingsd.com. Email him at mossberg@wsj.com.


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