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B&H First Look: Snow Leopard

By David Flores

It's been nearly a decade since Apple launched the first version of Mac OS X. Built on top of Unix, the operating system has received high praise from both developers and end users for its stability, powerful feature set, and genuine ease of use. As its name implies, Snow Leopard (Mac OS 10.6) offers a slightly upgraded experience to the Cupertino-based company's previous operating system, Leopard. While early adopters will certainly gain a host of performance tweaks, what really makes the software special is its focus on the future.

Upgrading Made Easy

Snow Leopard installs faster than any previous version of OS X. Simple and streamlined, the process requires no more than a few clicks. Once installation has begun, you can simply walk away. The installer manages everything--even a required auto restart.

By eliminating unneeded print drivers and other bloated material, Snow Leopard offers back nearly 7GB of Leopard-hungry hard drive space. If you've used printers with a USB connection or over a network, Snow Leopard installs their required drivers automatically. When a new printer is connected, the OS seeks out drivers using the internet; continuing Apple's seamless, no-install-disc-required experience.

Mac OS X: Refined

Leopard users will find little changed in the Snow Leopard interface. In fact, the nicest performance updates are the most likely to go overlooked. Take something as simple as the clock. When a Snow Leopard enabled Mac connects to the internet, date and time are automatically updated based on time zone. Wherever they go, MacBook and MacBook Pro users will always be on the local time. This is a welcome feature for everyone from traveling photographers to college students flying home for winter break.

Tweaks to the Dock and Exposť also demonstrate refinements. Click and hold down on an app in the Dock and Exposť displays the app's open windows. Mouse over any window and tap the space bar to zoom in for a closer look. Stacks, an excellent way to organize content on the Dock, now allows for scrolling in grind view. These organizational updates may seem simple, but their responsiveness and emphasis on productivity can save the end user a great deal of time.

While the Finder in Snow Leopard looks nearly identical to its predecessor, its build and efficiency are worlds removed. Completely rewritten in Cocoa, the new Finder is built for true, 64-bit computing. This is the case of most applications shipping with Snow Leopard. Nearly gone are the days of Carbon frameworks. Native 64-bit computing promises the fastest and most reliable user experience possible.

Moving at the Speed of Tomorrow

Apple was one of the first major companies to standardize the use of multi-core processors in all of their computer products. To take advantage of this, Grand Central Dispatch offers an easier way for developers harness the speed advantages of multi-core computing. Essentially, software can be written in smaller pieces, dedicated to multiple processors and multiple cores within a given processor. In the future, software will run faster and require less power by harnessing the full processing potential in everything from the dual-core MacBook to the 8-core MacPro Tower.

Another future speed advantage arrives in the form of Open Computer Language (OpenCL). By harnessing the power of a Mac's graphics processing unit (GPU), OpenCL allows the computer's video card to do some heavy lifting independent of the processor. While this will certainly speed performance in graphics intensive applications such as video editing and gaming, general purpose computing should see faster clock times, as well. The speed advantages of Snow Leopard are best demonstrated in the 49 applications and utilities that ship with the OS. But it shouldn't be long before 3rd parties harness these advantages for next generation software development.

Smarter Software

With an emphasis on speed, Snow Leopard offers dramatic enhancements to the basics of OS X. Consider surfing the web. Safari 4, Apple's latest web browser has been available for Leopard for a while now. In Snow Leopard, it gets the full 64-bit treatment. By optimizing JavaScript and running plug-ins independent of the browser, speed and stability see significant gains. Errors within Flash or Silverlight used to crash the entire browser. In Snow Leopard, a simple page refresh keeps things moving without the need to relaunch Safari.

Preview, Apple's PDF and image viewer application, improves text selection across multiple columns and rows. Documents are analyzed on the back end with predictive artificial intelligence software and can be marked for edits with new Annotations tools. An all-new substitutions service auto corrects for misspellings and general keystroke errors in Mail, iChat, and TextEdit.

QuickTime X, the latest version of Apple's QuickTime Player, features a completely redesigned look for playing and sharing a wide range of video and rich media files. Content playback appears in a new, frameless window where controls are only present when needed. Thumbnail images replace text-based chapter names for clean, visual navigation. Taking a nod from the iPhone 3GS, QuickTime X allows for simple trimming at the beginning and end of a video clip. Easy Sharing optimizes video files for use in iTunes and syncing with the iPhone, iPod, and Apple TV. Online sharing is simplified for YouTube and MobileMe subscribers.

The Bottom Line

The coupling of powerful software and hardware is what makes a Mac a Mac. Snow Leopard builds upon Apple's software/hardware marriage by adding support for multi-processor, multi-core software development, next generation graphics deployment, and true 64-bit computing. Efficiency features such as faster sleep/wake, disk mounting/ejecting, and built-in support for Microsoft Exchange save time and make the digital lifestyle a little bit easier to navigate. At less then $30, a single license upgrade is the best deal in the history of OS X software.

Snow Leopard is available for Intel-based Macs. It can be purchased as a single license upgrade for Leopard, a five license Family Pack, or in a Mac Box Set with iLife '09 and iWork'09. All new Apple computers (with the exception of the Mac mini) sold through B&H ship with Snow Leopard pre-installed. All Leopard-based Macs purchased on or after June 8th are eligible for a Snow Leopard upgrade through Apple for $9.95. For more information on the Mac OS 10.6 Up-to-Date Program, click here.

David Flores is a photographer and filmmaker based in New York City. He is a member of the B&H Web Content Team.

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