Apple announced last year that Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard would have under-the-hood improvements, but wouldn't include a bunch of new features aside from support for Microsoft Exchange Server (for the primary rundown on features, see "Mac OS X Snow Leopard to Focus on Performance, Not Features," 2009-06-08). Until now, however, details have been sparse. Today, Apple showed off Snow Leopard's speed and improved performance, as well as some minor feature updates. The company also revealed Snow Leopard will ship in September and cost $29 to upgrade from Leopard. Snow Leopard works with any Intel-based Mac with 1 GB of memory, at least 5 GB of free disk space, and a DVD drive.
One new detail is "crash resistance" when running under Snow Leopard: if a plug-in crashes in Safari, the rest of the browser session will continue to be usable. Apple claims that plug-ins are the number one cause of Web browser crashes.
Another interesting change from the beta version of Safari 4 is that tabbed windows behave the same as in Safari 3: the tabs appear below the address bar, instead of at the top of the window. Apple must have received enough negative feedback on the new tab placement that it scrapped that feature.
Safari 4 is available for Leopard via Software Update. You can also download it as a standalone installer for Leopard (43 MB), for Tiger (29 MB), and for Windows XP/Vista (47 MB).
QuickTime X -- Also making its debut in Snow Leopard is the latest version of QuickTime, which has been completely overhauled, boasting ColorSync and hardware acceleration support. The update also enhances HTTP streaming, enabling QuickTime streaming from any Web server, which means the player software takes more responsibility for managing the connection. (With a streaming server, the player and server can communicate with each other; with plain HTTP, the player sends a request and then has to deal with the stream that is dealt to it.) Previous versions of QuickTime require special Web server modifications for best results.
Additionally, the QuickTime Player, long overdue for a user interface refresh, has been updated and is now visually similar to the iTunes video player. Finally, you can now trim clips and share videos to MobileMe directly from within the application.
Other Notable Features -- Apple claims that Snow Leopard will have over 100 new features. While Safari 4 and QuickTime X are among the most significant, there remain a handful of other notables. The Finder has been rewritten in Cocoa for better performance, but the interface remains essentially the same. A new Services menu simplifies the technology for sharing applications' functionality, and gives hope that people may actually use the feature in the future.
Expose is now built into the Dock: clicking and holding an application icon displays all of that program's open windows. Stacks in the Dock can now access deeper levels, enabling users to see files within subfolders. The contents of a Stacks window can also be scrolled, making it easier to view all items. And one particularly cool feature is the capability to draw Chinese characters on a MacBook Pro's trackpad with your fingers!
iChat has been made more robust and provides higher resolution while using less bandwidth. Video chats at 640 by 480 pixels now require 300 Kbps instead of 900 Kbps. iChat Theater, which lets you share a screen remotely for a presentation or other purpose, works at 640 by 480 pixels as well. Apple also claims that iChat is more reliable, working around more router bottlenecks than the Leopard version. This would be welcome, since we've switched almost entirely to Skype for audio chats, due to iChat's flakiness and problems with audio quality.
For file sharing, Snow Leopard combined with at least some models of the AirPort Extreme Base Station and Time Capsule will let a computer enter a sleep-like mode yet continue to share files and media. That's a fascinating option, and at long last provides an affirmative answer to a question we receive frequently from readers about file sharing - can I share files when my server is asleep?
Owners of MacBooks and MacBook Pros that support multi-touch gestures but which weren't granted 3- and 4-finger gestures in Leopard will gain them with Snow Leopard. That's a nice extra, although one suspects it was added to reduce compatibility problems in supporting older laptops.
And lastly, iCal gains a persistent inspector window, eliminating the truly awful interface in the Leopard version of iCal that requires much extra clicking to edit events.
Performance Enhancements -- The lack of major new features in Snow Leopard can be attributed to the work that Apple is putting into improving the operating system's performance. We're not talking about a tweak here and there - Apple is laying a lot of technology foundations in Snow Leopard for the future.
To handle all the capabilities that Snow Leopard offers, Apple has approached performance from multiple directions. All of Apple's major applications have been updated for 64-bit support, and Apple has also developed a way to use the multiple cores in all current Macs and multiple processors with multiple cores in the Mac Pro and Xserve more efficiently. The Grand Central Dispatch method enables any software to spread computational load. Currently, most programs have to be written so that specific features use multiple cores, and that's typically a reasonable allocation of development time only for gaming, scientific, and video and image editing applications.
Apple has long supported threading, a programming technique that divides tasks in an application into dependent tasks that can run simultaneously across multiple cores and processors. A thread is almost like a sub-program, and can operate simultaneously and independently from other threads and programs. But threading isn't necessarily efficient by itself. An application programmer has to write code that manages threads properly for optimum performance, which isn't always easy.
Apple's approach pushes threads down a level into something that the operating system itself manages. This allows a developer to focus on the tasks that a program performs, and to hand off thread management to Mac OS X. By having the operating system manage threads, tasks are not only better managed with many programs running, but usage can be better split among all available cores. The less waste in using processor cycles, the faster tasks can complete.
All this translates to faster speed on common operations such as viewing images and PDFs in Preview. A specific example of speed enhancements would be that moving messages in Mail is, according to Apple, 2.3 times faster, and searching within Mail is 1.9 times faster.
Developers must update their programs to support Grand Central Dispatch. For existing complex programs, that may take a while, because such programs already have threading built in. Developers will also need to maintain Leopard updates and performance for some time, even with Snow Leopard's cheap upgrade price. Programmers who never used threading, however, may adopt it and enable the option only within Snow Leopard.
Snow Leopard's installation has been designed to be 45-percent faster than Leopard's installation process, and recovers over 6 GB of space after completed. While this saved disk space seems like a minor issue when 1 TB hard drives cost $80, less space taken up means more efficient code. And it lets Apple talk about how much less bloated Snow Leopard is than Windows Vista or even the upcoming Windows 7 - even though there's no possible Apples-to-Apples comparison. Besides, for users trying to make do with a 120 GB drive on the MacBook Air, every little bit counts. Finally, since the iPhone also relies on OS X, the space savings are undoubtedly even more welcome on that hardware platform.
On the Snow Leopard "Refinements" page, Apple also mentions that Time Machine backups to Time Capsule will be up to 50 percent faster, and the initial backup will be much faster as well. This makes perfect sense, because Time Capsule's raw network performance is far faster for AFP file transfers than for Time Machine backups. Time Machine writes millions of tiny files; by optimizing the interaction with Time Capsule, it's clear that a big speed boost is possible.
Snow Leopard Server -- Although it wasn't mentioned at the WWDC keynote, Apple also announced Mac OS X Server Snow Leopard, which will also ship in September 2009, but at a price of $499 for an unlimited client version (down from $999 for Leopard Server).
New in Snow Leopard Server, presumably along with all the changes in Snow Leopard, will be Podcast Producer 2, which helps automate the creation and publishing of podcasts, and Mobile Access Server, which makes it easier for Mac and iPhone users to access secured network services.
Other improvements include Wiki Server 2, a new Address Book Server for shared contacts, iCal Server 2, a new Mail Server engine with push email support, QuickTime X HTTP Live Streaming, NetRestore for easy custom image restores over the network, and the iPhone Configuration Utility for configuration of multiple iPhones with enterprise settings.
Pricing and Release Dates -- As previously announced, Snow Leopard requires an Intel processor, which cuts the cord for anyone with a PowerPC-based Mac. The memory and storage requirements are quite compact: 1 GB of RAM and 5 GB of available storage space.
Snow Leopard will ship in September 2009 (a near-final version for developers is available today) and cost $29 for a single license and $49 for a family pack supporting up to five users (for more thoughts on those prices see "Why Snow Leopard Should Be (Almost) Free," 2009-04-21).
Apple's updated Technical Specifications page for Snow Leopard says that Leopard users will need a simple upgrade disc, but Tiger users will have to purchase a full Mac Box Set with Snow Leopard, iLife '09, and iWork '09. Pricing for the Tiger update wasn't discussed, but the current Leopard Mac Box Set costs $169. (Leopard costs $129 and both iLife '09 and iWork cost $79 when sold separately.)