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More Hidden Refinements in Snow Leopard

Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard doesn’t feature many major new features (see “What’s New in Snow Leopard,” 2009-08-27), but it does incorporate hundreds of tiny changes that can affect how you use your Mac on a daily basis. Here, we note some refinements that we feel are noteworthy beyond what Matt already covered.

Time for Password — A subtle change in the Security preference pane can affect laptop users. The first option under the General preferences now lets you set an amount of time before the Mac requires a password after going to sleep or engaging the screen saver. In Leopard, the option was simply to require the password or not. Choose among several increments between 5 seconds and 4 hours. [JLC]

Smart Eject — Two of the most irritating long-term problems in Mac OS X have finally been eradicated in Snow Leopard: knowing when the system has ejected a hard drive, thumb drive, disk image, or network drive; and knowing why it sometimes refuses to eject a disk.

Snow Leopard adds a visual cue to let you know an eject is in process: it dims the disk’s icon. This lets you know that something is happening. When ejection is complete, the disk icon disappears from the Desktop.

If Snow Leopard cannot eject the disk because an application or process is accessing or has open a document on the mounted volume, it displays a dialog that tells you which program or system component is in use. Previously, you’d have to use the lsof command via Terminal and learn to understand the results.

And even better, a Force Eject button lets you override Mac OS X when you believe it’s in error or you really need that disk off the Desktop. (Warning! Ejecting disks that are truly in use can corrupt open documents.) [GF]

Bigger iChat Theater — We’ve always liked iChat Theater, a way to push a presentation, pictures, or other Quick Look-supported media to a remote party – we use this for presentations with user groups, among other purposes. In Snow Leopard, Apple says you can now push iChat Theater – and any iChat video – at up to 640 by 480 pixels while using as little as 300 Kbps upstream, about a third of the previous requirement for a lower resolution.

Jeff Carlson shared a PDF with me via iChat Theater, and the text was clearly readable. Pages instantly refreshed as he flipped through the PDF on his end. [GF]

Location via Wi-Fi — Apple can now set your time zone via Wi-Fi, most likely using the Skyhook Wireless positioning system that’s also part of the iPhone OS. Bring up the Date & Time preference pane, click the Time Zone view, and check the Set Time Zone Automatically box.

A progress spinner shows up while Snow Leopard sends information off about Wi-Fi signals in your vicinity and receives data back. I’ve seen this both fail and succeed, but usually Mac OS X quickly tells me I’m in Seattle (whew). [GF]

Wake on Demand — Putting your Mac to sleep saves power, but it also disrupts using your Mac as a file server, among other purposes. Wake on Demand in Snow Leopard works in conjunction with an Apple base station to continue announcing Bonjour services that the sleeping computer offers.

The requirements are complex. You must have firmware release 7.4.2 installed on either an AirPort Extreme Base Station or Time Capsule. If WPA or WPA2 encryption is turned on, the base station can’t be in bridge mode. Only newer computers – every 2009 model and at least several 2008 models – can be woken over Wi-Fi; all Macs can be woken via Ethernet. Apple provides more details in a support note, and our Glenn Fleishman wrote a long article with the ins and outs for Macworld.

You toggle this feature in the Energy Saver preference pane. It’s labeled Wake on Network Access for computers that can be roused either via Wi-Fi or Ethernet; Wake on Ethernet Network Access or Wake on AirPort Network Access for wired or wireless only machines, respectively. Uncheck the box to disable this feature. [JLC]

Expose Shortcuts — As one of the few feature changes in Snow Leopard, you’ve probably seen how Expose now works from the Dock, arranges windows in an easier-to-read layout, and enables you to move content between applications. Here are a few shortcuts that will make Expose even more useful:

  • With all windows visible (press F9 or the Expose key [F3] on recent Mac laptops), press Command-1 to arrange the windows by name.
  • Also with all windows visible, press Command-2 to arrange them by application.
  • Press the Tab key to view all windows belonging to one application (equivalent to pressing F10 or Control-F3 on recent laptops). Press Tab again to switch between applications while remaining in Expose. You can also click an icon in the dock.
  • Hover your mouse pointer over a window and press the spacebar to view a larger Quick Look version of that window. [JLC]

iCal’s New Inspector — Admittedly, this new feature feels more like a workaround hack than a solution, but we’ll take it. The Leopard version of iCal made editing events more difficult than in the Tiger version. To view details about an event, for example, you must double-click the event to reveal only some information in a pop-up box; you then need to click the Edit button (or know to press Command-E) to edit an item’s information. In contrast, iCal in Tiger provided an optional drawer to reveal and edit those details. In Snow Leopard, choose Edit > Show Inspector (or press Command-Option-I) to bring up a floating Inspector that provides an editable view of any items selected in your calendar.

Screenshots Named Better — Gone are the inscrutable “Picture 1” files on your Desktop. Snow Leopard instead names screenshots taken with the built-in screenshot feature along these lines: “Screen shot 2009-08-31 at 12.57.39 PM.” Wordy, but it gives you a slightly better sense of what might be inside. [GF]

240 Pages of Snow Leopard Details — Available the day that Snow Leopard was released, Jeff Carlson’s latest book, “The Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard Pocket Guide,” includes details like these as well as a great overview of Mac OS X, all in just 240 pages of clear text and screenshots. The book retails for $14.99, and is available in bookstores and at (currently discounted to just $10.19). (A downloadable excerpt should be available from by the time you read this.)

Tip of the Iceberg — As we mentioned above, these changes are merely the hidden refinements that jumped out at us right away and demanded to be trumpeted to our readers. To learn more about other tweaky changes straight from the cat’s mouth (some of which are useful; others of which are merely marketing points), check out Apple’s Snow Leopard Enhancements and Refinements page. We’ll be keeping an eye out for additional refinements in the coming weeks – stay tuned!

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