Snow Leopard: Will Mac users want to purr or hiss over the big cat

Josh King

When Apple first announced its latest version of Mac OS X, it took a rather interesting gamble. Instead of focusing on user features, the spotlight shifted to user experience, and when Snow Leopard released Aug. 28, that risk paid off. The user experience really started far before the release. With Snow Leopard’s predecessor Leopard, Apple slipped up a bit. The big cat stumbled out of the gates more than a year after it was originally promised and as users rushed to take advantage of the more than 300 new features, they experienced some headaches.

This time Apple tried a new tactic: under promise and over deliver. Not only did the operating system release three days before the announced September 2009 date, the zero new features idea Apple had been repeating for months turned into several rather useful extras. It would seem that when you give the brain hive that is Apple’s developer group almost two years to dig through the operating system, good things happen. The end result is a polished, streamlined and refined operating system, from start to finish. In fact the polish starts the minute you put the DVD in the drive to start the install. Say goodbye to confusing questions of cryptic partitions, say hello to simple ease of use. Put the disk in, select your hard drive, click install and agree to the license agreement. That’s it, and for 99.9 percent of users that’s perfect. For those that like to tinker, the advanced options are still available, but Apple chose to keep them out of the way and it’s a good change. They have made upgrading your operating system about as simple as installing Microsoft Word. Yet the installation refinement doesn’t end with simplicity, Apple has changed the unseen portions of the install as well. A power failure during an install used to be a nightmare. It meant starting the process over, which though not extremely difficult is excruciatingly annoying. With Snow Leopard, a power failure is like hitting a pause button on the installation. Get power back and it picks up where it left off- pretty slick. Snow Leopard also takes the guess work out of software incompatibilities. One of the biggest problems that mired Leopard’s reputation at launch was nagging little problems with third-party software. Some obscure piece of software the user probably didn’t even remember having wasn’t Leopard compatible bringing things to an ugly halt. That problem goes away with Snow Leopard’s software quarantine. During the installation, a scan of your applications disables any problem software and notifies you when everything is complete. Apple leaves it to you to find updates, but the tough part of discovering which program are causing the problem is already taken care of. In my experience, Snow Leopard installed in just under an hour. That hour not only gave me a new operating system, but it gave me back more than 17 gigabytes of space, an absolute first in the history of operating system upgrades. A side effect of the new Intel-only code and increased attention to detail, my newly recovered space translates to about 4,000 songs or more than a thousand high-resolution photos.


Media Credit: Josh King The polished feel continues throughout Snow Leopard, touching nearly every aspect of the user experience. For instance, the irritating experience of ejecting flash drives is now a lot more elegant than it used to be as the operating system now tells you exactly what is holding your drive hostage. Gone are the days of cryptic messages saying the device can’t be ejected. It’s one of many things in Snow Leopard that make you wonder how you lived without them two months ago. Another such gem is Snow Leopard’s enhanced text autocorrect and substitution. Microsoft implemented a similar feature in Word several years back, but in Snow Leopard, the text correction goodness is part of the application programming interface for text. That means that any application that uses that API can change the typo “teh” to “the.” You can even create custom scripts. For instance I could create a rule that replaces “wr” with “the Washburn Review.” But the text-editing-loving doesn’t stop there. Even cooler and far more impressive in my opinion is what I call smart spell checking. While spell checkers still can’t churn out picture-perfect prose, Snow Leopard’s spell checking (also part of that API from before) detects what language you’re typing in and uses that language’s dictionary for autocorrect and spelling. This happens on a paragraph by paragraph basis. So those pesky Spanish papers just became a whole lot easier. Other new non-feature features include a complete rewrite of QuickTime Player delivered in QuickTime X. The new player boasts a minimalist design with disappearing controls on a floating window and feels like the new program that it is. It also includes powerful new editing features formerly reserved for QuickTime Pro owners and an incredibly useful screen recording feature. (To see this in action, watch the Expose video above recorded using QuickTime X.)

Snow Leopard also furthers Apple’s foray into the world of 64-bit computing. The operating system seamlessly handles both 64- and 32-bit applications without a hiccup. In other words, you don’t need to worry about 64-bit, it will be there when the technology industry is ready to finally make that jump. Along those same lines, Apple baked support for its new Grand Central Dispatch and OpenCL technologies into the new operating system. Without getting incredibly technical, these two technologies will allow developers to more easily harness the incredible power available in today’s hardware. In the end, we get to enjoy a snappier, more responsive user experience. So at this point the question of whether to upgrade comes down to price, and again, Apple’s user experience reigns supreme. For current Leopard users, $29 snags you a copy of the new big cat. Those of you still running on Tiger can pick up a Mac Box Set containing Mac OS X Snow Leopard, iWork ’09 and iLife ’09 for $169. Snow Leopard does require an Intel-based Mac, which disqualifies any Mac sold before late 2006.