Hands On With Mac OS X Snow Leopard (Dev Preview)

The upgrade to Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard won't include new features—so will it be worth the trouble? We got our hot little hands on the developer preview to find out.

I installed the early version of Snow Leopard Apple gave out to developers attending their WWDC event last week (build 10A380) on my 2007 MacBook Pro (the 15-inch 2.16 GHz model with 3GB of RAM). This version is not the final release that will hit shelves this September, but it's got some (not all) of the enhancements Apple showed off at the WWDC. If you're thinking about hitting the torrent and trying out Snow Leopard for yourself to see what it's all about, let me save you the trouble.

Startup and Shutdown Speeds

First, Apple promises that Snow Leopard will wake from sleep, join Wi-Fi networks, and shutdown faster than plain old Leopard. While it's difficult to accurately test wakeups and network connections, I timed startup and shutdown on my MacBook Pro in both Leopard and Snow Leopard. Turns out Snow Leopard is indeed faster even on my old hardware.

While shutdown sped up by almost 66%, cold boots only sped up by 13%. The average boot time for Leopard was 52 seconds, while time to shutdown was 29 seconds. For Snow Leopard, the numbers were 45 seconds and 10 seconds respectively.

These numbers are an average of about half a dozen restarts I timed using very unscientific means: a kitchen timer. Since my MBP has several programs planted in startup and I just wanted to test Snow Leopard, these times measure from the time the machine is off to the login screen only.

System Footprint

Apple also claims that Snow Leopard's footprint is so much smaller than Leopard's that you'll save 6GB of disk space. Granted, I upgraded Snow Leopard over my existing Leopard setup (instead of a clean installation), but I did not save that much disk space.

Running Leopard, my Mac's /System/ directory weighed in at 4.4GB, the /Library/ directory was 6.99GB, and the /Applications/ directory was 6.99GB. After the Snow Leopard upgrade, /System/ shrunk just a bit to 4.3GB, /Library/ shed the most bulk and slimmed down to 4.73GB, and interestingly, the /Applications/ contracted to 6.75GB.

While Apple promised 6GB of recovered disk space after upgrading to Snow Leopard, in total I only gained 2.6GB.

Finder Tweaks

Apple's boasts that Finder was "totally rewritten" in Snow Leopard—which is great for developers who want to take advantage of the new code base, but meaningless to the end user who sees the same old Finder. The lack of Finder revamp is what disappointed me the most about Snow Leopard; but hopefully now that it's "totally rewritten" the stage is set for a better file browser. (Finder tabs, please?)

That said, there are a few little new things you can do in Finder: notably, get huge file icons, play video, and page through PDF's without opening a new app. Hit the play button on this short screencast to see that in action.

Stacks Scrolling and Browsing

Fans of Leopard's Stacks feature will like the enhanced Stacks in Snow Leopard.

You can now scroll through Stacks that contain lots of items, and browse to subfolders within Stacks. Not sure if you could do this before in Leopard, but you can also hop to items in Stacks by typing the first letter of the name. (For example, when I've got the Applications Stack extended, tapping the U key selects the Utilities folder.) Hit play on the screencast here to see this in action.

New Menubar Niceties Render Third-Party Software and Hacks Unnecessary

Snow Leopard doesn't have many huge! exciting! features, but a few checkboxes and controls around the menu bar and in System Preferences will make the power Mac customiser happy.

Roaming Mac users will love the new addition to the Airport drop-down menu: signal strength indicators for every network around you. This way you can choose to connect to the network with the strongest signal. Haven't confirmed this yet, but from my tests it looks like Snow Leopard's Airport menu even shows Wi-Fi networks that are not broadcasting their SSID.

Used to be you'd have to muck around with international date formats just to get today's date on the menu bar. That's no longer the case in Snow Leopard. While it's not on by default, in System Preferences, Date & Time, Clock, you can check off "Show date" to see the date on your menu bar.

With Snow Leopard, you don't need a third-party utility like OpaqueMenuBar to make your menu bar solid instead of see-through. In System Preferences, Desktop & Screensaver, you can uncheck "Translucent menu bar" to solidify it.

My MacBook's battery has been having problems, and I know that because it cuts out before I get the low battery warning. Leopard never alerted me about it, but Snow Leopard is smart—it displays a "Check Battery" indicator in the menu bar. If you click it, it pops a Help item basically telling me to have the machine checked out, because I might need a new battery (which I probably do). Points to Snow Leopard for being communicative about this.

QuickTime 10 Video Recording and Editing

QuickTime 10 is venturing into iMovie's territory with built-in video editing and even recording. While the version of QuickTime in the Snow Leopard preview doesn't appear to be the final version—it's not sporting that swanky new icon, anyway—recording, editing, and publishing video to YouTube is working (mostly).

Hit the play button to see how QuickTime 10 can record from your iSight or from the screen itself. (Screencasters, rejoice!) Note that while the "Share on YouTube" button is there, when I tried it out it hung on a "Processing video" pop-up endlessly. I wound up shooting these 'casts using Jing instead.

You can also cut down a video to its best parts using QuickTime's new trimming feature. Hit the play button here to see an adorable puppy get a good edit in QuickTime 10.

Exposé on the Dock

After risking the stability of my Mac in the name of previewing Snow Leopard, the biggest disappointment was that the new Exposé Dock integration is not yet enabled (on this build, anyway). Exposé on the Dock is Cupertino's response to Windows 7's new Aero Peek features, so I was anxious to screencast it. Alas.

Phew! We didn't even get to Microsoft Exchange support and Safari 4, but as you can see Snow Leopard does pack several nice-to-haves that will make your time and $US30 well worth it. (Thanks to the author of this article for helping me out with my Snow Leopard install from a FireWire drive.)

What snowflakes are you most excited about falling on your Mac this September? Let us know in the comments.

Gina Trapani, Lifehacker's founding editor, thinks 30 bucks for Snow Leopard is a bargain. Her feature Smarterware appears every Wednesday on Lifehacker.


Comments

    Gotta love the genuis of Apple being able to convince customers to pay "only" US$30 for a service pack of bug-fixes and tweaks.

      @Tim

      I'm not so sure. It's possible this may all be "snake oil" but I also think many of us have matured as computer users to the point that feature after feature no longer cuts it. What we need are the more subtle but more day-to-day improvements that Snow Leopard looks to be improving. For example; how many of you have started your iPhone/iPod Touch/etc and wondered when your desktop/laptop would be able to start up that fast?

      Also there is now so much Mac software that even in those reduced MacHeist/Macupdate Promo/etc bundles I find myself questioning whether I REALLY need another application in my application folder, many I've still not even downloaded. The trend of netbooks and smaller computing devices like the iPhone are demonstrating a trend towards leaner more compact computing experiences not feature upon feature, year after year.

      Personally I welcome this approach. Having said that though, it does depend on what they charge for it :P

      You know what? Windows 7 is essentially a similar update from Windows Vista, and you can bet they'll be charging a LOT more for it.

        There are lots of under the hood changes in Windows 7, but there are many more visible changes (Aero Peek, new taskbar, redesigned Control Panel, ribbon in system apps, Device Stage) -- so I don't think that's really a balanced comparison. The price will undoubtedly be higher though.

      Tim: As your post was dated June 18, you should be aware that people who bought after June 8 get Snow Leopard for only $9.95 (since I bought 2 machines since then, I get them both upgraded for that price). This beats your implied $60.00 by a fair amount, of course.

    I think the point Tim's making is that charging for something that does under-the-hood enhancements is a bit rich -- service packs for Windows tend to have at least this many features and come for free.

      @Angus

      Yeah I did get that. I think I'm probably a bit biased since I do programming and know that getting an extra 6 seconds of speed can involve a significant amount of "under-the-hood" work. I suppose what I'm driving at is the perception of a "feature". For my daily use speed improvements ARE a feature. Over the long term probably more so than an additional button that does an additional thing. What is at question here though is are people prepared to pay for that?

      Trying not to get all Apple fanboi protective, I don't think it's fair to compare this to a "service pack" upgrade when between Mac OS X 10.5 and 10.6 there have been a significant amount of upgrades (it sometimes feels like every other week!) which would easily match a service pack.

      For me it's the difference between having someone constantly coming into your house with exciting new gadgets all the time v's finally going "You know what, I think we need to just tidy up a bit in here, focus one what we actually need and really use and improve them".

    This is a big yawn. Right now, Leopard 10.5.7 is mostly stable and is meeting all my needs. Not one of the features above persuades me to install Snow Leopard. Remember, all those under-the-hood developments will take around 1.5 years to get stable through successive point updates, which means that Snow Leopard won't be really stable until 10.6.7 - By then we'll be seeing what's new in 10.7 -- so I'll wait till 10.7.7 before upgrading.

    you do know that you have been able to enable the opaque menu bar since 10.5.2..?

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