Most of Mac OS 10.6's changes are deep in its underpinnings for developers to put to good use. But what do the rest of us get out of Snow Leopard? Modest, but nice, improvements to the everyday Mac workflow.
Note: This isn't a thorough Snow Leopard review. It's a boiled-down, "what's in it for me" rundown for time-strapped folks who want the bottom line. For a in-depth look at Snow Leopard inside and out, I recommend Ars Technica's 23-page review.
First and foremost, Snow Leopard's biggest benefit is the speed increases it gets even on older Macs.* Gizmodo's exhaustive benchmark tests of common operations across several Macs running Leopard versus Snow Leopard consistently show snappier peformance on Snow Leopard. This 30-second video clip demonstrates the difference when opening a few high-res photos in Preview.
(*Note, however, that Snow Leopard ONLY runs on Intel-based Macs, so they can't be THAT old.)
Not only is Snow Leopard faster, but it recovers anywhere from 7 to 10 gigabytes of disk space from your Leopard installation, too—a welcome "feature" for anyone on an aging Mac whose hard drive usage hovers uncomfortably close to capacity. For the speed and disk space savings alone, Snow Leopard is worth the $39 price tag—if incompatibilities don't disrupt your workflow. And that's a big if. (See the section labelled "A Good Case for Waiting on Snow Leopard" below for more.)
Speed is something you get used to fast, and disk space is cheap and plentiful anyway. So let's look at four ways Snow Leopard makes working on your Mac easier day-to-day.
1. You Can Do More with Less Effort from the Dock and Menu Bar
My favourite Snow Leopard "feature" is Dock Exposé, which puts OS X's desktop-organising, tiling window manager front and centre on your Dock. Click and hold any open application on your Dock to see its windows all snap to attention in a pretty grid; minimized windows will appear smaller than maximised windows. This works on a per-application basis, and it's a godsend for busy Macs with several open programs in heavy use, especially on smaller screens or laptops. You can also drag and hold files over an application on the Dock to activate Exposé and drop those files into a specific window of that app. I barely ever used Exposé in Leopard, but now that it's on the Dock, I'm a click-and-hold fool. (One big wishlist item: that Exposé could separate browser tabs into individual thumbnails the way Windows 7's Aero Peek can.)
Stacks, the fly-out file drawers that live on your Dock also grew up in Snow Leopard. You can now scroll through the contents of an extended Stack, and click on subfolders to navigate to them in-Stack.
The menu bar also got two very welcome improvements: Wi-Fi strength indicators on the Airport drop-down menu, and the full date on the menu bar at all times without any nutty date format hacks. To turn it on, in System Preferences, Date & Time, check off "Show date and time in menu bar."
For some advanced menu nerdery, check out how Snow Leopard improved Services, and your (now more streamlined) ability to assign keyboard shortctuts to any action on your Mac. While I haven't delved into customising Snow Leopard's Services much yet, Mac guy John Gruber says it's one of his favourite things about 10.6.
2. You Can Ditch Entourage
If you're reading this, chances are good you have a job at an office with a cubicle and a Microsoft Exchange server that delivers your company's electronic mail. If that's all true and you're also a Mac owner, you've been using Entourage up until now to get to your work email on your Mac. No more of that nonsense is required in Snow Leopard, which integrates Outlook's contact lists, email, calendars, to-do lists, and notes into OS X's no-frills, built-in Address Book, Mail, and iCal applications. I don't have much experience with hot Exchange-on-Mac action, except watching friends pull their hair out while cursing Entourage. Now they can say good riddance to that whole mess. (Exchange users, note that Microsoft plans to discontinue Entourage and offer Outlook with Office 2010 for Mac, scheduled to debut by end of 2010. No word on how Microsoft's Outlook for Mac will differentiate itself from Snow Leopard's built-in support; presumably it will be similar to the Outlook interface on Windows.)
Even for us non-Exchange users, Snow Leopard offers a few niceties, like simplified Gmail and Yahoo Mail contact syncing (hit up Address Book's Preferences>Accounts pane for that), and dead simple Google Calendar access in iCal (go to iCal's Preferences>Accounts pane for that). The only bummer: Google Apps calendar accounts don't work in iCal—only vanilla Google accounts do. (Note: the Gmail/Yahoo/GCal integration was possible in Leopard, they're just easier to do in Snow Leopard.)
3. You Can Record, Edit, and Publish Video Clips and Screencasts with QuickTime X
Snow Leopard comes with QuickTime X, the newest iteration of the video player which is now also a video editor and uploader. This means you can toss iMovie and QuickTime Pro to trim down to the 45 cutest seconds of that puppy footage and zip it up to YouTube in one fell swoop. QuickTime X also can record your Mac's screen (great for making quick video tutorials for remote coworkers) or from your Mac's iSight or microphone. (From the File menu, choose New Audio, Video, or Screen recording to start.) Once your video is recorded or opened in QuickTime X, from the Edit menu choose "Trim" to resize your video. The Share menu will upload your masterpiece to YouTube, MobileMe, or send it to your iPhone, Apple TV, or networked Mac.
(Tip: Good ol' QuickTime 7 is still available for Snow Leopard should you want it; it's located in the Optional Installs folder on the Snow Leopard DVD.)
4. You Can Have Smoother (and Less Annoying) File and Disk Interactions in Finder
My dream of Finder tabs in 10.6 is dead, but Snow Leopard's "totally rewritten" Finder improved in a few tiny ways. First, you can resize icons to window-bustingly large proportions using the slider on the bottom right of any Finder window. At first blush this seems like unnecessary eye candy until you couple it with the ability to page through PDF files or play video and music files from their thumbnail in Finder. The extra-large icon sizes also make an iPhoto or Picasa launch unnecessary if you just want to browse through a few folders of photos.
Snow Leopard also helps you eject disks that are in use; unlike Leopard, Snowy actually tells you what process has tied up the drive's contents so you can quit it to complete the ejection. There's also a new "Put Back" menu item for files in the Trash. Both of these are features any reasonable human should expect from a reasonable operating system. But better late than ever, I suppose.
Perhaps the most controversial change in Snow Leopard's disk and file management is its switch to calculating disk space and file size in base 10 from base 2. This means that the number of gigabytes your Mac tells you are available on a disk will more closely match the number that was on the box. The benefit for consumers is less confusion about why those numbers don't match up; though some techies are understandably upset about the change because software counts in binary (base 2), not decimal. Regular people don't need to understand the difference between binary and decimal, methinks; and less confusion is a good thing (even if it was the hardware manufacturers who should have made the change).
A few more: As promised, Snow Leopard features a built-in text expansion/substitution utility (System Preferences>Language & Text), but don't toss TextExpander just yet because it only works in a very limited number of built-in applications. Snow Leopard can also detect the appropriate time zone for your Mac's location, which surely will impress me and you a whole lot more the first time that we travel to a different time zone and Snow Leopard switches automatically. This wake on demand networking option looks neat in the networked home or office. Those who want a taste of the future and have compatible hardware can boot into 64-bit mode by holding down the 6 and 4 when starting their Mac (though not all software is 64-bit ready, yet).
A Good Case for Waiting on Snow Leopard
That all sounds like a good deal for $39 because it is—unless you've got incompatible software. Most of the applications that don't work with Snow Leopard are older versions which will go the route of the PowerPC and never become 10.6-compatible. (Manufacturers will just recommend you buy to the latest version of that app, which could cost you). There are also printer and scanner drivers, VPN clients, and free software that's just slow to update (like our beloved Quicksilver) which may present problems. I know of at least one person who upgraded to Snow Leopard and then downgraded back to Leopard because of incompatible drivers for essential hardware; as for me, the current copy of Quicksilver I've got running on Snow Leopard is barely hanging on by a thread. (The Preferences pane doesn't launch at all, but thanks to my transferred settings all my most frequently-used actions work.) Mac guy Merlin Mann penned an epic screed about how bad his "upgrade" to Snow Leopard went. If you're on the fence, that piece alone is worth reading.
The bottom line: Snow Leopard is indeed a worthy upgrade, but if you can stand to wait a month or two while the kinks get ironed out, do—it just might save you a few unnecessary headaches.
Have you snowed your Mac yet? What's your favourite feature—or biggest pain point? Let us know in the comments.
Gina Trapani, Lifehacker's founding editor, is tired of saying the phrase "under the hood" when referring to changes in Snow Leopard. Her feature Smarterware appears every week on Lifehacker.