Page last updated at 09:11 GMT, Monday, 31 August 2009 10:11 UK

Snow Leopard reveals new spots

By Christopher Phin

Snow leopard screen grab
The look of Snow Leopard has not changed dramatically

Apple's latest operating system - Snow Leopard - is a strange beast.

It's curious because there are few new features to shout about.

Snow Leopard's major changes are under the hood; Apple has been spending time changing the stuff that you do not usually see - or care about.

Why? Because spending time there should mean a faster, more stable operating system tuned to today's hardware. Also, the changes should mean that in the future third-party application developers will have more to work with, allowing a richer, faster system.

Mac OS X, 10.6, as Snow leopard is officially called went on release on 28 August for £25 ($29 in the US and €29 in Europe). And, unlike the many flavours of Windows, there is only one version of the Mac OS, and just one price.

Many will complain that Apple ought not to be charging anything for what could be perceived as a service pack, but that's genuinely not fair.

Snow Leopard box (Apple)

For starters, the new OS really does feel much zippier. You forget how much allowance we give computers; 10 or 15 seconds to launch an email application does not seem unreasonable, but when Snow Leopard popped up our new Mail application - almost 9GB all told - in under three seconds, you realise that you don't want to go back.

Start up and shutdown times are much improved as well, and upgrading a Mac from Leopard (10.5) to Snow Leopard (10.6) actually gives you back a whole bunch of hard disk space.

Apple says that users should be able to reclaim around 7GB of space on average.

In part this is because Apple is stripping out whole swathes of code designed to let the OS run on old PowerPC chips; this is the first OS from Apple that only runs on the newer Intel processors.

But be careful; Apple has changed the way it calculates space on the drive (from base two to base 10), which is bound to create confusion, and which inflates the true hard-disk-space-saved figure.

Tech tweaks

There is a lot more happening underneath the keyboard to boost speed.

For starters, Apple describes Snow Leopard as a 64-bit operating system, compared to the 32-bit systems of old.

Gareth Mitchell looks at the latest Mac update - Snow Leopard

At its simplest level, this means the computer can use much more memory; a theoretical maximum of 16 billion GB for 64-bit systems, compared to just 4GB for 32-bit systems.

The firm has also introduced a new technology called OpenCL which allows applications to harness the number-crunching power of modern graphics cards.

Software, called Grand Central Dispatch, allows developers to easily create applications that can exploit today's multi-core processors.

It's not all about invisible optimisation, mind you, though it's worth saying again that even now, the whole system feels much faster and tighter.

The Finder - the Mac's equivalent of Windows' Explorer - is more robust, though it's disappointing that Apple didn't take the opportunity to effect more radical change.

The initial backup to an Apple Time Capsule - a wireless router with a built-in hard disk - happens much more quickly. The install process itself is nippy and should get faster in the future.

And there are lots of little enhancements that bring a smile to your face.

Exchange sync screenshot (Apple)
Snow Leopard supports Microsoft Exchange server out of the box

Previously, for example, when you tried to eject a disk that had an open file on it, the OS would tell you it was in use, but wouldn't tell you by what application. That is now fixed.

And at long last, you can show the date in the menu bar as well as the time.

Accessibility for visually-impaired users - a strength of the OS - has also been improved.

There is, though, one headline feature that could really shake up the market.

Apple has officially licensed Microsoft's Exchange server technology, so that Mail, iCal and Address Book, the built in organisational tools on the Mac, can seamlessly integrate into the Microsoft mail systems used by many organisations.

While it is irrelevant and dull for most home users, the fact that Mac-using business people have the option of not springing for Microsoft Office could prove disruptive.

'Tricky call'

That said, the system is not without teething problems.

Most users are reporting incredibly smooth upgrades, but because so much has changed under the hood, compatibility with some applications is currently broken.

Chinese character input (Apple)
Other changes include support for Chinese character input

Some, for example, are reporting problems with the software that allows them to run 3G modems, for getting online whilst they are out and about.

Others report problems with software called Parallels, which allows Mac users to run Windows on their machine.

Snow Leopard is able to tell which software is compatible and which is not. If it finds a program which will not work it moves it to a folder called incompatible software on the hard drive.

Appl is maintaining an, as yet, incomplete list of these incompatibilities on its support pages and recommends users to check with the developer of the software for upgrades.

However, these problems cause annoyances. System Preferences, for example, has to quit-and-relaunch to access third party panes that have not been rewritten in 64-bit.

And there are other grievances. For example, while the £25 Snow Leopard disc technically works fine in upgrading a system running the older Mac OS X 10.4, say, Apple would rather you bought the Mac Box Set, a £129 package which also contains the latest version of iLife and iWork, its lifestyle and productivity suites.

Users who do not pay the £129 will find themselves with an invalid licence for their operating system.

That makes deciding whether to upgrade a tricky call for people running older versions of OSX.

But for users of Leopard, the fact that it gives your Mac a performance boost - plus the knowledge that you're running the latest OS, optimised for modern hardware - means that the decision whether or not to upgrade should be more straight forward.

Christopher Phin is deputy editor at the UK's MacFormat magazine.

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