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Snow Leopard: First Reviews

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Snow Leopard 'is the brainiest, brawniest, and most beautiful consumer oriented OS available anywhere - and it ships with the best built-in applications and utilities you can find', writes Edward Mendelson at PC Magazine.

Mendelson goes on to tell a tale about upgrading from Tiger which Tiger users should be happy to know about.

The article comes with a full review based on experiences with two different machines.

Mendelson, like Mossberg and so many other dilettantes before him, proves completely clueless when confronting certain parts of the GUI.

Another minor interface glitch that remains is the inconsistent behaviour of the green 'zoom' button that appears in the title bar of all windows alongside the red close and yellow minimise buttons. In most apps including iCal and Mail the zoom button toggles the app between full screen and windowed mode. But in a few apps such as Safari the zoom button expands the window to an arbitrary size but not to full screen mode. Standardising the zoom button's behaviour seems like the sort of thing Apple would be interested in doing given the high degree of UI polish found throughout the rest of the OS.

It might not be impossible to cure stupid but it sure ain't easy.

Mendelson really loves the new Preview but it remains to be seen if all the features are up to snuff. (Preview Leopard was a downgrade from Preview Tiger in many ways.) Mendelson is not reserved in his praise for Preview.

Preview now surpasses all other PDF viewers including Adobe's own by intelligently selecting columns of text where other viewers display arbitrary blocks of text across multiple columns. Preview also gets major speed improvements. When I opened a 1,600 page PDF in Snow Leopard's Preview it generated thumbnail images of the entire document almost instantly.

But text searches aren't as good as Leopard's. (Sounds familiar.)

Further into the review Mendelson again shows his cluelessness.

Back in 2007 the initial version of Leopard suffered from major networking problems that caused intermittent or unreliable connections to Windows machines. Also users who tried to upgrade to Leopard on systems that used a third party menu enhancer called Unsanity APE found that their newly discovered systems wouldn't boot. As far as I can see Snow Leopard is free from all such problems.

Networking with Windows boxen was indeed a scandal but blaming Apple for the crackhead machinations of Unsanity is just - 'unsane'.

Now here's a nice catch:

If the installer discovers incompatible software on your existing system, it quietly quarantines it during the new install. The installer includes a database of incompatible software that is automatically updated online during installation, so any problems Apple didn't discover before Snow Leopard was released may be fixed by the time you install it.

Prima facie that's really cool. Here's another nice touch which at the same time makes you want to weep for humanity.

Unlike previous versions, Snow Leopard deliberately makes it harder to find the option to wipe out your old system and install a completely new one, because too many users chose that option without realising they would need to reinstall their software afterwards.

How about disk space? As this is Intel-only you might predict the OS has to take less space. But it's not that easy. Ceteris paribus the binaries would seem to still have to be 'fat' - but now contain both 32-bit and 64-bit Intel images instead. More wizardry exposed by Mendelson.

If you've grown used to the idea that every new OS version needs a lot more disk space than the previous version, prepare to be surprised: Snow Leopard actually uses 7GB less disk space than Leopard, despite adding dozens of new features. Apple achieved this in two ways. First, Snow Leopard installs drivers for only the most popular printers by default, then automatically connects to the Web to find drivers for others you need.

Second, many files in Snow Leopard are compressed, because Apple found it was faster to decompress these files in RAM than it was to read uncompressed versions of the files from the hard disk. But perhaps the biggest reduction in code size comes from no longer including the PowerPC support files. This means that you actually end up with more free space on your disk after upgrading to Snow Leopard than you had before.

The web search for drivers sounds too cool for words. The binary compression bit sounds interesting. As on Windows: huge bloated binaries actually get hurt by this. So it will take time to test thoroughly. But if compression is available through the ADC tools then expect ACP footprints to go through the floor.

That Anti-Malware Thing

Yes Apple have added a rudimentary anti-malware feature to the system. This is only for the good. And it has a novel way of working as well.

A new feature pops up a warning when a file contains a known malware signature and urges you to move it to the trash. OS X will update its list of signatures through the same updating mechanism it uses for everything else.

And it's built right into the operating system. It can't reasonably get better. Yes it's helping those incapable of helping themselves - but if you're smarter than the average loser then how many times will you encounter the feature anyway?

David Pogue who writes for the dorky New York Times who require 'login' to see their articles (try 'whyohwhynyt' for both username and password or visit bugmenot.com) is also enthusiastic. Pogue's been having fun for years at the expense of software companies who 'improve their products to the point they become unusable' but now he's finally seeing something going in a direction he approves of.

Sooner or later you wind up with a huge sloshing incoherent mess of a program; a pile of spaghetti code that doesn't run well and makes nobody happy. You're in even worse shape if that bloatware is your operating system - the software you run all day. Just ask anyone with Windows Vista.

Pogue's look isn't as technically detailed as Mendelson's but he has his eyes open.

Snow Leopard truly is an optimised version of Leopard. It starts up faster (72 seconds on a MacBook Air versus 100 seconds in Leopard). It opens programs faster (web browser 3 secs, calendar 5 secs, iTunes 7 secs) and the second time you open the same program the time is halved.

You didn't need that second bit, Pogue: that's the way all virtual memory systems work.

Pogue then points something out he definitely didn't get from Al Aho but which is correct still the same.

'Optimised' doesn't just mean faster; it also means smaller.

He then goes on to elucidate something intimated earlier in this article - namely that it's not the elimination of PPC binaries that makes the system footprint smaller - it's the compression.

Popular conception has it that the space savings comes from removing all the code required by those earlier chips. Yes that code is gone but new 64-bit code described below easily replaces it. The savings comes from 'tightening up the screws', compressing chunks of the system software, and eliminating a huge stash of printer drivers. Now the system downloads printer drivers as needed on demand.

That 'easily replaces it' implication is a misnomer. 64-bit binaries are not that much bigger than 32-bit binaries (if at all). The differences are negligible, especially considering the RISC affinity of the PPC.

Other 'features' Pogue swoops on.

  • OpenCL and Grand Central Dispatch.
  • Your system clock changes the time as you travel.
  • Safari handles bad plugins better (without crashing).
  • Icons can now bloat to 512, says Pogue. Guess what, Pogue?
  • 'Put Back' in the Trash, equivalent to Windows' 15 year old Recycle Bin.
  • Frameless media playback windows; built in 'send to YouTube' command.
  • A more complete list of enhancements can be found here.

The big story here isn't really Snow Leopard. It's the radical concept of a software update that's smaller, faster, and better - instead of bigger, slower, and more bloated.

Gee now whoever heard of that before?

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