REVIEW: Apple Snow Leopard Upgrade Provides Productivity Enhancements

End users may not immediately see the improvements in Mac OS X, but they will quickly notice an increase in productivity--all without significant IT impact. Snow Leopard is an evolutionary step that speeds up common tasks and tightens the fit and finish of the now entirely 64-bit based operating system. The upgrade also adds built-in support for Microsoft Exchange Server, but it's limited to Service Pack 1 Rollup 4.

Snow Leopard, the latest version of Apple's Mac OS X, is an evolutionary step that speeds up common tasks and tightens the fit and finish of the now entirely 64-bit based operating system.

At $29 for a single-user upgrade from OS X 10.5, IT managers should put the Snow Leopard (OS X 10.6) upgrade on the fast track, keeping in mind an asterisk I'm adding next to the much ballyhooed built-in Microsoft Exchange support: What has not been widely reported is that Snow Leopard works only with Exchange Server 2007 Service Pack 1 Rollup 4.

For a closer look at what's new and enhanced in Snow Leopard for Mac business users, click here.

That aside, I upgraded to Snow Leopard with only minor hitches in application recognition. The user interface, performance and built-in application refinements help ensure that the update causes little impact on IT management resources for training or installation.

I installed Snow Leopard on a MacBook with a 2GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor and 4GB RAM; on a Mac mini with an 1.66GHz Intel Core Duo single-core processor and 2GB of RAM; and on a Mac Pro with an 2.66GHz Intel Xeon processor and 1GB RAM. All of the systems were running the Mac OS X Leopard (10.5) operating system.

Based on my tests, IT managers should concentrate upgrade preparation on application recognition.

To be clear, recognition is different than compatibility. All of the products I'm about to discuss are compatible with, and function when running on, Snow Leopard. For example, the Real Player Downloader, a down load management utility, was listed as unrecognized in the Dock on the Mac mini. Similarly, on the Mac Pro, both VLC, a media player, and YemuZip, a file compression utility, were listed as unrecognized. But by simply going to Finder and then running the applications, the recognized product icons were added to the Dock.

On a related note, Apple has a list of 12 software applications that are restricted during installation and migration, and seven applications that are restricted from opening. These applications are known by Apple to have incompatibilities that can cause the operating system to quit unexpectedly. These applications will be moved to an Incompatible Software folder on the hard drive, so IT managers should do a quick check to ensure that currently used applications are not on the list.

The Big Picture

According to Apple officials, nearly 900 components in the OS were rewritten to move Mac OS X to an entirely 64-bit technology base. This removes application memory barriers, and Apple engineers have ensured that IT managers need to use only one version of the operating system to run both 64- and 32-bit applications.

Apple aficionados will see that Finder, for example, was rewritten in Cocoa and is now a 64-bit component. Apple also added Grand Central Dispatch, which moves much of the housekeeping associated with running application logic in parallel from the application to the operating system to take advantage of multicore processor technology.

Taken as a whole, the 64-bit rewrite and streamlined multicore support form an invisible-to-the-user foundation for substantial application performance gains.

Further, Apple is continuing to push the use of OpenCL to take advantage of GPU compute power for non-graphics applications. Given Apple's enterprise presence in compute-intensive design and media applications, the changes in Snow Leopard lays a path for a significant productivity boon, even if end users can't actually see most of the changes that provide it.

Enhancing the file-quarantine capabilities of Leopard, Mac OS X 10.6 includes an anti-malware component that can check quarantined files against a definition file. This is a prudent move on Apple's part, and I will be delving into the malware detection feature in further evaluations of Snow Leopard.

Incredible Shrinking OS

During tests, the amount of free disk space increased on every system I upgraded to Snow Leopard. This comes largely from the fact that Snow Leopard does not install every printer driver, but instead installs only drivers for recently used printers and those found nearby on the network. Apple has also shed support for PowerPC hardware, further reducing the disk footprint.

In any case, I saw an increase in available disk space of between 7GB and 12GB as a result of installing Snow Leopard.

Installing and using printers found after installation requires Internet access so that Snow Leopard can access the Apple support site to get the needed drivers. IT managers also can pre-install print drivers for mobile users.

Snow Leopard also shrinks installation time (to 39 minutes on the MacBook and 64 minutes on the Mac mini), and requires user intervention only in the first 5 minutes. Startup and shutdown are also a little more snappy, although they were pretty fast on my test systems with the older version of the OS.

Exchange Support

Snow Leopard has built-in support for Microsoft Exchange Server 2007, but, as I said earlier, only for SP1 Rollup 4. Still, the support is good news for IT managers who need to support Macs in a Microsoft messaging environment.

Working with a test e-mail server maintained at managed e-mail provider Rackspace, I was able to set up and use the built-in Exchange support to enable the Snow Leopard Mail client to access my Exchange account-all in less than 3 minutes. I could then process all of my e-mail, plus contacts and calendar data (including meeting invitations) through the Mail client. This is a big step toward a unified mail and calendaring application that would bridge the choppy waters that have separated the Mac client from Exchange e-mail services. Exchange is supported in on-premise and hosted environments.

While many of Snow Leopard's improvements are under the covers, more than a few changes will be more noticeable to end users.

Expose is now integrated into the Dock, providing quick and convenient access to application windows. I could click and hold an application icon to unshuffle the open windows on the desktop, leaving only the window of the application that was of immediate interest to me.

A related convenience improvement can be seen in the improved Finder. I used the live file preview to thumb through the pages of PDF and Word documents and to preview QuickTime movies while remaining in the Finder icon view.

These improvements are real productivity enhancements and are intuitive enough for current Mac users to avoid much, if any, additional training on the part of IT.

The Stacks feature, which enables users to place frequently accessed files or applications in a special folder in the Dock, can now be viewed as a grid. I was able to view large numbers of files using the grid that would have been nearly impossible to manage in the fan view available in Leopard (although the Fan view is still available). There is also a return path icon in the navigation screen that made it easy to trace my path back to the folder I had originally opened.

Other enhancements include the new QuickTime X media player, as well as improvements to iChat so that it uses fewer resources, to Spotlight so that results can now be customized and to Preview so that text can be correctly selected in a column.

Technical Director Cameron Sturdevant can be reached at [email protected]