Review: Apple Snow Leopard Improves Productivity

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There are real improvements under the covers – but beware of a small gotcha to the much-publicised Exchange support in Apple’s new OS X version, Snow Leopard

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.

The OS update, announced in June, and  heavily pre-ordered on Amazon, arrived on 28 August, to positive reviews from the mainstream media and favourable comparisons with Windows 7, not least because of its simpler pricing than the Microsoft OS (eWEEK Europe has a review of Windows 7 RTM also).

At £25 ($29 in the US) 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 one drawback 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.

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 from 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 download management utility, was listed as unrecognised 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 unrecognised. But by simply going to Finder and then running the applications, the recognised product icons were added to the Dock.

On a related note, Apple has a list of twelve 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.

Big changes under the covers

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.


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