When Apple announced the impending release of the latest iteration of OSX many months ago, the Cupertino company made it quite clear that there would be no new eye candy, bells or whistles. The intention was always to take what was already a rock solid foundation and rebuild it into a faster, leaner, more efficient operating system which would make better use of modern multi-core architecture.
Snow Leopard - OS X 10.6 - has arrived almost a month early and our initial investigations confirm that Apple has kept its promise by delivering a mature operating system with hundreds of minor tweaks, a handful of major behind-the-scenes breakthroughs, and at least one killer app that could see disgruntled Windows users leaving the Microsoft fold in droves.
The first thing you'll notice on double clicking the 'install Mac OS X' icon is that the installer doesn't immediately restart your machine and boot the OS from the DVD, as has been the case in the past. Like most things in Snow Leopard, the installer has been completely updated.
Simplicity is the key here and, unless you want to dig deeper and do a custom install, you'll need to click a couple of standard EULA agreement buttons and that's it. Done. No keycodes or passwords. No nagging about copyright infringement. Nada. It just gets on with the job.
A clean install to a recently-formatted drive took 35 minutes and, despite some reports to the contrary, made no effort to check that a previous copy of Leopard was installed - take note Tiger users. An update to an existing install of Leopard 10.5.4 took a little longer at 55 minutes, but that included checking and isolating out of date and incompatible software and installing Rosetta which is required for certain legacy apps from the PowerPC era. This upgrade left pretty much everything intact including user accounts and preferences, network connections and even desktop icons. Totally seamless.
The installer also intelligently installs only the printer drivers it thinks you require by checking which printers are installed on your network or have been used recently. Apple reckons Snow Leopard will save you at least 7GB of hard drive space once installed. Some users have reported as much as 20GB on older machines and we raked back 9GB. We suspect that a large chunk of this has been achieved simply by not installing thousands of useless printer drivers.
Boot it up
Once installed, the OS takes just 50 seconds to spring to life from a cold boot, and a little over a minute to restart. Initial impressions are that the Finder, which has been completely rewritten from the ground up in Cocoa, is snappier and more responsive than in Leopard, with windows containing hundreds of files and folders opening almost instantaneously. Copying and moving files and folders between volumes also seems faster, even over a network connection. Many of the custom application icons have been updated and can be resized to gigantic proportions using the new slider button in icon view mode. They also look fantastic in Coverflow mode which will be familiar to Itunes and Ipod users.
There have been a few minor interface tweaks including an addition to the Exposé system whereby clicking and holding on an application icon in the dock pops up all of that application's open files. Stacks from the dock now have an additional scroll bar allowing you to look through every item in a folder, rather than having to switch to the Finder. Quick Look has been updated so that items like Microsoft Office documents can be previewed even if you don't have the relevant application installed, and PDF documents can be viewed and manipulated without opening Acrobat or Preview.
The print dialogue box in some applications has been up updated to include an on-the-fly indication of ink levels for installed printers, and Apple has also included a sneaky link to its own website encouraging you to order new printer supplies, though it currently points to the US portal only.
On the subject of printing, it seems that Apple has decided that it knows best what bits of a webpage we want to print and has taken it upon itself to arbitrarily strip certain items, including advertising banners and some images, out of such pages without asking. Which is all well and good until you want to print a web ad. Try as we might, we couldn't work out how to switch this 'feature' off, but we're sure one of our enterprising readers will let us know how it's done.