Updated: Now read our full Snow Leopard review.
What an incredible launch. Packed with over 300 new features, Apple's OS X 10.5 Leopard sold more than two million copies in its first weekend on sale.
Steve Jobs was bullish. "Leopard's innovative features are getting great reviews and making more people than ever think about switching to the Mac," he said.
But the undoubted success of Leopard caused a problem of its own. How do you top it?
With OS X 10.5 so well received, how can you go one better with 10.6? The solution is as simple as it is surprising. You don't try…
The next big cat
At the Worldwide Developers Conference in June 2008, Jobs announced the follow-up to Leopard. Dubbed OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard, the new operating system, which is expected in the second half of 2009, offers improved speed and performance rather than adding anything new.
"We've delivered more than a thousand new features to OS X in just seven years, and Snow Leopard lays the foundation for thousands more," explained Bertrand Serlet, Apple's Senior Vice President of Software Engineering. "In our continued effort to deliver the best user experience, we hit the pause button on new features to focus on perfecting the world's most advanced operating system."
Despite the odd gripe, reaction to this move has been overwhelmingly positive. Daniel Jalkut, owner of Red Sweater Software and a former Apple engineer, says "I think it's a great idea to focus on stability over features, and doing so is probably indicative of Apple's feeling that it has reached a comfortable point in the development of OS X.
For the first few years, the OS was in many ways catching up with what Mac OS 9 offered users." Kevin Ford of Mac telephony specialist Parliant agrees. "I don't feel wanting for anything in the existing OS. I'm happy to have no new features if it means better stability."
So what does that mean in real-world terms? In a nutshell, what will Snow Leopard do for Mac users? Inevitably, Apple isn't telling. "We don't comment on future products," insists Apple Europe's Director of Corporate Communications Alan Hely.
Yet equally inevitably, with leaks from Apple insiders, comments from developers who have seen early versions and deductions from astute Apple watchers, we can gain an interesting insight into what we can expect next summer. So, let's take an early look at Snow Leopard.
Early reports say installation times are drastically improved. According to Mac review site TestMac.net, "Right off the bat, [Snow Leopard is] fast. Very fast. A clean installation took about 13 minutes from start to finish, which is a world of difference from the hour or so a clean 10.5 Leopard install takes."
This is, to a large extent, due to a significant reduction in the size of the operating system and its core applications. In short, Snow Leopard boasts a much smaller footprint than its predecessor. The figures speak for themselves.
Mail is down to 91MB in size, whereas before it was 287MB. QuickTime is now 8MB instead of 29MB, TextEdit has been reduced from 22MB to 2MB and the Mac OS X Utility folder has dropped from 468MB to 111.6MB. Similar size reductions are reported in other OS X applications too.
Given the reduction in the operating system's overall footprint, you won't be surprised to hear it enjoys a massive boost in speed. The word from Mac developers who received preview copies at the Worldwide Developers Conference last June is that Snow Leopard looks and feels very much like Leopard, but is noticeably speedier. It boots quicker, opens applications faster and runs more smoothly.
Recognising the recent sea change in processors, with multiple cores rather than clock speed driving overall performance increases, Apple has developed 'Grand Central', a collection of technologies which it claims brings "unrivalled support for multi-core systems to Mac OS X." With Snow Leopard, the entire operating system is optimised for multi-core CPUs.
Apple describes Grand Central as a "parallel programming breakthrough" that "revolutionises the way computers deal with multi-core processors." As Steve Jobs told the New York Times, "The way the processor industry is going is to add more and more cores, but nobody knows how to program those things. Two, yeah. Four, not really. Eight, forget it."
With Grand Central, Snow Leopard breaks this impasse by making it far easier for developers to create third-party applications which take advantage of multiple cores. Reaction from Mac developers has been positive. "It almost makes me wish I had something to compute," quipped Daniel Jalkut. "Maybe I should write something."
Another under-the-hood feature that squeezes every last ounce of power from your Mac is OpenCL (Open Computing Language), which allows developers to "efficiently tap the vast gigaflops of computing power currently locked up in the graphics processing unit".
According to Apple: "With GPUs approaching processing speeds of a trillion operations per second, they're capable of considerably more than just drawing pictures. OpenCL takes that power and redirects it for general-purpose computing."
Snow Leopard also offers OS X's first 64-bit kernel, though for older Macs, 32-bit is also supported. Today's Mac OS can run 64-bit software, but does so using a 32-bit kernel. Having a 64-bit kernel offers significant advantages for the end user.
For a start, the OS can address huge amounts of installed RAM. According to Apple, Snow Leopard and the Macs of the future can enjoy "up to a theoretical 16TB, or 500 times more than what is possible today." This will make applications run faster by allowing more and more data to be stored in RAM, which is much quicker to access than the hard drive.
In the past, OS X's Finder has come in for considerable criticism. As it's one of the oldest parts of Mac OS, and is currently written in Apple's Carbon application programming interface (API), it's long overdue a make-over, and that's exactly what it's getting in Snow Leopard.
The new Finder is written entirely in Apple's more up-to-date API, Cocoa, which the company has been encouraging developers to switch to over the last few years. There aren't any drastic changes in the user interface, but streamlining Finder in Cocoa makes for a more robust, less bug-prone environment which provides a solid base for an expanded range of features.
Jeff Gaynard, MacSpeech's head of engineering and product development, sees the single API focus as a good thing. "Apple put so many great APIs out there with Leopard that developers haven't had a chance to fully take advantage of them yet," he said.
One of the few new features offered by Snow Leopard sees Address Book, Mail and iCal benefit from integration with Microsoft Exchange servers. Apple had already licensed the Exchange ActiveSync protocol for the iPhone, but now it's coming to the Mac too. This is great news for businesses that use Macs alongside PCs on an Exchange server.
Now Mac users can sync their calendars, contacts and email and also access them away from the office. Although not particularly relevant to the home user, these features will do much to boost the adoption of Macs by businesses and organisations.
OS X's notepad application TextEdit also gets a new feature. From 10.6, it's to benefit from text auto-correction, whereby commonly mistyped or misspelt words are corrected on the fly.
Interestingly, developer preview builds of Snow Leopard also include the forthcoming Safari 4, which lets you turn a website into a standalone web application at the push of a button. This isn't merely a bookmark, but a standalone application saved out as a .APP in Mac OS and a .EXE using the Windows version of Safari. Neither work without an internet connection, though storing a cached version of the site should be possible.
Back to the OS proper, Snow Leopard also boasts a new feature called ImageBoot. Based on the Mac's NetBoot facility which enables it to boot from a disc stored remotely on a network, with ImageBoot, you can boot your system from a disc image stored on any internal or external drive.
At present, you can only have one bootable OS X installation on a single disc partition, but Snow Leopard enables you to store as many as you like. This is ideal for test environments, enabling you to quickly reboot under different configurations of the operating system or carry your own configuration around with you.
QuickTime X uses technologies developed for the iPhone, and according to Apple, "optimises support for modern codecs and more efficient media playback." Again, we shouldn't expect any dramatic changes to the user experience, but a significant boost in performance is on the cards, with the new version of QuickTime taking advantage of Grand Central technology to utilise the power of multi-core machines as well as OpenCL to work the GPU harder.
Requirements and pricing
But what sort of a Mac will you need to run Snow Leopard? No one at Apple is saying, but you can bet your last quid it will be Intel-only.
[Sentence removed - see below] Given the massive reduction in size of OS X and its applications, what could possibly be coming out if it's not the PPC code?
There's no word on Snow Leopard's price, but we hope it's at a level that encourages upgrading. As Daniel Jalkut of Red Sweater Software put it, "Pricing is difficult, because it's hard to ask customers for money to upgrade to something which has few, if any, new features.
I won't be surprised if Apple releases the update as a free upgrade, or charges very little. Remember, it will come with all new Macs from the day it is available." Wise words…
The following sentence has been removed from the body of the article as it is factually incorrect. TechRadar apologises for the error.
While Carbon is designed to offer backwards-compatibility with PowerPC-based Macs, Cocoa most certainly isn't, and so a Finder written in Cocoa just can't be run on a pre-Intel Mac.
First published in MacFormat, Issue 204
Sign up for the free weekly TechRadar newsletter
Get tech news delivered straight to your inbox. Register for the free TechRadar newsletter and stay on top of the week's biggest stories and product releases. Sign up at http://www.techradar.com/register