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The Snow Leopard Upgrade (Introduction)

Last updated September 13, 2009 - Send Feedback

Mac OS X 10.6 “Snow Leopard” was released on August 28, 2009.

Unlike prior releases, Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard concentrates on bug fixes and performance, a wise and refreshing change of pace that will cement Mac OS X as the platform of choice for creative professionals, as well as paving the way for smaller “footprint” Macs, such as Apple’s rumored tablet Mac.

Getting it

Support our site sponsor and save money with a special price for MPG readers: order Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard at OWC.

If you have more than one Mac, consider the Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard Family Pack (5-User) for about $20 more. That’s $19 more for five licenses! Try finding that price with Microsoft for one license. The aggressive upgrade pricing is for Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard users only.

Apple info

See the Apple refinements page.

Space savings

Disk space savings after install were modest, about 4.6GB on my Mac Pro. That’s probably because I had already installed Mac OS X 10.5 with most bloatware disabled. Still, that’s a substantial reduction in percentage terms from about 12GB for a full Mac OS X 10.5 install, and worthwhile if your boot drive is small (eg a solid state drive).

Should you upgrade?

Absolutely!

But not necessarily immediately, and it’s for Intel Macs only. And whatever you do, backup first, and make a clone of your existing system, so you can revert if there is a problem.

The transition to Snow Leopard will be a smooth one for most users. But if you’re a professional whose Mac must be working, don’t get caught with your pants down: wait a few weeks, let the dust settle and let your one critical issue be someone else’s headache to find.

Professionals using a Mac for critical business needs should install Mac OS X Snow Leopard on a non-critical Mac first, or wait a few weeks to let any problems settle out— don’t be on the bleeding edge.

What’s the hurry? You’re far more likely to run into problems that to see any immediate benefit.

At the very least, make a clone of your system before you upgrade, or install Snow Leopard on a separate drive, and let the initial bugs settle out for 1-3 months. Be especially cautious if you use specialized software for things like printers or scanners.

Compatibility

I’ll be reporting on compatibility from a photographer’s perspective on the Compatibility page.

Grand Central

Grand Central is a ground-breaking technology that simplifies multi-threaded programming to allow use of more CPU cores. Over time, this should mean that more CPU cores are realized more and more effectively, quite unlike late 2009. A dual-CPU Mac Pro (“8 core”) should therefore in theory actually be worth the huge cost increase over a single-CPU Mac Pro (“4 core”), which is rarely the case as of September 2009. But that all depends on the application(s) you use.

Academics might argue that the Grand Central technology is really nothing groundbreaking, but it’s a very practical technology the ivory tower researchers hadn’t ever delivered in a friendly and usable form before. Kudos to Apple for simplifying a complex problem with a practical toolkit.

Reducing the barriers

Multi-threaded programming is one of the most difficult programming challenges. In my professional estimation as a software developer, I’d say that 95% of the software developers out there are simply not qualified to write correct multithreaded code—that’s how challenging it is. So it’s big news when a technology purports to make the whole process easier and less error-prone.

Requires modification to applications

Grand Central is not a magic trick that makes existing programs faster. In fact, it does nothing for existing programs, and therein lies the rub: programs won’t benefit until and unless they are revised (think Adobe CS5 vs CS4).

On the other hand, improvements to Mac OS X itself might in fact allow some existing programs to run faster.

Requires language extensions

Grand Central requires use of non-portable language extensions. Syntactic sugar simplifies the programming process at the cost of code that can’t be used on Windows or Linux. This will impede its adoption by developers that target multiple OS platforms, some of whom can’t manage a decent Mac version of their application to begin with. On the other hand, well-written code can generally be restructured in a way that allows different threading models. The hitch is that well-written code is uncommon.

I expect that smaller “boutique” Mac developers will move to Grand Central quickly, but ponderous companies like Adobe will take a lot longer.

In mid-September 2009, Apple announced that it would open-source the Grand Central technology, a step that might encourage its adoption on other platforms, thus making it more attractive to software developers coding for multiple platforms (Mac, Windows, Linux, etc).

A 64-bit operating system

Apple store refurbished items
Apple Store link to refurbished

Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard will push more developers to offer 64-bit programs, which will allow use of all installed memory. That advantage is overrated; very few programs actually need more than ~3GB.

However, some photographic applications could see huge speed gains by being able to use 16GB or 32GB of memory. See Optimizing Photoshop; I estimate the execution time of diglloydMedium could be cut by 50% to 70% if Photoshop could directly use 32GB memory. That sounds great, except that most photographers are doing just fine with the 32-bit Photoshop, and never really use the large files for which a 64-bit version would be helpful. For that matter, most photographers never even need a scratch volume.

A 64-bit Adobe CS5 isn’t even on the horizon as of August 2009.

Changes relevant to photographers

Looking for top optics?

Small things, but worthwhile. I’ll add more as I experience them and evaluate their worth.

Default gamma now 2.2

For years, Apple has pissed into the wind (sorry ladies) by making the default screen gamma 1.8. In Snow Leopard, it’s now 2.2.

Larger icon sizes in the Finder

Icons can be up to 512 X 512 in the Finder. This is actually pretty darn useful for looking through images on disk; it was already usable in Leopard, but the larger max size provides a useful way to see your images without having to launch any application.

Record your screen

Start recording and QuickTime Player captures the activity on your screen and creates a movie file. This might be useful for quick client presentations, etc.

Greater color accuracy in Quicktime

QuickTime X color-manages various media.

Preview

The changes to Preview (simple built-in viewer) include a contact sheet for images, support for scanning, higher quality image scaling, and soft-proofing, all features which are useful shortcuts to a full application.

The new math

Apple has made an unfortunate change in Snow Leopard, opting to define kilo/mega/giga/tera as powers of 1000, instead of powers of 1024. This violates over decades of history, but matches up with advertised drive sizes. It’s also at odds with memory: are you going to buy a 8.38GB or 16.7GB memory upgrade kit for example? All Apple has done is make it more confusing, now the units depend on whether it’s memory or storage! Computers work in powers of two, and the numbers just go goofy trying to use base 10.

Storage Term pre Snow Leopard Snow Leopard
kilobyte 1024 1000
megabyte 1024 * 1024 = 1048576 1000 X 1000 = 1,000,000
gigabyte 1024 X 1024 X 1024 = 1,073,741,824 1000 X 1000 X 1000 = 1,000,000,000

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