After a year of hype, Snow Leopard is finally here. But does it have claws? Apple's newest Mac OS has been billed as an under-the-hood upgrade—a necessary evolution of the operating system. But it's a little light on new features that Mac users can touch, see and feel (except, of course, for the mouse that responds to multiple finger gestures).
One of the big upgrades to the OS is that it supports multi-core applications (applications that run fast because they leverage many processors) and lets developers take better advantage of graphics chips. Yet there aren't many applications today that can take advantage of this performance improvement.
"You may see some [multi-core] applications in a number of months," says Gartner analyst Michael Silver, "but more major applications, you're probably talking next year and beyond."
Also, if you have an old Mac, upgrading to Snow Leopard might mean having to buy a new Mac. That's because Snow Leopard is designed for Macs with Intel chips, not PowerPC chips. Apple switched to Intel chips three years ago.
So why get Snow Leopard now? Here are five reasons.
Reason #1: Killer Price
Apple's $29 price point for Snow Leopard, as opposed to the previous $129 price tag, might be the best "feature" in the new OS for end users. The cheap price is a shot across the bow of Microsoft, which is readying the release of Windows 7 this fall after the Vista debacle.
Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster wrote in a research note: "Apple is promoting the Mac platform as a superior alternative to Windows in terms of newer technology, more frequently, for less money. The release of Snow Leopard is not about new features; rather, it is about keeping Mac users up to date with the latest technology vs. Windows XP and Vista users on antiquated technology."
Snow Leopard also runs more efficiently and is more compact than its predecessor, Leopard, thus freeing up 7 gigabytes of hard drive space. That alone may be worth $29.
Reason #2: Native Exchange Support
Snow Leopard's email, calendar and contacts apps support Exchange 2007. This improvement will likely inspire the most excitement among users because it will enable them to get company email without using Outlook or Entourage. Clearly, with this enhancement, Apple is making a statement that Macs can be more easily used in an enterprise.
"But it's a little bit of a red herring," warns Silver. "If I have Microsoft Office for Mac or am running a Windows virtual machine, I'll have that anyway. It's of dubious value."
Snow Leopard's Exchange support, though, might lead to rogue users bringing in Macs and linking to corporate networks more seamlessly, Silver says. "As more applications move to be more OS-neutral instead of Windows apps, you'll probably see more [Macs] coming in, if not through the front door then in the back, and organizations will have to deal with that," he says.
Reason #3: What's Up, Dock?
Even though Snow Leopard is more of an evolutionary upgrade, as opposed to a feature-rich one, this doesn't mean there aren't any visible improvements. The mouse and the dock at the bottom of the screen have some interesting enhancements.
By simply moving the cursor over a Word icon in the dock, for instance, you'll see all the documents currently open. Apple has integrated Expose features into the dock. Right-clicking also brings up a host of options just like in Windows.
Reason #4: Multimedia Speed
Other cool benefits of the new OS concern multimedia. Snow Leopard's QuickTime software, for instance, converts clips for playing on iPhones and lets users upload to YouTube. That is, you don't have to buy QuickTime Pro for these capabilities.
Web browsing and image rendering should be faster, too, thanks to Snow Leopard's ability to process data in 64-bit chunks.
Reason #5: Stay Current and Secure
Experienced Mac users know they need to stay within a release or two of the Mac OS because at some point, Apple will stop providing security fixes for older releases. And it's been almost two years since the last OS release.
The problem is that Apple won't say when it'll stop providing those security fixes, Silver says. You don't want to face security issues after the fact. When it comes to security, it's better to be proactive than reactive. If you're using something older than Leopard, it would be wise to upgrade to Snow Leopard sooner rather than later.
Generally speaking, Macs are known to be safer than Windows machines. Macs aren't necessarily safer technically, rather they're safer because fewer hackers and virus writers target the platform.
As the Mac grows in popularity—Mac OS X installed user base has tripled in the last two years—you can expect hackers and virus writers to take notice. As the threat of malware rises on the Mac, Apple has had to acknowledge this fact. Thus, Snow Leopard comes with some rudimentary malware protection features such as malware detection.