Review: Mac OS X Snow Leopard

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Exchange Without Entourage

When Apple first decided to embrace Microsoft's popular Exchange server software, it did so with a major software update--for the iPhone. The iPhone 2.0 software update brought support for Exchange calendars, contacts, and mail directly onto Apple's mobile platform. Now, with Snow Leopard, the Mac gets the ability to directly connect to Exchange servers, too. In practical terms, that means that Mail, iCal, and Address Book can all be configured easily to connect to corporate Exchange servers. (Apple has not been shy in pointing out that the Mac now provides better Exchange connectivity out of the box than Windows does, with no additional software required.)

I've been using Snow Leopard with an Exchange server for a couple of weeks now, and it's been quiet, stable, even pleasurable. I was able to acknowledge meeting invitations from within Mail and check a colleague's free/busy status in iCal in order to schedule a meeting. Because my organization doesn't yet use Exchange, I couldn't do a large-scale test; users in massive Exchanged-based enterprises will certainly be able to evaluate it more rigorously than I could. (We'll be publishing an in-depth look at Exchange on Snow Leopard from an IT professional in a few days.)

iCal's Exchange support includes group scheduling for meetings.
Several months before I started testing Snow Leopard, my company's IT director suggested that at some point in the future we might move to Exchange. I admit that I was full of trepidation when he said so, largely because I'm not a big fan of Microsoft Entourage, which at the time was the only real way to get Exchange support on the Mac. But with the release of iPhone 2.0 and now Snow Leopard, my views on Exchange have taken a 180-degree turn. If our IT department wants to move us to Exchange, I now say bring it on. (No wonder Microsoft announced--and just in advance of Snow Leopard's release!--that it would be replacing Entourage with Outlook for Mac sometime in the next 15 months. If I were Microsoft's Mac Business Unit, I'd be deathly afraid that by the time late 2010 arrives, every Exchange-using Mac around will be running Mail, iCal, and Address Book.)

App Changes

Mac OS X ships with about four dozen applications and utilities, large and small, that form the foundation of the Mac user experience. Most of them have been tweaked, at least a little bit, in Snow Leopard. If you've got a favorite, you'll probably notice at least a few minor changes.

Preview has several major refinements, including improved selection in multicolumn text.
The biggest changes are probably in Preview, Apple's catch-all utility for viewing images and PDFs. I've been using Preview as my default PDF viewer for years now, and find it superior to Adobe Reader in terms of speed and interface. Snow Leopard's updates to Preview include improved selection of text within PDFs, especially those with multiple columns of text. There's also a new Annotations toolbar for users who need to mark up PDFs with comments.

Individual applications can choose to support the new systemwide text autocorrection settings.
Several programs, including TextEdit, Mail, and iChat, can take advantage of a new systemwide Substitutions service that can autocorrect common mistakes (think teh to the), convert straight quotes to curly and vice versa, and turn double-minuses and triple-periods into em dashes and ellipses, respectively. Even better, a tab in the Keyboard pane of the System Preferences app lets you add shortcuts of your own.

System Preferences is also where you'll see the ugliest evidence of Apple's conversion to 64-bit applications throughout the system. If you're using Apple's stock preference panes only, everything will work just fine. But if you click on a third-party preference pane that hasn't yet been upgraded to a 64-bit version, System Preferences will tell you that it has to quit and reopen itself in 32-bit mode in order to open that preference pane. While it's nice of System Preferences to go to that trouble, it gets frustrating after you do the launch-quit-launch dance a few times. The solution is for developers to update their preference panes, which presumably will happen quickly. But it makes me think Apple should have just forced System Preferences to open in 32-bit mode by default, at least for now.

Snow Leopard ships with Safari 4, the latest version of its Web browser. That version has been available for Leopard for some time now, but in Snow Leopard it runs in 64-bit mode. That accelerates some JavaScript math routines. More importantly, Apple says that browser plug-ins such as Flash run as separate processes within Safari on Snow Leopard, meaning that plug-in errors won't kill your whole browser. However, in a few weeks of using Safari on Snow Leopard, I never encountered a case where a plug-in actually crashed this way. Several times, however, the entire browser did crash, leaving me with no recourse but to relaunch Safari and browse my History menu for the pages I was reading before the cataclysm.

QuickTime Player X's interface floats over your video, obscuring the content (top). When you move your cursor away, every aspect of the interface fades away (bottom).
Apple's QuickTime Player, long a stalwart tool for playing back audio and video, has been completely revamped for Snow Leopard. As I mentioned earlier, this new QuickTime Player X app lacks so many of the features of the previous version that Apple has made QuickTime Player 7 optionally available as a separate installation.

Apple says the new QuickTime Player is focused on media playback, and it boasts about the new interface. That interface is actually almost nonexistent: Open a movie and you'll see it appear all by itself, with only a small black window bar at the top to indicate its name. When you play the video, the interface fades completely away, leaving you with a movie playing all by itself on your screen. All the playback controls--volume, forward, play, reverse, full screen, and a scrubbing bar--are located in a floating palette within the movie itself.

It's a nice interface if you're running in full-screen mode, but it's an utter disaster otherwise. Any alteration to your settings, including a slight increase or decrease in volume, makes that floating palette and the window bar appear, obscuring some of your video. (And on small movies, it obscures a lot of your video.) Every time I wanted to make my video louder or quieter, even via a keyboard shortcut, that floater appeared--and then remained for a second or two until finally fading away. Contrast this to the old QuickTime player, which (when not in full-screen mode) placed all of your controls right below the video, where you could get at them without actually obscuring what you were watching.

I don't think the fade-away interface really works. When you're playing a movie, even the movie's title bar disappears, at least until you move your mouse over it. Over the years, I've become trained to identify every single window on my Mac by the window bar at the top, which tells me the name of what I'm looking at. Now here comes this strange QuickTime window, unbounded by any sort of frame, playing off on its own. It looks, quite frankly, like a mistake. I'm all for getting the controls out of a user's way when you're viewing something in full-screen mode. But when I'm watching something that's mixed in with all of my other Mac's windows, I'd rather the movie look like a window, not some anonymous video escapee with no window bar to call its own.

QuickTime Player X offers basic clip trimming (top) and basic export settings (bottom).
Despite its focus on playback, QuickTime Player X does offer some editing tools. There's trimming, but it's extremely basic, no more complicated than what you'll find on the iPhone, where you can set start and end points. QuickTime X's Sharing feature is also far more limited than what you used to get with QuickTime Pro: you can choose from three video-export presets, or share files with MobileMe or YouTube. In general, if you've ever used QuickTime Pro to cut up, export, or massage media, you'll be disappointed by QuickTime X.

QuickTime X also includes new recording features, letting you grab the contents of your computer screen and save it to a QuickTime movie. QuickTime X failed completely when I tried to capture my MacBook Air screen, despite the fact that I've successfully captured video on this same system using both Ambrosia Software's Snapz Pro X and Telestream's ScreenFlow.

Nifty Small Touches

Failing a massive makeover, then, we've got to take joy in the little gifts that Snow Leopard gives us. And there are a lot of them. I'd like to pick my favorite, but the fact is, they're all small enough that I can't really choose one. But if I could gather up the whole lot of them in my arms, I'd give them a hug.

Snow Leopard makes it a lot easier to eject mounted volumes, and when it fails, it lets you know which app is the culprit.
Ejecting disks is much easier now, and given that I connect to an external drive every day at work, I know the pain of trying to dismount that volume only to be told that something, somewhere on my Mac, believes that my external drive is vitally important and is clinging to it like a child does a security blanket. Now when you try to eject a disk, its Finder icon dims and the system sends a message telling all running apps that they should let go unless they've got a really good reason not to. Most of the time, the result is a clean ejection moments later. But if, for example, iTunes is playing music from that drive, the system instead will display a helpful window telling me that it can't eject the disk and naming iTunes as the culprit, allowing me to decide if it's more important to eject the disk or keep the music playing.

As a full-time MacBook user, I'm endlessly putting my Mac to sleep and waking it back up. In Leopard (and previous OS X versions), mounted servers generally didn't withstand the wake-up process. Leopard was nicer about it than previous versions; the old OSs tended to hang my Mac for half a minute before declaring that my server had vanished (which it hadn't), while Leopard just displayed an alert announcing that some servers had gone away.

Snow Leopard handles this situation a lot better. That alert window still appears--but as it sits there, Snow Leopard is attempting to reconnect to those servers, to bring me back to where I was before I so cruelly closed the lid of my laptop. And generally it works like a charm, reuniting me with my servers without forcing me to reconnect to them.

Snow Leopard is also much smarter when it comes to sharing files with sleeping Macs. If you're on a network with an AirPort base station or a Time Capsule, Snow Leopard will work with those devices to wake up when another Mac wants to share files, and then put itself back to sleep when the file-sharing session is done. This means that if you can get the network settings to work right, you can put your Mac to sleep and still access its files when you need them.

Monospaced fonts (12-point size, top to bottom): Newcomer Menlo, Microsoft and BBEdit choice Consolas, and old standard Monaco.
Programming geeks who also love fonts (and, yes, we exist) will be interested to note that in Snow Leopard, the venerable default monospaced font Monaco has been displaced by the new Bitstream font Menlo, based on the typefaces Bitstream Vera and Deja Vu. I'm sure there are people out there who love Monaco, but as someone who used it for many years, I'm not one of them. (For the past couple of years I've been using the excellent Consolas [which is included with Microsoft Office, of all things] as my text-editor font of choice; my text editor of choice, BBEdit, integrated Consolas late last year.) Fonts are as much about personal taste as haircuts or ironic T-shirts, but after a brief time with Menlo I can definitively say that it might possibly be, potentially, a good alternative to Consolas. It's vastly better than Monaco.

Finally, scripting and automation has received a nice update with Snow Leopard, thanks to a long-overdue overhaul of Mac OS X Services. Anyone who dared to visit the OS X Services menu (located in the Application menu) in past versions saw a hodgepodge of different and often mysterious commands--let's be honest, very few of us ever ventured in there. The new system of Services seems more likely to reach a broader (albeit still somewhat geeky) audience. Users can create new services via the Automator utility, and then run them either via the Services menu or a contextual-menu item within any relevant application.

There's just one catch: Although the Services menu appeared reliably, the contextual-menu items appeared on some of my test systems, sometimes, and on others, not at all. Once Apple fixes this bug, Services could become the Mac power user's efficiency tool of choice.

A stealth feature of Snow Leopard is its limited ability to check downloaded files for known malware, the catch-all name for evil software such as viruses and trojan-horse programs. This new scanning ability is tied into the existing protection system that warns you before opening apps or mounting disk images you've downloaded from the Internet. It's minimal protection, but it's a good line of defense for unsuspecting users, and Apple should be congratulated for providing it. However, Apple's system is no match for third-party virus checkers, and even Apple admits as much. For much more more information about this feature, read our in-depth look at Snow Leopard's hidden malware protection.

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