Snow Leopard: A Look at the Subtle Changes

Apple says its new OS has more than 100 new features and refinements. Here's a closer look at some of the more notable additions.

15 of Snow Leopard's more subtle changes

Apple lists more than 100 new features and refinements in its Snow Leopard marketing materials. When taken together, some of those are significant enough to merit an upgrade on their own. Others, while not necessarily essential, are still nice to see. Here are a few of the more notable additions.

Easier event editing in iCal

In addition to its support for Exchange 2007, iCal gets a welcome interface tweak. When Apple introduced the version that shipped with Leopard, many Mac users were upset that editing an event appeared to be a two-step process: Double-click on the event to view an Info window and then click an Edit button within that window to actually move to a window that displays editable text. (In truth, you could cut to the chase by selecting the event and pressing Command-E.) Still, it was a big-enough complaint that Apple’s done something about it. You can now open an event-editing window by double-clicking on an event. To turn this feature on, choose iCal: Preferences, select the Advanced preference, and enable the Open Events in Separate Windows option. If you’d prefer to not have little windows popping up every time you double-click on an event, you have another option as well: a new Inspector pane that gives you instant access to any selected event. To use it, choose Edit: Show Inspector. A floating window will appear. Now when you click on an event, its details appear in the inspector and are fully editable.

Additionally, Snow Leopard’s iCal includes a new way to set up an iCal server account. Open iCal’s preferences, select the Accounts tab, and click the plus-sign (+) at the bottom of the window. An Add An Account sheet appears and walks you through the process of setting up a CalDAV, Exchange 2007, Google, or Yahoo account.

Fewer Safari crashes

OS X 10.6 ships with Safari 4, which has been available to Mac and Windows users for several months. In addition to improvements users have already been enjoying, such as faster performance, the Top Sites view for quick access to the sites you visit most often, and new search options, Snow Leopard users will see one other notable improvement: browser plug-ins such as Flash and QuickTime now run as processes separate from the browser. So if, for example, Flash crashes, that crash won’t take down the browser with it. You’ll also be able to reload a crashed plug-in without having to restart your browser.

Screen capture, now with video

Snow Leopard continues to offer the same options as Leopard for static screenshots, but in OS X 10.6 you can capture video of your screen without having to shell out for third-party software. However, it isn’t obvious where to find this functionality. You must launch QuickTime Player and then choose New Screen Recording from the File menu. In the resulting window, click on the tiny disclosure triangle to choose the audio source, the video quality, and the location to save the movie; click on the red record button to start recording. When you’re done, click on the Stop button in the menu bar. Unlike third-party screen-recording software, you can’t record just part of the screen, and you don’t get additional visual options, but for quick, full-screen clips for demonstrations and tech support, this built-in feature may be all you need.

Visible Wi-Fi connections

The AirPort status icon that appears in the menu bar is more communicative than it once was. Now, when AirPort is scanning for wireless hotspots, it indicates that it’s doing so by progressively lighting up each of the bands within that AirPort icon. When it stops blinking, it’s finished scanning. To see this icon, the Show AirPort Status In Menu Bar option must be enabled in the Network system preference.

Web-savvy Address Book

Yes you can copy and paste URLs into Address Book, but in Snow Leopard you have another option. As long as you already have the Web page open in Safari, you can open the contact’s card in Address Book and choose Card: Add URL From Safari. Address Book will paste the address of the frontmost Safari page into a new URL field.

Easier access to keyboard shortcuts

Previous versions of OS X let you create your own keyboard shortcuts, but managing them all was a bit of a mess. In Snow Leopard, the Keyboard pane in System Preferences offers an easier-to-navigate Keyoard Shortcuts screen. Categories of keyboard shortcuts—Dashboard & Dock, Screen Shots, Universal Access, and so on—are displayed on the left; select a category and related shortcuts are displayed on the right. This new design is much easier to navigate than Leopard’s “everything in one long list with lots of disclosure trianges” approach. Another improvement is the ability to customize keyboard shortcuts for individual services, as well as to temporarily disable individual shortcuts and services.

New trackpad gestures

Apple introduced two-finger and three-finger multitouch gestures back when the first MacBook Air was released, but Snow Leopard adds four-finger gestures, previously available only on recent models, to a bunch of older laptops. Swipe four fingers down the trackpad to enter and exit Exposé’s Application mode; swipe four fingers up the trackpad to access Exposé’s Desktop mode. By swiping all four fingers left or right, you bring up OS X’s application switcher (normally accessed by pressing Command-Tab); click on a program’s icon to switch to it.

Fine-tuned security settings

You’ve long been able to have your Mac require a password after waking from sleep or the screen saver, but it’s always been an all-or-nothing setting—you needed to type in your password even if your screensaver kicked in just seconds before. Snow Leopard finally provides some flexibility: you can specify how long after putting your Mac to sleep, or activating the screen saver, the password requirement kicks in: immediately or after a period of time you choose. There are also new firewall options, including the ability to automatically allow connections to signed software (those signed by a valid certificate authority).

Location-based clock

Your Mac has long been able to automatically set its time from a network time server, but for frequent travelers who change time zones as often as they change their socks, that’s only half the battle. In Snow Leopard, your Mac can automatically figure out what time zone it’s in, too. It does this by using the new Core Location framework. Open the Time Zone tab of the Date & Time preference pane and select the Set Time Zone Automatically Using Current Location checkbox. The map will gray out and a red Google Maps-style pin will descend on your location, which will be displayed below, along with the appropriate time zone.

New desktop pictures and screen savers

New desktop patterns and screen savers probably weren’t at the top of many Mac users’ wish lists, but Snow Leopard delivers them anyway. The Desktop preference pane offers a handful of new desktop images—including not one, but two, photos of snow leopards. Under the Screen Saver tab, you’ll find a new Shuffle option, which lets you select as many of the available screensavers as you like—including iPhoto albums and events—and randomly shuffle through them, giving you more variety.

Add the date to the menu bar

Filed under "What Took Them So Long?", the time and date are now viewable in the menu bar. To enable this feature, open the Date & Time preference pane, click on the Clock tab, and select the Show Date option in the Date Options area.

Spotlight Tweaks

Apple’s Spotlight search utility, the key feature in Mac OS X 10.4, receives only minor improvements this time around. In the Finder’s Preferences window, you can change the default scope of a search from systemwide to the current folder you’re in. At last, you can set the viewing options for the Spotlight window in the Finder (View -> Show View Options), so you can display the date and time a document was created or modified, not just the last time it was opened. You can also sort on those fields.

On-demand printer drivers

If you use the default settings when you install Snow Leopard, you’ll get a much smaller set of printer drivers than you did with previous versions of Mac OS X; specifically, you get drivers for printers you’ve previously set up, printers on your local network, and a set of the most common printers you may come across. This saves space on your hard drive that otherwise would be wasted with software you’ll never need. But what if you buy a new printer that’s not on the list, or take your laptop to a relative’s house and need to use their “unpopular” printer? Snow Leopard will detect the new printer and automatically go online and download the necessary driver—assuming it’s a printer Snow Leopard supports.

More informative backups with Time Machine

Under Leopard, if you were curious as to what Time Machine was up to, you could click on the Time Machine icon in the menu bar and learn what Time Machine was doing prior to it backing up your data—Calculating Changes, for example. Under Snow Leopard, you see this same information, but also a percentage calculation—Calculating Changes (12%), for example. This could be useful if a process is taking a long time and you’re wondering whether to stop it so that you can shut down your Mac or put it to sleep.

Better Access to AppleScript

In addition to the massive overhaul of Services, including the ability to build Services via Automator, Snow Leopard brings several changes to Apple’s venerable AppleScript scripting system. The Script Editor application has been renamed AppleScript Editor (as seen in the screen above) and relocated from /Applications/AppleScript (which is now gone) to /Applications/Utilities/. You also now control the Script Menu from within the AppleScript Editor preferences, rather than having to hunt for it and install it as a Menu Extra. The AppleScript Editor is also now threaded, so it can run multiple scripts at once and no longer goes unresponsive when you’re in the middle of running a complicated script.

Hard-core scripters can also now use Apple’s Xcode development environment to build AppleScript-based applications that have access to any of the Cocoa frameworks used to build most modern Mac applications. That means there’s very little that an AppleScript application can’t do, so long as you have knowledge of the Cocoa frameworks.

Today's Best Tech Deals

Picked by PCWorld's Editors