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Apple’s Snow Leopard is inexpensive - but not cheap

Major overhaul has delightful tweaks

By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff / September 3, 2009

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Here are two words you rarely see in the same sentence: Apple and cheap.

You’ll generally pay twice as much for one of Apple Inc.’s Macintosh computers than you would for a Windows-based PC of equivalent power. But Snow Leopard, the new upgrade to Apple’s operating system software, has a basic price of only $29. By comparison, Microsoft Corp.’s upcoming Windows 7 operating system starts at $120.

Despite the low price, Snow Leopard is a major upgrade of the Mac operating system, in some ways more radical than Windows 7. The trouble is that for months or years to come, few of the improvements will benefit Macintosh users.

Snow Leopard boasts a handful of new features for everyday use, but not nearly enough to persuade consumers to pay $129, as they did in 2007, when the original Leopard was released. So Apple didn’t dare stick to its usual premium-price strategy. Instead, the company cleverly went to the other extreme, selling advanced software at a Crazy Eddie price.

Snow Leopard is the first Mac OS version that will run only on machines with Intel processors. Older Macs using archaic PowerPC chips have been frozen out. Intel Macs with a version of the Mac OS called Tiger can’t be directly upgraded, so those users must pay $170 for Snow Leopard. But they also get Apple’s iLife, with music, video, and photo manage ment software, and iWork, with word processor, spreadsheet, and other productivity programs. So it’s still a pretty good bargain.

Installing Snow Leopard is supposed to be a breeze, but it wasn’t for me. The software informed me that I must first repartition my hard drive, which means deleting all files and programs. This shouldn’t happen on a Mac unless the drive has been repartitioned after purchase - exactly what had happened to the test machine. So the problem wasn’t Apple’s fault.

Happily I came across SuperDuper, a nice little $30 program from Shirt Pocket, a small software company in Weston. SuperDuper copied all my software onto an external drive, then let me put it back on the repartitioned Mac once I’d loaded Snow Leopard. The software on the external drive is bootable, too, so you can use the drive to run the older version of Leopard whenever you wish.

After repartitioning, Snow Leopard installed in about 30 minutes. As Apple promised, it freed up about seven gigabytes of space on the hard drive. That’s no big deal for desktop machines, which generally have hundreds of gigabytes of storage, but since laptop drives are never big enough, the extra space is good news for MacBook users.

With Snow Leopard safely aboard, it was time to hunt for significant improvements. I almost needed a bloodhound; Snow Leopard’s most appealing tweaks are nonobvious, but delightful once you find them.

Consider the Finder, with its windows for tracking files and applications. Finder now has a slider that instantly expands or shrinks the sizes of icons. And many icons can preview the files they represent.

Click on an Adobe PDF file icon, and you can turn the pages. Click on a QuickTime movie icon, and the movie plays right inside the icon.

Expose, Apple’s slick screen organizer, has gotten slicker. Click and hold an application icon on the Mac’s Dock toolbar. All windows associated with that program spring up on your screen. It’s an excellent way to view multiple Web pages or documents with minimal effort.

Visit boston.com, the Globe website, and you’ll see videos of Snow Leopard in action. I shot the videos myself, using a new feature that generates QuickTime videos of anything that’s happening on your screen. It’s not nearly as fancy as the $300 software I use for making PC screen videos, but it gets the job done. See for yourself.

Snow Leopard should be welcome in corporate America, as it’s fully compatible with Microsoft’s popular Exchange messaging software. But the new operating system doesn’t always play nice. It broke my Symantec antivirus software. And I had to do without my beloved LiveMesh, a free Microsoft Corp. product that lets you install a shared folder on all your PCs or Macs. Drag files into the folder, and up to five gigabytes of data is duplicated on all your machines. But the LiveMesh software for the Mac isn’t ready for Snow Leopard yet. Hurry up, guys.

And while you’re at it, write some code that will benefit from Snow Leopard’s truly significant improvements. For instance, most computers use multicore processors - basically two, three, or four processors on a single chip. But few programs take advantage of the feature, because it’s extremely hard to write programs that can use multiple cores simultaneously. Snow Leopard is supposed to make the process much easier, so Mac users should eventually end up with much faster-running programs.

Snow Leopard has another feature that will let software developers “borrow’’ the Mac’s super-powerful graphics processor and use it to accelerate nongraphics programs. That should deliver a nice burst of speed, one of these days.

So while Windows 7 is little more than a badly needed revamp of Windows Vista’s worst features, Snow Leopard is a major overhaul of the Mac’s software architecture, with a dash of eye candy thrown in. There’s nothing cheap about it, except the price.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.