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A second look at Apple's Snow Leopard

It's now been almost two months since I reviewed Apple's Snow Leopard version of Mac OS X -- enough time for Apple to have shipped its first major patch to that operating system, and enough time for any new-release shininess to have dulled.

Granted, Snow Leopard (aka, Mac OS X 10.6) wasn't that shiny in the first place, as I wrote here at the time. Apple itself calls this version "refined, not reinvented" and sells it for the low, low price of $29.

But after two months of using Snow Leopard every day on a roughly three-year-old iMac, how do I appreciate this update? Not all that much, honestly. Some of its improvements have grown less noticeable over time, one problem has become a little more objectionable and one promised improvement has yet to surface.

Take Snow Leopard's changes to the Dock: While I find its scrollable "Grid Stack" pop-up listings of the Documents, Applications and Downloads folders' contents a big upgrade over Leopard's less flexible interface, I never use its "Dock Expose" preview -- clicking and holding an application's Dock icon to see thumbnail images of its open windows just takes too long.

The Quick Time X video player has also been somewhat of a non-entity, perhaps because most of the time I don't do anything with a video clip but watch it inside a browser window -- and that works about the same as ever in this new software.

Since my review ran, I've discovered another weird conflict with a third-party program: the PhotoStitch panorama-assembly tool included with Canon's cameras no longer works. Canon deserves most of the blame -- this application, which looks like a refugee from Mac OS 9, should have been updated long ago -- but the Snow Leopard installer offered no warning about this problem, and Apple's list of incompatible software has yet to mention it.

My biggest Snow Leopard disappointment, though, has to be the crash protection allegedly built into its Safari Web browser. Apple's site brags:

Apple engineers redesigned Safari to make plug-ins run separately from the browser. If a plug-in crashes on a web page, Safari keeps running. Just refresh the page and get going again.

I have yet to see this happen. Safari crashes about as often as it did before and also seems just as vulnerable to slowdowns and stalls once I have too many pages open. Just like in Leopard, Safari will stop responding to any input a second or two before the cursor changes into the dreaded "spinning beach ball of death," and then the only thing I can do is wait for the browser to snap out of it.

At least Snow Leopard's Activity Monitor utility now breaks out the processor and memory footprint of each plug-in, so I can accurately condemn Adobe's Flash plug-in for its appetites.

A few Snow Leopard users have discovered a much more serious problem: a rare but gruesome bug, still fixed, that caused Snow Leopard to wipe out all of their data after somebody else logged into the Mac using its Guest Account option.

I still consider Mac OS X a more pleasant software environment than Windows. I also still think Snow Leopard will bring worthwhile changes over time, both as successive bug fixes address its flaws (the next big one is supposedly due this month) and as third-party developers write new software to take advantage of its foundation-level improvements. But two months in, my not-all-that-glowing review looks a little too positive.

Were you an early adopter of Snow Leopard? What's your assessment, now that you've had some time to get accustomed to the software?

By Rob Pegoraro  |  November 2, 2009; 11:59 AM ET
Categories:  Mac , The business we have chosen  
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My overall assessment is 'meh'. As they say, It Just Works. Had to get new software for my ElGato EyeTV, and the patch got my HP printer running again. Now I just need to get VMWare 3 (I shot you an e-mail about their asinine upgrade problem).

Cool thing I noticed with the iPod Nano. Bought a new 16 gb one a week ago after the 8 gb one (remember when 8gb was a huge hard drive?) filled up. The new one does playlist folders, which the old one didn't. That's handy. Now if they would just allow the folders, playlists in the folders, to be in other than alphabetical order so that I don't have to prefix numbers on them...

Posted by: wiredog | November 2, 2009 12:15 PM | Report abuse

During one of your chats, when I complained about Quicktime, one chatter called it “progress.” Again I say, Apple hasn’t done any real update to Quicktime or Safari in years! Some of the HD content still sputters on Quicktime. Why Apple can’t add some more codex to it, I'll never know. But iTunes has grown, at least in size, by leaps and bounds. But you still can't have iTunes without Quicktime.

Posted by: ummhuh1 | November 2, 2009 12:59 PM | Report abuse

If anything, Safari now crashes MORE often, not less.

I like the concept of the dock-triggered exposé, but as you point out, it takes too long and I never use it.

I hadn't heard of the guest bug, but as a result I've disabled the guest account (which we only use when my parents are here, anyway).

My biggest beef isn't strictly Apple's's the loss of google Gears. One of my Macs is a notebook and I liked the ability to access my googlage offline. (Yes, I know I could use Firefox, but that involves remembering to launch Firefox periodically so it can catch up.)

Overall...not earth-shattering, but $29 is worth it to avoid the hassle my father just went through trying to migrate from 10.2.x to 10.6.

Posted by: pjgeraghty | November 2, 2009 1:08 PM | Report abuse

Not happy with Snow leopard. After upgrading two Mac's (2009 MacBook white/ Mac Mini 2009) I had major problems with internet slowdowns and this was with Airport or Ethernet. I even tried a Clean install twice but no resolution of these network problems. Even went out and bought a new router! I have three Windows 7 computers using same network with no problems. I ended up going back to Leopard. Just waiting for 10.6.2 release to see if it has patches for this problem.

Posted by: jescott418 | November 2, 2009 1:41 PM | Report abuse

My biggest problem w/Snow Leopard (although this may also be present w/Tiger and/or Leopard) is that I can't use multiple profiles w/Firefox 3.5.4. There's been a glitch between Firefox's libsqlite and the version installed in OS X for a while -- there used to be a work-around but now you can't seem to do anything with the profile manager at all. Quite annoying.......

Posted by: skug67 | November 2, 2009 1:58 PM | Report abuse

This is a pretty negative article on Snow Leopard, but I think it is a fair one. My own experience has been worse and I may well have lost everything on one of my three Macs. MobileMe was a disaster on roll out and this could be even worse in the end.

Actually, the problem that started the disaster was MobileMe related and cascaded from there. Worse, it propagated to another machine as well. The Mac may not have a virus problem, but a serious issue on one machine may in fact move to another one via MobileMe Sync.

While I was a very early adopter of .Mac, I may in fact drop it now after this experience. A restore via TImeMachine did not fix the problem nor did the advice from two Apple techs. Loosing everything on your wife's machine is not good. :-(

At its root, both these problems result directly from Apple's fetish with secrecy and marketing surprise. If REAL users, not propeller heads, had tested Snow Leopard and MobileMe there would have been far fewer problems. Showmanship is fine, but not when much of what you do is dependent on the soundness of your computer.

Posted by: rsvaught | November 2, 2009 2:18 PM | Report abuse

I think Rob would have better luck on a computer that's newer than 3 years old. I've had a very positive experience with SL. For example, Rob says he nevers uses Dock Expose b/c it takes too long. I have a 1-year old black MB 13" with 4G RAM and there's no delay at all.

Posted by: philip2 | November 2, 2009 2:57 PM | Report abuse

I've also found Snow Leopard to be buggy and unreliable compared to other Apple releases. I agree with pjgeraghty and Safari is now annoyingly crash-prone. I like Safari on the Mac although I hate it, like most Apple software, on Windows, but I've started using Opera and Firefox on my Mac because Safari is truly annoying.

You may "still consider Mac OS X [to be] a more pleasant software environment than Windows" but don't suffer the same short-term memory loss that many Apple fans seem to suffer from when it comes to writing about all things Apple. Somehow the accolades stay in the memory and the sourness evaporates. You're entitled to an opinion that favors OSX over Windows, as I still do, but at least be fair about it which you frequently aren't. The differences between the two OS's are mostly down to personal preference now and not some egregious unusable experience as some rabid fanboys still insist. You owe it to your readers to provide a realistic view and that doesn't mean being yet another obsequious drone. If Windows is so starkly a different experience for you than OSX as to be painful, then it's you doing something wrong.

Posted by: scarper86 | November 2, 2009 3:25 PM | Report abuse

I had a hardware issue with my MacBook - the internal microphone was not working - and, to rule out software, I ended up installing 10.6 from scratch, on a bare drive, reinstalling all of my apps and manually copying over my data (so I did not do a migration at all.) And 10.6 is running perfectly - I have had zero issues with Safari, no more crashes in the Finder.

I suggest to anybody having issues with 10.6 to do a good couple of data backups and try installing SL fresh and see if things are better.

Posted by: doog | November 2, 2009 6:10 PM | Report abuse

* jescott418: Can you e-mail with the details of your situation? I haven't seen wired Internet connectivity be an issue with OS X or any other operating system in a long time, and I'm not aware of any noteworthy changes to the TCP/IP stack in Snow Leopard.

* rsvaught: That's the peril of any sort of background sync--errors can propagate themselves around your network before you even notice them. But I would also say that MobileMe has issues that go well beyond the usual risks of sync services: limited features, unnecessary compatibility limits (like not supporting the return e-mail addresses of your choice) and an increasingly poor value proposition.

* philip2: A newer machine would do a lot of things faster--like, say, running a copy of XP inside of Parallels or Fusion--but it would still have the latency of click-and-hold between me and Dock Expose. That's not a processor-determined delay; the software needs to wait to make sure you're really trying to invoke Dock Expose.

* scarper86: You've made this criticism elsewhere, but I remain unconvinced by your assertion that Windows and OS X are now matters of "personal preference." There are plenty of objective measures of performance that show OS X ahead, like startup times or the number of clicks it takes to unmount a flash drive. But the more important difference I would point to is architectural: OS X enforces a proper separation between the OS, applications and each user's data and settings, while Windows largely does not. That's why OS X doesn't need app installers or uninstallers and Windows does. That's also why Snow Leopard's default reinstall preserves your applications, files and settings in place and Windows 7 can't do those things. I'm not doing anything "wrong" to find Windows awkward and inconvenient compared to OS X in these matters--even if I also don't think Apple moved the chains much with Snow Leopard.

* doog: By default, Snow Leopard does that clean install for you--"archive and install" was an option in Leopard, but now it's the standard behavior.

- RP

Posted by: Rob Pegoraro | November 2, 2009 7:25 PM | Report abuse

"Just like in Leopard, Safari will stop responding to any input a second or two before the cursor changes into the dreaded "spinning beach ball of death," and then the only thing I can do is wait for the browser to snap out of it." I guess you've never noticed the Force Quit menu item?

I was exceedingly pleased to find that Image Capture can now operate my scanner! It can even 'see' individual pieces of an image and save them in separate files, should I wish. The previous piece of junque, second-hand, poorly ported "Presto! Page Manager" was the most horrid, unstable and nearly useless software I have ever had to put up with, ever, even back to the Apple][! ;-)

Too bad the changes under the hood are not more visible to "the rest of us" but a little investigation would make those more appreciated. Of course, it is also unacceptable that there are still bugs and even new ones in Snow Leopard. The fact that many old ones are gone is simply not noticed, unfortunately.

Nor should Apple be blamed for improving a more modern OS and not having developers care enough to take advantage of them. I know that takes time, and I hope to see even better software sooner than later. And it is basically impossible to test a new OS against every possible combination of third-party apps and the hardware they could be using. There is never enough user-testing in practically any device on any market, from toasters to commercial aircraft! 8+|

But thanks for bring some of the 'warts' to the masses. I still wonder, however, how people can be 'unaware' of the Guest account problem. Do these people depend on TV for their Mac information?! There are simply too many, friendly, helpful, well-informed Internet forums available to depend on rare and irregular non-computer publications. If these people take the time to read this site, they certainly have time to get competent information in a much more timely manner. Of course, that's just my opinion, but I don't want to depend on some occasional comments to learn of very useful and sound reports of new information and tips. Use your own power and skills, people! ;-)

Posted by: xairbusdriver | November 3, 2009 9:55 AM | Report abuse

I just recently upgraded to SL and have had no problems with the OS or with Safari. In fact, Safari runs slightly faster and seems more stable, at least for me. I also appreciate the smaller footprint, as I think I have saved some 10-15 GBs compared to Leopard.

One complaint -- built in print drivers for my older Epson all-in-one are really not Epson drivers and, therefore, I have lost some functionality. Not exactly Apple's fault, but not the best case either.

Overall, I think the upgrade was worthwhile, given the cost and the improvements I have noticed.

Posted by: teamn | November 3, 2009 11:59 AM | Report abuse

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