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  • The Snow Leopard Report: Are We Expecting Too Much?

    August 31st, 2009

    After writing this week’s newsletter, I got to wondering whether some people have led themselves to expect too much from Snow Leopard. After all, Apple has managed to push from 200 to 300 new features for every single release, but this time they claimed to be taking a step back to fix the plumbing.

    Yes, if you look at the changes, there are in fact over 100 “refinements.” I put that term in quotes, primarily because some of those changes would have been regarded as new features in the old days. Regardless, I can’t see that Apple has over-promised and under-delivered here. They said it would be a fixer-upper and to drive home the point they’re offering it for $29. That’s chump change when it comes to an OS release.

    Sure, Microsoft has cut the price some for Windows 7, but it is still way more expensive. For a brief period of time, you could even get it free, and you can still download beta versions from Microsoft, which are essentially Golden Master releases, or something approaching that level.

    Now if you ask Microsoft, in a rare honest day they’ll admit they took the fundamentals of their failed Vista operating system, fixed many of its shortcomings and performance bottlenecks, then added some eye candy. That and a new name were sufficient to make Windows fandom, what there’s left of it, believe it was something new and different. Right, sure, and if any reviewer attempts to convey that impression, ignore them outright. They’re either sadly misinformed or deluded, or they just want to lie to you.

    This is particularly troublesome when it comes to the so-called comparisons between the two. On the one hand, there’s the actual Snow Leopard release that’s being sold at an Apple authorized reseller near you. I suppose the conspiracy-minded among you might wonder if the so-called GM earlier this month was the same thing. I’m inclined to say yes, simply because there was very little time from committing to shipping to actually getting the tiny upgrade kits into the stores.

    On the other hand, there are those millions of copies of the alleged RTM (Release To Manufacturing) version of Windows 7 that are in the hands of PC users around the world. This is the one they are using to write those reviews.

    Now if you take Microsoft at its word — which is not always a good idea — the RTM build is it. It’s the one that will be preloaded onto new PCs soon, and made available through regular retail channels. But how do you really know that it’s the real thing and not something that is still being altered by Microsoft’s programmers? Do they really have to change the build number to avoid the Build Police from raiding them? Really now!

    In any case, you just know that both Snow Leopard and Windows 7 will log a reasonable number of bug reports. That’s part and parcel for any point-zero release. In Apple’s favor, you’ll probably see a 10.6.1 within weeks, whereas it could take over a year for a Windows 7 Service Pack to appear. Sure, there will be updates in the interim, but tracking them is best left to IT people. They are seldom labeled in any way that makes sense to regular people.

    With Windows 7, however, aside from any initial shipping bugs and appropriate remedies, the performance factor at the beginning will likely be pretty close to what you’ll get until its successor appears. Sure, hardware will get faster, but that’s not the point.

    With Snow Leopard, it’s the beginning of a long journey. No doubt some of the early contradictions in performance testing are indicative that there will be a period of optimizing that may take months or years to reach fruition. Sure, Grand Central Dispatch will make it easier for developers to update their apps to support Intel’s powerful multicore processors. But the products that will benefit most, such as Adobe’s Creative Suite, are months away. Then again, I suppose Adobe could release a Photoshop plugin to speed up some functions. They did that long ago during the early days of the PowerPC.

    Snow Leopard’s graphics performance may also be an issue at the starting gate, and this is where a number of the most serious performance bottlenecks are to be found. OpenCL will allow developers to harness the often idle power of graphics chips to further enhance processing speeds. But graphics drivers will have to be optimized first, and that probably explains some of the disparities in early performance testing. Down the line, apps will also have to be recompiled to support OpenCL. Things of that sort don’t happen overnight.

    So if you want to know how Snow Leopard really performs, consider the early reports to be primarily a starting point. Ask again in six months.

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