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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11 Responses to “The Snow Leopard Report: Are We Expecting Too Much?”

  1. Robert Pritchett says:


    I’m so glad you are staying on top of all of the Apple vs. Microsoft stuff. I tried the MS OS free download to try it out on my Mac and when things started going really goofy, really fast, I had to drop it and back away under VMWare. I’m sorry, it just isn’t worth it to spend time fighting the clunkiness and nastiness inherent in the PC side of things.

    Ooh, that is what PC stands for – “Pretty Clunkly”.

    Now, if Apple had used a nice Snow Leopard kitty, like we have for the September cover of macCompanion, then it probably would make more sense as we see reports coming in on what works and what work-arounds are needed before we see the next dot-dot rev come out for Snow Leopard.

    • admin says:

      @Robert Pritchett, So much for the feeling that it’s actually an avatar for Steve Jobs. 🙂

      I just wonder about the mindset of folks who are criticizing Snow Leopard because it lacked new features, after Apple tells everyone for over a year it wouldn’t have major new features — at least visible ones anyway. Sigh.


  2. Andrew says:

    I’m quite glad that Snow Leopard lacks features. What I am not glad about, however, is that for whatever reason after a clean install of SL and then using the migration assistant from a clone of my Leopard install, my MacBook Air strangely boots about half the time, and the other half just shows a circle with a diagonal line through it. A safe boot will clear things up, until the next time.

    Never had any issues with Leopard on that machine. I’m thinking its probably one of my two non-SL-safe apps, Norton AV 11 or MacSpeech Dictate 1.3. NAV 11 won’t uninstall with the supplied utility (even under Leopard), so I’ll try a clean install.

    In contrast, I did a clean install right away of Win7 on my ThinkPad and since MS doesn’t provide a migration assistant of any value, I reinstalled everything from scratch. This is my usual method, and I guess I was foolish expecting SL to be smooth with anything but a clean install.

    That said, I like SL so far. It is noticeably faster and the new Expose dock integration is really sweet. I like Win7 RTM as well. The Air is my court and travel machine while the ThinkPad is my entertainment and hardcore typing (nothing beats a ThinkPad keyboard) machine. Believe it or not, I like both about equally under SL and 7, just as I did under Leopard and Vista. Both are fast, stable and quite intuitive so long as you are experienced on the platform.

    I’ve been using Mac since 1993 and OS X since Jaguar, so there is no real learning curve. I’ve likewise been using Windows sice 1986 and moved completely to NT-based Windows in 1996, so Windows is just as familiar to me. I honestly think that the vast majority of rants and raves about each platform comes from people who are overly wedded to one or the other. The truly platform-agnostic among us can sit down at either and appreciate the niceties and work around the annoyances. I find that there are fewer annoyances on my Macs, but there are also many situations where Windows is a much better fit.

  3. Lava says:

    People need to read John Siracusa’s just-published 23 page technical review of Snow Leopard on ArsTechnica if they somehow think Snow Leopard is anything less than revolutionary.

    You realize Windows 7 has NOTHING on Snow Leopard after you read the review (especially after reading about exactly how Grand Central Dispatch, OpenCL, and LLVM compiler technology works).

    • @Lava, That’s 23 online pages, and closer to 100 printed. As usual with John, this is a tour-de-force of an evaluation. It shows how sharply focused Apple remains on engineering hurdles, since there’s little payback in terms of performance till apps are updated. In contrast, Microsoft hasn’t a clue. Sure, they cleaned up Vista with Windows 7 and added some GUI stuff, but there is still a Registry and other legacy junk not so easily dealt with.


  4. Bo says:

    Snow Leopard may be revolutionary, but not in a way I like. My printer stopped working, no driver. My scanner stopped working. No driver. My 3G broadband stopped working. You guessed it, no driver, and I got Kernel Panics as soon as I tried to install one. A few applications were very clunky. My MacBook ran a lot hotter than before, with considerably higher processor load. And so on. I’m back at Leopard 10.5.8 and I plan to stay there. For me, this was no gain, just a bag of pain.

  5. Karl says:

    @ Bo…
    Stinks when an upgrade doesn’t go as planned but why would you upgrade to the next system without checking for compatibility for your current software and drivers? That is just asking for trouble.

  6. DaveD says:

    I appreciate any honest review of Snow Leopard. Thanks for pointing out the ugly one by Dan Lyons of Newsweek in the newsletter yesterday. Unfortunately, I read it over the weekend. Has Rupert Murdoch taken over that magazine?

    I would expect Windows 7 to have fewer bugs. The betas have been available to the public for what seems like years. Apple with their developers nursed Snow Leopard before releasing into the wild. Apple even surprised their developer community by releasing sooner than expected.

    I had never run out to buy and install a new “cat” ASAP. I expect to have issues due to many third-party add-ons which enhance the use of my Mac. But, I am quite thankful for those that do. I can learn from their experiences. Those that complained loudly of problems should get a grip on reality. The best way to play with a new OS is to install it onto a “cloned” drive and note when bad stuff happens.

    Making comparison of the two operating systems became routine when Microsoft started putting a GUI over MS-DOS. Apple put a lot of work into the Mac OS and Microsoft was too eagar to imitate it. It has been that way for the last 15 years. No doubt of the huge effort put into Snow Leopard. Apple looks to the future. Microsoft has to keep carrying the legacy baggage while constantly looking at Apple for leadership.

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