The Snow Leopard Report: Is it Ready Yet for Prime Time?

March 10th, 2010

Now we all know that Snow Leopard appeared last August, but for some of you it still has serious problems, so you’re sticking with Leopard. Some of you are even Tiger holdouts, because Leopard didn’t light your fire.

The other day, I saw a perfectly serious article claiming adoption of 10.6 was not so good and then trying to explain why. But when the article’s statistics demonstrated a roughly 45% adoption rate, despite the fact that millions of Mac users can’t install Snow Leopard, the basic premise was invalidated.

Aside from those of you who have PowerPC-based Macs, and thus can never install Snow Leopard, it is quite true that 10.6 is perceived as fatally flawed in some respects. Some complain of more system crashes, others fret that their applications aren’t compatible yet.

Unfortunately, such issues apply to all personal computer operating system upgrades, from Apple and Microsoft. Early adopters suffer the pain and agony of bugs that weren’t eradicated before shipping. Some of the apps and peripheral drivers you require for your work are suddenly rendered inoperable. So you’re stuck, unless, of course, you stick with what you have.

At the end of the day, nobody forces you to install a new OS. If the one you have gets the job done, there’s no harm in staying with it. The same is true, of course, for the latest and greatest versions of the productivity apps you use. It’s clear to me that such publishers as Adobe and Microsoft are finding it more and more difficult to add useful features and not make their products buggier and more and more bloated.

Does it make sense, for example, that Word 2008 takes longer to launch on the most powerful Intel-based Mac than version 5.1 did on a mainstream Mac built 20 years ago?

All right, it’s fair to say that today’s version of Word is being asked to perform a whole lot more functions than that legendary version from the old days. But has Microsoft done anything to make their products work more efficiently, the better to take advantage of faster hardware? Or do they use the speedier processors as an excuse for lazy programming? I think the answer is painfully obvious in most cases.

Now returning to the operating system equation, it’s fair to say that it usually takes a few updates for things to settle down. Even though Mac OS X ushered in an era of enhanced stability, almost every version shipped with a show-stopper or two. A few had the potential of causing lost data. Consider the Leopard bug where a file moved, rather than copied, to another drive or network share, might become corrupted. Or the infamous Snow Leopard problem where switching from your Guest Account to your regular one would result in the latter being deleted by mistake.

I like to think Snow Leopard is working quite nicely at the present time. It is on every Mac on which I’ve installed it. I didn’t suffer from the initial bugs, and I think that the 10.6.2 update fixed the worst ills. There are rumors that a 10.6.3 is in our near future, and I wouldn’t doubt that there’s probably a 10.6.4 under construction as well. Something as complicated as a computer OS is always a work in progress and you can complain all you want that Apple rushes these things out too quickly. That conclusion is probably true to some extent, but even if Snow Leopard came out a few weeks later, it doesn’t guarantee all the significant issues would have been eradicated.

The real question is whether the upgrade makes sense for you. Visible new features in Snow Leopard are few. If you crave enhanced support for Microsoft Exchange email servers, and can’t tolerate Entourage as an email client, the enhanced support in Address Book, iCal and Mail ought to help serve most of you. The few missing Exchange features may be addressed in Outlook 2011 for the Mac, due towards the end of the year. But if Microsoft doesn’t fix the known instabilities in Entourage, it may not be worth the bother.

The under-the-hood fixes in Snow Leopard were supposed to deliver added performance and enhanced stability. The Cocoa Finder is surely not as prone to forget positioning or hang when you access folders with loads of files or experience a disconnect from a network share. But it’s not quite all it could be.

Worse, few developers have taken advantage of the highly touted features, such as Grand Central Dispatch and OpenCL, which are designed to allow apps to take better advantage of multicore processors and speedier graphic cards. For the time being, Snow Leopard may seem a tad snappier than Leopard on the same hardware, but the real improvements remain unrealized. I don’t know when that’ll change. Maybe Steve Jobs will exhort developers to get with the program at the next WWDC, but the programming issues remain complicated. It won’t happen overnight.

Yes, I look forward to seeing what Apple can conjure up for 10.7, the operating system where you hope they’ll return to feature improvements. But Snow Leopard is here and now, and I hope Apple won’t stop trying to make it work better, assuming third-party developers demonstrate real progress towards making their products take advantage of the most compelling new features.

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8 Responses to “The Snow Leopard Report: Is it Ready Yet for Prime Time?”

  1. dfs says:

    “Worse, few developers have taken advantage of the highly touted features, such as Grand Central Dispatch and OpenCL, which are designed to allow apps to take better advantage of multicore processors and speedier graphic cards.” So true, as I’ve complained in postings to this site before. And let it added that Apple is, at least so far, one of the developers who have failed to take advantage of these features. And now rumors are flying that Apple is about to release a new Mac Pro with six-core Xeon processors, so that the gap between the promise and the reality will be greater than ever. If this situation goes on much longer, how can there not be a consumer backlash? (I realize that PC manufacturers who have bought into the multi-core vision suffer the same problem, but since Apple uniquely puts out both hardware and software, it is uniquely in a position to do something about it, all the other mfrs. are held hostage by third-party developers, so it is painful that on this front Apple is showing no signs of life, this is an area in which they really could steal a march on the competition, but they seem to be sitting on their hands).

  2. Brian M says:

    some of those features like OpenCL and Grand Central Dispatch take time, and don’t necessarily always make sense to use. Some may not get such features added until a certain point in a development cycle, like a major release, rather than a point update. 10.6 as a cheap upgrade was a way to get it out earlier for developers to have on hand for their next major release.

    Many programs are indeed now multithreaded, but they assume an average config for an optimal number of threads, or the nature of what is being done dictates the number of threads. GCD really helps things that can be broken down into smaller tasks like some (but not all) video work, compression/decompression work, 3d rendering.
    I read something recently that the Epic Unreal engine is up to 4 threads now. It doesn’t make sense for them to use GCD because of time dependancies, it could be an issue with the way GCD queues tasks.

    I do expect as time goes on, that more apps will (and I really hope iLife is one of them… iMovie image stabilization is single threaded, while importing used all 4 cores on my MacPro) be updated for these new features. By the time 10.7 comes around these features should be much more commonly used.

  3. SteveP says:

    “It is on every Mac on which I’ve installed it.”

    Bet you’re glad it’s not showing up on Macs that you didn’t install it on! 🙂
    (But maybe that would be a topic for Paracast!)

    I do agree on the slow adoption of Open CL/GCD. Especially by Apple!
    Maybe they need to authorize a program like “works with iPod” with a certification sticker for software that says “Works with Open GL” or “Works with Grand Central Dispatch.” Then a big ad campaign to hype it so more people would expect it and push the software companies. ??

  4. Louis Wheeler says:

    I see no reason to be concerned.

    Snow Leopard is being upgraded at about 5% a month. This is a third faster than Leopard 10.5 was. The indications are that Snow Leopard will be 90% upgraded in 14 months after release, versus 19 months for Leopard.

    It is also being upgraded about twice as fast as WIndows Seven.

    I see no real push yet, but there is one coming. Once Apple is booting into the 64 bit kernel, by default, there will be an increased desire to upgrade because 64 bit applications are much faster. Apple hasn’t pushed this fact much and probably won’t until it is getting close to the kernel upgrade. It is unlikely to change the boot default until enough applications are in 64 bit code.

    I don’t see this happening in the coming upgrade, possibly in the following. I’m guessing that this will happen around june or July. There is no strong reason to upgrade until then, but no reason not to either.

  5. Wow, almost half of all Mac users have Snow Leopard? Incredible!

  6. Louis Wheeler says:

    That isn’t what I said, Partners in Crime.

    Currently, Leopard 10.5 has just under 60% usage, while Snow Leopard has 27%. But at 5% a month growth, it won’t take more than five to six months to get to the tipping point where Apple decides to boot to the 64 bit kernel. That, along with the many new apps in 64 bit, will persuade many people in Leopard to upgrade. But, there is no hurry.

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