Snow Leopard First Impressions
I have to admit I have been eagerly awaiting the introduction of Apple’s Snow Leopard operating system since it was first announced at the Worldwide Developers Conference. This is not a typical operating system upgrade. There are very few aesthetic changes to the system causing many users to wonder what the big deal is.
When Leopard (version 10.5) was released it came with many changes to the way the user interacted with the Macintosh. It was relatively clear what the differences were from the old OS to the new version. That is not the case with Snow Leopard. It is analogous to walking into a garage and looking at two cars sitting side by side. On the surface they look the same except for maybe a difference in color. But popping the hood and looking in the engine compartment you realize that one of these cars has a fuel efficient 4-cylinder engine while the other one has a fully blown V-8 capable of melting tires in the hands of a proper driver.
The changes may not be quite that dramatic but in geek speak it is not far off. Snow Leopard allowed Apple to go under the hood of OS X and tweak the underlying engine to set it up to take advantage of new technologies that are just beginning to be mainstream. A lot of this work was done to enable 64-bit processing throughout the operating system. In the past there was some 64-bit processing within OS X but many of the routines were still limited to 32-bit. Given today’s hardware that was appropriate but with the roadmap of processors and controllers that Intel and other hardware manufacturers are using 64-bit is going to be necessary in the very near future.
With nearly all processors now being multi-core it has introduced new challenges for the software developer. Now not only to developers need to worry about application latency and process management but they have to thread applications to take advantage of the additional processing cores. Improper software management may not only cause system slow down but could impact other applications. With Snow Leopard Apple has assisted the software developer by introducing what they refer to as Grand Central Dispatch. This takes the job of managing processing cores away from the application and plants it in the operating system which can handle the chores for multiple applications more efficiently. Grand Central Dispatch means very little to the software user for from a developers standpoint it should provide a much cleaner implementation and ultimately should result in more consistent behavior by all software.
In a time where operating system vendors are overloading their offerings with more and more features that take additional resources and require bigger computers, Snow Leopard bucks the trend and actually reduces the memory requirements for many of its routines. This streamlined code results in a faster computer with today’s hardware. When was the last time that you installed a new OS that actually gave you memory back?
Apple has also introduced Open Computing Language (OpenCL) which should allow applications to take advantage of the processing power contained on today’s graphics cards by utilizing spare cycles on the graphics processing units (GPL). This should result in more processing efficiencies throughout the computer. OpenCL uses many of the same constructs as Xcode so the learning curve for using it should be minimized allowing developers to develop to its specifications quicker.
These are just a few of the important aspects of Snow Leopard that should open development doors to better software being developed for the Macintosh. From an end-user’s perspective you have to love the price. Apple has set Snow Leopard at $29 for a single license or $49 for a family license for up to five computers. Compare that with Microsoft who set their Windows 7 Ultimate upgrade price at $219 per license and you can see what a deal Snow Leopard is.
The real benefits of Snow Leopard may not be realized for a few months until developers have had an opportunity to fully exploit its capabilities but when that finally happens, users who have taken advantage of this upgrade will be really glad they did. The future is looking pretty bright for Apple users at this point.