Wrestling with the Snow Leopard – and winning

David Braue
2 October, 2009
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Like marriage, war, and remakes of classic movies, operating system upgrades are not things to be entered into lightly. It was thus with some trepidation that I, having finally completed my long-running photographic scanning project and done a full iPhoto backup, inserted my long-ignored Snow Leopard disk and kicked off an upgrade during last weekend’s AFL grand final.

Expecting the worst, I soon observed the best: the upgrade completed in about 45 minutes, as expected, with no hiccups whatsoever. Of course, my first action when the new version loaded was to run Software Update and download the 10.6.1 update, just to make sure everything was up to date.

At first glance, everything was peachy. I went from having 219.53GB free disk space before the upgrade to 244.69GB free afterwards – a significant improvement even considering that I had started with 224.79GB free using the new Mac OS X storage maths. That still gave me a net gain of 20GB, which is incredibly impressive given the way OS upgrades usually trend.

And what is it like? Well, Snow Leopard is like Leopard, given a full wash, blowdry and pedicures all around. Menus are a little cleaner, a few features have been moved around, and the behaviour of a number of OS elements has been tweaked for the better.

My favourite new behaviour so far is the ability to click on a Dock application, then hold the mouse button. After about a second, a translucent screen overlay shows thumbnails of all the application’s current windows – including those that have been minimised to the Dock and would have been inaccessible in Leopard except through right-clicking. Click any window, and it’s brought to the forefront.

Another lovely new feature is the improvements to Image Capture, which has gained functionality and has suddenly become my scanning software of choice. I only discovered the Image Capture improvements after I was searching for updated software for my Brother multi-function printer/scanner/fax. Brother, which is impressively fastidious about driver upgrades, shipped perfect print drivers that loaded through Software Update after my upgrade – but hadn’t bothered to upgrade its Mac OS X scanning software. After having a faint memory that Image Capture could acquire images from scanners as well as cameras, I loaded it up and see why Brother didn’t have to bother making its own software.

It’s the little things like that which make Snow Leopard so worthwhile. Zooming in on a screen (by holding Control while scrolling the mouse button) now behaves in a more useful way so the screen only moves when you bump any edge of the screen, rather than panning around whenever the mouse was moved as in Leopard. The shortcut for launching Front Row has changed, eliminating the chance of accidentally launching it when switching document windows using Command-~ but hitting Command-Esc instead. The ability to create services in Automator has cleaned up Finder’s contextual menus, although the need to translate Leopard-era Automator actions to Snow Leopard services may annoy power users (and it forced me to rewrite my November Switcher Sensei column).

I cannot say much about speed, widely reported as a benefit of Snow Leopard, except to say that the system does seem snappy and responsive. Of course, it wasn’t that bad before.

Yet for all its many improvements, there have been issues. Namely, Snow Leopard seems to have blanked out the preferences of many applications – causing Wiretap Studio, for example, to forget that it was registered and forcing me to re-enter my registration number. Entourage lost all its permission to access the Mac OS X Keychain for email account passwords, so I had to manually grant permission during several requests.

Most of your applications will likely need an update after moving to Snow Leopard. Adobe’s Flash, for example, has needed to be updated (something I found out when the Flash-based Picnik.com image editor started behaving strangely), as have Adobe AIR, Growl, Bento, SnapNDrag, and others. Even my initial post-installation Software Update encountered a hiccup since the Rosetta-free Snow Leopard was unable to run the EEventManager tool (necessary for Software Update) without first installing Rosetta. [addendum: a bit of Googling suggests EEventManager is part of the software for my Epson scanner, although I'm not sure why it would run during Software Update].

Another application that needed a bit of tweaking was my Microsoft Natural Wireless Ergonomic Keyboard (although I suspect all models would be equally affected). The Snow Leopard upgrade reset all my keyboard mappings, requiring a few checkboxes be ticked and mappings to be updated so the function keys worked as I was used to. Interestingly, launching the Microsoft Keyboard item in System Preferences displays a dialog box telling me it has to restart System Preferences; upon relaunch, the window has the message “(32-bit)” to indicate that it’s running in compatibility mode. Time to check Microsoft’s site for updated drivers, I guess.

With strong improvements come little annoyances, and Snow Leopard has both in spades. However, at a price of just $39 it’s not a major investment and it truly is a step forward from Leopard. No matter what you do, the new features will likely justify the cost.

Apple has refined its platform handsomely and, with the powerful new technologies I know are brimming there under the hood, paved the way for some pretty impressive new apps to come down the pike. Your mileage may vary, of course, but if you’ve been holding off on Snow Leopard out of fear, I can stand here and say that it’s not necessarily that bad – and there honestly are good things to be had. Back up everything, update your key applications, good luck and may the Snow Leopard be with you.

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