Is Apple's Snow Leopard Worth the Money?

Conventional wisdom is that everything ran great at Apple during the six-month period when CEO Steve Jobs was out having his super-secret liver transplant. Supposedly, the company just kept running without a hiccup. But after unimpressive reports on the performance of Snow Leopard, the new version of the Mac OS X operating system, I'm starting to have my doubts.

According to early reviews, like the one by David Pogue of The New York Times and the one by Walt Mossberg of The Wall Street Journal, Snow Leopard doesn't offer a lot of improvements that are visible to the end user. And apparently, it brings with it a bunch of new glitches and bugs. Some drivers don't work. Some third-party apps won't run right until they get rewritten for Snow Leopard.

Sure, Apple and its third-party software developers will sort out the problems, and Apple won't take a shellacking over these flaws the way Microsoft did with Windows Vista. That's just how things work. When it comes to Apple, people are more willing to forgive.

But this is where you start to wonder whether everybody kind of slacked off a little bit when Jobs, a notorious tyrant and perfectionist, wasn't around to put the fear of God into them. What are they doing putting out a product that (a) doesn't blow you away with some life-changing new features and (b) doesn't quite work right? It just seems so, well, unlike Apple.

Sure, Snow Leopard is faster than Leopard. And it's smaller, meaning it takes up less space on your hard drive, which probably doesn't matter to you, but anyway, there it is. Snow Leopard will start shipping as the pre-installed operating system on all Macs as of today. If you're running Leopard, the current version of Mac OS X, you can upgrade to Snow Leopard for $29. If you're running Tiger, the predecessor to Leopard, your upgrade cost is $169. And if, despite the lackluster reviews, you're keen to upgrade, as usual it's probably a good idea to wait a bit, let Apple iron out the wrinkles, and then jump in.

Microsoft, for its part, is about to ship a new version of its Windows operating system, Windows 7. It's officially due out in October, but it's been out in the wild for months now in a wide-ranging (read: anyone could download it at no cost) "beta" program. I've been running it since January, on a bunch of different machines, and it's great. Stable, fast, clean. And by the time it ships, Windows 7 will have spent almost a year being tested and beaten on by millions of people.

Snow Leopard, on the other hand, begins its "beta test" today, on real live machines with real live users. That's because Apple is nuts about secrecy and hasn't let anyone see Snow Leopard in advance, except a very few reviewers who got it just before it was ready to ship. Apple is so freaky about security and secrecy that it actually made legal threats against a British Web site that ran a "first look" review of Snow Leopard this past Tuesday. Apple had insisted reviewers wait until yesterday, and in the world according to Apple, everyone, even the press, must play by the company's rules.

Regardless of whether Apple's new OS lives up to the dispiriting hype or turns out to be better than early reports would have you believe, the disparity between Snow Leopard and Windows 7 will not be as great as was the disparity between Leopard and Vista. Furthermore, I can tell you that I'm writing this on a computer running a quad-core AMD processor with a 64-bit version of Windows 7, and it beats the hell of out the 1-year-old MacBook Pro sitting on the desk beside it, running Leopard. No contest.

Snow Leopard will almost certainly close that gap, especially if you're running it on the latest processors and beef up your machine with loads of RAM. And, while it won't seem very different from Leopard on the surface, the new system has some under-the-hood changes that are likely to pay off in the future.

One is something called Grand Central Dispatch, which lets software developers create applications that can take advantage of the new dual-core and quad-core processors. Those chips can do multiple things at the same time—parallel processing, it's called—but it's tricky to write applications that run in parallel. Right now, most of the power of multicore chips goes unexploited, and Grand Central Dispatch aims to fix that. The other new feature in Snow Leopard, OpenCL, lets developers write programs that harness the power of graphics processors, powerful chips that run alongside the main processor in a computer. Both Grand Central Dispatch and OpenCL will enable developers to create new applications that run much faster. But it will take a while for those applications to reach the market.

The good news is, whether you live in the world of Mac, or the world of Windows—or if, like me, you spend time in both—by the end of this year, you're going to be running a better operating system than you were last year. And that's most definitely a good thing, even if Snow Leopard isn't up to Steve Jobs's exacting standards.