Product spotlight: Snow Leopard kicks up the performance and business-readiness of Mac OS X

Read about the pros and cons of Mac OS X Snow Leopard from a business and IT perspective and watch our short video summary.

As far operating system upgrades go, Mac OS X Snow Leopard is a little odd for two reasons: 1.) Apple delivered it ahead of schedule on August 28 (at least ahead of its most recent promise of September) and 2.) Most of its changes are under the hood and not apparent when you first install it. The latter is probably why the upgrade only costs $29.

While there's lots of commentary out there about the changes in Snow Leopard, here TechRepublic evaluates it from an IT and business perspective. For a quick summary of Snow Leopard's strengths and weaknesses, check out this short video clip, and then read the full review below:

For more field-tested reviews of hardware and software in this format, see TechRepublic's Product Spotlight blog. Also, subscribe to the Product Spotlight newsletter, delivered each Thursday. Sign up now with a single click.

Specifications and new features

  • Version number: Mac OS X 10.6
  • System requirements: Intel processor, 1 GB RAM, 5 GB disk space, DVD drive for installation
  • Built-in malware protection
  • Microsoft Exchange support
  • 64-bit Finder
  • PDF multi-page preview from the Finder
  • QuickTime X (with video editing and exporting)
  • Grand Central Dispatch (mutli-core management)
  • OpenGL support
  • Boot Camp 3.0 (dual-boot Windows)
  • Dock Expose (preview open windows for an application)
  • Stacks (preview contents of a folder from the dock)
  • Apple's official Snow Leopard product page
  • Photo gallery: Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard

Who is it for?

For business users who have a compelling reason to use Mac - such as graphics artists, video editors, and multimedia creators - the Snow Leopard upgrade offers solid performance enhancements, a few nice interface tweaks, and a much-improved way to work with their Exchange email and calendar than Entourage (the horrible Exchange client that comes with Microsoft Office for the Mac).

What problems does it solve?

Mac OS X Snow Leopard (10.6) is primarily an under-the-hood tune-up for Leopard (10.5). The biggest issue that it deals with is aligning the Mac operating system, built-in software, and development environment with the latest capabilities in computer hardware, especially multi-core 64-bit processors. The built-in Exchange support using Mac's native Mail, iCal, and Address Book apps also helps alleviate one of the biggest headaches for corporate Mac users - dealing with the Microsoft Entourage, which suffers from erratic calendar and email incompatibilities.

Standout features

  • Performance boost - All of the tinkering that Apple developers did under the hood provides noticeable speed increases in bootups, shutdowns, opening files and Web pages, JavaScript applications, and more. Macworld ran a battery of 16 speed tests in their lab and found that eight of them were faster in Snow Leopard.
  • Clean install - IT pros tend not to like in-place operating system upgrades because they often lead to later software problems. They'd prefer to just backup the data and then do a fresh install of the new OS. This is standard practice in the Windows world, and now the Snow Leopard installation disc allows you to do the same thing for the first time in Mac OS X.
  • Cisco VPN client - Due to a deal with Cisco, Snow Leopard now comes with the popular Cisco VPN client built in.
  • Native support for Microsoft Exchange - Perhaps the most talked about new feature in Snow Leopard is its native support for Microsoft Exchange, which allows a user to integrate their Exchange data into the Mac's Mail, iCal, and Address Book applications.

What's wrong?

  • Only supports Exchange 2007 - While having Exchange support out-of-the-box is a great feature, the big problem is that it's limited to Exchange 2007, and it's safe to say that far less than 50% of Exchange installations are running the latest version. As a result, a bigger impact on Exchange integration could come during the second half of 2010 when Microsoft brings Outlook to the Mac for the first time.
  • Virtualization is AWOL - As Jason Perlow commented on ZDNet, one of the big things that's missing from Snow Leopard is integrated virtualization software. Virtualization is a big part of the future of operating systems, and for a software release that is so future-oriented, Snow Leopard's lack of virtualization awareness is a glaring omission.
  • Lack of business software - The biggest thing keeping Snow Leopard and Macs in general out of the enterprise is still the lack of business software. With more apps migrating to the Web browser as their front-end, that will change in the coming years. But in the meantime, even many IT departments impressed by Mac OS X will not be able to consider it for everyday enterprise use.

Competitive products

Bottom line for business

The Exchange integration in Snow Leopard has created a lot of buzz about Mac OS X now being enterprise-friendly and potentially opening up more businesses to general Mac use. TechRepublic's CIO Jury recently put the kibosh on that idea.

Nevertheless, Snow Leopard does offer some attractive improvements for business users who currently have Macs and for the IT departments that have to manage them. The new Exchange features, the clean install option, and the performance tweaks will all be welcome upgrades. As with any OS upgrade, you'll want to check the official application incompatibility list (or the unofficial to make sure none of your key applications are going to have problems before upgrading.

User rating

Have you used or supported Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard? If so, what do you think? Rate it and compare the results to what other TechRepublic members think. You can also give your own personal review of Snow Leopard in the discussion thread below.