Snow Leopard upgrade: what's in it for me?

Snow Leopard upgrade: what's in it for me?

Summary: Last month, I purchased a new Mac mini to help me make accurate comparisons of features and performance between Windows 7 systems and their Mac counterparts. As it turns out, though, my new Mac doesn't support some key new features in Snow Leopard, and if your Mac is more than a year old you might be in the same boat. I've got details in table format.


Last month, I purchased a new Mac mini to replace the borrowed Macbook I had been using earlier this year. Among other things, I want to be able to make accurate comparisons of features and performance between Windows 7 systems and their Mac counterparts later this fall. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that my cheap system (which was officially part of the Mac lineup as recently as March of this year, when it was replaced by a new design) qualified for a free upgrade to Snow Leopard, which should be waiting for me when I get back from vacation next week.

I thought it was a nice touch on Apple’s part to deliver the update a few days early. But I’m still puzzled over exactly what’s in it for me. Apple’s Snow Leopard page is uncharacteristically modest, promising only that it will be “faster, more reliable, and easier to use” and will have some “new core technologies.”

Fortunately, I ran across an excellent post by Stephen Foskett yesterday, who summarized who gets what:

Snow Leopard is really a major jump forward in terms of advanced hardware and software integration. It brings Grand Central, OpenCL, full 64-bit mode, and QuickTime X along with Exchange support and many tweaks. But many of these features are highly hardware-dependent, so not all Mac users will get everything.

As it turns out, my Mac was introduced in 2007, although it was still part of Apple's lineup until March 2009, just a few months before I bought it. Because it uses older technology (notably a 32-bit EFI and onboard Intel graphics), it is unable to take advantage of several of those new core technologies in Snow Leopard. I have plenty of company, though. With Stephen’s permission, I’m reprinting a chart he put together from Apple’s documentation, listing which features are available for each family of Macs. I added color coding (red if a feature is unavailable, yellow if it’s partially enabled) to make the chart a bit easier to read (the chart is available after the jump):

[Chart by Stephen Foskett. Used with permission.]

I was initially startled to learn that the Snow Leopard 64-bit kernel won’t run at all on some models (like mine and, surprisingly, a two-year-old Mac Pro). Even on those notebooks and desktops that do support a 64-bit kernel, Snow Leopard will run a 32-bit kernel by default. (To boot into the 64-bit kernel on a Mac that supports it, you need to press the 6 and 4 keys during startup or add a boot parameter.) For the record, I don’t think this is that big of a deal, as even the 32-bit OS X kernel can run 64-bit apps. Purists might want only 64-bit code running, but Windows users can sympathize with the need to wait for hardware makers to catch up with 64-bit drivers.

I was very disappointed to learn that OpenCL support and H.264 hardware acceleration wouldn’t be available on my machine. In fact, the latter feature appears to be available only on systems with Nvidia 9400M graphics. On Windows 7, I’ve compared HD playback using an Intel GMA 950 (the same graphics chip used in my Mac Mini) against the same source on a system with an Nvidia 9500 GS. It’s no contest: the discrete GPU annihilates the onboard graphics, especially with a CUDA-enabled Windows app like PowerDVD 9. I’ll need to upgrade to a more powerful Mac to make a fair comparison.

The one Snow Leopard feature I’m most looking forward to is native support for Exchange Server. For most Mac users, that will elicit a big “who cares?” but if I can avoid having to install and run Entourage it might be worth the $29 for that feature alone.

All in all, this release of OS X looks a lot like a service pack. It makes some interesting architectural changes that will no doubt be useful in Macs designed in 2009 or later, but it’s not likely to make a noticeable difference for anyone with a 2008 model or earlier.

Topics: Apple, Hardware, Networking, Processors

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  • Talk about a "Snow Leopard Capable" fiasco!!!

    Wow, that's [b]brutal[/b]! None of the new features that Apple is touting loud and proud are available to 4 year old Macs and half of them aren't available on a large percentage of the Macs sold since then!

    I also have to laugh at the 1GB minimum requirement. Whatever happened to each version being more efficient than the last? LOL!!
    • SN is for hardware that is coming, not what has been.

      I guess that's hard to understand, but you only bought your MacBook Pro
      recently as I recall. :)
    • None NZ?

      "None of the new features that Apple is touting loud and proud are available to 4 year old Macs and half of them aren't available on a large percentage of the Macs sold since then!"

      You act like the 4 things Ed mentioned are all the new features. They have a significant amount of UI improvements, file previewing, expose, yada.
    • No Different than a Windows System Rev

      This is not unique to Apple. XP required more processing power and
      memory than '98 to take advantage of all its bells and whistles, as did
      Vista over XP. This is not brutal, but the nature of the beast.
      • Microsoft Does It = Brutal?...

        Apple does it = "the nature of the beast"?
      • Great response!!!

        Finally - somebody who get's it! No - your old Apple ][ won't run that 64-bit app... color me surprise!

        Thank you for assisting the editor with such a poor article. Two year technology in this industry is an eternity. PC users simply accept change and go buy new.

        • XP to Vista

          So the big brouhaha over applications that worked on XP not working on Vista was uncalled for?
          • Yes not called for

            VERY few Windows apps didn't work under Vista with default settings and most of these were Very old ( think before OSX existed) , or by developers that didnt follow standards . In nearly all these cases it was due to security and most would work if you ran them with admin rights. However even these apps are important to MS and they have improved support for this in Windows 7.
      • Minimum RAM to run OS

        XP started out only needing 512MB RAM, by SP2
        and with a full load of office onboard 1GB is
        actually needed to run WELL.
        When Vista came out, it really needed just 1GB
        to boot. It needed 2 or 3GB RAM to actually run
        This meant a lot of corporates stayed away as
        they would have to double or tripple the
        installed ram in their desktops top upgrade,
        and vista only was allowed on new machines.
        Where you have a couple of thousand desktops,
        it is difficult to support two desktop OS at
        the same time, so they tended to stay on XP.
        Now Win7 will actually run OK on 1GB RAM, and
        we are 3 years down the track and most desktops
        actually have 1 - 2 GB RAM, so installing 7
        isnt the chore it used to be.

        OS X is the same. Tiger worked OK on 512MB RAM,
        but much better with 1GB. For the last few
        years 1GB was the minimum Apple would sell you,
        so now the fleet of capable machines makes it
        less painful to release a new OS. Hardware
        requirements are actually about the same as
        Leopard to get an actually usable system.
        I may not get a huge boost from the other new
        technologies on my 2007 Mac Mini, but I am not
        really running anything that needs it. I don't
        do 3D image rendering, I don't play games on it
        (The intel GMA card sees to that. It was
        cheaper to buy an xbox360 than to upgrade the
        computer for games)
        I'm spending the NZ$60 because this is the only
        software I have needed to buy for my Mac in 2
        years (I bought an eyeTV tuner, and the
        software updates have been free so far), and
        that is pretty cheap for an upgrade really.
        I'm going to have to spend a lot more to get
        Windows 7 on my 2.2GHz AMD PC if I want to
        upgrade that. But then why replace Linux Mint -
        already offering most of the UI goodies from
        Win7 thanks to the latest versions of Gnome and
        compiz desktop effects.
        • Tiger

          Tiger officially requires 256MB RAM, not 512MB. 512MB is recommended
          for better performance, and of course 1GB will be even better. Just
          wanted to clarify since the title of your post is Minimum RAM to run OS.
    • Microsoft man educates us about Macs!

      How odd it is that an established resource like ZDnet would put a
      Microsoft guy onto the task of telling us what we'll get from a Mac OS X
      upgrade. The only Mac he has is an out-dated, lowest-end model that he
      bought merely for the purpose of testing Mac compatibility.
      • So then...

        ...only new Mac buyers with pricer more expensive parts are the ones that matter? Forget the rest of the folks that baught one a bit earlier eh?

        "The views expressed here are mine and do not reflect the official opinion of my employer or the organization through which the Internet was accessed."
    • Didn't learn from Microsoft.

      I hate this misuse of the term "capable". Microsoft had this campaign when they released Vista and look what they got when they put all of those "Vista Capable" stickers on virtually PC out there but when Vista came we found out those "Vista Capable" where not truly Vista Capable.
      Also Apple wants you to buy more new Apple hardware to increase their margins.
      My Mac Mini PPC will stay 10.5 forever since I need to run Classic programs which I don't mind.
      • How were those Vista Capable PCs not Vista Capable?

        They could run Vista, they just couldn't use Aero. Oh, kind of like half the Macs Apple has put out in the last 3 years can't use most of the features in Snow Leopard.

        Like I said, this is Apple's "Snow Leopard Capable" fiasco. When we apply ABMer logic where, if you can't run [b]every[/b] feature of an OS, it means you can't run that OS at all, then very few Macs can run Snow Leopard.
        • hardly comparable

          "Vista Capable" was a way to encourage people to buy outdated
          computers with a new OS.

          "Snow Leopard Capable" is a way to prevent people buying a new OS for
          their outdated computer.

          Don't you think the two scenarios are a little different?
          • Agreed but not all MS's fault

            OEM's wanted to dump this equipment and so they made the decision to sell this with Vista.

            If MS tried to stop them, they would be accused of "abusing their monopoly status".

            This is the dilemma MS faces..OEM's mess up their product and there's little they can do about it.

            Apple on the other hand has total control and so the end result is more consistent.

          • Didn't you get the memo?

            Microsoft bowed to Intel's pressure on them, not the OEM's. Where you get the "OEM's did it" view, I just don't know. The buck stops with Intel and Microsoft.
          • I guess not but sounds like it is Intel's fault

      • Are you sure?

        Classic is not supported in 10.5. The last version that supported Classic
        was 10.4.11. Are you booting into 10.4.11 (or earlier) to use Classic?
    • maybe you should think first

      think perhaps you may have a bias against apple despite a claim of being
      a nonzealot. I've got machines limited to Mac OS 7, XP, OSX10.5.9, 3
      machines runing vista,and now 10.6. i appreciate the fact that Microsoft
      and apple don't handicap their systems by being 100% backwards
      don't wet your pants laughing at the 1GB requirement. 1 gig is cheaper
      than the 256 mb sticks sold for older systems.
      what you ignore is the fact the OS is now for both 32 and 64 systems. its
      sleeker,faster,and costs $29!!!! Forget the fact that it never crashes being
      built on the stable unix foundation.