Mac OS X 10.6 “Snow Leopard” – First Sneak Peek

Crashes were significantly less frequent with build 261, and although some of the stability issues we experienced with the internal builds of the 230-250 series were attributable to the Cocoa Finder or “NSFinder” as some have called it….across the board, it’s quite clear that 10A261 is by far the most mature build of Snow Leopard to date — and more than that, marks a new phase of its development.

As one would expect, the most obvious thing that strikes the user from the very first moments of installation and boot-up is that this cat is fast. There’s simply no other word for it — except, possibly, as two words: blisteringly fast.

And also as one might expect, the differences between Snow Leopard and its warm-weather ancestor become all the more apparent as one transitions from single-chip/single-core PowerPC G4 systems through quad-core G5s and all the way clear to the latest prototype Core i7 “Nehalem” iMacs and i7 Xeon “Gainestown” Mac Pros which we will soon be pairing with the latest Snow Leopard builds.

Obviously, it’s always been true of the more powerful, modern multicore processors that they’re faster and can do ever more impressive things under heavily multi-tasking environments; but just how huge their untapped potential really is — particularly on these latest Nehalem/Gainestown platforms with up to 16 cores and 32 threads (two threads per core via Intel’s HyperThreading) — becomes eye-bulgingly apparent in the very first moments one sits down in front of Snow Leopard.

Well in advance of actually seeing this for ourselves on the latest prototype Core i7 hardware, we’ve been hearing this from some of our oldest and most reliable sources — the same sources who once showed off 32-processor PowerMac 9600 prototypes based on modified IBM “Mach 5” 604evx+ hardware to us running Mac OS X’s forerunner, then code-named Rhapsody Developer Release 1.0, in 1997, the first incarnation of the technologies whose full flower we are now seeing in Snow Leopard — for quite some time and expecting as much….but it’s something else entirely to see it in action with your own eyes.

Though we are still eagerly anticipating our first look (even if only some of us will actually be able to reach out and touch the much lusted after prototype HW itself!) at Snow Leopard running on Nehalem & Gainestown hardware, it is quite obvious from seeing it on other hardware that you won’t have to buy the latest Macs to enjoy the incredible muscle of Mac OS X 10.6.

It may not be quite as dramatic on that near-requirements single processor G4 system, but everyone with a supported Mac (and even a fair number of those who will have to shoe-horn it into their computers) will see a huge difference right out of the gate.

In our initial tests (much more detailed results are forthcoming as embargoes begin to expire in the next few weeks), a single processor 867MHz Powerbook G4 — the bare minimum required by OS X 10.5 and not fully supported by OpenCL but otherwise ready to run Snow Leopard — experienced nearly all of the same benefits we saw on brand new Core 2 Duo Macbook Pros and even managed to keep up fairly close percentage-wise in stopwatch benchmark performance gains whenever something wasn’t obviously bound by the number of cores, OpenCL acceleration, or the massively superior memory bandwidth of the newer systems.

Of course, on any system shipped in the G5 or MacIntel eras (with the possible exception of the Intel Mini which uses an integrated GMA950 GPU and may not accelerate the most important functions that are new to OpenCL very well) the nearly full potential of Snow Leopard really begins to show itself. And though much of Grand Central’s optimizations — even many of OpenCL’s advancements — will benefit everyone right down the line to that relatively ancient third-generation Powerbook G4….to really see this cat bare its teeth you will want to be on at least a G5; preferably, an Intel Core 2 or Core i7 system.

To put it simply, on both a quad-core PowerMac G5 and eight core Xeon 54XX based Mac Pro…in our hands-on tests, both developer seed 10A261 and internal builds approaching 10A270 had comparable performance and stability.

Other than subtle tweaks in System Preferences, a few of the apps in /Applications/Utilities/ and the Advanced Installation process, all we noticed with 10.6.0 over 10.5.6 or 10.5.7 was the tremendous and quite noticeable gain in performance even as hard drive space/RAM usage shrank significantly.

To cite a few examples:

Boot-up on the two test systems mentioned above was cut almost in half under Snow Leopard and sources tell us that this will improve even more as debug code is stripped out and the Cocoa Finder is completed which is expected to shave an additional couple of seconds — even more on older systems — from boot times.

Extremely hardware-intensive applications like Aperture, Final Cut Pro, Motion and Photoshop CS4 all ran substantially faster across the board and via a simple debugging tool to be released alongside the Snow Leopard version of Xcode/Developer Tools that allowed our hands-on team to tell when OpenCL was in use, it became quite clear that all sorts of things other than visibly obvious graphics functions were being offloaded to the graphics processor.

In fact, when no graphics or 3D renderings were displayed on screen at all — even while working with audio in GarageBand & Logic Express — some of the biggest OpenCL-related gains were to be felt. In one case, rendering of an extremely complex song in Logic Express with dozens of separate audio tracks & sequenced instruments nearly all of which used intensive post-processing effects….resulted in stuttering and very slow system responsiveness with 100% CPU usage under a recent build of 10.5.7 but less than 80% CPU on Snow Leopard 10.6.0 with other applications and the Finder continuing to perform as if nothing else were happening on the computer at all.

We will have to wait for further opportunities to examine this remarkable piece of software engineering/operating system architecture and for source embargoes to expire in the days ahead before we can talk too much more about details or give specific benchmark numbers based on CineBench or Battlefield 2142 for example….but before we close this first in-depth Sneak Peek and begin the smaller more frequent Snow Leopard updates we are planning, we would like to take a moment to answer a few specific questions sent in to us by readers via email, Twitter, and web comments here on the site.

Click through to the next page for more….

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  • Lyle Millander

    \till runs fine on first-generation 32-bit Core 1 processors as well as 32-bit PowerPC G4 CPUs\

    Does PPC support really exist for 10.6? That’s big news if accurate. Does that also mean 64-bit support on the G5?

  • Mizhou

    \100% 64-bit….still runs fine on first-generation 32-bit Core 1 processors as well as 32-bit PowerPC G4 CPUs, but is the first major OS release to not only support 64-bit but to utilize it from stem to stern.\

    A friend of mine just tried to install on a 1.8 GHz G5, and the installer just says that it is an unsupported architecture.

  • Ryan C. Meader

    Internal builds we’ve worked with have (and continue to) support PowerPC but there are increasing signs that the final version may not.

    Notably, as you’ve said, recent limited-seed developers builds don’t appear to include the PPC code and simply refuse to install on non-Intel Macs.

    Although the unique nature of Mac OS X’s architecture and its underlying technologies allows multiple hardware platforms to be supported with far less effort on Apple’s part that would be required, for example, to port Linux or Windows to another CPU/platform….at the end of the day, debugging and providing support for such a fundamentally different platform that hasn’t been an active part of Apple’s hardware products for three years is holding Mac OS X back.

    From what our sources tell us, it’s still possible that the PowerPC build of Snow Leopard could be finished with surprisingly minimal effort on the part of its developers….the code isn’t the problem. It’s the attention Apple’s developers have to pay to a legacy platform that they haven’t used in years, when they could be re-learning and shifting their focus purely to Intel development. It’s the support costs, far larger install packages, and greater complexity in stripping down a triple-platform (ARM, Intel, PowerPC) OS versus a two-platform system. Also, many of the remaining RISC (PPC/ARM etc) specialists at Apple are now mostly focused on the iDevice variant of Snow Leopard.

    All that said, it’s still possible that the developer seeds are Intel-only because the vast majority of changes that require debugging by third party developers are Intel-specific. Keep in mind that a number of Snow Leopard’s features, including the Cocoa Finder, aren’t present in the current developer seed as we reported above.

    While there’s a certain lack of clarity on this issue from an internal perspective when asking developers at Infinite Loop about the issue….and Apple hasn’t made any clear public statements on the issue of PowerPC support in Snow Leopard….we think it could end up being the case that the grapevine is right; 10.6 could be released as an Intel-only build.

    This is supported by the fact that developers will most likely be able to deploy Universal Binary applications across both 10.5 Leopard & 10.6 Snow Leopard without the backwards-compatibility issues that plagued the 10.4-to-10.5 (Tiger to Leopard) transition. Thusly, while PowerPC Mac owners would be shut out of Snow Leopard’s benefits, they wouldn’t have to miss out on applications that have been optimized to support Mac OS X 10.6’s unique features.

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