Why you will upgrade to OS X Snow Leopard

  • Chicago (IL) - The development of OS X Snow Leopard appears to be entering the final phase. Apple asked a select group of developers to test the latest build against a number of third-party applications and some claim the final version will include location-based and multi-touch technologies. In any case, OS X Snow Leopard is now on the horizon and some think that Apple will time the release to coincide with the next iMac hardware update. Despite its lack of major end-user features, Snow Leopard could be the biggest OS X update ever thanks to one killer feature - speed and performance that will take everyday computing to the next level.

    The latest Snow Leopard build is labeled 10A261 and follows previous builds 10A190 and 10A22. Unlike the first two builds, Apple limited this one to a select group of developers, asking them to focus testing on built-in Microsoft Exchange support and new printer drivers. In addition, the company is asking testers to try the build, for the first time, against a number of third-party applications, which could be viewed as a strong indication of the software's near-finished status. According to Macity (via Google Translate), build 10A261 shows greater stability and speed gains than previous ones.

    Multi-touch and geolocation features?

    According to an AppleInsider report, geolocation APIs and multi-touch support are also in the works. The former will enable creation of applications that can poll the system for user's current latitude and longitude via CoreLocation framework borrowed from the iPhone OS. The latter has been long expected on desktop Macs, especially now that Microsoft has made multi-touch one of key highlights in Windows 7. Although current OS X version pre-installed on Apple's notebooks employs some multi-touch gestures via trackpads, it's unclear if Apple plans to deploy multi-touch across their entire operating system or simply expose existing multi-touch gestures recognized by Macbooks to developers via multi-touch frameworks.

    Pausing on innovation - Really?

    The latest build shows no new end-user features, following Apple's promise that Snow Leopard will "pause on innovation" to focus on speed optimizations. Core code has been optimized for Intel chips and most applications that ship with OS X are allegedly re-written to execute in the preferred objective-based run-time dubbed Cocoa. TG Daily reported that Finder will get Cocoa treatment as well. Rumor has it that last-minute cosmetic update will bring overall look and feel of Snow Leopard in line with the toned-down graffiti appearance featured in Apple's most recent applications.

    Despite the lack of user features, Snow Leopard will be a major update. Integrated support for Microsoft Exchange 2007 in Address Book, Mail and iCal is pretty big as it allows users to sync their corporate email, contacts and calendars across Macs and iPhones out of the box. But the one killer feature that will entice most Mac users to upgrade is speed.

    64-bit, GrandCentral, OpenCL, QuickTime X

    Snow Leopard will be entirely 64-bit, meaning the operating system and applications could theoretically support up to 16TB of RAM. When it comes to speed, Snow Leopard will leverage two key technologies to take performance to the next level. The first, dubbed Grand Central, is designed to manage and efficiently assign tasks to multiple processor cores found in most Intel-based Macs, resulting in faster performance, especially during heavy multitasking.

    This technology also allows programmers to optimize their code for multiple cores and processors, something most of them have been avoiding due to complexity of multi-core programming. As a result, most of today's applications are created with single-core processors in mind and leave it entirely up to the operating system to assign running tasks between cores and processors. Although this could result in modest speed gain, it's nowhere near the quantum leap that would have been possible had programmers optimized the code to specifically take full advantage of multi-core processors.

    OpenCL is another key technology debuting in Snow Leopard. Created to tap the potential of today's multi-core GPUs, OpenCL will harness processing potential of graphics chips and re-route it for general purpose computing when the GPU is otherwise idle. Although OpenCL does not enable applications to entirely run off the GPU, specific tasks that involve lots of number crunching could be boosted by orders of magnitude, like video encoding and decoding, image processing, etc. Adobe's latest Photoshop first showcased what can be achieved when image computations are re-routed to the GPU instead of CPU. And many specialized scientific apps can see even greater gains.

    QuickTime X rounds up key Snow Leopard technologies built for speed. This multimedia component made its debut with iPhone and will now come to OS X to replace existing QuickTime technology. QuickTime X will expand the number of supported audio and video codecs, but more importantly, it will leverage OpenCL and GrandCentral to offload video processing to the GPU. Tests show that QuickTime X takes only a fraction of processor time to decode HD video compared with QuickTime.

    Speed is the name of the game

    Of course, neither Grand Central nor OpenCL will automatically make the existing software take full advantage of multi-core CPUs and GPUs. Dramatic speed gains will come in full effect when developers update their applications for Snow Leopard, although modest performance gains should be noticeable in the existing applications as a result of better and more efficient task and resource management on part of the operating system.

    Unlike Windows, each version of OS X has been more optimized than the previous, resulting in a snappier performance for users who upgraded to a newer version. With Snow Leopard's focus on speed alone, and with Grand Central and OpenCL specifically designed to harness hidden potential in today's multi-core CPUs and GPUs, Apple could easily widen performance gap between OS X Snow Leopard and Microsoft's Windows 7.

    Scheduled to coincide with iMac refresh?

    When Apple announced Snow Leopard last June, the company pledged to release the operating system within a year. But some now think the company will time the software release to coincide with the rumored iMac refresh that looms around the corner. The all-in-one desktop system is rumored to ship with Intel's latest Core 2 dual- and quad-core desktop processors - unlike today's iMac that employ mobile versions of Intel Core 2 processor that also power MacBooks. In addition, next iMac will likely employ the latest desktop graphics courtesy of Nvidia.

    With Intel's fully fledged desktop multi-core processors, Nvidia's multi-core GPU and OS X Snow Leopard preloaded to fully exploit this potential of updated hardware, the next iMac will likely become a showcase of Snow Leopard's capabilities. By tying Snow Leopard release with iMac refresh, Apple in effect creates a two-way sales driver: Existing users will likely upgrade to Snow Leopard for speed gains alone and desktop users might upgrade to a newer iMac, again - for the maximum performance gains provided through updated hardware and operating system combo.