New versions of Apple's (AAPL) Mac OS X software usually make a big visual splash. But Snow Leopard, the operating system that's available on Aug. 28, is so short on eye candy that it was hard for me to tell anything had changed after I installed it on my iMac. In contrast to Windows 7, where Microsoft (MSFT) focused on fixing the dismal experience of using the Vista operating system, Apple concentrated on improving OS X's underpinnings.
The result is a winner, mainly because Snow Leopard has built-in support for Microsoft Exchange. This makes it much easier for people in a Microsoft work environment either to use a Mac on the job or to get to their mail, contacts, and calendar from a Mac at home. For anyone who has struggled with such tasks in the past, Snow Leopard (officially OS X 10.6) is well worth the bargain price of $29, or $49 for a family pack that's good for up to five computers.
Until now, Mac users had two less-than-ideal ways to get access to Exchange. Office 2008 for the Mac includes a program called Entourage, a pale imitation of Outlook that lets you into your Exchange mailbox with limited access to contacts and calendar. The more ambitious approach was to set up Windows on the Mac, using Parallels or VMware (VMW) virtual machine software, and then run Outlook itself. Microsoft has responded to Snow Leopard by promising real Outlook for the Mac—but not until late next year.
There's no reason to wait. Once you upgrade to Snow Leopard, you should be able to add your Exchange account to your Mac without help from your IT department. You just enter your e-mail address and password in the Mail application, and you will see your messages, along with to-dos and notes. The iCal scheduling program takes care of appointments and other calendar items. Address Book deals with contacts, including the global address list, a big deal for Exchange users. The one catch is that all of this works only with Exchange 2007, the latest release. Quite a few large organizations run older versions of the software.
Much of the effort behind Snow Leopard went into building a software platform for the future. Most new computers have 2 or 4 processors, and that will soon increase to 8, 16, or more. But today only the most skilled programmers know how to use this power efficiently when they are writing applications that users crave. A new technology in Snow Leopard, called Grand Central Dispatch, is designed to make it easier for developers to create programs using multiple processors, reducing the wait for a processor to finish a task. The result should be more powerful and smarter software for everything from games to home automation.
Another advance in the operating system, called OpenCL, lets programs take better advantage of powerful graphic adapters in many current computers. Snow Leopard also completes the transition from 32-bit to 64-bit computing, which enhances performance and allows the use of vast amounts of memory. Unlike in the Windows world, where this transition is still causing pain and limiting the memory of many Windows 7 systems to an increasingly inadequate 3 gigabytes, Apple has pulled it off seamlessly. Finally, Snow Leopard marks the end of the transition from the old PowerPC chips to Intel (INTC) processors; the software only runs on Intel-based Macs. (Apple completed the switch to Intel chips in late 2006.)
The new operating system isn't completely devoid of flashy features. For example, Chinese speakers can write ideograms on the touchpad of a MacBook, and the software will produce the correct Chinese character in the text. Such frills aside, Snow Leopard is an unusual Apple offering, being nearly all steak with very little sizzle. But it is an inexpensive and painless upgrade. If you have an Intel-based Mac, and especially if you use Exchange mail, you'll want to install it.