Apple’s Snow Leopard is short of the usual bling that Apple ships with new operating systems, but for video producers, power users and others with multiple core computers, it’s a very significant release — if you don’t mind waiting until software developers support the new plumbing that Apple implemented. I took a deep look at the technology for Millimeter magazine, which you can read all about here.
The Cliff’s Notes version is this. Though Snow Leopard is the first Apple OS with a 64-bit kernel, and therefore the first true 64-bit Apple OS, as you probably know, previous versions of OS X allowed Macs to use more than 4 GB of memory, and enabled 32-bit applications running within the operating system to use up to 4 GB each. Since enabling 32-bit applications to run in individual 4GB memory spaces delivers much of the benefit of a 64-bit OS, and it was available in previous OS X versions, Snow Leopard is unlikely to deliver significant performance boosts to most producers who are still running 32-bit applications like Adobe CS4 and Final Cut Pro.
Interestingly, in most Snow Leopard installations, the new OS defaults to a 32-bit kernel anyway, the result of Apple correctly perceiving that most new users would view it as a negative if the devices that depended upon 32-bit drivers, like printers, scanners and the like, didn’t work after the upgrade. I wish the Apple folks that decided to eschew a FireWire 400 port on their computers were similarly prescient, but you can’t have everything. You can manually choose the 64-bit kernel, but you’ll have to read the Millimeter article to learn how.
The other negative is that Snow Leopard no longer supports non-Intel platforms, and Apple doesn’t even install Rosetta, which enables PowerPC apps to run on the Intel platform. Rosetta will download from the Apple website and install automatically when you run a PowerPC application, but that didn’t help me when I tried to run Microsoft Word on my MacPro during a power outage that benched my DSL.
What’s in Snow Leopard beyond true 64-bit computing? There’s a technology called Grand Central Dispatch that will help software developers more efficiently utilize multiple core computers, and the Open Computing Language (OpenCL), which will allow programmers to write applications that use the computer system’s graphics processing unit (GPU), CPU or both, depending upon which processor delivers the best results. It’s worth noting that some applications that rely on NVIDIA’s CUDA technology, which is similar to OpenCL, claim to accelerate H.264 encoding by up to 400% by using the GPU to perform most of the processing. Happily, NVIDIA partnered with Apple on OpenCL, so we’re not headed towards another OpenGL vs. DirectX-like API battle.
Both Grand Central Dispatch and OpenCL are “something from nothing features” that deliver the potential for increased performance from your existing hardware. However, neither feature will accelerate performance until it’s directly supported within the program, which means no immediate performance boost for existing applications.
The lack of an immediate dramatic performance boost, or other alluring new features, creates an interesting dynamic for Apple – this is one release that they need you to buy more than you need to own, at least in the short term. That’s because if users upgrade en mass, it’s a strong incentive for Apple developers to convert their applications to 64-bit and support Grand Central Dispatch and OpenCL. This is perhaps why Apple priced the new release at $29, rather than the usual low three figures.
As a reviewer, I can’t say that it’s an upgrade you need to run out and buy right away. In the long term, however, at least for video producers and other power users, I can say that the new plumbing will likely be more significant in the long term than all the fun bling in the last few releases.