So that's why it only costs $29


— 6:01 PM on August 31, 2009

Last Saturday, I decided to head down to my local Apple reseller and grab a copy of Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard. The new operating system costs €29 here in France, but the clerk told me that, because of a fault in the store's pricing database, I would only be charged €28.99. Had I been in America, a different clerk would have asked me for $29.

The French clerk and I quipped about buying coffee with the extra cent while the credit card transaction cleared, and I left with a small white box inside of a disturbingly feminine red paper bag. A bit of mandatory Saturday grocery shopping later, I was back at home with the Snow Leopard DVD spinning away in my aluminum MacBook. Trademarks and buzzwords flashed through my head as the installer did its thing—OpenCL, Grand Central, 64-bit, QuickTime X. Having just finished reviewing Windows 7, I was eager to sample Apple's comeback.

Well, here I am now writing this blog post on my freshly upgraded MacBook, and I can't say €28.99 is quite the bargain I thought it was. As a matter of fact, I almost feel the same subtle tingling of buyer's remorse I did nine years ago after paying £15 (if I recall correctly) for the original Mac OS X Public Beta. Snow Leopard isn't bad or unusable like the Public Beta; I just don't quite feel I got my money's worth.

When I wrote about Snow Leopard pricing in our news section last week, I said the $29 fee was well below what Microsoft charges for Windows 7. Oh, sure, a few early adopters got to pre-order Windows 7 Home Premium for 50 bucks, but on October 22, that same upgrade will set you back $120, and a non-upgrade license will cost $200. In the same news post, I attributed Snow Leopard's low price to the fact that Apple already sells the only computers capable of running the OS legally and easily. There's an element of that, definitely, but I now see another side to it.

Generally speaking, Snow Leopard looks, feels, and behaves almost exactly like Leopard. A few things here and there have changed, of course. Popping open the System Monitor shows most system apps running in 64-bit mode, Exposé now stacks windows neatly, and QuickTime X has a swanky new interface. The system feels ever so slightly snappier overall, as well, and Apple has thrown in little tweaks and fixes all over the place, like an option to minimize windows inside their application icons in the Dock.

But whether you're moving files around in the Finder, surfing the web, using Spotlight to find an application or file, copying files across the network, or changing system preferences, you may have to keep reminding yourself what OS you're using. And no, Safari 4 doesn't count; it's been available for Leopard for months.

Apple still hasn't implemented a package manager to deal with apps that come inside .pkg installers. QuickTime still doesn't play DivX out of the box, unlike Windows Media Player 12. The Finder still feels weak and stripped-down compared to Windows 7's Explorer—it still doesn't remember folder view settings unless you force it to, it still truncates file names in an odd way (by showing the start then the end with an ellipsis in between), and the Cover Flow view mode is still completely pointless, especially with regular icons scalable up to 512x512. Oh, but inexplicably, the Finder now computes file sizes in base 10 like hard drive vendors, which is sure to confuse anyone who regularly swaps files between Mac OS and Windows machines. Great.

Window management still feels a little disjointed, too. As I said above, a new option lets you minimize windows into the application icon, but hovering over that icon doesn't show thumbnails like in Windows 7. Instead, you can click-and-hold, which lets you pick a window in a single-app Exposé view; you can right-click, which shows the apps in a menu; or you can trigger Exposé, which shows all active windows at the top and minimized windows in a single row at the bottom. I love Exposé, but I wish Apple would revamp window management instead of tacking more and more little features and options on top of each other.

Snow Leopard doesn't assuage my gripes, but then again, it was never meant to be about dazzling users with new and exciting interface changes. Most of the improvements, which our friend Jason Fox summed up in his blog last week, lie under the hood.

It's a bit like if Microsoft released Windows Vista in 2003 as a $50 upgrade with almost nothing but core changes like DirectX 10, consumer 64-bit support, SuperFetch, the new networking stack, and so on. Microsoft could have then released Windows 7 in 2006 with the same underlying features and all of the shiny, dazzling additions like Aero, the new bundled applications, instant search, etc.

Similarly, I expect Apple will use Snow Leopard as a springboard for a future OS X release with more visible changes. In Vista's case, we all saw that too much ambition can lead to disaster—Microsoft had to start development over from scratch half-way through, and it's fair to say the final product wasn't very well-received overall. I therefore think Apple deserves some credit for making 10.6 more of a maintenance release. Some users may not like it, but I bet they'd be even less happy about waiting longer for a more groundbreaking release with less polish, poorer compatibility, and a higher price tag.

That said, if you plunk down your $29 expecting a Windows 7-style leap at a discount, prepare to be disappointed.

   
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