Screaming Into The Abyss

A Few Notes on Snow Leopard (Updated)
By Ben Zvan
On August 31, 2009 at 09:31
Computers

Snow LeopardOn Friday, I attended an event on the east bank of the University of Minnesota campus, so it seemed like the perfect opportunity to stop at the bookstore and pick up a copy of Snow Leopard. Over the weekend, I discovered a few things that I thought I'd share.

Installation
Gizmodo called it 'a move that can only be described as showing off.' Snow Leopard can complete it's installation even if you accidentally (or intentionally) shut down the computer during the upgrade. In another impressive move, the installation runs for about 20 minutes before the first restart. During that time, the dashboard app still works fine, so if you want to see the calendar, check your stocks, or do basic math with the calculator, you still can. It restarts once part way into the installation and then again once the installation is complete. There are a few background tasks, most notably the Spotlight metadata importer, that will slow down the computer for a little while after the upgrade. After that, you're good to go.

Speed
With every release of OS X since os 10.0, the system has gotten faster. The one exception to this was 10.5. My guess is that they spent a lot of time porting the system over to Intel x64 hardware while keeping support for x86 and PowerPC chips. With OS 10.6, they took the time to optimize all that code and remove support for the older PowerPC CPUs. Unfortunately, that leaves me with four systems that I can't install 10.6 on, but it also means that the newer machines see a performance boost once again.

Secure Empty Trash
Emptying the trash Securely has been an option in OS X at least since Leopard and, since I work with some sensitive data that I try not to have on my hard drive, I turned that option on. After upgrading to Snow Leopard, I've found that emptying the trash takes significantly longer (despite the improvements I mention above). I wonder if the definition of 'secure' has changed from 10.5 to 10.6. I have heard that it now follows DoD procedures and overwrites the file seven times. I might just rely on disk encryption to speed things up a bit. We'll see.

File Vault
Speaking of disk encryption... I've had some trouble with File Vault in the past. Preferences like firewall settings and my default browser wouldn't get saved correctly due to some permission or file location issue with the encrypted disk image. That all seems to be fixed now because Firefox has reliably been my default browser after every reboot. I spent quite a while discussing this issue on the Apple support forums and it's good to see that they finally fixed it.

1080p
I use a Mac Mini as my DVR and video player at home. It's connected to my 1080p LCD television via a Mini-DVI to HDMI adapter and for some reason never supported 1080p output, only 1080i. I had suspected that this was a problem with the video adapter not being dual-link. With the upgrade, I can now select 1080p as the display resolution. Not a huge improvement, but really a bonus in the home entertainment category. I paid for all those pixels after all.

Cisco VPN Support
A welcome addition to the OS is native support of Cisco IPSec VPN connections. That means I can delete my 3rd-party Cisco VPN client. It also means that I get the convenience of a menu bar icon to connect to VPN and the seamlessness of support that keeps my applications from complaining that their IP address has changed. Groupwise used to crash horrifically if I changed IP addresses while it was open and the Oracle Calendar client used to complain loudly.

Parallels 3
Unfortunately, Parallels 3 is non-functional under Snow Leopard. On the other hand, the only reasons I was using Parallels was for a couple of web applications that didn't work under Firefox or Mac OS and now also don't work under Explorer 8 and isolating my VPN connection... see above on that. Parallels says they're working on enabling support, but they've had quite a while to release an update and Snow Leopard is actively blocking the application from starting up. Parallels 4 works fine, so this sounds more like a matter of forced obsolescence to me. Fortunately, the free Virtual Box from Sun has no problems.

SSH-Agent
I make dozens of ssh connections every day to support Linux, Solaris and AIX servers. (Oh Windows, why hast thou forsaken me?) In order to streamline the process, I use a passphrase-locked ssh key to authenticate with the servers to avoid using my two-factor keyfob. This is still two-factor authentication because the ssh key is something I have and the passphrase is something I know. SSH-agent is a tool that unlocks the key with your passphrase and then keeps it unlocked for the next time you need it. It's automatically enabled in the new version of terminal.app so I only have to enter my passphrase once. And as long as my screen locks properly, it's still secure.

Developers
I am amazed at the number of developers who are still relying on 32-bit support in the OS. This upgrade has been coming for over a year and has been available to developers for months, so there's been time to release updates for  64-bit compatibility, but there are still a number of Preference Panes that require restarting System Preferences in 32-bit mode to run them. I haven't seen any updates coming through to take advantage of Grand Central for parallel processing either, but I'm confident that both will happen before OS 10.7 comes out and drops 32-bit support completely.

Quicktime X
I like the fact that Quicktime now has built-in support for screencasting and iSight recording, but I probably won't use either one of those any time soon. The new look is nice, especially the way the title bar of the window fades out for a bezel-less effect while playing a video. Unfortunately, Quicktime now looks like it was designed by a different company, since the rest of the OS still has the brushed-steel theme going on. Update: Under the same category of mismatched interface elements, the context menus for the dock are white on black and the context menus for everything else are black on white.

Finder/Dock
The Dock has some new functionality, like grouping minimized windows under the application icons and integrating with Exposé more closely. The long-click that Apple has always used on the dock will work well if they ever produce a touch-screen tablet running OS X rather than the iPhone OS. I use the Spaces multiple desktop manager to expand my screen real estate and I'd like to be able to use the flip and cube transitions that are built into quartz to switch spaces, which didn't happen in this upgrade, but that's just eye-candy.

So... a few things don't work any more. More things work better. I guess that means Snow Leopard is exactly what I'd expect from an OS upgrade.

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