Apple released the latest version of their flagship operating system on Friday. Mac OS X (the X means 10, and the name is properly pronounced Mac OS Ten) was released in 2001 as the successor to the ‘classic’ Mac OS that had run Apple computers since 1984. OS X was a groundbreaking, modern system when it came out and was a breath of fresh air compared to the somewhat unreliable Mac OS 9 and its predecessors. OS X is a Unix-based platform which shares the strengths of BSD Unix, the NeXTstep operating system, and the ‘classic’ Mac OS. The just-released Mac OS X 10.6 ‘Snow Leopard’ is the seventh major release of the operating system since its introduction.

With the exception of Mac OS 10.1, which was a free upgrade for early adopters (like me) who had been running 10.0, these upgrades have usually retailed for about $130 (and shipped free on all new Macs). 10.6, however, is being sold for a surprisingly inexpensive $30. The version number is really a misnomer (which I’ve ranted about before), since these are ‘major’ updates akin to going from Windows 2000 to Windows XP.

I’ve been through them all. I switched in 2001, and my first Mac (a Power Mac G4) ran Mac OS X 10.0.4. I’ve been through 10.0, 10.1, 10.2 ‘Jaguar’, 10.3 ‘Panther’, 10.4 ‘Tiger’, 10.5 ‘Leopard’, and now 10.6 ‘Snow Leopard’. The operating system has continued to progress nicely through each iteration, with a few snags here and there, and I still think Mac OS X is the best put-together operating system available.

10.6 keeps up the tradition, although it does so in a much more subtle way than most of its predecessors. Most of these updates have come with grand new features, both technical and user-facing, updates to the look, and more. This culminated with 10.5 ‘Leopard’, which was arguably the biggest update to the operating system since its introduction. My Leopard upgrade, however, didn’t go very smoothly when it came out in June 2005. It broke some of my applications, changed a lot of the back-end tools I work with, and generally gave me a few weeks of headaches. While most users didn’t have these problems, I’m always playing around with the OS in a deeper way than your ‘average’ user and it was very apparent that ‘Leopard’ made a lot of underlying changes to the system.

Apple’s stated goal with ‘Snow Leopard’ was, as implied by the derivative name, to build on and refine ‘Leopard’. It does exactly that, and is well worth the low $30 price tag.

This is a major break with the past for Apple. ‘Snow Leopard’ is the first Apple operating system to drop support for older PowerPC-based Macs, including all G3, G4, and G5 machines. Only their newer Intel-based computers will work with the new system. Apple has also rebuilt almost the entire system for 64bit processors, which is not much of a concern to most end-users but allows better performance on newer computers and support for tons of memory (32bit operating systems can only handle up to 4 gigabytes of RAM; 64bit systems can theoretically handle up to a mind-boggling 17.2 billion gigabytes).

They’ve also completely redone the installation process, which was probably the most disconcerting part of the upgrade for a techie like me. Previous Mac OS X versions allowed you to choose between three upgrade methods: standard upgrade, an ‘archive and install’, and a ‘wipe and install’. I almost always chose to ‘archive and install’, which required a manual re-installation of some system drivers but otherwise provided a smoother, more reliable upgrade. The ‘Snow Leopard’ upgrade gives you no choices at all. From what I can tell, the upgrade seems to be some sort of cross between the old ‘upgrade’ and ‘archive and install’ methods. I would have preferred more options.

If you are using older software that was originally built for PowerPC-based Macs, be sure to ‘customize’ your upgrade and install the ‘Rosetta’ package. Rosetta is the Apple technology that allows Intel-based Macs to run old PowerPC-based software through a seamless emulation layer. Consistent with Apple’s ‘break with the past’, it is no longer installed by default. If you are running up-to-date software, you don’t need Rosetta. If you’re still running an old version of Microsoft Office or the Adobe Suite, you will need to make sure this is installed.

Despite the ‘black box’ installation that gives you very few choices, I’m satisfied with how the upgrade went. It was pretty quick and very, very smooth. The only problem was that it removed my custom web server (Apache) configuration and wiped out my MySQL database installation. Again, most users won’t have this problem since most users aren’t running a web development environment. I was able to reinstall MySQL and reconfigure both Apache and MySQL from my backups in a few minutes. It goes without saying (I hope) that you should have a backup of all your data before any OS install. It will save you tons of time if you run into these kinds of little snags.

You will also find that if you have any third-party ‘preference panes’ in your System Preferences, they may have an incompatibility with the new operating system. 32bit preference panes can’t run in the new 64bit preferences application. The good news is that, if you try to launch a 32bit preference pane, the application will give you the option to re-launch it in 32bit mode. This will become less and less of a problem with time as third-party developers update their applications and preference panes.

Other than these minor quibbles, the upgrade has been among the smoothest I’ve ever experienced. Usually I run into at least one or two serious snags or bugs that don’t get resolved until the first bugfix (which, to Apple’s credit, usually follows a short week or two after a major release). I haven’t stumbled on anything yet since my installation yesterday.

The system itself is not very different from ‘Leopard’ for the end-user. It starts up faster, it runs faster, and it has lots of little refinements but, overall, it’s an incremental change not a major update. I’m glad they didn’t decide to charge full price for this, since many users would have been disappointed to pay $129 for a 10 percent (or so) speed increase and a bunch of little updates.

Having said that, Apple has a solid upgrade here that I recommend all Mac users install (if they have Intel-based Macs). The system is noticeably sleeker and faster, and those little refinements are quite nice. The integration of the Dock with the Exposé feature, in particular, is much overdue and much appreciated. The smoother ejection of network and external drives is also a welcome change; the OS will now tell you what application is preventing you from un-mounting a drive so you can remedy the problem (or force the un-mount). We Mac power-users have been griping about that one for close to a decade now, so it’s nice that it’s finally fixed.

Kudos to Apple for a great, if not Earth-shattering, release.