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Snow Leopard is a Subtle Change

Apple doesn't need to make a vista-sized leap on Friday, when it migrates from its Mac OS X Leopard operating system to Snow Leopard.

In the nearly two years since Leopard pounced onto the scene, it has elicited a far different reaction from the Mac faithful than Windows Vista has with the PC crowd. So, while Snow Leopard brings solid technological enhancements to Mac OS X, including built-in support for Microsoft Exchange, there was no need for the kind of major overhaul Microsoft will unleash with Windows 7 on Oct. 22.

In that sense, Snow Leopard isn't a must-have upgrade. There's not much new in the sizzle department. Many feature enrichments are modest, such as the ability to highlight text from a specific column in a PDF. The fine Safari 4 Web browser is also included, but you don't need Snow Leopard to get it. Apple does say the browser is faster and more crash resistant. (My iMac did crash once in my testing.)

Still, Snow Leopard should delight Mac fans, especially those who use Exchange at work. Leopard users can upgrade to Snow Leopard for just $29 (or $49 for a five-computer license), compared with the $129 it cost to go from the OS X Tiger to Leopard. The new operating system, which requires a Mac with an Intel processor, will also be preinstalled on new Macs.

Apple says there are hundreds of refinements and performance-boosting new technologies built into Snow Leopard, but many are under the hood. For example, Snow Leopard can make better use of the graphic chips in today's computers. It can also take advantage of the "64-bit" processors now built into all Macs, so applications will be able to make the most out of the processor and memory on such systems.

The new operating system was preinstalled on a MacBook Pro laptop that Apple supplied for testing. I also upgraded my own iMac. Highlights:

Installation.@ It took an hour and seven minutes to upgrade the iMac. Though it went smoothly, I did get a post-installation notice that an old version of Parallels Desktop software on my Mac was incompatible. Snow Leopard takes up less space, so the new operating system gives back roughly 7 gigabytes of storage - enough to store thousands of digital photos. Apple says the installer now includes a "safe redo" to protect your data in the unlikely event that the power goes out during installation.

Microsoft Exchange.@ Lots of us employ Microsoft Exchange for our work e-mail, calendars, contacts and more. If your office runs Microsoft Exchange Server 2007 and has turned on a feature called Autodiscovery, you merely need to enter your Exchange user name and password to get it working on the Mac. I had to manually enter a few settings to get Exchange to work on my Mac with USA TODAY's VPN, or "virtual private network." After that, I was able to send and receive work e-mail through the Mac's Mail application, access my calendar via its iCal program, and use the Mac's Address Book. Tasks, Notes and meeting invitations also come through.

The best part is how Exchange is integrated with the Mac. That meant I could quickly find past e-mails by searching via the Mac's terrific Spotlight feature. Through the Quick Look feature, I could peek at e-mail attachments without opening a separate application.

Finder and Dock.@ The Mac's Finder is where all your files, programs and disks are managed - sort of like Windows Explorer on a PC. The Mac's Dock is a handy strip of programs and icons at the bottom of the screen for quickly launching applications and files. Both have been refined. For example, you can hover over a Finder icon to preview the file it represents; doing so lets you flip through a PDF document or even watch a QuickTime movie.

Previous versions of OS X included a feature called Expose, an elegant way to tidy up a cluttered desktop where multiple windows lay on top of others. In Snow Leopard, if you click and hold an application icon in the Dock, Expose will only reveal open windows from that application. Snow Leopard also adds a scroll bar to make it easier to navigate the collections of files (for downloads, documents, etc.) known as Stacks.

QuickTime X.@ A new version of the QuickTime Player lets you trim movie clips. Translucent playback controls only appear as needed when you mouse over a movie. You can easily share a movie with YouTube, Apple's online MobileMe service or iTunes (and convert it for use on an iPod, iPhone or AppleTV). Through QuickTime, you can also quickly capture audio or video with the Mac's camera and microphone, features previously only available in the $30 QuickTime Pro version of the software. And you can now record the action on the screen, if, say, you want to demonstrate how something is accomplished on the Mac.

In my experience, Mac OS X was already a superior operating system to Windows. With Exchange and other technologies, Snow Leopard adds bite, especially for business. But as upgrades go, this one is relatively tame.

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