OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard at 3: The Best Classic Version of OS X?

Dan Knight (Mac Musings): It’s hard to believe that it was just three years ago that Mac OS X went Intel only. Macs had uses PowerPC processors from the System 7.1 era up until 2006, when the first Intel-based Macs arrived running a special Intel-only version of OS X 10.4 Tiger. With OS X 10.5 Leopard, Apple had shipped a universal binary version of its OS that could run on either hardware platform. And with 10.6 Snow Leopard, it completely left PowerPC Macs behind.

Snow LeopardFor PowerPC users, it was an insult, but for Intel users, Snow Leopard would become the last traditional version of OS X. It still worked like earlier versions, and although it didn’t support PowerPC Macs, it still ran PowerPC software. That came to an end with OS X 10.7 Lion, so for a lot of Mac users with older software, Snow Leopard will always be the last version of OS X to run those PPC apps.

But there were improvements as well. By eliminating legacy PowerPC code, Snow Leopard needed less drive space and ran some things faster than ever, as well as introducing some new technologies to the Mac.

Simon Royal (Tech Spectrum): My MacBook – an early 2009 model – shipped with Leopard. Its install discs are for 10.5. I bought it in 2012 and picked up a Snow Leopard disc only a few days after purchasing it.

Leopard was great, but Snow Leopard blew me away. Being a PPC Mac user for a long time, I had no experience of Snow Leopard until 2012. My first impressions were “wow, this thing is fast.” It was so much faster and a lot more stable than Leopard on my MacBook.

A few weeks after, I upgraded to Lion, and then on launch day I upgraded to OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion. Lion was quite a bit slower than Snow Leopard, and while Mountain Lion brought back some of that speed, Snow Leopard really was a slick and streamlined OS.

Snow Leopard is the slick and fast Intel OS, much as Tiger was to the PPC platform.

Steve Watkins (The Practical Mac): Simon hit the nail on the head: I believe Snow Leopard will be to Intel Macs what Tiger is to PPC. We will see many lower-end Intel machines running Snow Leopard many years into the future. I see Tiger, then Snow Leopard as something of “lines in the sand” in which large numbers of Macs can/will never cross.

Dan Bashur (Apple, Tech, and Gaming): Snow Leopard is still the OS for Intel Macs bar none. Mountain Lion now feels like it has matched it as far as overall performance goes, but as Dan Knight mentioned, Snow Leopard enabled PowerPC applications to run courtesy of Rosetta. Without Rosetta, you lose all of your old PowerPC applications.

Only a few currently produced Macs still can technically support Snow Leopard (such as the Mac Pro, Mac mini – via FW Target Disk Mode install from a 2011 MacBook Pro, and iMac (supported with machine specific 10.6.6 install disc), although they are all likely shipping with Lion or Mountain Lion by now. The only reason these Macs can still boot into Snow Leopard is because they were first manufactured before Lion was ready to ship, even though the 2011 Mini wound up shipping with Lion installed and they have not had a hardware refresh yet.

When these machines are all refreshed, you will no longer be able to run PowerPC applications (without slowing it down somewhat through virtualization) on any brand new Mac, since there will be no way to boot into Snow Leopard, and thus no way to run Rosetta. I was ready to jump to Intel over the past year or so, and this January I wound up getting a February 2011 17″ MacBook Pro. In addition to this Mac being one of the last MacBooks to run Snow Leopard, it’s also one of the last of the 17″ MacBook Pros that will ever be made (unless Apple brings it back). Only the late 2011 17″ MacBook Pro succeeds/supersedes it, and it can also technically run Snow Leopard. These Macs, and other Intel Macs that could run Snow Leopard, form a bridge between PowerPC and Intel, and for those released in 2011 that can boot into Snow Leopard – you can also utilize every feature of Mountain Lion on one partition while booting into Snow Leopard on another, giving you the best of both worlds (for now).

Snow Leopard is only three years old, but is now two generations behind for releases of Mac OS X. When Snow Leopard becomes officially obsolete and stops receiving security updates, which is likely around the corner, it’s nothing to get upset about. Tiger and Leopard on the PowerPC platform are still viable and should continue to be so for a while longer, which means that Snow Leopard should continue to do what you need it to do for many years.

Snow Leopard, just three years young!

Charles Moore (several columns): I agree with Dan B. – Snow Leopard is destined to be the ultimate reference version of the former Mac OS for a category of middle-aged Macs for a long time to come, just as Tiger has become for PowerPC Macs. In my estimation, these two systems are the best, most solid versions of the Mac OS, probably ever, since the iOSification of OS X is the future path of development.

I’ve resolved to at least install Mountain Lion on my Late 2008 Aluminum MacBook, since it’s supported and only $20, but I don’t anticipate switching to it as my production OS anytime soon.

Snow Leopard is just too good to say good-bye to until there’s a good, strong, objective reason to do so. One huge obvious reason not to do so is, of course, Rosetta. There are a few apps containing PowerPC binaries that I know are going to be painful to give up, and I’m certain there will be more than I’ve thus far identified.

Snow Leopard and the MacBook are also delightfully stable, which is a disincentive to fixing something that ain’t broke.

That said, I’m typing this comment in the just-updated Textkraft text processor (currently available for a mere 99¢, which is a steal) on my iPad, so perhaps the proverbial writing is, if not on the wall, on the tablet.

Still always great to get back on the Mac with Snow Leopard after tussling with touch input on the ‘Pad.

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