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Not all Mac users will purr over Snow Leopard despite refinements

It turned out Apple previewed the next version of the Mac operating system, OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard, at WWDC after all and validated the most improbable of last week's rumors – that it will focus on system speed and stability while offering no snazzy new features.

Apple's history could make Snow Leopard a tough sell, regardless of its advantages. Apple has conditioned us to expect lots of features with each iteration of Mac OS X. According to Apple's own count, OS X 10.4 Tiger had 200 new features. Leopard boasted 300.

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Yet the promise of fewer upgrade headaches and better performance on existing hardware combined with some deft marketing could have many of the Mac faithful opening their wallets in "about a year" when Snow Leopard arrives.

The ultimate issue may be the price. Some think Apple should give it away for free, but I don't see that happening. Even without new features, OS X 10.6 will require the full attention of many Apple engineers over the next year. Apple will charge for it.

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But even the most devoted Mac users likely will balk at paying Apple's customary $129 upgrade tax. A generous Apple might charge $20 or $30, but I think $50 is probable – and fair.

We might even see tiered pricing, with current Leopard 10.5 users paying $50 and those upgrading from earlier versions paying the full $129.

Among those most resistant to paying anything more than a token upgrade fee will be Mac users who have labeled Leopard "unstable" and buggy. Such people say a "maintenance release" is just what OS X needs.

No doubt, Leopard has had its share of problems, but I don't think its bugs are significantly worse than those of previous OS X versions.

Presumably Apple will weed out some nagging OS X issues in 10.6, but the overriding goal will be to optimize it for Intel Macs and create a foundation for features we'll see in OS X 10.7 and beyond.

Some other thoughts on Snow Leopard and what has surfaced this week:

Why not in the keynote? One would think that a WWDC keynote would be the perfect time to publicly announce the next version of OS X. Yet Jobs and other Apple officials only spoke of 10.6 after the keynote.

Did Jobs feel Snow Leopard's less flashy ambitions not worth mentioning? Or did he just want to keep the spotlight firmly focused on the iPhone?

Whatever the reason, it was darn weird. I'd bet most of the developers in the audience gladly would have sacrificed one of those tedious iPhone app demos for a brief overview of Snow Leopard.

No PPC support The HardMac Web site had a screenshot from the Developer Preview yesterday showing "an Intel processor" as one of the system requirements. As rumored, Mac OS X 10.6 will not run on PowerPC-based Macs.

While a few will decry the dropped support for PPC Macs -- less than three years after Apple switched to Intel chips -- it's the right move. In fact, it appears Snow Leopard will shed most or all of the PPC code that keeps the OS more bloated than necessary.

From the Snow Leopard page on Apple's Web site: "Snow Leopard dramatically reduces the footprint of Mac OS X, making it even more efficient for users, and giving back valuable hard drive space for their music and photos."

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Grand Central Snow Leopard's speed enhancements will derive primarily from "Grand Central" a new technology that will better harness the power of the multiple CPU cores present in all Macs. My 8-core Mac Pro is salivating over this one.

Open CL Another performance booster, OpenCL will exploit the largely unused computing power of graphics processors. No one has spelled this out, but I'm guessing Macs with dedicated graphics cards (MacBook Pro, Mac Pro, iMac) will benefit from this far more than those that use one of Intel's integrated graphics chipsets (MacBook, MacBook Air, Mac Mini).

QuickTime X Apple's multimedia QuickTime framework will get an overhaul in OS X 10.6 as well. Dubbed QuickTime X, it will feature "optimized support for modern codecs and more efficient media playback," according to Apple's Snow Leopard page.

64-bit support Apple plans to extend 64-bit support in OS X 10.6 to permit the use of up to 16 terabytes of memory. That's 16,000 gigabytes of RAM, folks. Few home users today need more than 3 or 4 GB of memory, and fewer still could afford whatever terabyte RAM modules might cost. Scientists with access to federal grant money can get excited, though.

Exchange support In a move apparently aimed at enterprise customers, Snow Leopard will include support for Microsoft Exchange 2007, building it in to such apps as Mail, Address Book and iCal.

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