That Apple's latest release of Mac OS X is not accompanied by hyperbolic claims of "300 new features" should be a wakeup call to even the company's most ardent followers. Mac OS X 10.6, or "Snow Leopard," is a refinement of the previous release, Mac OS X 10.5, called Leopard (see my review). And sure enough, Snow Leopard, like Leopard before it, is a fine OS, a rock-solid and capable computing foundation. It's just that when compared to what's happening on the Windows side, Snow Leopard is sort of a letdown. There's just not much going on from an end-user perspective.

As it turns out, this is by design. Mac OS X, like the Windows systems with which it competes, is now a mature operating system. But that doesn't excuse the pricing. Had Microsoft released such an update for Windows, they would have called it a service pack and delivered it gratis. But Apple being Apple, they're charging for the update ($29 to $169 depending on which version of OS X you're currently running). In Apple-land, that's a bargain. And of course Mac folks can point to the $99 to $299 pricing on Windows 7 and claim Snow Leopard is a bargain by comparison. In this case, you get what you pay for.

The first thing you'll notice is that Apple's cryptic Setup routine--which takes two to three times as much time to do its thing as Windows 7 Setup--will not ask you if you want a clean install or an upgrade if you boot off the DVD; that's probably OK for many users, but if you're looking to do a clean install, as I was, you might be surprised to see the upgrade kick off with nary a warning. The trick is to use the advanced menu-based tools to trigger anything other than the default install type.

Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard

Once you've got Snow Leopard up and running, you won't notice much difference compared to its predecessor. Apple has forgone sweeping UI changes in this release and has instead focused solely on internal refinements, simplifications, and performance improvements. For example, Snow Leopard picks up multicore functionality that Windows has had for years, making the system more responsive on the Intel Core 2 Duo-based systems Apple is now shipping. The Mac's version of Windows Explorer, called Finder, has been also brought into the 21st century and rewritten, and thus is speedier and more responsive.

Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard

Like Windows 7, Snow Leopard offers a simpler taken on its predecessor. The sole default desktop icon in Leopard, representing your Mac's hard drive, has been removed. (Windows 7, by contrast, now has a single desktop icon by default, representing the Recycle Bin.) But I find the Finder's Sidebar to be far less user friendly than the navigation bar in Windows 7's Explorer; it's not obvious how you can add often-needed locations to it, for example, while doing so is easy in Windows.

Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard

Snow Leopard takes another page from the Windows 7 playbook with a new feature of the Expos? window management tool. In previous versions of Mac OS X, Expos? was very much a power user feature, and you could really only use it effectively via the keyboard, an oddity in the mouse-focused OS X interface. With Snow Leopard, however, Expos? has been improved to work with individual applications, just like the taskbar preview feature in Windows 7. That is, you can now access each open window of any running application using Expos? via the Mac OS X Dock. It's a great feature, and it's hard to imagine using it otherwise. (That said, it can't handle individual tabs in Safari, as is possible with IE 8 taskbar previews in Windows 7.)

Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard

Snow Leopard expands on the icon preview functionality in Windows 7 in dramatic if somewhat unnecessary ways. You can now instantly preview the contents of many document types right in the icon for those documents in the Finder. I've used this feature to watch H.264 movies and flip through PDF files, for example. But the sheer number of ways in which you can access documents and other data files in Snow Leopard borders on the ludicrous. In addition to these in-icon previews, you can also use a new Quick Look utility to preview documents full screen (curiously using the spacebar on your keyboard as well). Or you can just open the documents normally with whatever default application. Three levels of document viewing? Really?

Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard

Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard

Snow Leopard's various bundled applications have all been updated, sometimes in very nice ways. The system includes the latest version of Apple's web browser, Safari 4, which seems a lot less unnecessary on the Mac than it does on Windows. Mail, iCal, and Address Book have been updated with Exchange Server support, which is a big feature, sure, but none of them can do automatic configuration, so you'll need a slew of server information, which isn't the case in, say, Outlook on Windows.

Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard

The nicest application update, perhaps, is QuickTime X, which like Windows Media Player in Windows 7, now supports a cool Now Playing mode in which all the surrounding player chrome disappears automatically so you can focus on the content. On the other hand, QuickTime X continues Apple's hypocritical waltz into inconsistency, as this application bears absolutely no resemblance at all to any other Snow Leopard applications. I was hoping this would be the version where Apple reined that in. (QuickTime X does include additional functionality around recording audio and video which could prove quite useful. And it's worth noting that this version appears to have abandoned the need to pay for a Pro install that has additional functionality, which is also welcome.)

Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard

Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard

Overall, Snow Leopard is a better Leopard than Leopard. But it certainly doesn't offer any added incentive to make the switch from the Windows side. Compared head-to-head with Windows 7, it's clear that Microsoft's is the most substantial offering, as it provides the same kinds of internal updates as Snow Leopard but also offers major updates to the user experience. Looked at a different way, maybe Windows needed more fixes to begin with. That's certainly what a Mac user would tell you. They may have a point.

All that said, I'm not sure Snow Leopard justifies even its vastly reduced price. That won't stop eager Mac users from flinging their wallets open and throwing their credit cards towards Cupertino. You gotta envy Apple that kind of hold over its users.

Bottom line: Mac OS X 10.6 "Snow Leopard" is a nice refinement to an already solid OS offering. But it's almost too evolutionary to get excited about.