From Snow Leopard, to Lion, to Mountain Lion

Via Macworld, I stumbled across an article in Computerworld titled OS X Snow Leopard shows signs of becoming Apple’s XP. It’s a bit of link-bait, but nonetheless I found it interesting, especially the comment section.

Snow Leopard has lost more than half its share of all Macs since Lion’s appearance over a year ago, but so far it has been resistant to Mountain Lion’s call to upgrade. In each of the last two months, for example, Snow Leopard’s losses were less than its 12-month average.

Apple also, perhaps just temporarily, extended security support for Snow Leopard when it issued a patch update for the three-year-old operating system in late September, confounding security professionals who had assumed it would stop serving OS X 10.6 with updates, as it had done with earlier editions once two newer versions had been released.

My take on this: on the one hand, Mountain Lion has stringent minimum system requirements, cutting off any iMac produced before mid-2007, any MacBook before the Late Aluminium 2008 models, any MacBook Pro before mid-2007, any Mac mini before the Early 2009 series, and the first-generation MacBook Air (early 2008), and there’s still a large user base with Macs manufactured before those dates. On the other hand, a lot of users who cannot upgrade to Mountain Lion haven’t even upgraded to Lion (or returned to Snow Leopard after upgrading), preferring to stick with Snow Leopard for its general reliability and better performance with such (slightly) older Macs. Also, Mac OS X 10.6.8 is still the minimum software requirement to be able to install 10.7 and 10.8, so probably Apple wants to keep the old cat secure and updated for a while more.

It’s unclear why Mac users are holding on to Snow Leopard, but one factor may be that it is the newest Apple OS able to run applications written for the PowerPC processor, the Apple/IBM/Motorola-designed CPU used by Macs before Apple announced a switch to Intel in 2005. The first Intel Macs launched in January 2006.

(Snow Leopard will not run on PowerPC-equipped Macs — the last edition to do so was 2007’s OS X Leopard — but it can run applications written for that chip via the Rosetta utility.)

I know a lot of Mac users who have decided to remain on Snow Leopard for exactly that reason, and I think it’s perfectly understandable. There are people who have invested serious money in certain software packages made for the PowerPC architecture, and don’t really need to spend even more money to upgrade to the latest version. And I’m not talking about inexpensive shareware applications, but things like Adobe Photoshop CS/CS2, Acrobat Professional 6, FileMaker Pro 6, Microsoft Office 2004/2008. And Snow Leopard, thanks to Rosetta, is the last Mac OS X version that can run PPC applications. 

I myself was in such position when OS X 10.7 Lion came out and the dropped support of Rosetta was official. I was undecided about what to do, and the first reactions regarding Lion’s bugs and general performance didn’t help. For my work I need to stay as up-to-date as possible when it comes to Mac OS X, so I knew I had to upgrade sooner or later. I waited until OS X 10.7.2 was out, then I did, but not before making a bootable snapshot of my Snow Leopard backup on an external drive. (I can’t afford downtime on my main Mac.) 

A lot of people who commented on the Computerworld article claim they’ve chosen to remain on Snow Leopard for all the reasons mentioned so far (it’s stable, reliable, capable of running PPC code, etc.), and I agree with them. But based on my experience, I also think that all the claims of disastrous instability, bugginess and performance regarding OS X Lion and Mountain Lion are a bit exaggerated. Sure, the latest two versions of Mac OS X have really been controversial, and their initial .0 releases perhaps the most problematic first releases in Mac OS X history (that’s also why I didn’t upgrade until 10.7.2 and 10.8.1 were out), but then I also have to say that since upgrading to Lion before, and Mountain Lion recently, I haven’t really encountered any serious issues with the operating system itself or with applications that used to run fine under Snow Leopard and have not been yet optimised for the later cats.

Perhaps my overall positive experience with Lion and Mountain Lion can be attributable to sheer luck; or perhaps I’m not using specific pro applications that trigger particularly unstable or buggy areas of the system. Or perhaps my 2.66 GHz Core 2 Duo mid-2009 MacBook Pro with 8 GB of RAM is still powerful enough that I don’t really notice a worsened performance (it actually feels a bit more responsive after upgrading to Mountain Lion). 

One thing I noticed, though, as someone who still offers technical assistance every now and then, is that a lot of people who complain about instability and poor performance also have severely messed-up Macs. How many (usually non-pro) users are able to make a mess of their Macs still amazes me to no end. Lack of minimal housekeeping, files scattered everywhere, applications moved in custom folders outside the system-assigned locations (sometimes they even keep some on USB thumb drives!), aborted updates, overcrowded Login Items lists, lack of disk free space due to huge cache files left there to rot, and these are just a few quick examples off the top of my head. 

Sometimes it’s the mindless housekeeping that breaks things: in the hope of speeding up their Macs, some people start throwing away files and directories which ‘don’t look important and just take up space’ (as one of such people dared tell me), no matter if it’s a 2 GB video file or a bunch of subdirectories in Library/Frameworks. Other people just go to Google and apply whatever ‘tips & tricks’ they find without doing proper research or verifying whether such tips are applicable to their specific configuration or not. And yes, I’ve met people who don’t understand the Terminal but they’ll copy-paste in it whatever they think helps to solve an issue, only to create another. Then you ask them and they can’t remember what they did, or why they did something. In a few instances, a full reinstallation of OS X, along with commonsensical advice on how to maintain their configuration, really did the trick.

Apart from known issues and bugs, I wouldn’t be too quick in blaming the operating system itself. So am I shifting the blame to the user? Not entirely, either. There are so many Macs out there, of different vintages and with different applications installed, with the most diverse configurations. At times, this makes troubleshooting really hard. Is it something introduced in the newer OS X version to break another thing that was fine in the previous release? Is it something the user inadvertently did? Is it an unrelated hardware issue that’s impacting the situation?[1] And so on.

Another interesting aspect, finally, is related to how users perceive past Mac OS X versions. I remember when Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard was released. The first update to 10.5.1 came quickly, just a couple of weeks afterwards. People were complaining of all kinds of troubles, of bugs and instability. Many used to recall how ‘rock-solid’ Mac OS X 10.3 Panther and 10.4 Tiger used to be, but the fact is that in their perception of past stability they were referring to the last releases of such versions, 10.3.9 and 10.4.11, which were indeed optimal, optimised, reliable and definitely mature. No one was remembering Mac OS X 10.3.0 destroying data on certain FireWire 800 external hard drives, or certain graphics issues in the first releases of Mac OS X 10.4.

If you’re still on Snow Leopard because you specifically need PowerPC compatibility, or because there are particular features in Lion/Mountain Lion that you don’t even want to begin dealing with, then by all means keep using OS X 10.6.8. It’s really a great OS X version. But if you’re delaying the upgrade because you’re afraid something will break or you’re a bit intimidated by everything you’ve been reading around the Web, I’d like to reassure you a little: I was scared as well, but I soon discovered that a lot of my fears and doubts were unfounded. In my experience, on my rather tidy MacBook Pro with basic periodical housekeeping tasks, Lion was pretty stable from version 10.7.2 and definitely better when it reached 10.7.5. I then updated directly to Mountain Lion (10.8.1) and, as I said, I even found the system to be a wee more responsive than before. I only had a slight problem with Time Machine backups that I soon fixed without losing precious data. Now I’m on 10.8.2 and everything’s fine. (What about my PowerPC needs, then? Well, I keep a couple of G4 PowerBooks around, both with Mac OS X 10.5.8, and a Power Mac G4 Cube with 10.4.11, where PowerPC apps can happily run natively).



  • 1. Two instances I’ve witnessed: hard drive starting to fail after installing the newer version of OS X, and some third-party RAM sticks of an updated MacBook not getting on quite well with OS X Lion after an update, making the Mac less stable and more unpredictable.


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About Riccardo Mori

Writer. Translator. Mac consultant. Enthusiast photographer. • If you like what I write, please consider supporting my writing by purchasing my short stories, Minigrooves or by making a donation. Thank you!