Operating system upgrades are often heralded with hoopla. Apple has traditionally announced “hundreds of new features” with each new release.
Microsoft has turned launches into minor holidays; for Windows Vista, they even hired spandex-clad acrobats to hang the Windows logo from the side of a building. All of this seems surreal given the way musicians use computers; after all, the OS to most of us is plumbing, the stuff underneath the stuff we actually use to make music.
You’ll be pleased to know, then, that this latest generation of operating systems looks very different. Microsoft heard your criticisms of Windows Vista, and focused on a version of Windows 7 that shipped quicker, with fewer compatibility issues and more usability improvements that directly responded to user feedback. Apple says that when developing Snow Leopard, they opened some 90% of the projects that make up OS X in order to emphasize refinement over new functionality, optimizing performance and building a foundation for future development.
With the dust from each of these releases having settled, we have a great opportunity to give these operating systems a real evaluation — especially if you’re considering buying a new computer for making music.
Snow Leopard offers a tweaked, more responsive Finder and lots of little improvements, down to the Audio MIDI Setup user interface. What you can’t see is more important: Rebuilds of the OS guts prepare the Mac for 64-bit musicmaking and future optimization.
Mac OS X Snow LeopardMicrosoft Windows 7On new computers Don’t fear Snow Leopard. This release is subtle enough that backward compatibility is very unlikely to be an issue. Get a machine with Windows 7 pre-installed, period. The days of reverting to Windows XP are happily over. Upgrade if You like some of the latest enhancements, you’re a frequent Finder and Apple app user, or you’ve got a 64-bit machine. There’s no rush, but if you back up first, the upgrade should be relatively smooth. You’ve got a fairly recent machine and you’re ready to part with either XP or Vista. Check hardware compatibility first, but W7 is a worthy upgrade — even if you’re already on Vista. If Vista is working for you, W7 almost certainly will, too; unlike the jump from XP to Vista, W7 doesn’t make many under-the-hood changes that break compatibility. Don’t upgrade if You’ve got an older machine or are happy with OS 10.5, which remains the “preferred” Mac version for developers like Ableton and Native Instruments. If it ain’t broke. . . . You’ve got an older machine running XP. You can always get Windows 7 pre-installed when you get a new machine. Advantages for audio Logic Studio has just added 64-bit support. Expect significant advantages once 64-bit applications and plug-in support mature and become more common. A leaner system that gets out of your way and makes music more productive. Noticeable improvements to 64-bit and multi-threaded operation, especially in 64-bit apps like Cakewalk Sonar. Compatibility Most hardware and software that works with 10.5 should also work with 10.6; by press time, Avid had confirmed compatibility of Pro Tools 8. Simply because it’s been around longer, 10.5 is more widely tested than 10.6. If it works under Vista, it should work under Windows 7.
MAC OS X SNOW LEOPARD: LEANER, FASTER, SLICKER
Some of the biggest changes in Mac OS X Snow Leopard (OS 10.6) aren’t visible at all — and some won’t become a big deal until down the road, as developers take advantage of new features. Hang on tight: We’re going to get into developer territory, as it’s the bits Apple has built for developers that matter the most, even if the end result is that you won’t notice a thing.
The biggest change is a full transition from 32-bit to 64-bit technology. What does that mean, exactly? (“Twice as many bits” — yeah, right.) Well, 64-bit computing refers to the size of the most basic numeric building block, or data register. Snow Leopard represents the first OS from Apple that’s truly ready for 64-bit use in everyday applications. While parts of the operating system were 64-bit in previous Mac releases, 10.6 finishes the transition, with rewrites to the Finder and the CoreAudio and CoreMIDI frameworks atop which your music apps are built. That should mean we’ll start to see 64-bit recording programs and plug-ins soon.
The upshot of supporting 64-bit is twofold. Most significant to music is the ability of a 64-bit architecture to access larger amounts of RAM: up to 16 terabytes, which is hundreds of times more than today’s computers can (or would want to) accommodate. By contrast, on a Mac, a single 32-bit application can only access 4GB of data at a time. Only a select few applications have devised workarounds to get beyond that limit: Native Instruments’ Memory Server for Kontakt 3.5 addresses up to 32GB on the Mac, and Logic’s EXS24 Mk. II sampler can allocate its own virtual memory. True 64-bit raises this ceiling for all 64-bit applications, essential for people using lots of memory to load enormous sound libraries; 64-bit computing also offers a significant performance boost over 32-bit, which could make some audio processes more efficient.
In other words, 64-bit is good news, but don’t expect to bring home a Snow Leopard box and reap the benefits right away. First, you’ll want a 64-bit processor. Intel’s Core2 Duo is 64-bit, but the Core Duo (without the “2”) is not. Second, you’ll need an application. Logic Pro 9.1 and MainStage 2.1 have just added 64-bit support; MOTU expects to add support to Digital Performer soon. Other DAWs should follow. You’ll also need some 64-bit plugins, which could take a little longer.
In addition to 64-bit, developers may soon look to take advantage of two other major technologies. “Grand Central Dispatch” is a new programming paradigm for making it easier to take advantage of parallel processing. When you run an application, your computer is doing lots of number crunching behind the scenes. Grand Central Dispatch is designed to more efficiently process those tasks across multiple CPUs and cores, and is smart enough to free up resources that would otherwise be idle. Apple has rewritten their own CoreAudio and CoreMIDI libraries to use Grand Central Dispatch, and they’ve provided the ability for audio developers to do the same with music apps. Not all developers are likely to use it, preferring to stick to their own approaches to multi-threading instead, but it does add to the toolbox of Mac developers.
Snow Leopard also provides integrated support for OpenCL, a cross-platform, open standard for extending computing tasks across the CPU and GPU — the graphics processing unit in your video card. Unless you’re running graphicsintensive software, chances are your GPU isn’t even breathing hard, so some developers have thought, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could farm some of that power to audio tasks?” As new and faster graphics chips emerge, that could hold promise for everything from new synthesis and effect techniques to faster rendering. There’s no immediate benefit yet, however, as hardware evolves and developers work out just what the technology will do.
What Can You Use in Snow Leopard Right Now?
Being future-proof is a good thing, but there are some reasons you might want to upgrade now that are more readily apparent as you use the OS.
The upgrade process itself has been made more painless: The installer runs more quickly, and it’s less likely to hose your system if it gets interrupted because, say, your cat trips over your power cord.
More importantly, the OS has trimmed down, and Apple’s own apps are more responsive. The OS itself takes up less space on your disk, thanks to moving unused code, languages, and drivers out of the installation. In a welcome change from typical OS upgrades, Snow Leopard may use less disk space after installation than before. Once installed, you should notice that applications like Mail, Safari, and the all-important Finder are more responsive. Even little details like the eject time for volumes have been improved for more reliable operation.
There are also subtle user interface improvements. Exposé window tiling is now more predictable. You can also see open windows for an app by clicking and holding on its Dock icon. Minor refinements around the Dock, Finder, and even Audio MIDI Setup reflect the thought Apple famously puts into the user experience. Snow Leopard also includes multi-touch support on supported devices, like the new trackpads on recent MacBooks.
What hasn’t changed is important, too. Snow Leopard doesn’t change the device or driver model, or change the core frameworks in any way that should cause incompatibility. You’ll still want to make sure your software and hardware has been tested on 10.6, as issues can arise with any OS upgrade. But generally, it should be safe to switch.
WINDOWS 7: HASTA LA VISTA, VISTA
Windows 7 is a lot like Vista in the right ways (upgrading is seamless, with few if any new compatibility issues), yet unlike Vista in the right ways (an OS that’s cleaner, leaner, less annoying, and less likely to cause problems).
Here’s what happened. Vista made a lot of changes that directly impacted compatibility. Modernizing the windowing system, modifying the graphics engine, re-designing the audio system, making changes to kernel performance, and changing the driver model were all major changes in Windows Vista — all accompanied by growing pains. If you were an early adopter of Vista, you experienced some of those pains firsthand, with application and hardware compatibility issues, sometimes-glitchy performance (often resulting from video drivers, which could interfere with audio), and other issues. But a series of Microsoft Service Packs and updated drivers from device vendors has patched many of those holes. That means that, if you skipped Vista, or even if you didn’t, you can now enjoy the modernization effort in Windows 7 without the hassle. It’s a bit like the difference between moving into a gut renovation halfway through, or after it’s finished and the sawdust and drywall have been cleaned up.
Windows 7 is also a different OS from a usability standpoint. User Account Control, a feature intended to make Vista more secure, still protects your system, but without constantly interrupting your work to tell you about it. (It’s more customizable, too.) The taskbar tray, in which a parade of confusing icons have gotten dumped by various applications, is now cleaned up: Icons get hidden away by default into a new Notification area, so pop-ups aren’t constantly competing for your attention.
There are time-saving features as well. Windows has always excelled at tiling windows side-by-side. Now, you can drag a window to a corner of the screen and maximize or tile it quickly, or shake a window to make unused windows disappear. The Start menu, one of the better-liked features in Vista, has been further tweaked for efficiency. The Taskbar now includes larger icons and the ability to preview open windows without them getting in the way, with additional features organized into “Jump List” shortcut menus in supported applications. A new feature called Libraries can make it easier to organize groups of folders in disparate locations, allowing quick access to projects and samples without getting lost in folder hierarchies.
Like Snow Leopard, Windows 7 also includes new multi-touch support; on Windows, this extends to new computers with multi-touch (or at least two-touch) trackpads.
Audio Improvements in Windows 7
Windows 7 sports a user interface that improves upon Vista with a cleaner look and more usable taskbar, plus better organization of your files into libraries. But it’s the leaner, less intrusive performance of the OS, and under-the-hood optimizations for multi-threading and memory specific to audio, that make it worth a second look for musicians.
Having Windows work better in general is nice, but to most of us, audio performance matters more. Unlike the Leopard-to-Snow Leopard comparison, it is possible to say in some specific cases that Windows 7 can currently outperform Vista at audio tasks. The difference isn’t enormous, but it is significant, and combined with better stability in Windows 7, it could well make upgrading worthwhile.
Multi-threading performance has been improved. A significant multi-threading bottleneck was removed in Windows 7, which is significant on multi-threaded applications for multi-core machines. Improved memory management is also relevant in multithreaded applications.
One complaint about Vista (and operating systems in general) has been “bloat.” The OS itself has gotten leaner with Windows 7, just as with Snow Leopard. Also, there are fewer services that run by default. In my own tests, I found that a fresh Windows 7 didn’t start the disk churning while the search index kicked in, either, as with early versions of Vista.
Most musicians use ASIO drivers, but if you use WaveRT drivers for specific hardware (like a built-in soundcard), WaveRT performance has been significantly improved.
On Mac OS, fully 64-bit operation is a news headline, and users are waiting for more 64-bit music applications. On Windows, 64- bit has been available for years, dating back to Cakewalk Sonar on Windows XP x64. But Windows 7 could be the first OS you painlessly install for 64-bit. You’ll want to verify driver compatibility, as there can still be tricky issues with certain hardware. You’ll also need a 64-bit host (like Sonar or Cubase) and some plug-ins, plus a 64-bit computer, to make upgrading from 32-bit worth it. If you have those ingredients, you should find enhanced performance under Windows 7.
Cakewalk’s Chief Technology Officer Noel Borthwick puts it this way: “We finally have reached a time when 64-bit computing, low-latency performance, and low-cost components are a reality. It’s a great time for DAW users.”