Apple's much-anticipated Mac App Store has made its debut, promising easy access to new software for customers and exposure to a large customer base for software developers.

To access the Mac App Store, you must download the latest version of Snow Leopard, because access is granted through a system update - Mac OS X 10.6.6, to be exact. We were able to download and install the update on a 2.33GHz Core 2 Duo 15in MacBook Pro using Software Update. The installation required a restart and took a little more than 10 minutes.

The Mac App Store is not a part of iTunes in the way the iOS App Store is. Instead, the OS X 10.6.6 update installs the App Store program (a 7.4MB file) in the Applications folder, and a store icon appears in the Dock; a new App Store selection is also available under the Apple menu. In our opinion, making the Mac App Store separate from iTunes is the right decision, because it separates Mac OS X software from iOS apps; it also prevents iTunes becoming even more cluttered and bloated than it already is.

Navigating the Mac App Store will be familiar to iTunes Store shoppers, because it's designed much like the iTunes Store. One exception: there's no sidebar where iTunes lists your media library, playlists, and so on. Across the top of the Mac App Store window are Back and Forward buttons on the left, and middle buttons for Features, Top Charts, Categories, Purchases, and Updates. The top marquee spot features a rotation of various apps; to the right of that are three smaller marquee spots. Quick Links for your account, redeeming gift cards, and support are under the three small marquee spots.

When you first launch the Mac App Store, the application asks for the iTunes ID you use for iTunes Store purchases and asks for your password. (You can also create new accounts.) Our iTunes account had £5 credit, which the Mac App Store recognised. The rest of your account information looks exactly like the information listing in your iTunes account.

Apple Mac App Store: Installed... or not

Like the iTunes Store, if an app is installed on your Mac, it should be listed as Installed. We say should be because, on one of our Macs, the Mac App Store didn't recognise an installation of Pages '09 (or the rest of iWork '09). We're not sure if this was because of the version we have installed or a registration problem. The Mac App Store did recognise iMovie, iPhoto and GarageBand as installed on the Mac.

We had a similar problem with Evernote. We were using the free version of Evernote 2.0, which was listed as an up-to-date app, but the Mac App Store didn't recognise Evernote as installed. When we clicked to buy Evernote from the Mac App Store, the Store recognised that Evernote was open and told us to quit the app. Once we let the Mac App Store do its thing, Evernote 2.0.1 was listed as installed on the Store. (All Evernote data was preserved.)

Apple Mac App Store: Making a purchase

App product pages are much like the ones you'd find in the iTunes Store. Product pages feature a description; an Information box with version number, file size, requirements and so forth; links to the developer's website; screenshots; and customer ratings.

When we 'bought' Twitter 2.0 (the Twitter client is free), the Mac App Store listed it as Installing, and an animation showed the app's icon floating from the Store to the Dock. Unfortunately, there's no way to tell the Store not to automatically add apps to the Dock, but luckily you can remove them from the Dock easily.

Another vitally important step currently missing is that the Mac App Store doesn't ask for confirmation when you buy an app. When you make a purchase right after launching the Store, you're asked to enter your account password, so that acts as a confirmation; cancelling the password entry cancels the transaction. But if you enter your password and complete that purchase, subsequent purchases are completed once you click the Buy button. So keep the Mac App Store away from click-happy hands.

Next page: Completing the installation, and our verdict >>

See also:

Apple Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard review

Apple A-Z

Visual tour: Apple's greatest hits under Steve Jobs

2011: The year of the desktop app store?