The Legacy Corner
Picking the Optimal OS for Your Mac
I’m often asked what the best OS for a certain Mac is. While there’s certainly no universal answer, some general guidelines are useful food for thought. Keep in mind that this is going to deal primarily with Macs in a home or home-office setting; those of you administering computer labs probably have your own guidelines, either handed down from above or based on your own experiences and what you prefer. My general rule of thumb is that faster is better, so my own recommendations are biased in favor of overall speed, sometimes at the (minor) expense of features.
On the earliest Macs, those with a 68000 CPU, there’s little reason to go above System 6. In fact, the 128 and 512 won’t even run System 6, because they have too little RAM, so you’ll need to track down an earlier OS. The best place for tracking down System 6 or earlier, including many international versions, is Gamba’s Where To Download Mac OS page. The 68020-based LC and Mac II can run System 7 if you choose, but both are noticeably faster if you stick with System 6.
Starting with the 68030-based Macs, System 7.1 becomes a much better balance of features and speed. System 6 will run on many of them, including most of the Mac II series, but is not significantly faster than 7.1 in my experience, and System 7 provides a user experience more akin to that of Mac OS 8 and up, in contrast to the rather stark and seemingly barren System 6. If you’re used to OS 8 or higher, go with System 7.
With such add-ons as the Drag Manager, the Thread Manager, and the CFM-68K Runtime Enabler, you can make System 7.1 rival Mac OS 7.6 for features, but with much greater speed. Further information about (and links to) these add-ons, as well as others that will enhance the features of System 7.1, is available from Gamba’s System 7.1 Favorite Add-Ons page. (As a brief aside, I would recommend that anyone working regularly with 68K Macs become intimately familiar with the URL for Gamba’s index page. It’s perhaps the most information-dense Mac site on the entire Internet.)
The biggest point of contention with the various “best OS” articles on the Mac Web has traditionally concerned the 68040-based Macs. My stance, after quite some experience, is that 7.1 with the aforementioned add-ons is your best bet. System 7.5 or 7.6 will be significantly slower to boot, use more RAM, and will be somewhat slower once running, but some people find the few additional features included with later OSes worth the wait. The same applies to Mac OS 8.1, although I find 8.1 to be extremely slow on 68Ks. (Don’t even think about running 8.0. Apple recommends all Mac OS 8.0 customers upgrade to 8.1 immediately due to several bugs and speed issues.) The principal use for Mac OS 8.1 is in an application such as a home file server (typically used for MP3s or the like), where reboots and user interaction with the UI are rare, and HFS+ is necessary in order to use multi-gigabyte hard disks efficiently.
There is little or no reason to run anything below Mac OS 8.1 on any PowerPC-based Mac. The fact of the matter is that virtually none of the OS is optimized for the PowerPC CPU in pre-8 OS versions, and despite the marginal increase in RAM usage and the general “creeping feature-itis” of Mac OS 8.5 and up, an optimized installation of even Mac OS 9.1 will be substantially faster than 7.6 or lower on any Power Mac.The first-generation (pre-PCI) Power Macs are best off with 8.1 unless Sherlock or other features of 8.5 and later are absolutely required, in which case Mac OS 9.1 is preferred. (Some users swear 8.6 is faster than any prior version of OS 8 and any version of OS 9, but my experiences have not borne this out.) Most PCI Power Macs will run 9.1 quite acceptably, though those of you unfortunate enough—like myself—to be saddled with a 7200 may wish to experiment with 8.1 as well and see which best fits your needs. Mac OS 8.1 is the fastest OS on the 7200s, though 9.1 is quite tolerable with plenty of RAM. Incidentally, those of you attempting to run post-8.1 versions of the OS in less than 128 MB real RAM will likely find the experience less than satisfactory. Fortunately, RAM is inexpensive and still fairly easy to find for these machines—a 128 MB module can be had for virtually any pre-G3 PCI Mac for about $30.
The question with a G3- or G4-based Mac, then, becomes, “Do I want to run OS X or OS 9?” And that, dear readers, is another article in itself, and getting distressingly close to what I would begin to consider not “legacy.” I’d never hear the end of it if I left you hanging, though, so next month I’ll cover the 9 vs. X question.
Also in This Series
- Picking the Optimal OS for Your Mac—Part 2 · October 2003
- Picking the Optimal OS for Your Mac · September 2003
- Bluetooth & 68K Browsers · January 2003
- Where to Get Free and Inexpensive Software for Legacy Macs · November 2002
- The Legacy Corner · June 2002
- The Legacy Corner · May 2002
- The Legacy Corner · April 2002
- The Legacy Corner · September 2001
- The Legacy Corner · August 2001
- Complete Archive