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ATPM 9.10
October 2003





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The Legacy Corner

by Chris Lawson,

Picking the Optimal OS for Your Mac—Part 2

Picking up where we left off last month, we must now address the question of whether OS X or OS 9 is the optimal OS for a Mac that shipped from the factory with a G3 or better.

If you have a G5, you have no choice. You have to run OS X. Boo hoo. Tough cookies. Really, I feel terrible for you. Will someone please remind me why I’m discussing your computer in a column entitled The Legacy Corner? :-)

If you have a recent G4, you likely can’t run OS 9 either, and if you can, you probably bought the computer for that purpose, so this advice doesn’t apply to you.

That leaves us with older G4s, the various G3 iMacs, and the Blue and White and beige G3s. On the portable side, we have all iBooks and the Pismo, Lombard, and Wall Street PowerBooks. Because everything except the beige G3s and Wall Streets is fully supported in OS X (with the exception of some features of the optional DVD-RAM drives in the desktops and the hardware DVD decoders), the question is really one of “Does OS X or OS 9 fit my needs better?” That’s a question you’ll have to answer for yourself, though bear this in mind: OS X is the future of the Macintosh, whether you like it or not. If you plan to stick with the platform for your next computer, you should probably start getting used to OS X if you haven’t already. If you don’t plan to stick with the Macintosh, don’t waste your money on OS X or upgrades that would be necessary to run it.

That pretty much narrows it down to the beige G3s and Wall Street PowerBooks. I’ve run OS X on my Wall Street (266 MHz, 384 MB RAM, 20 GB HD), and while it’s usable, I’m very glad it isn’t my daily driver any more. The unsupported graphics chip (a Rage Pro 4 MB) is a large part of that problem, and it can’t be upgraded. The relatively low 512 MB RAM ceiling (as an aside, I never thought I’d see the day when I’d say a half-GB RAM ceiling was “low”) is also a minor hindrance to running OS X effectively, though anything from 256 MB on up should be sufficient to avoid too much chewing on the hard drive.

OS X is, however, a great improvement over anything OS 9-based for Web and FTP serving, which is the only thing it does now, and I can’t even remember the last time I rebooted it for something other than upgrading software. I remember averaging a couple weeks’ uptime in OS 9 with the Wall Street as my daily driver, and OS X easily quadruples that, when I can avoid software updates for that long.

OS X also brings its share of incompatibilities. The floppy drive (if you still use it) has no official drivers for OS X, though a freeware third-party driver has been written. I’ve never tried it (I sold my floppy drive years ago) but I’ve been told it’s buggy. Those of you with the DVD decoder card will find that OS X refuses to work with that as well. Though I never use either, it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that both the expansion bay Zip and SuperDisk drives have been left behind by OS X as well. (Interestingly, expansion bay devices for the Lombard and Pismo seem to be well-supported in OS X.) If you have a large assortment of 1998-era accessories for your Wall Street, you should perhaps consider sticking with OS 9 until your next upgrade. The upside to this is that your Wall Street is ideally equipped to be a bridge between legacy and modern hardware, with its ADB, SCSI, and serial ports, and any future upgrade should be considerably simplified by this.

The bottom line: if you have a Wall Street as your main machine and you want to run OS X, max out the RAM, stick in the biggest hard disk you can afford, and accept the fact that no amount of upgrading will make your Wall Street feel much better than, well, a IIcx running 7.5 did. If you want to do Web, FTP, e-mail, or other assorted server tasks, use OS X. If you want the most speed and responsiveness, go with OS 9.2.2. And please, make sure you’re running 9.2.2. Those of you stuck with 9.0.x simply need to trek down to your public library, borrow the broadband for an hour, and run Software Update until it doesn’t find anything else.

Because of the greater expansion capabilities of the desktop beige G3s relative to the Wall Street, and because the beige G3s had been around nearly 10 months before the Wall Street shipped, a great deal of the beige G3 hardware has no way of running under OS X. The hardware DVD decoders are all useless, the A/V capabilities of the Personality Card are useless, the floppies are unsupported (but enabled with yet another free third-party driver, reputed to be more reliable than the Wall Street version), and the onboard video is terribly slow (even more so than that in the Wall Street). Fortunately, video cards can be cheaply upgraded (a used Rage 128, the standard in the B&W G3 and a decent video card by most standards, is nearly free, while a low-end Radeon will be under $100), and OS X actually removes one of the biggest ROM problems with the early beige G3s: slave IDE devices are supported just fine under OS X. ZIF upgrades for the CPU, while not officially supported by Apple, mostly work.

As with the Wall Street, if you have a rather basic beige G3, upgrading it to OS X specs and making the transition (which I highly recommend if you plan to stick with the Macintosh as a platform) is largely easy and painless. In fact, beige G3s can be brought up to spec much more cheaply than can Wall Streets, and they can be upgraded further as well. If you were unlucky enough to have bought a tricked-out beige G3, however, you’ll find that most of your specialty hardware won’t work in OS X. As a result, you’ll be better off sticking with OS 9, or selling off the specialty bits and putting that money toward a newer Mac that will run OS X without fuss.

Whew. All this talk of “G-whatever” processors is making my techno-luddite brain hurt. Can someone please suggest a nice System 7-era topic for next month? :-)

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