A Place for the Classic Mac OS in the Age of Snow Leopard

Mac OS X is a brilliant operating system. But what about the “Classic” Mac OS in the Age of Snow Leopard?

In it’s early versions, OS X was quite slow and full of bugs. Version 10.3 Panther was the first fully stable version, but it was still slow. OS X 10.4 Tiger introduced a lot of new features, was much more streamlined, and somewhat faster. Version 10.5 Leopard built on the success of Tiger and offered some new features, but it did cut out a lot of older hardware. Apple’s latest offering, OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard, offers yet more features – but it has cut off all PowerPC hardware.

My general rule of thumb: If you have an Intel Mac, run Snow Leopard. If you have a G4 capable of running Leopard, run it. If you have a G3 over 300 MHz, run Tiger. For anything less powerful, stick to the Classic Mac OS.

The Classic Mac OS

Mac OS 8.6 and 9.2.2 are two of the best versions of the Classic Mac OS – and in some ways, the best Mac operating systems altogether. But do they still have a place in this world of high-end, super-fast, multicore, Macs running Snow Leopard?

In short: Yes, I think the Classic Mac OS does have a place. It is a very capable OS that still has its followers, and there are still a handful of developers writing software for it.

Apple introduced OS X in September 2000 with the release of the Public Beta. Classic Mode, which runs Mac OS 9 “virtualised” within OS X, was supported until version 10.5 was released in October 2007. Macs could still boot into Mac OS 9 (in contrast to using Classic Mode) until the first FireWire 800 Power Mac G4 (January 2003), the 2004 eMac, and the February 2003 iMacs were released, which require a version of OS X.

Some of the G4s that still booting natively into OS 9.2.2 can also run 10.5. I have happily dual booted both systems on my 867 MHz Titanium PowerBook G4. (Editor’s note: Ditto for the three dual-processor G4 Power Macs at Low End Mac headquarters, which range in speed from 500 MHz to 1.6 GHz.)

My first Mac was a 266 MHz Beige G3 tower running OS 9.2.2, and it ran like a dream. It wasn’t until I upgraded to a 400 MHz iMac G3 that I also upgraded to Mac OS X – version 10.2 if I remember correctly.

Since then I have had various low-end Macs, like the gorgeous PowerBook 1400cs, running a meager 117 MHz pre-G3 PowerPC 603e processor. Originally it had OS 8.6, and it ran beautifully. I upped it to OS 9.1, and it did struggle a little – more due to it’s low RAM limit (64 MB) than its processing power.

Software Limitations

The Classic Mac OS isn’t going to suit everyone’s needs. It might be old, but it certainly isn’t useless. It can still run major programs, including Microsoft Office, Adobe Photoshop, and Quark Xpress – albeit slightly older versions.

You can use Microsoft Outlook Express, Microsoft Outlook, or older versions of Eudora for email.

One area that you might struggle under is web browsing. Commercial browsers dropped support for OS 9 a long time ago, so you would have to run an old browser, such as Microsoft Internet Explorer or Netscape. Firefox was developed for OS 9 up until version 1.5.

There is a browser still in development for the Classic Mac OS, Classilla. Classilla is built on WaMCom (which was developed up until 2003), which itself was a port of Mozilla. Classilla is probably the closest to Firefox that you will get with the Classic Mac OS.

Another relatively modern browser that supports the Classic Mac is iCab 3.0.5.

With any of the browsers – even Classilla – you will run into problems. While the browser might be updated, web plugins such as Flash won’t be, so sites requiring versions of Flash newer than 7 won’t load properly, but you should have a fairly comfortable web experience. (If you are using an OS that is now nine years out of production, you expect to run into a few problems.)

Good Enough for Basic Tasks

For a basic machine, the Classic Mac OS can be useful. And even a sub-100 MHz PowerBook can run fast enough to keep the average user happy on the road.

Would I recommend going further back? Personally, no. While System 7 and Mac OS 8.1 were great in their day, there is a limit to how functional they can be. Other factors limit your choices, such as networking protocols and connections, as well as transferring files to other newer machines and the rest of the modern world.

If you want a simple machine to write a book on, then a monochrome Macintosh SE running System 7 could do it – or a PowerBook 140 if you wanted to do it on the move. But even I have my limits of retro-ness.

Grab a PowerBook 1400cs – which in my opinion has one of the best typing keyboards ever – stick on Mac OS 8.6, put in an ethernet card or wireless card, and take it everywhere you go.

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