My Apple Laptops: Past, Present, and Future

2009 – I had an email Monday from my daughter, who is the current custom users of our old WallStreet PowerBook, telling me that she had succeeded in getting OS X 10.4 .11 Tiger installed on the venerable ‘Book. This was particularly interesting, because I had myself failed in several attempts over the years that I used that machine to get even OS X 10.2 Jaguar installed. Unlike Tiger, it’s officially supported.

WallStreet PowerBook G3The WallStreet has 192 MB of RAM, so what I find amazing is that Tiger runs at all, but she says that while it is RAM-challenged in some ways, it’s not bad. iTunes works and “runs well”, and Firefox is actually fast surfing the Web even with images enabled.

She installed 10.4 via SCSI Disk Mode from her old Umax SuperMac S900 that has a 350 MHz G3 processor upgrade and is itself running Tiger. Using Disk Utility to move the correct Unix files, and Ryan Rempel’s XPostFacto installer hack to trigger the boot into OS X, she says it crashed the first time booting up but has worked great ever since – and it’s fast online, a lot faster than the Umax even though it has only a 233 MHz G3 processor.

My daughter is an IT person for a large hotel chain’s computer network, a former Windows XP telephone tech support agent, and has a Hackintosh Dell desktop (which is blazingly fast running OS X 10.5 Leopard) and a way with old computer hardware, so if anyone could get Tiger to work on that WallStreet, it would have been her.

Swapfile Deterioration

13-inch Aluminum MacBookMeanwhile, back at the ranch, as it were, I’ve settled in pretty comfortably with the 2 GHz Unibody MacBook. It’s proving delightfully stable, but I did finally have to reboot it on Saturday to clear the virtual memory swapfile stack after two weeks of production uptime when things abruptly slowed down to the speed of continental drift.

My limit with the G4 PowerBook and its 1.5 GB of RAM was usually around the 7-10 day mark, so this represents an improvement, even though I’m still using just the stock 2 GB of RAM – some of which is being bled off by the Nvidia GeForce 9400M integrated graphics.

The performance deterioration from swapfile buildup on the PowerPC ‘Book was more gradual.

When I upgrade to 4 GB – or even 6 GB (which I’m informed is supported) – I anticipate that I’ll be able to go longer between reboots, which are not my favorite thing, to understate the issue. I typically have 20 or more applications up and running scattered among nine Spaces and including at least three browsers with arrays of tabs open, so shutting all this down in an orderly fashion and then restoring my workspace is a roughly half-hour investment in time that I can usually ill afford. My grievously slow dialup Internet connection doesn’t help at all.

Apple’s USB Modem

Unhappily, neither does the lackadaisical performance of Apple’s expensive USB modem, and both the PowerBook G4 and our Pismos with their internal modems are more lively (not really the appropriate word to use in this context, but you get the drift) dialup Web performers than the Core 2 Duo Intel MacBook with the external modem, and I deduce that the modem is probably the bottleneck.

I suppose I should be happy that it works at all, since Apple evidently doesn’t care much about its customers who are obliged to use (or prefer to for economic reasons) dialup connections.

Opera Turbo

What has helped mitigate the slowdown is Opera’s timely release of the Opera Turbo browser public preview, which for online tasks that it works with (i.e.: when image quality is not a significant priority) speeds things up by a much greater magnitude than the external modem has slowed them down. It almost makes surfing non-frustrating on this setup.

Notice that I said “almost.”

The Opera Turbo preview is alpha quality software. Its performance is definitely a bit ragged on some websites, and it gags on a few like Environment Canada’s radar image site, but it’s amazingly capable, and seems to have Opera’s typically satisfying resistance to crashing and lockups, proving very stable in nearly two weeks of production use.

MacSpeech Dictate

I mentioned in last week’s update of my MacBook orientation saga that I had hoped to get the time to install MacSpeech Dictate this week, and I finally got around to that on Saturday afternoon after the reboot. I’ve been using MacSpeech’s iListen dictation software since it was in its early public beta stages back in the late 90s or early 00s (I don’t recall exactly when it was rolled out, but I think it was at Macworld Expo 2000), so I have plenty of experience with dictation software, which indeed has kept me in business through periods when my polyneuritis and fibromyalgia were flaring.

Installing Dictate wasn’t a simple drag-and-drop, but the training necessary was refreshingly brief, and this application is in a whole different dimension from iListen, which had been pretty decent for the last few versions of its development and has now been discontinued.

iListen was good, but the best early days descriptive I can think of for Dictate is effortless. With iListen, even at its best on the G4 laptops, one felt like one was working and had to remain conscious of sloppy pronunciation and so forth. With Dictate, I’m finding that I can just babble away and still find the accuracy impressive with only the initial five minutes or so of training. The Dragon NaturallySpeaking speech engine is quite obviously vastly superior to the Philips speech engine that was used in iListen, and, of course, the MacBook’s Core 2 Duo processor power is made to be utilized by processor-hungry operations like dictation transcription. This is great! (I’m dictating this column into Dictate’s notepad.)

The Now and Future Mac

I titled this column My Apple Laptops: Past, Present, and Future. I’m intending that this MacBook will be my computer future for some time to come, but I have a suspicion that if Apple ever does come out with a netbook type laptop (a overgrown iPod touch tablet wouldn’t entice me much), I’ll find it hard to resist if the price is half decently reasonable.

purported MacBook miniThe Mac Web was saturated yesterday with reports and commentary on purported leaks of photographs of a “MacBook mini” in a Russian magazine. There are several improbabilities in the specifications cited that incline one to the suspicion that this is a sophisticatedly executed hoax, although as The Register’s Tony Smith muses, “It could certainly be a good piece of Photoshoppery, but we note that the function key line contains 13 keys. The Air has 14. Would a faker working from MacBook and MacBook Air snaps really think to take out a single Fn key?”

Interesting point and food for thought.