The Apple world rarely rests, and talks are already beginning about the next release of Mac OS X.
I am typing this on my 2009 MacBook with OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion installed (see last week’s First Impressions of OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion). It has only been a few days. The initial dust has settled, and I am enjoying Mountain Lion very much, a welcome tweak over OS X 10.7 Lion.
I don’t want this to be a focus on what cat name it’s going to have – Mountain Goat has already been mocking its way round the Net, and perhaps Cheetah might be more appropriate (except that Apple already used it for OS X 10.0), but this is a serious look at what OS X 10.9 could mean for the current Mac owners.
It looks like Apple is going for an annual release for each new version of its computer operating system, bringing it more in line with its portable operating system, iOS.
With the last three releases of OS X, Apple has made serious jumps in terms of hardware requirements and dropped masses of Macs in the name of progress, much to the annoyance of a lot of loyal Apple fans.
Macs Left Behind
OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard was released in August 2009 and dropped support for PowerPC hardware. This was a fairly predictable move. Intel Macs were first released in January 2006 running OS X 10.4 Tiger, which had launched in April 2005. Apple ran parallel Intel and PowerPC versions of Tiger, and OS X 10.5 Leopard (October 2007) was a unified release that could be installed on both Intel or PowerPC hardware. OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard was a streamlined version of Leopard. Dropping the older architecture gave Apple the opportunity to tweak it to take advantage of the newer, faster hardware.
Snow Leopard was met with glorious approval, some saying it was “to Intel, what Tiger was to PPC”.
10.7 Lion was released in 2011 and runs only on Core 2 Duo and newer Macs. To be fair, there were less than 20 Mac models/revisions with a Core Duo processor. Within less than 10 months of beginning the transition to Intel, Apple released Macs with Core 2 Duo processors, meaning Lion only cut out a small range of Intel Macs.
10.8 Mountain Lion released only a few days ago, raising the bar again. This time running only on Core 2 Duo Macs with the capability of booting to a full 64-bit kernel and ditching some of the older graphics chips like the integrated Intel GMA950 and X3100.
In a previous article, I outlined Apple’s major/minor release strategy for OS X. Leopard was major; Snow Leopard was minor – a speed tweak. Lion was major; Mountain Lion is minor – another speed tweak.
This is where I think Apple will change its strategy. I don’t think OS X 10.9 will increase hardware requirements over 10.8. If your Mac can run 10.8, I think it will be safe to say it will be able to run 10.9 too.
Apple has to be careful that it is not charging too fast ahead. The average Mac costs at least twice the price of its Windows counterpart, and with that you expect some support – and not to be dropped inside three years. The Mac world has become very hostile to Apple’s development strategy of late, and Apple seriously risks annoying the loyal fan base that once dragged it out of almost financial ruin.
What else can be dropped? There is no further hardware that can be dropped without culling machines that are two years old, and that is a risky thing to do.
Snow Leopard cut off PowerPC, so it was Intel only. That’s a clear line.
Lion cut off Core Duo Macs, pushing towards 64-bit only. That’s a clear line.
Mountain Lion cut out all Macs with poor graphics chips and 32-bit EFI. That is pushing it a little, as some Core 2 Duo Macs that are capable of running 64-bit software can’t actually boot to a 64-bit kernel due to Apple crippling their EFI to 32-bit only. Still a clear line. 64-bit is where they wanted to go.
The biggest upset is the original 2006 Mac Pro and the 8-core Mac Pro both from 2007, which have 64-bit processors, decent graphics cards (not even shared graphics), and a RAM ceiling higher than the Eiffel Tower – yet both were dropped in Mountain Lion due to crippled EFI.
It Can’t Drop Integrated Graphics
At first, I thought Apple might drop machines with integrated graphics, which shares system memory with the CPU. However, Mountain Lion supports Macs with 256 MB graphics RAM – used in the 2009 Mac mini, 2009 MacBook, and 2007 MacBook Pro.
It wasn’t until 2011 that the Mac mini increased its shared video RAM to 288 MB, and the Mid 2011 MacBook Air still used 256 MB shared video RAM, both using Intel HD Graphics 3000. With 10.9 scheduled for release in 2013, I can’t see Apple ditching a machine that is possibly less than two years old.
No MacBooks, which Apple stopped producing in 2010, came with more than 256 MB video memory.
Could It Be RAM
The minimum RAM for Lion and Mountain Lion is 2 GB. While Lion struggles a little with 2 GB RAM – although that depends on what you do on it – Mountain Lion shouldn’t, as it is faster and more streamlined. Both run very well under 4 GB RAM.
There hasn’t been a Mac not capable of taking 4 GB RAM since the Mid 2009 MacBook Air. All other Macs in 2009 could run 4 GB and upwards. So even if OS X 10.9 requires 4 GB RAM, it would only cut out the Mid 2009 MacBook Air.
I can’t see Apple suddenly requiring 8 GB of RAM – that is a little too ridiculous. Firstly, because that is a massive increase, and they would need a very good reason for upping it, and secondly, because that would mean the Mid 2011 MacBook Air would be cut. (They could say DDR3 RAM instead of DDR2, but that would also be ridiculous.)
Oddly, the Late 2008 MacBook tops at 8 GB RAM and runs DDR3, however the Early and Mid 2009 White (last white models) MacBook top at 6 GB RAM and runs DDR2. The Late 2009 goes back to unibody, 8 GB, and DDR3. The 17″ Late 2008 MacBook Pro also uses DDR2 topping at 6 GB sandwiched in between the 15″ Late 2008 and 17″ Early 2009 MacBook Pros that use DDR3 and 8 GB.
3 Gbps SATA
What about hard drive speed? All Macs since late 2008 have used 3 Gbps SATA revision 2 (with the possible exception of the 2008/2009 MacBook Air – I am unsure of its speed – and the original Early 2008 MacBook Air, which used PATA).
All of these are supported in Mountain Lion.
Apple’s new thing is to make its computer operating system more like its portable operating system, with the addition of swipes and multitouch input. I can’t see this being a deciding factor, as this would only affect laptops.
All MacBooks, MacBook Pros, and MacBook Airs support double-tap, dragging, and scrolling. However, from the Late 2008 Aluminum MacBook onwards, all MacBook Airs and the 15″ Early 2008 MacBook Pro onwards all support multi-gesture or multitouch, with the exception being once again the Early and Mid 2009 MacBook.
A fully touch-based interface similar to the iPad/iPhone is likely to be where Apple is heading eventually as the computing world is sliding towards portability – and with the decline in desktop computer sales in preference for laptops, tablets, and smartphones. The final merge between OS X and iOS, possibly in 2014 or 2015, could coincide with Apple running out of single digit numbers in the “10 point” scheme and it being called iOS X or something similar.
There doesn’t seem a clear set of rules that Apple could use to determine which machines should and should not run OS X 10.9 without it cutting off some very new hardware.
I think any Mac able to run Mountain Lion today will be able to run 10.9 when it is released next year. I personally hope this is so, as my Early 2009 MacBook suits me: It does everything I need and runs Mountain Lion very well.
It would also give me longer to work out what I am going to do when my Mac finally stops being capable of running the latest OS. I am crossing my fingers and hoping that Apple relents its requirement hikes just for one OS release and gives those of us on a tighter budget a little longer at the top.
One thing for certain is, if Apple keep steam rolling ahead with OS roll outs and leaving perfectly good and very fast machines by the roadside, there will be a lot more low-end Macs ahead.
Once upon a time a 300 MHz G3 with 256 MB RAM and 8 MB graphics chip that was ten years old was considered low-end. Now a 2 GHz Core 2 Duo with 6 GB RAM and 144 MB graphics chip that is barely five years old is considered low-end by Apple.
How times change.