Charles Moore's Mailbag

Leopard Best OS for G4 PowerBooks, Support Expectations from Apple, Back to Opera, and More

Charles Moore - 2008.07.09 - Tip Jar

Is Leopard the Best OS for a 12" PowerBook?

From John Muir:

Hi Charles,

I have the very same PowerBook as Greg: the original 867 MHz 12" PowerBook G4. It's my first Mac, and as such I'm still rather attached to it. It has run every version of OS X since Jaguar, right up to and including Leopard. Each major release has been an improvement in its own way, though Leopard was the first time there has really been any decrease in overall speed.

For just about a year I ran Tiger on this Mac from a CompactFlash card, as I wrote about in Operation FlashBook: Running Tiger from Flash on a PowerBook G4.

The flash experiment probably helped inure me to slower performance. Tiger on my conventional hard drive had always been quite snappy and certainly faster than Jaguar, but when the drive started off on its journey to failure, long pauses started to appear as data was being held up, so I knew I had to replace it. Flash was certainly an interesting way to do this, carrying the advantage of pure silence. But once again all was not well there, and the poor performance I wrote about in the article was the first sign of the flash card's similar demise.

When Leopard came out, I bought a new hard drive and installed 10.5 afresh. It was not fast. Better than the very flaky flash performance, which had only become worse since I wrote the article, but definitely not the PowerBook of old. I suspected the 640 MB of memory I had installed, an old upgrade from back in the Panther days when the factory installed 256 MB was no longer enough. A surprisingly cheap upgrade to the model's absolute maximum of 1152 MB later, and Leopard was notably better behaved.

RAM upgrades are vital for keeping old machines on new software.

RAM upgrades are vital for keeping old machines on new software. If you space them out long enough, you'll pay less for the bigger, later ones as the industry's price curve crossed before you.

Anyway, how is Leopard overall now?

Well, much better than I had to say Tiger was in that article. I won't pretend Leopard feels identical on an 867 MHz G4 to, say, the 2 GHz Core 2 Duo in my Mac mini, but it's at least as usable as I found my original Mac OS: Jaguar. I have Safari, iChat, Mail. and NetNewsWire running continuously, and they're well behaved and almost as quick as on the Intel. The difference comes when you try something more demanding: I do a lot with video on the mini and it's an order of magnitude ahead of the little PowerBook. The iWork suite's word processor, Pages, is quite sluggish on the PowerBook, which surprised me at first - until I tried the other iWork 2008 apps as well. They run far better on Intels. Of course, TextEdit is as speedy and better featured than most people know anyway, so no real trouble there.

With high performance demands comes a lot of heat. As you know, these original 12" PowerBooks aren't the coolest runners among Apple's laptops. Since I loathe fans coming on too, I use Reduced Performance CPU mode (found in System Preferences) to control that. In fact, I made a pair of AppleScripts to toggle the setting and can "flip the switch" with just the function keys whenever I like, thanks to FastScripts. The other side of the equation is a nifty utility called iStat Menus, which I have displaying a CPU history graph and temperature reading up in the menu bar next to Time Machine and AirPort. Of course, I'm just the kind of geek who likes these readings anyway, and I have the same displayed on my Mac mini for no better reason than curiosity!

I'm pushing the PowerBook extra hard with one last thing. I'm learning Cocoa programming at last, so I have the latest Apple developer tools installed, including the iPhone SDK. Technically, the minimum requirement is an Intel Mac, but I use FireWire target mode and my trusty Mac mini to overcome that obstacle each time there's a new beta! Surprisingly, all the apps involved are Universal Binary, so I can even run the iPhone simulator on my five-year-old 12" Mac. Not bad. Xcode is noticeably sluggish on my G4 compared to the Intel Mac mini, where it feels more at home, but this way I can keep learning when I'm away from my desk as well.

To be honest, I would always run the latest supported OS, as I'm too involved with the new technologies each version introduces under the hood. I'm also forever experimenting with third party software, and a lot of that follows the latest releases for just the same reason. In other words: I'm a features over performance man.

Leopard doubtlessly runs better on Intel Macs than G4s. And when Snow Leopard comes around, I'll need new hardware at last to keep up with it. But what is amazing is the value you can get out of your Mac, years and years after you bought it.

John

Hi John,

Thanks for the interesting observations and analysis.

Judging from the sort of performance I'm getting with Leopard on this 1.33 GHz 17" PowerBook with 1.5 GB of RAM, I don't doubt that it must be a pretty sluggish cat on a 867 MHz G4 with just over a gig. of memory.

Tiger is the optimum performance system on this 'Book, and on my two old 550 MHz G4 Pismos as well, but as you say, features can trump performance, and Leopard runs well enough on the 1.33 unit for me to put up with the performance compromises and other angularities, although I wouldn't think of attempting to run Leopard on the Pismos.

Incidentally, Tiger 10.4.11 runs very well on my wife's 700 MHz G3 iBook.

I expect to be upgrading to a Macintel before the end of the year, mostly because I need Intel support for software reviews. I don't really need more power than this old G4 provides for my actual work tasking, much of which I actually still do on the old Pismos, which I still like better than any other Macs I've ever owned.

Charles

Leopard on TiBook, Apple a Gamble, and Linux

From Jeffrey:

Charles,

Leopard on TiBook:

I find that my TiBook handles Leopard acceptably well. I find it only slightly less responsive than it was under Tiger. My battery life is still very good (~3.75 hours). I find it significantly more responsive than a 600 MHz G3 iBook running Tiger.

That was a supported configuration that I didn't care for using on a daily basis, whereas my TiBook is a supported configuration that I find usable. That said, using the TiBook makes me enjoy using my Quicksilver (2 800 MHz G4s, Radeon 9000 Pro, 1.5 GB RAM, 146 GB 15K SCSI) all the more, because that machine has both video and hard drive upgrades that make it quite responsive with Leopard. You may find it interesting to note that a dual 800 Quicksilver is not a supported configuration, and I prefer it over my supported TiBook (867 MHz, 1.0 GB RAM, 80 GB hard drive).

Apple a Gamble?

I have come to expect Apple to support good hardware for a long time, and I expect Apple to continue to support any hardware that can reasonably run the latest OS.

You know I read all these articles saying "get over it" with regard to PPC and Snow Leopard, and I've been struggling with why I feel so negatively about that. Basically my response is that I have come to expect Apple to support good hardware for a long time, and I expect Apple to continue to support any hardware that can reasonably run the latest OS.

Yes, I've seen Apple support some hardware too long (e.g., 7.5.5 on a Mac Plus, 9.1 on a Duo 2300c and a Power Mac 6100, etc.). Really, I do appreciate that providing support too long doesn't really does do anyone any favors. Those systems were not adequate to do the latest operating systems justice, and really there was no use it supporting them. I have no good reason to believe that OS 8.6 would have run well on a 68040, and I tried running 8.1 on a 68030 (because I could), and it wasn't my best user experience either.

Unsupported status for my Quicksilver was the first time I ever found a machine that Apple stopped supporting that I thought was more than adequate for the task. Not a problem, because there were ways to run it anyway. Still, a video upgrade was all that was required . . . no different than adding extra RAM to a machine, is it?

But if I had bought a computer the price of a G5 dual or quad machine, even at Apple refurbished prices, and Apple not only stopped supporting it, but I couldn't even run the most current software "unsupported" after less than four years, I would feel very angry and virtually betrayed. I find it impossible to believe that these machines, especially the ones with dedicated graphics cards, would be "inadequate" to run an operating system capable of running on a Core Solo Mac mini or even a MacBook with GMA 950 graphics.

But the bottom line for me is this: Why should I believe, based upon Apple's current path, that an Apple computer that I purchase new today will be supported beyond three years from now? How can I rationalize a decision to purchase a new Apple computer if they do not continue to demonstrate a reasonable period of support, especially for their flagship models?

In a nutshell, I can't.

Before I am going to be comfortable with the idea that Apple is going to cut a bunch of G5s off at the knees with the release of Snow Leopard, I need to hear why I should believe that isn't going to happen to me next time . . . when the 128-bit 16-core subnotebooks running PA Semi's latest low-power chipset set represent such a leap-forward in technology that you poor folks who have those pathetic Xeon quad core machines should just get over it and be thankful for the 3.5 years of support that you got. Perhaps a bit over-dramatic, but I think the question is still valid. And the answer...?

Why Not Linux?

Some say, don't worry, if you want to stay current, you can run Linux on your Mac.

That's true.

And to that I would say when I choose to run Linux, I have a greater variety of hardware configurations and alternatives better supported by Linux if I don't buy Apple.

Ditto for *BSD.

Jeffrey

Hi Jeffrey,

I think that the issue with PPC support and Snow Leopard is a somewhat unique one, with the dynamic in play unlikely to be repeated. It isn't as if PPC users are being cut adrift. I expect Leopard support and security upgrades will continue for years to come yet.

The thing with Snow Leopard, as I (no doubt imperfectly) understand it, is that most of the things that will functionally distinguish OS X 10.6 from OS X 10.5 will be features that are closely integrated with Intel's rapidly developing chip technologies, so even if Snow Leopard continued to contain the code to boot PowerPC machines, it would still in a functional sense be Leopard with a name upgrade on non-Intel machines.

Consequently, I can understand Apple's (presumed) decision not to extend PPC support at the expense of compromised performance on Intel Macs and code bloat - and I'm speaking as one whose last system purchase was a G4 30 months ago.

Actually, I think even Leopard is one version too far for this 1.33 GHz G4, but the Leopard feature set has seduced me.

Charles

Depreciation and Value for the Money

From Yuhong Bao:

The combination of depreciation and value for the money always leads me to buy into the mid-end.

Yuhong Bao

Hi Yuhong Bao,

I think that's often a wise policy.

For example, the "mid-end" MacBook is definitely the best value of the three configurations Apple offers.

However, when there's no "mid-end", as with the 15" MacBook Pro, my inclination would be to go with the low-end (so to speak) model, which I think is a substantially better value for the money than the high-end model (which costs 25% more and doesn't really deliver proportionately in terms of power and value added).

Charles

Forget Firefox - I'm Going Back to Opera

From Leif:

Hi Charles - found this, Forget Firefox - I'm Going Back to Opera for Browsing and Email, but you perhaps already saw it.

(Sent from Opera. Not that I have really switched.)

lh

Hi Leif,

Thanks for the link. I hadn't seen that article, and it's an excellent apologetic for Opera.

I've been using both Opera 9.5 (now 9.5.1) and Firefox 3 since they were released almost simultaneously last month, and they're both good browsers, but Opera is superior by a substantial margin, mostly because of a whole host of little things and without even factoring in the embedded email client.

The latter I'm finding very tempting as I continue to struggle along with not-quite-Leopard-compatible Eudora 6.2.4. Two things hold me back, the first being a dozen years of experience and archived messages in Eudora, along with the fact that it's still the best email client ever designed, while the second is hope that Odysseus development will come to fruition soon with a stable and reliable modernized interpretation of that Eudora goodness.

Charles

Voice Dictation Software for PowerPC Macs

From Nancy:

Dear Charles,

I read and enjoy your columns a great deal, and we have corresponded in the past. Although I'm sure with the volume of email you receive, you don't recall. (It was about laptop cooling pads, I believe.)

Anyway, there is a family of Mac users in my town whom I try to help, and one of them called me today with a problem. She suffers from neck pain, and is finding it difficult to type for long periods on the iBook G4 12" that she inherited from her sister (who in turn got it from my son!). It's the 1 GHz model with 786 MB RAM, running Tiger 10.4.11. She called me today asking what voice dictation software she could purchase. I remember reading your reviews of MacSpeech's iListen, so I went straight to their website and was dismayed to find that iListen is no longer available, and that MacSpeech Dictate is Intel-only.

So my question to you is, are there any sources where she might still be able to purchase iListen? Or are there any other apps she might be able to use instead? I seem to recall that iListen was pretty much it for the Mac.

Thank you for your assistance, as I know how busy you are.

Best,
Nancy

Hi Nancy,

Thank you for the kind words about my scribbling. I think I do recall our correspondence about the cooling pads, but can't place it precisely in time.

I learned something from your letter, to wit: that MacSpeech has discontinued iListen sales, which is disappointing. I'm still using iListen myself, as I have not yet switched up from my old G4 PowerBook. I assume that the reason for dropping it was that supporting two completely different dictation products would stretch a small company's resources too thinly, and there may also be issues with costs for continuing to license the Philips Speech Engine used in iListen as well as the Dragon NaturallySpeaking engine used in Dictate. That is all just deduction on my part.

Anyway, what I would suggest for your friend is to get a copy of IBM ViaVoice 10 for Mac, although development was suspended some time ago, and it only supports up to OS X 10.3.9, so your friend would be obliged to "downgrade" her operating system to Panther from Tiger. ViaVoice for Mac is still available from Nuance.com for $124.99 including an Andrea USB microphone. The 1 GHz 12" iBook does support OS X 10.3, which is the OS it shipped with.

I used ViaVoice quite a bit in the early days of OS X (and also older Classic Mac OS versions), and it is actually pretty decent dictation software in the context of its era, although not up to the standard of Dictate and later versions of iListen.

Charles

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Charles Moore has been a freelance journalist since 1987 and began writing for Mac websites in May 1998. His The Road Warrior column was a regular feature on MacOpinion, he is news editor at Applelinks.com and a columnist at MacPrices.net. If you find his articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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