Mac Musings

Save the G3s: The Case for G3 Support in OS X 10.5 'Leopard'

Dan Knight - 2006.08.22 - Tip Jar

There's been quite a bit of discussion online recently about the future of G3 support in OS X. It looks likely that Apple won't be supporting any G3 Macs with Mac OS X 10.5 "Leopard".

Ouch, that's quite a number of old Macs to eliminate from the upgrade cycle. The oldest G3 Macs, the "Kanga" PowerBook G3 and the beige Power Mac G3, were introduced in November 1997. The last G3 Mac, the 900 MHz iBook, was discontinued in October 2003.

Apple has already dropped support for some G3 models. Kanga has never been officially supported. Beige G3s and WallStreet PowerBooks were only supported through 10.2.x, and tray-loading iMacs and the "Lombard" PowerBook were among the models dropped when 10.4 "Tiger" came out.

I've already made the case (see Mac OS X 10.5 'Leopard': Which Macs Should Make the Cut?) that Apple should support as many old Macs as possible. The only models I can make a case for dropping are the 300-466 MHz clamshell iBooks, and that only because the 800 x 600 display is impractical these days.

The Case for the Cut

Mac OS X has grown over the years, becoming more powerful and requiring more power, particularly for graphics processing. There are features that require a certain amount of video memory, and Macs with less fare poorly in comparison. But they still work.

That said, I have a couple tray-loading iMacs (400 MHz and 500 MHz) with upgraded RAM, and while they run decently with Mac OS X 10.3.x ("Panther), they feel very bogged down with Tiger. That's with 512 MB of RAM and 10.4.7 on a 7200 rpm hard drive in a FireWire enclosure. Panther on the internal drive works better.

I think we can make the case that the user experience suffers when you install a too new OS on an older computer with insufficient RAM, a slow CPU, poky graphics, and an old hard drive. This applies to the classic Mac OS, Windows, and OS X.

I have a 400 MHz PowerBook G4 that runs Tiger comfortably, but it felt faster with Panther. I don't anticipate putting Leopard on it next year. I do plan on putting it on my 1.25 GHz eMac and my 1 GHz dual Power Mac G4.

Maybe a realistic cutoff for Leopard will be anything slower than a 700 MHz G3, 550 MHz single G4 or 400 MHz dual G4. 512 MB is a very realistic minimum, and OS X will always benefit from more RAM. Dropping support for Macs with less than 16 MB of VRAM might also be realistic.

This would allow Apple to continue support for the more recent G3 models, especially the 700 MHz "summer 2001" iMac G3 and the faster G3 iBooks. I think it's realistic to support 6-year-old Macs on the trailing edge when Leopard ships in 2007.

A Modest Suggestion

I'd like to see Apple continue to support G3 Macs - and to make it clear that Leopard will be very demanding of older hardware. Maybe they could package it with minimum hardware requirements and suggested hardware requirements:

  • 400 MHz G3 minimum; 700 MHz G3 recommended
  • 512 MB minimum; 768 MB recommended
  • 16 MB video RAM minimum; 32 MB recommended

And so forth, allowing those with older iMacs, iBooks, and the like to continue buying OS upgrades without having to fiddle with third-party installers.

A Little Advice

Mac users have been debating the optimal OS since the System 7 era, when we had to choose between the flat out speed of System 6.0.x or the flexibility of System 7 (or 7.1, 7.5.x, or 7.6.1). I lean toward features, while others lean toward speed. It's a question of which efficiency - helpful features vs. raw power - best fits your needs.

I'd suggest that Apple was pretty realistic in dropping support for the beige G3 and WallStreet PowerBooks with 10.3. While you can install it with XPostFacto, unless you've upgraded the CPU, maximized RAM, and put in a faster hard drive, you'll find Panther fairly sluggish.

Likewise, running Tiger on a 500 MHz iMac with 512 MB of RAM works, but I feel that it's passed the tipping point between adding great new features and bogging down the computer. Panther works very nicely, though.

It's going to be the same thing with Leopard. There will be Macs that can run it, but hands on experience will show you were better off with Tiger - or maybe even Panther. (Although I use Tiger on all of my G4 Macs, I suspect that Panther had all the features I really needed, and I know it ran more smoothly.)

Don't go too far with your OS upgrades. A Mac Plus can run 7.5.5, but most users will be happier with 6.0.x or 7.1. A PowerBook 1400 can run 9.x, but 8.1 or 7.6.1 will run a lot more smoothly. A 900 MHz iBook G3 will probably be able to run Leopard, but it might not be the optimal operating system for it.

Still, I'd like to see Apple give as many of us as possible the opportunity to officially install and use Leopard on our Macs. And cutting off all G3 Macs would definitely be going too far.

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Dan Knight has been using Macs since 1986, sold Macs for several years, supported them for many more years, and has been publishing Low End Mac since April 1997. If you find Dan's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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