The Practical Mac

The Road to Obsolescence: Intel Core Duo Users Will Be Left Behind

- 2010.01.19 - Tip Jar

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Attention owners of the original Intel Macs: If you have not already done so, you might want to upgrade your systems to Mac OS X 10.6 "Snow Leopard". It may well be the last Mac OS that you will be able to run on your Core Solo or Core Duo system.

Each version of Mac OS X, with the exception of Puma (10.1) and Jaguar (10.2), has increased the hardware requirements for installation beyond those of its predecessor, essentially obsoleting another group of Macs from running the current version of OS X (more on this below).

The following chart is a timeline of each major version of Mac OS X up to the present, along with its release date and a brief description of the hardware that particular version "left behind". The last column lists the minimum potential age of the obsoleted hardware. In other words, this column reflects the latest date you could have bought a new (current model) Mac and have it be officially unsupported by the corresponding version of Mac OS X. In some cases, there may have been more than one obsoleted Mac available on that date, but for simplicity, I only listed one representative model. For example, the last date you could have purchased a PowerBook G3 "Kanga" as new was May 4, 1998. Had you done so, when Apple released Mac OS X 10.0 "Cheetah" 2 years, 10 months, and 21 days later, you would have found your PowerBook unsupported by the then-current version of the Mac OS.

A Brief History of Mac OS X

Version Code Name Release Date Hardware Left Behind Time Until Obsolescence
10.0 Cheetah Mar 24, 2001 Pre-G3 PPC 2 years, 10 months, 21 days (PowerBook G3 Kanga; May 4, 1998)
10.1 Puma Sep 25, 2001 Same as 10.0 3 years, 4 months, 22 days (PowerBook G3 Kanga; May 4, 1998)
10.2 Jaguar Aug 24, 2002 Same as 10.0 4 years, 3 months, 21 days (PowerBook G3 Kanga; May 4, 1998)
10.3 Panther Oct 24, 2003 G3 systems without built-in USB* (Old-World ROM G3) 4 years, 9 months, 24 days (Beige G3s; Jan 1, 1999)
10.4 Tiger Apr 29, 2005 New-World ROM G3 without built-in FireWire* 4 years, 7 months, 17 days (clamshell iBook; Sep 13, 2000)
10.5 Leopard Oct 26, 2007 all G3; G4 below 867 MHz 3 years, 6 months, 8 days (12" iBook G4/800; Apr 19, 2004)
10.6 Snow Leopard Aug 28, 2009 All PowerPC 3 years, 22 days (Power Mac G5 Quad; Aug 7, 2006)
10.7 Cougar?
Lynx?
Lion?
unknown Intel CoreDuo / Core Solo systems? As of Jan 19, 2010: 2 years, 5 months, 13 days (Mac Mini Core Duo; Aug 7, 2007)

* USB and FIreWire are not functional requirements

Unsupported Doesn't Mean Impossible

Much of the hardware left behind appears to be based on arbitrary decisions by Apple rather than technical limitations. For example, many pre-G3 PowerPC systems can be made to run Mac OS X versions up through and including Jaguar, and all G3-based Macs (except the PowerBook G3 "Kanga") can run OS X versions up to and including Tiger through the use of third-party installers such as XPostFacto. Sub-867 MHz G4 Macs can run Leopard by entering a command in the Mac's Open Firmware interface to fool the Leopard Installer into thinking it has a clock rate of 867 MHz or greater.

Except for features requiring specific hardware (e.g., graphics acceleration, DVD burning), the operating system offers the same functionality as on the officially supported hardware. Leopard is a partial exception to this rule. It cannot be made to run stably on G3 systems, as the G3 processor lacks AltiVec, a requirement for 10.5 on PowerPCs. The 867 MHz minimum for a G4 system is, however, artificial.

Intel Is Absolute

That's where the comparison ends. Nothing can be done to make OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard run on any PowerPC hardware. It is a technical impossibility, as the PowerPC and Intel processor families are fundamentally different in their architecture. This is not an arbitrary decision; it really is a technical limitation.

The chart above is somewhat deceiving. At first glance, it appears that Apple's officially supported hardware remained unchanged through three iterations of Mac OS X. However, anyone who has used OS X from the beginning, as I have (I bought the public beta on the day of its release), knows that this is misleading. Cheetah and Puma were really just extensions of the public beta.

It was not until the release of Jaguar that most people considered Mac OS X ready for prime time. It was only with the release of Jaguar that many Mac users started booting OS X as the default OS. Happy MacUp until its release, most of us continued to boot into OS 9 (though Apple made OS X the default startup OS on new Macs beginning with the release of the 10.1.2 update). As a side note, the Happy Mac, which had appeared during the Mac OS startup sequence for almost 18 years, was replaced with a large grey Apple logo in Mac OS X 10.2. Whether intentional or not, this clearly signaled the beginning of a new era.

Development of the Mac OS brought usability up to mainstream standards in Jaguar. With the next major release, Panther, the time span encompassing supported hardware peaked at a record of 4 years, 9 months, 24 days. From that point, there has been a steady downward crawl in the officially supported life span of Macs.

Anticipating OS X 10.7

If Mac OS X 10.7 were released today (Jan 19, 2010) and if it supported only 64-bit Intel processors (the Core 2 Duo models), the minimum potential age of the obsoleted hardware would be 2 years, 5 months, 13 days. However, if 10.7 were released on Aug 28, 2010, exactly one year after the release of 10.6, the minimum potential age of the obsoleted hardware would be 3 years, 22 days - exactly the same age as the hardware obsoleted by 10.6 and well within the curve of where the phase-out time span is trending.

Obsoleting hardware with newer operating systems does not necessarily make for an evil company, as long as it does so on a reasonable schedule. The new Mac you buy today should not be unsupported next month, but is it reasonable to expect full support five, six, seven, or more years from now?

From time to time, Apple must leave users behind for both technical and practical reasons. From a technical standpoint, continuing to support legacy hardware far beyond its otherwise useful life span leads to OS bloat, which leads to bugs, which leads to an unstable OS, and pretty soon you have Microsoft Windows. This is what has happened with Windows over the years, as Microsoft continued to build in support for programs that originally ran under long-dead operating systems of the 1980s just to appease a few business customers.

There is also a practical reason for putting older hardware to bed. Apple has a business model that is largely different from Microsoft. Apple makes far more money on its hardware sales than it does from OS sales. When an OS no longer supports certain older hardware, the owner of that older hardware is much more likely to buy new hardware from Apple, thus placing cash in its coffers.

Apple is a unique company, but it is not exempt from the need to make money. It is this money that fuels Apple's research and development, which leads to the cutting-edge innovations that make me want to buy and use Apple's products. In short, this is called survival. And that's a Good Thing.

The Way Ahead

Several factors point toward Apple leaving behind the original Intel Macs. First, it is unlikely that Mac OS X 10.7 would be released a mere 12 months after 10.6. Since 10.2, the shortest span between major OS releases has been 14 months, and the last two releases have hovered closer to the two year mark. The later the release date of 10.7, the more likely it is that the 32-bit Intel Macs won't be invited to the party.

Most importantly, there could easily be compelling technical reasons to exclude the 32-bit processors. Snow Leopard is already fully 64-bit capable. With the exception of the Xserve, all current Macs ship from the factory configured to boot into 32-bit mode by default. The user can easily change this, but 32-bit is the default. This is primarily for compatibility with existing 32-bit hardware drivers and some finicky 32-bit software.

Most 32-bit programs run perfectly fine when Snow Leopard's 64-bit kernel is used. By 10.7's probable release date, there will most likely be very few programs or drivers still around that won't either be 64-bit native or, at the very least, well-behaved when run on a 64-bit kernel. In short, the necessity of supporting a 32-bit processor will be minimal.

Phasing out 32-bit processor support will also give the Mac OS development team some well-deserved and much needed breathing room. Once 32-bit support is gone, there are no more major technological challenges on the horizon. 64-bit processors are not likely to give way to another architecture in the near future.

Apple's engineers have probably been working overtime the last several years supporting both 32- and 64-bit PowerPC G5 processors, as well as 32- and 64-bit Intel processors. With only 64-bit Intel on the table, the engineers can devote their time to other pursuits, presumably many of which will enhance the end-user experience.

Counterpoint

There is one consideration weighing against casting out 32-bit Intel in the next OS release. To drop support for any Intel processors so soon after Apple moved to Intel could be seen as a slap in the face by some of Apple's most valuable customers: the early adopters. Apple might think twice about abandoning those who bought Intel Macs the minute they were released. Had Intel Macs not moved well in the beginning, the Intel transition could have hit a few potholes. Apple needed to sell Macs to fund further OS development. Had Apple's user base forced the cart before the horse, i.e., not bought Macs until there was further OS developments, Apple could have had some financial hard times. Fortunately, there were users ready, willing, and able to purchase the first Intel Macs, and they came with cash in hand. Apple cannot lightly brush aside these users.

Counter-counterpoint

Even this consideration has its counterpoint. By this time, many of the original Intel Macs have moved on to subsequent users. Thus Apple won't really risk alienating very many early adopters, as this group tends to buy new Macs at a quick pace anyway and probably no longer own their original Intel Macs.

We bought an Intel Core Duo iMac and MacBook Pro, both refurbished, from the Apple Store shortly after the introduction of each model's successor. Since that time, both of our Macs have moved on to new homes and have been replaced by a MacBook Air and newer MacBook Pro. (My wife and I don't generally consider ourselves the cutting-edge, early adopter type. This is borne out by the Power Mac G4 Cube I still use daily, and the fact that you are reading this article on Low End Mac.)

An Ironic Twist

The truly ironic situation would be users who purchased a 64-bit G5 iMac or Power Mac, then "upgraded" when the first Intel Macs, all 32-bit, were released, and finds themselves out in the cold when Mac OS X 10.7 does not support their Macs because they do not have 64-bit processors.

There probably aren't many of these people now, but you can bet there are at least a few.

Intel Macs left behind in the next version of Mac OS X? I'd bet on it. LEM

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Steve Watkins is the Vice President for Information Technology for a mid-sized bank, an attorney, and an Army Reserve JAG on extended active duty. He has been a Mac user for about 12 years. He has owned some PCs along the way - but always came back to the Mac. If you find his articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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