Leopard at 500 MHz: Good Enough Most of the Time

2011 –  Several weeks ago, I bought a used 500 MHz TiBook and installed Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard on it. How well does it run, given that it is way under the minimum requirements (867 MHz) set out by Apple for Leopard? Surprisingly well.

You can read The Leopard Experience at 500 MHz to discover my initial thoughts and how I got around the Leopard installer requirements. This is my main and only Mac, and after a few weeks of using it, I have settled in to its quirks.

500 MHz Is Fast Enough

Let’s start at the beginning. First thing in the morning I turn it on, and it boots to the Finder in a respectable 62 seconds. It then takes a further 41 seconds to connect to WiFi, load Skype and automatically sign in, and then connect to my DropBox account and make sure everything is synced.

Then I run Apple Mail, which opens in a superb 5 seconds. And then I launch Camino, a lightweight Mozilla-based browser exclusively for OS X and my browser of choice at present, which opens in an amazing 5 seconds. (TenFourFox takes little longer at 7 seconds, and Firefox 3.6 takes just over 10 seconds, so Camino shoots ahead from the moment you click the dock icon.)

For a great browsing experience – especially on lower spec’d Macs – use Camino. It is very fast even on older Macs. It gives you the speed of Safari with the rendering capabilities of Firefox.

In my earlier article, I used Firefox as my main browser, but shortly after that I switched to TenFourFox, which is a custom build of Firefox 4 for PowerPC Macs. Mozilla dropped PowerPC support with version 4 of Firefox, but the team that brought you Classilla – a Mozilla port but for the classic Mac OS – has ported Firefox 4 for OS X 10.4 Tiger and 10.5 Leopard users on PowerPC Macs. It runs so much smoother and faster than previous versions of Firefox and offers many of the features of the latest version of Firefox.

To give you a comparison, Firefox 3.6 took just over 10 seconds to load. I have opened ten tabs in TenFourFox and it kept up. At 20 tabs, it took a while load – they were eBay auction listings – but how often do most people open 20 tabs? And they were all loaded within seconds of each other.

I have since switched to Camino, which isn’t based on Firefox 4 but instead uses the same Mozilla base as Firefox 3.x. For speed, Camino wins every time (see Camino, a Fast Alternative to Bloated Heavyweight Browsers for more on Camino). The future of PowerPC browsers will be evident in the next few months. It may be that we have to move away from Mozilla and Gecko based ones if we want to keep up to date, but we will see.

Apple Mail is quite a lightweight package and runs perfectly well at blistering speeds. I connect to my Google Mail account via IMAP using Apple Mail, and it has no problems automatically checking for mail every 5 minutes.

I am writing this in Bean, not a problem there. A free lightweight word processor and great for simple writing tasks, Bean is compatible with PowerPC and Tiger, and it can save to Word doc format.

I used iTunes to format my iPod Photo (connected via FireWire) as a Mac-formatted iPod and then add music to it from both my internal hard drive and my external USB 2.0 hard drive (yes, USB 2.0 on a USB 1.1 PowerBook, as I mention in a separate article), and it works no problem. I also converted some AIFF files in iTunes to MP3 format, and it did so at 6x speed, which is about the same speed as my son’s 2.5 GHz Celeron Toshiba laptop running Windows XP.

I tweaked a few photos in Seashore, a lightweight image editor, great for basic editing. It loaded five quite big 4 MB 2592 x 1944 images within a few seconds.

I haven’t used Skype for voice calls yet, but I have held several Skype chats at once, and there was no lag or problems there.

App-wise, that is about all. I do not not do much heavy work on my Mac – one of the reasons I am not too interested in a high-powered machine, as it would be a bit of an overkill. I did some tweaking of AIFF files in Audacity, and it coped with that, opening, trimming, applying a few filters, and exporting to WAV without straining the machine too much.

It Won’t Set the World Alight

Let’s face it, even a supported OS such as Tiger on a 500 MHz machine isn’t going to set the world alight with speed, nor should you expect it to. There does come a fine line where using an older machine is impractical for everyday use, but a 500 MHz G4 is perfectly useable, even under Leopard, although with a few limitations.

Web browsing is the one thing most people use their computers for, new or old, and it is also one area where older machines suffer badly in this broadband optimised, graphics intense Web.

For the past two weeks, I have been hammering my regular sites such as Facebook, eBay, Twitter, Wikipedia, GSMArena, YouTube, and, of course, Low End Mac. Lightweight sites – such as Wikipedia, GSMArena, and Low End Mac – swing along nicely with no lag, no slowdown, no problems. eBay and Twitter take a little more time, as they seem a bit more graphics/code heavy, especially in loading a lot of eBay auctions in tabs.

Facebook was okay. It is not an overly graphics intense site, but it does pull in a lot of info from various places and is constantly changing. It was perfectly usable; you don’t really notice too much lag. Facebook chat worked no problem. I had a few conversation running at once, and it was fine.

The Big Drawback: Flash on PowerPC

Don’t even think about playing Facebook games on a Mac this slow – even my 867 MHz TiBook didn’t handle them too well. This is an issue with Flash on PowerPC Macs that I explain shortly.

Although YouTube list a dual-core Intel processor as a minimum system requirement, YouTube is just about passable. Audio is fine, but video is quite jerky. This has been improved by switching to TenFourFox and Camino, and there are ways to get round this. You could visit m.youtube.com, which is the mobile site where videos are in the QuickTime-compatible 3GP mobile phone format, which are small re-rendered videos. Unfortunately, not all videos are available in this format.

There is a trick to reduce frame rates in YouTube by adding something to the end of a YouTube video URL, but I cannot find exact info on it at present. This reduces the number of frames per second, which in effect reduces CPU pressure and gives you a smoother video playback.

It is worth noting that Flash on PowerPC is a very poor implementation – even high-end G4 and G5 machines with good graphics cards suffer from poor Flash playback. This has long been a gripe of PowerPC owners. (Publisher’s note: Even on dual 1.0 and 1.6 GHz G4 Power Macs, Facebook games are very slow and YouTube videos are hit-or-miss. dk)

Cover Flow Is Slow

Besides apps, the Finder and Mac OS X in general are pretty sprightly. Navigating around folders is great. I use the column view mostly, and it jumps from folder to folder no problem. It previews pics and MP3 directly from the Finder within seconds, and pressing the space bar to enable Quick Look works like a dream too, with smooth animation and media loading instantly.

As I mentioned in my earlier article, it is Cover Flow that chokes. Switching to Cover Flow view with a folder of 66 reasonably sized images takes a long time, with each image taking a second to load in the strip. Going from Cover Flow to Quick Look is fine, and even going to full screen on an image works perfectly. It is just flicking through files in Cover Flow that is very slow.

The Dock works fine even with transparency enabled. It can be a little jerky at times, but nothing to worry about or cause you to click on the wrong application. Even the Stacks folders work fine, although they are a little slow to respond (after a few clicks you get used to it and adjust no problem), opening items from a stack works fine too.

Two main areas that have been documented by other people is that Time Machine works, but you can’t see anything, and DVD Player doesn’t work. I don’t use Time Machine, and in all my computing years I have only watched a DVD on a PowerBook twice, so as long as it works for accessing DVD data discs, I am not bother about watching a DVD film. You can use VLC to view DVDs, but playback is not 100% bug free.

Leopard Tips

I think that is just about everything. If you are considering running Leopard on an unsupported machine, you should be fairly computer competent and aware of the limitations, which are mainly graphical, some due to the high graphic requirements of Leopard itself, some due to the graphically intense Web these days, and some a combination of the two.

The ultimate question: Am I happy with it? Yes, Leopard at 500 MHz is perfectly usable. I do have 1 GB RAM and a faster Western Digital Scorpio 5400 RPM drive.

Would I downgrade to Tiger? No, I don’t think there is much speed to be gained from a lighter OS. The OS itself is very sprightly, and there is no Cover Flow in Tiger, so nothing to compare it to. Cover Flow is a gimmick that soon fades, and you go back to whatever view you are used to.

The slowness of Flash on PowerPC Macs is a problem whatever OS you use. The only resolution is switching to Intel. With Adobe stopping Flash development for PowerPC, I don’t see them ever sorting out the problems for PowerPC users.

I am very happy with my TiBook running Leopard. Remember, my previous Macs were a 500 MHz iBook G3 and then a 500 MHz Pismo PowerBook G3. Jumping to a G4 increased performance massively and gave me the option to run Leopard.

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