The Leopard Experience at 500 MHz

Leopard runs vey well even on the minimum requirements of an 867Mhz G4, but what if your G4 is lower than that? Can it cope with running Leopard? How about as low as 500Mhz?After falling off my Mac perch and hitting many Windows and Ubuntu branches on the way down, I have climbed back and am now the proud owner of a Titanium PowerBook G4. It is a 500 MHz model, and while a lot of people scoff at it, it is a lovely machine – and far more capable than might you think.

But I didn’t stop there. This machine happily runs Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger officially, but is short of the 867 MHz processor speed requirement of OS X 10.5 Leopard. However, the tinkerer inside me has gotten around this obstacle before, and I did it again.

Tiger is a lovely OS, but it is getting too far behind. Even Leopard is becoming obsolete – especially if you are running it on a PowerPC Mac.

My last Titanium PowerBook G4 was an 867 MHz unit; it was one of the lowest spec’d Macs to officially support Leopard. I wrote about the Leopard experience at 867 MHz over two years ago, and now I am writing about the Leopard experience at 500 MHz.

Hacking for Installation

My 500 MHz TiBook came with a massive 120 GB hard drive, 512 MB RAM, and Tiger was preinstalled. I had some extra RAM in my spares box, so I maxed it to 1 GB, a good idea for any Leopard installation. I grabbed a copy of LeopardAssist, a cool program that temporarily changes your Mac’s reported clock speed to 933 MHz. It then reboots your machine and boots your Leopard installer, either from a DVD, partition, or external hard drive, thus getting round the fact that Leopard will check your processor speed and stop you if it is lower than 867 MHz. You can do this manually by booting in to Open Firmware mode,- which is very handy if you do not have a Tiger install or disc to start with, but I took the easy option.

Thirty minutes later Leopard was installed. A fresh install. I am not a fan of upgrades, so I chose an erase and install. I popped in my Buffalo WLI-CB-G54 wireless PCMCIA card (once again from my box of spares), a trusted AirPort Extreme-compatible wireless card requiring no hacks, no kext editing, and no third party drivers or software – your Mac will detect it as a bona fide AirPort Extreme card. Brilliant. Yes, AirPort Extreme on an AirPort-only Mac. (Here is a list of tested PCMCIA and CardBus cards).

Slow Software Updates

Once connected to my network, I ran Software Update and pulled in a massive 1 GB of system combo updates, security updates, and Java updates. Here is a very important note for anyone intending on installing Leopard on a bottom-end G4: Once the combo update has been downloaded, Leopard will shut you out of your Mac and continue to install and optimise. This will take a long time. Do not worry – your machine is still working, even if the progress bar does not move. An hour later mine was still in the same place. Have patience; it will do it.

A few automatic reboots later, another run of Software Update, install everything it asks for, another reboot, and we are ready to roll.

For all you people sitting there with your Mac Pros running OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard at lightning speed with horrified faces not only at someone still using a G4, but the very thought of putting Leopard on it makes you grimace, it is a pleasant surprise.

The Very Low End for Leopard

I’ve run Leopard previously on a 400 MHz PowerBook G4, and it wasn’t great, I didn’t have as much RAM as I do in my current one. I have also run Leopard on a 400 MHz Sawtooth PowerMac G4 with less RAM than I have now, and performance wasn’t too bad.

But bear in mind, this 500 MHz TiBook is my only Mac, and thus my main machine that will be used every day. It needs to work without too many glitches. I use my Mac for basic tasks – emailing, surfing, and writing – so this TiBook is not going to be stressed too much.

RAM is the key to running Leopard on slower Macs, whether its officially supported or not. Hit the 1 GB mark, and Leopard comes into its own. The Titanium range of PowerBooks max at 1 GB; Aluminium ones go even higher – to 2 GB. Even Intel machines benefit from a decent amount of RAM under Leopard. My first gen Intel iMac (sadly no longer with us) came with Tiger and 512 MB RAM, which screamed along, but Leopard just performance terribly. Upping to 1 GB resolved this and at 2 GB performance was amazing.

One thing I noticed about my 400 MHz TiBook was the heat it kicked off, even under supported OSes. It must have been a design problem with first gen TiBooks. I’ve had two 400 MHz TiBooks, and both got unbelievably hot, so much so they would burn my legs. This 500 MHz machine doesn’t seem to get as hot, and it has had a hard day, installing, updating, and pushing the hardware all day – just running Leopard pushes it past normal usage, but it copes, and heat is not such an issue. I have not heard the fans any more than I should. Too much heat is damaging for any machine, but for a laptop it is even worse, so be careful on these very slow G4s, and if need be buy a laptop cooling pad (maybe that is being a little overcautious).

What have I noticed today? Graphically, everything seems pretty good. The Dock is a little jerky, and while Cover Flow works, it is a bit slow. One of the reported problems is that while Time Machine works, you cannot see anything. However, even on my supported Macs I never used Time Machine, so this is not an issue for me.

Adequate Speed

The general speed of OS X and the Finder are great; it zips from folder to folder no problem. I have installed and run a few apps – Firefox 3.6.16, Bean (my favourite lightweight word processor, which I am writing this in), iTunes, and Skype.

Firefox loads in a reasonable amount of time, and pages loads fairly quickly – nothing ground breaking, but then nothing that is going to have you shouting at your Mac. I opened six tabs, and they all loaded fine.

Bean loaded within a few bounces, and my cursor is keeping up with my typing (I am fairly rapid writer). iTunes took a little while open, but once open I could add music, play it, and create playlists with reasonable speed, so no problems there.

Skype is one of those odd programs. According to the Skype download page, version 5.0 requires OS X 10.5.8 – great, I have that, so I downloaded, only to be faced with an icon with a circle on it, meaning not for my architecture, which means it is Intel only. I had to find and download an older version. This is becoming very common in the Mac world. Despite lots of software claiming you need Leopard, they forget to tell you that you need Leopard and an Intel Mac – another nail in the PowerPC coffin.

Apps are pretty snappy. I don’t have anything heavy to try. It would be interesting to see how something like Photoshop CS would run, but I presume it would cope with the average image editors needs, but not if you were a heavy graphic designer, shifting around large TIFFs etc.

Why Keep Using G4 Macs?

If you are still reading this, then you may be wondering why I wrote this article. Well, firstly to say I am back where I belong, in the Mac world. The Apple tattoo on my arm was put there for a reason; Mac is in my blood.

The other reason for writing this is that there are a lot of low-end Mac users who use older Macs not primarily because they like doing so, but because of financial constraints, me being one of them. A lovely shiny MacBook Pro would be nice, but any Intel Mac is out of my price range.

We have to make do with what we have. With the imminent release of yet another version of OS X, Tiger really is getting too long in the tooth, and if you are fortunate enough to own a G4 – even if it is a bottom-end model – you can run Leopard at a reasonable pace, giving your Mac that extra bit of life and a bit longer as a useful and sometimes main Mac.

Two years ago I wrote asked Do G4 Macs Have What It Takes to Remain Useful in a Multicore World?, and I still think they are, even on the brink of Mac OS X Lion.

I am loving being back in the Mac world and have a fondness Titanium PowerBooks, so I am happy again.

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