Miscellaneous Ramblings

Back to the Future: Downgrading My Pismo to OS X 10.3.9

Charles Moore - 2006.02.20 - Tip Jar

If you read last week's column (Tiger 10.4.4 Update Cripples Pismo's Internal Modem), you will recall that I've been in the throes of a tussle with OS X 10.4 "Tiger" on my heretofore faithful G4-upgraded Pismo PowerBook.

To recap briefly, for some undetermined reason Tiger support for the Pismo's internal 56k modem had started playing up and worsened to the point of unusability after I upgraded to OS X 10.4.4, although the modem continued to work reliably when the computer was booted directly into OS 9.2.2 from another hard drive partition or from OS X 10.3.9 on my external FireWire hard drive.

My workaround was using the Tiger installer's Archive & Install feature to "downgrade" my operating system to OS X 10.4.0, which resulted in restoration of modem support after several attempts. As I left off last week's column, it had been my intention to run with OS X 10.4.0 for at least a couple of weeks to see if the modem fix stuck.

Unfortunately, while the modem fix did hold, another problem reared its ugly head: Both Spotlight and the Find utility stopped working. When I typed a word or phrase into the search fields, no response. And there was no audible indication that Spotlight was updating the index on my hard drive.

Curiouser and curiouser. I hadn't changed anything or installed anything new other than reverting to a fresh OS X 10.4.0 install, and as far as I can fathom, these glitches manifested spontaneously.

Now some folks might be able to get along without a hard drive search utility, but I can't. I'm not crazy about how Spotlight works, but it has proved addictive, and a Find utility is simply indispensable for me. I use them both many times in a typical day.

I booted back into OS X 10.3.9 on the FireWire drive to double check that Panther's (superior) Find utility still worked. It did.

So what the hey? I decided to run the OS X 10.4.1 updater, after which the modem happily still worked - but no joy with Spotlight or Find.

Okay, maybe it was something in my settings or preferences imported when I reinstalled the system. I figured I might as well bite the bullet and do a completely clean install of Tiger, and live with the time-consuming hassle of having to restore all my settings by dragging them over from my iBook and reinstalling some software.

I don't use a lot of system add-ons, and ones I do - including WindowShade X and TypeIt4Me - are easy and quick to install, so that wasn't too bad a prospect.

In the end, it turned out that the preferences I dragged over from my iBook Home Library folder mostly worked fine with my applications, so I didn't have to do much registration key reentry.

Unfortunately, it was all for naught. With the fresh install, Spotlight and Find still obstinately refused to work. I tried running the OS X 10.4.2 combo update in hope that it would repair whatever the problem was, but it didn't.

The modem, I should note, did continue to work in OS 10.4.2, but I had reached an impasse with the search engines, unable to think of anything else to try. Except....

In booting from OS X 10.3.9 "Panther" as a troubleshooting control, I noted once again how much more responsive it is on this Pismo than Tiger has proved to be. Indeed, while I've found Tiger very reliable and reasonably lively on my 700 MHz G3 iBook, I've been disappointed with its performance on the Pismo from the get-go, even before the modem and search engine issues manifested.

My suspicion has been that the Pismo's puny and non-upgradable RAGE Mobility 128 Graphics processor and 8 MB of video RAM simply are not up to the challenge of supporting Tiger's graphics demands satisfactorily, while the iBook's Radeon 7500 GPU and 16 MB of VRAM is satisfactory.

So why not cut the aggravation (I had by that point run a dozen or so system reinstalls and updates) and just downgrade to 10.3.9? I would miss Spotlight, which (although its execution leaves much to be desired) has proved addictive.

On the other hand, I dislike the Tiger Find utility intensely and much prefer the one in Panther anyway, which would mitigate things considerably. Besides, third party disk search utilities like Devon Technologies' EasyFind (freeware) and SpeedSearch (US$10 shareware) can serve as alternatives to Spotlight.

I decided to go for it and hopefully end the hassle and aggravation I was experiencing with Tiger.

I dug out my OS X 10.3 install CDs, stuffed Disc 1 in the drive, and ran an Archive & Install. The machine booted up. After checking to see that both the modem and the better Find utility worked (they did), I went on to run the OS X 10.3.8 combo update and then the 10.3.9 incremental update.

Running OS X 10.3.9, the Pismo is faster than it was with Tiger. As a rough estimate, I would say that Finder response is perhaps 20% quicker - definitely noticeable. There is also a general, not specifically tangible, but very real feel of solidity about Panther that was missing in Tiger on this computer. Consequently, I'm inclined to the view that OS X 10.3.9 is probably the optimum performance OS for the Pismo, even if you have a 550 MHz G4 upgrade and a 5400 RPM hard drive like I do.

Just as I settled on Mac OS 9.2.2 as being the best OS choice for my 233 MHz WallStreet, and OS 8.6 as being the best compromise between features and performance on my old PowerBook 1400 (even though both machines officially support later versions of the Mac OS), I'm doubtful that I will upgrade the Pismo beyond OS X 10.3.9 again.

That, of course, means that it is now definitely on the road to obsolescence, since there will be an increasing number of applications requiring OS X 10.4 or later as their minimum system support. And, of course, one is shut out of the widgets world.

I find certain widgets useful, but none indispensable for my purposes, so that is not a major issue for me. I will miss Spotlight, but I hope that EasyFind proves to be a decent Spotlight substitute. So far, I like it better than Spotlight. It's more usefully configurable, both for search parameters and sorting results. It's not as fast, because it's not indexed, but I prefer that because the index update (which I always kept disabled in Sherlock) isn't running in the background eating up processor cycles and wearing out the hard drive, and the better focused searches and better organized results probably burn less time overall.

In the meantime, it's just nice to have the old Pismo working so well again. It really is a pleasure to use in OS X 10.3.9, while during the nine months running Tiger I always seemed to be waiting for it to catch up.

As CS Lewis once observed, "If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man. . . . Going back is the quickest way on."

In this case, it's definitely quicker.

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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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