Miscellaneous Ramblings

Adventures in OS Upgrades, Downgrades

21 Nov. 2000 - Charles W. Moore

Perhaps it was tempting fate to express somewhat smug satisfaction with the Classic Mac OS 9 in my Moore's Views & Reviews column, Do Mac Web Journalists Have A Professional Obligation To Use The OS X Beta?, on AppleLinks last week. As the Good Book puts it, "let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall."

A little background: my 233 MHz WallStreet PowerBook came new with Mac OS 8.1 installed, but both Mac OS 8.1 and Mac OS 8.5 CDs shipped with it. I installed the two systems on separate partitions when I set up the hard drive. Both worked reasonably well, but OS 8.5 - soon upgraded to OS 8.5.1 - was more stable by a substantial margin.

Nevertheless, a few months later I couldn't resist an upgrading to Mac OS 8.6 when a system updater became available. OS 8.6 offered some refinements and also boasted improved power management features, which were claimed to extend battery life and lower internal operating temperatures. However, OS 8.6 was not as stable as 0S 8.5, at least on my PowerBook, and I began having crashes every two or three days - or even more often, depending on what I was doing.

This was not quite annoying enough to convince me to revert to Mac OS 8.5.1, which was still installed on the other partition, as my everyday working system. However, it was still plenty annoying. Meanwhile, Mac OS 9 was released in the Fall of '99, and, typically cautious, I waited a couple of months to see if any horrible bugs would manifest in it. I didn't hear of anything fatal, although some people complained that it broke their older programs, and by Christmas 1999 I decided that the time had come to upgrade.

I couldn't find much not to like about OS 9. The happiest revelation was that instead of the crash every two or three days I had been experiencing with Mac OS 8.6, if memory serves me correctly, I had a grand total of about four crashes during the first six weeks after installing Mac OS 9.

Not only that, the system continued to be stable, fast, and be essentially the most trouble-free version of the Mac OS that I had used since the days of System 6. I did have occasional crashes, but I usually have 15 or 20 (or more) applications open at a time. I use my PowerBook ten hours a day or more, so I figured that rock-solid stability with unprotected memory was too much to hope for. I have managed on several occasions to go a week or more without restarting with the sort of use I just described, and I think my Mac OS 9 record is nine days without a restart.

Moreover, Mac OS 9 seems very resilient and forgiving. If a program freezes up on me or "unexpectedly quits," I usually just ignore the dialog box that appears warning me to save documents and restart, and carry on. If necessary, I use MacsBug to get back to the Finder after a freeze-up (it usually works), and sometimes I have carried on for several days with a half-dozen or more such incidents before the Finder started acting so squirrelly that I finally give in and restart the thing. I'm probably a bit neurotic about this issue, but I really hate restarting.

When Apple released the Mac OS 9.0.4 update last spring, I got a copy, but I once again waited to see how others made out with it before taking the plunge. My son, on the other hand, immediately installed 9.0.4 on his Lombard and soon reported that his PowerBook had become very unstable, crashing regularly. He trashed the upgraded system after a couple of weeks and reinstalled Mac OS 9, which he continues to use to this day, along with the Mac OS X public beta.

"Fine," said I, "I'll just stick with Mac OS 9 for now. If it ain't broke, don't fix it." I wasn't entirely convinced that the problems Tristan had been having with the OS 9.0.4 update were not anomalous. He uses his PowerBook very hard, and it seemed possible that there was another explanation. However, Mac OS 9 was working so well on my WallStreet and there seemed to be nothing compelling feature-wise in the update that pertained to me anyway, so I decided not to mess with success and eschew updating the System on the PowerBook until there was an objective reason for doing so.

That reason materialized last week in the form of a piece of beta software I wanted to try that required OS 9.0.4. I found the CD on which the updater had been stored and ran it. The upgrade took only a couple of minutes, and everything seemed fine after I rebooted. Initial appearances were deceiving.

Incidentally, I did install the OS 9.0.4 update on my Umax SuperMac S900 a month or so ago, and I did notice that it began crashing a lot, but it began having serious hard drive problems around the same time, so I discounted the instability as probably related to the drive.

However, I soon discovered that my hitherto wonderfully stable WallStreet had been transformed into a veritable crash-o-rama, much worse than it ever was running Mac OS 8.6. I began averaging three or more crashes a day, almost all of them precipitated by the Finder running out of memory. This would sometimes happen after just an hour or so of light use following a restart, and with relatively few programs open.

I found that if I quit all my programs and then reopened them as soon as the Finder started acting flaky, I could sometimes postpone a restart, but not always. Oh well, I thought, Mac OS 9.1 is coming soon. I figured I could live with this for month or two.

However, by last Saturday night I was convinced that I couldn't live with this for another day. The problem was that there was no option for reverting to Mac OS 9 in the update installer, and with deadlines pressing me I really didn't have the time to spend half a day reinstalling the system and then transferring all my non-Apple stuff, getting the inevitable broken applications working again, etc.

I decided to take a shot at a big shortcut. Using the Extensions Manager, I went through the Extensions and Control Panels, making a custom set with all of the ones Apple had thoughtfully labeled as being part of the update disabled. I then booted from OS 8.5.1 on the other partition, opened up the OS 9.0.4 System folder, used Get Info to identify the several big bits that also belonged to the update, and trashed them along with the Extensions Disabled and Control Panels Disabled folders.

That accomplished, I stuck in the installer CD and reinstalled Mac OS 9 over the stuff that I had left in the System Folder (i.e.: most of its contents). I then rebooted in from OS 9, and to my delight, everything seemed to be working fine. I had to make one or two minor restorative adjustments like redefining the Hot Key to hide/show the Control Strip and digging the Note Pad out of the Apple Extras Folder and putting it back in the Apple Menu Folder where it belongs, but no programs or Finder utilities broke.

Your mileage may vary, but it's been more than 24 hours as I write this, and my PowerBook has been restored to its former stability. There have been no System crashes, no MacsBug popping up, no Finder memory warning dialogues, no flaky Finder performance, and no restarts - forced or otherwise - despite several application quits and crashes.

The question is, why does what seems to be such a minor System update result in such a radical deterioration in stability? I would be interested to hear if anyone else has had similar experiences with Mac OS 9.0.4.