Mac Musings

Even If Leopard Leaves G3 Behind, Tiger Users Will Still Be Able to Run Up-to-Date Apps

Daniel Knight - 2007.06.18

Steve Jobs previewed Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard at last week's Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC), and it looks like a big step forward in many ways.

Time Machine will let you recover an earlier draft of an article or spreadsheet you've been working on. The Finder has a whole new look. iChat has improved video quality. And the entire operating system is 64-bit on 64-bit hardware - and fully 32-bit on 32-bit computers.

No separate 32-bit and 64-bit versions. No separate basic, advanced, and pro versions. One US$129 package for all who can use it.

Of course, progress comes at a price. Some older Macs that supported Mac OS X 10.0. through 10.4.x won't be officially supported under 10.5 - and it's possible they may not be able to run it at all without significant upgrades.

System Requirements

Mac Rumors reports that one developer has shared the system requirements for the Leopard preview WWDC attendees received, which it reports as:

These don't look all that different from the system requirements for Tiger, except for there being no mention of G3 support.

6 GB of available hard drive space means a lot of older G3s wouldn't even have the space to install Leopard without putting in a bigger hard drive, and 256 MB of RAM is generally considered inadequate for running Tiger with decent performance, and many older Macs don't support more than 256 MB.

Built-in FireWire isn't something you can do anything about - either your Mac has it or it doesn't. Every G4 and later Mac has been designed with FireWire, and many G3 models had it as well. The question is whether the installer actually looks for an onboard FireWire chip.

The short list of G3 Macs that don't support FireWire: tray-loading iMacs, 350 MHz slot-loading iMacs, first generation clamshell iBooks, beige G3 Power Macs, and G3 PowerBooks before the 2000 Pismo.

For those who have one Mac without DVD support and another with it, we've covered installing Mac OS X "Tiger" via FireWire Disk Mode a couple of times (see Installing OS X 10.4 'Tiger' on DVD-Challenged Macs Using FireWire Target Disk Mode and Using FireWire Target Disk Mode to Install OS X on Macs without DVD Drives).

Whither the G3?

When Leopard ships in October, Tiger will be 2-1/2 years old - the longest any version of OS X has been on the market. And Tiger will probably see a few more updates between now and then, perhaps reaching the 10.4.12 revision. And there will continue to be security patches and other updates after Leopard ships.

In short, Tiger users won't be completely left out in the cold. Apple has done an exemplary job supporting those who continue to use the previous revision of OS X for as long as we've had OS X. Based on previous Apple's track record with OS X, I wouldn't be surprised if it's at least two years and possibly three before 10.6 ships, so Tiger users will have several productive years ahead of them.

That's important, as it appears virtually certain that Apple will no longer officially support G3 Macs - whether we're taking about the November 1997 beige Power Mac G3 or the April 2003 900 MHz iBook G3.

As readers of Low End Mac should already know, there's a difference between what's officially supported and what will work. Ryan Rempel's ongoing work to provide versions of his XPostFacto installer so many older Macs can load and run unsupported OS X revisions is legendary and greatly appreciated.

As long as Leopard isn't coded in such a way that it requires the presence of a G4 or later CPU, it should be possible to install and run it on G3 (and probably G4-upgraded) Macs.

Core Image

The problem with Leopard appears to be tied to Core Image, already part of Tiger, which requires either a G4 or later CPU or a supported GPU (graphics processing unit) including ATI Mobility Radeon 9700 or later, Radeon 9550-9800 or later, and Nvidia GeForce 5200 or later.

None of these GPUs are available as upgrades for G3 Macs. The latest version available in a PCI version for Macs was the Radeon 9200 Mac Edition. No G3 Mac has ever had an AGP video slot, so there is no way to upgrade to a supported card. Ditto for the Power Mac G4 "Yikes!" with PCI graphics - but at least is has the requisite G4 CPU to handle Core Image.

And that raises the next big question: Will G3 Macs upgraded with G4 CPUs be able to do Core Image? Although Apple won't officially support that, those with blue & white Power Mac G3s, which have FireWire and support DVD, should be very interested.

The Problem

As readers of our Mailbag column know, there are many different perspectives on support for G3 Macs. Some believe that the cost of coding for and testing on older hardware isn't justified as the number of potential users with this hardware is shrinking every year. Some believe that new technologies, such as Core Image, are so crucial to Leopard that it won't function without a G4 or later.

Others believe that there are a lot of second- and third-owner Macs out there being used by grandparent, grandchildren, schools, and others who can't afford or can't justify the expense of a newer computer. They are content with what they have, they've already upgraded to Tiger, and they want to be able to run the latest versions of Safari, Mail, iChat, etc.

Yet others believe that hardly anyone would want to run a $129 operating system on hardware worth under $200.

Another group likes the simplicity of supporting everyone on the same version of OS X. If some Macs in the home or office are running Leopard and others are running Tiger (or earlier versions), it's more challenging.

By abandoning support for older Macs, Apple leaves these users behind in more ways than one. It's not just that they'll be stuck using Tiger (as some are already stuck with 10.2 or 10.3), but that they won't be able to run the latest, safest, and most feature laden version of Safari or Mail or iChat. Ditto for iLife 07 (as we no longer expect an "06" version).

It's a quandary, and I believe Apple has done a good job of officially supporting the right hardware while still leaving in enough legacy support that those who really want to run a version not supported on their Macs can often find a way to do so. The fear of many is that the "no G3" decision may be wired into Leopard itself.

The Low End

We hope that any Mac with a G4 or later CPU - including those with third-party upgrades - will be able to load and run Mac OS X 10.5. We realize that Apple won't officially support third-party CPU upgrades, but they never have. And that's never stopped people from finding ways to make them work.

We hope that Apple will continue to have G3 support in Leopard so that those who want it can run it unsupported. However, we don't know how tightly Core Image is integrated into the entire OS. It may well be that the Leopard experience simply isn't possible without Core Image support.

We hate seeing operating systems and hardware get so bloated that they keep leaving more and more hardware behind. We believe there's a lot of value in older Macs, and we recognize that the best overall OS for older Macs is generally not the last supported version - it's usually a version or two before that.

We recognize the need to move forward. There are technologies in OS X that simply aren't practical on the ancient 680x0 hardware Apple built from 1984 through 1994. There are already technologies that need the horsepower of a G3 or later CPU, especially the Aqua interface and QuickTime.

That said, we'd prefer to see the core OS as lean and efficient as possible, running on as wide a range of hardware as possible, dynamically adapting itself to use whatever level of resources are available. And Apple's been doing that. OS X knows when it can use Core Image and when it can't. And Leopard will know when it's on a 64-bit Mac or a 32-bit one.

The reality is that we live in a world of compromises. To move forward, to provide the full experience (Apple will never sell a stripped down "lite" or "home" version like Microsoft), some hardware has to get left behind. As graphics become more and more sophisticated, that's more true than ever.

We regret that Apple seems to be dropping any and all official support of G3 Macs, as that includes models sold just four years ago. And we suspect owners of late vintage G3 Macs will regret it more than we do.

We hope there will be an XPostFacto 5 allowing Leopard installs on G4-upgraded Macs. And we really hope there will be a way to install and run Leopard on some G3 Macs without CPU upgrades. If nothing else, it may help prove that the Leopard experience simply needs more horsepower.

We sympathize with those who want to be able to run the latest OS and the latest Apple apps on their far-from-latest hardware. But we have to remind these users that Tiger is already a very mature and sophisticated operating system that will continue to be supported for 2-3 years, some Apple apps may be updated for Tiger after we enter the Leopard era (we can already play with the Safari 3 beta), and there are good third-party alternatives that will continue to be updated to work with Tiger (and often earlier versions of OS X as well).

Alternatives to Apple Apps

I have hardly launched iChat since the first week it was available. I don't do voice chat or have a webcam. I do text chat, and for that I'm thrilled with the multiple service support of Adium X. And there are always the official Yahoo Messenger, Microsoft Messenger, and AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) clients, which often support services Adium doesn't.

I use Safari a bit, Firefox a bit more, and Camino is running almost all the time on my Mac. Opera is another good alternative to Safari.

I use Apple's Mail software for one email account (my .mac account), GyazMail for everything else. It's the only one of these programs that isn't freeware, and I decided it was worth US$18 years ago. Quick. Lean. Awesome SpamSieve integration.

For those looking for a free alternative to Mac Mail, Eudora has long been a favorite among Mac users, and Mozilla Thunderbird is an up and comer. Opera Mail is another option, and it's integrated with the Opera browser. Another option is Mulberry, which has been a Mac app since 1995 and also includes calendar and scheduling support.

These lists are far from exhaustive, and I'm sure you can find other free or low-cost alternatives and lots of reviews online if you're ready to switch from iChat, Safari, or Mail.

The important thing is that although Apple may no longer support your hardware, thus preventing you from running the latest version of their free apps, there are good third-party alternatives that are being updated for Tiger - and often earlier versions of OS X as well.

Even if Apple leaves your Mac out in the cold with Leopard, there are ways to run up-to-date software under Tiger at no or little cost.