Miscellaneous Ramblings

Tiger 10.4.4 Update Cripples Pismo's Internal Modem

Charles Moore - 2006.02.13 - Tip Jar

I love my old Pismo PowerBook, and it's been about as trouble free and dependable as one could hope for since I got it used - one year old - in October, 2001.

That is, up until the past month or so.

I had noted that modem performance had been a bit flaky ever since installing OS X 10.4 Tiger last spring. Not throughput, but things like authentication failures and increasing reluctance of the modem to interact with the system software.

Unlike the recent PowerBooks and iBooks, which have software modems (not counting the new MacBook Pro, which has no internal modem at all), the Pismo has the old solid Global Village designed hardware modem that was used in many Macs of the mid to late 90s. We've had several in various PowerBooks, and they've all been very reliable - at least with the Classic Mac OS and with OS X up to version 10.3.9.

However, things seem to have taken a detour with Tiger, and my troubles began in earnest when I upgraded to version 10.4.4 - ironically in hopes that the update might result in better modem performance.

Quite the opposite.

With OS X 10.4.4, the Pismo's modem went from being annoyingly erratic to virtually nonfunctional. I could get it to connect by switching modem scripts in the Network preference pane, say from the Apple V90 script to V34 or vice-versa. I also tried the Mac Modem Magic suite of third-party modem scripts, but with no more success than I had with the standard Apple ones.

It didn't seem to matter which Pismo compatible script I used, as long as it was freshly selected. But after one successful dialup, the authentication failures would resume.

Initially I suspected the modem itself, but one of the great things about a Mac that supports dual-booting is that it enables easy differential diagnosis troubleshooting. To wit, when I booted into OS 9.2.2, the Pismo's modem worked flawlessly. It seemed like the problem was OS X 10.4.x compatibility with the old hardware modem.

I should note that OS X 10.4.4 works perfectly fine with the software modem in my 700 MHz iBook.

For another test, I booted into OS X 10.3.9, a copy of which I have installed on my external FireWire drive. After noting that it wasn't my imagination that that Panther is a smoother, faster cat on the Pismo (presumably due to the latter's puny video support) than Tiger is, I also discovered that the Pismo modem seemed to work perfectly with OS 10.3.

Perhaps the modem drivers in my OS X 10.4 system had become corrupted. That sounded unlikely, but my computer was crippled bybeing unable to connect to the Internet, so I decided reinstall OS X 10.4 from scratch. I used the archive and install option in the 10.4 installer with retention of existing user settings selected.

With my initial reinstall of OS X 10.4.0 and the 10.4.1 upgdate, the modem was functional again - still not as reliable as with Classic or OS X 10.3, but usable. Maybe it had been a corrupted modem driver.

I then optimistically ran the 10.4.3 combo updater, followed by the OS 10.4.4 Delta updater. Same result as originally - only worse. Now the modem wouldn't work at all.

Back to the installer DVD to reinstall Tiger once again. This time I stopped at 10.4.0, with which the modem was restored to functionality. What appeared to be manifesting was some sort of incompatibility between the later updated versions of Tiger.

Perhaps time is finally catching up with the old Pismo. This issue would not be terribly problematic for users who have a broadband or wireless Internet hookup, but dialup is all that's available where I live. It would be interesting to see how Apple's new external USB modem might work, but I wasn't about to spend C$60 to check that out.

I ran with OS X 10.4.0 for production work for several days, during which the modem worked almost flawlessly, never failing to connect, albeit with one hanging disconnect when the connection got dropped (my ISP's fault) requiring an unwanted restart. I think I recall that hanging disconnects were one of the issues addressed by the OS 10.4.1 update, and in any case, I don't like being stuck with a version .0 system.

I decided to roll the dice and run the 10.4.1 update, which had proved pretty reliable for me on this machine over the summer, but when I went to mount the update installer, the .pkg file wouldn't open. Nor would several other .pkg installer files I tried.

The plot had thickened. Wearily, I dug out the OS 10.4 installer DVD yet again.

At this writing I have successfully updated my OS X 10.4.0 install, which seems to have fixed the .pkg file mounting problem (whatever that was) and run the 10.4.1 updater. The modem is working properly, and I will stick with this system version for at least a couple of weeks to see how things unfold.

I wish I could say that I've learned something useful from all this, but I'm not much more enlightened that I was at the beginning. My tech-savvy daughter tells me she thinks there's a way to reset the modem with Unix commands in the Terminal, but she wasn't quite sure what they would be.

If anyone out there has light to shed of this issue, I would be delighted to hear from you.

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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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