The Practical Mac

10 Forward!

- 2002.01.22 - Tip Jar

I had resisted the urge to try the OS X beta. I didn't really have a Mac I could dedicate as a test bed, and I did not want to install a beta product on a production machine. I read everything I could find on all the popular Mac Web sites (like Low End Mac), but primarily I lived vicariously through the experiences of others. When OS X came out of beta, I vowed that I would wait until the first update came out - just to be safe.

I was able to hold out all of 24 hours before I gave in to the urge and installed 10.0 on a 333 MHz iMac at the office. I was immediately impressed with the stability. However, we continued to boot the iMac to OS 9.1, primarily because all of our programs were Classic apps.

We would switch to OS X when we felt like playing. When we booted to OS X, we felt like kids in a candy store. Unfortunately, we also felt like we were all dressed up with no place to go, due to the lack of native programs. I had my shoes off and was testing the water with my toes.

When Sonnet released their installer program that allowed users of some officially "unsupported" Macs accelerated with Sonnet processor upgrades to install OS X, I immediately bought it and installed OS X (then at 10.0.1) on my Power Mac 8500. My pants legs were rolled up, and I had waded in ankle-deep.

I backed up the hard drive, repartitioned it, restored my data (and OS 9.1) to the first partition, then put a clean installation of OS 9.1 and X 10.0.1 on the second partition. Once again, I only booted to the second partition when I was in a mood to experiment. I still did not have the courage to upgrade a production Mac.

My wife, Kay, had been using a PC running Windows 95. She complained about frequent crashes and having to reboot, sometimes several times a day. An upgrade to Windows 98 helped somewhat, but only to the extent that the reboots were reduced to once or twice a day. One day the whole thing finally died and put us both out of its misery.

All of the programs she used had Mac versions, and since I had to replace her PC anyway, I decided to upgrade her to a Mac - a tangerine iMac/400 running OS 9.

She had limited past experience with Macs, but not enough to be comfortable with the OS. I explained to her that all of the commands she used in Windows were also available on the Mac, they were just in different places. She got used to clicking around and exploring; she was soon right at home with the iMac.

System crashes and reboots were down to 2-3 a week, but they still occurred more often than she thought they should. I had to agree, but unless we wanted to buy a Sun Sparc workstation or install Linux (you think there's not enough software for the Mac!), this was about as good as it was going to get.

In early December, 2001, Kay got a Titanium PowerBook G4/400. Even though it was a new unit, I wiped it clean and installed fresh copies of OS 9.2.1 and X 10.1. I bought upgrades for Microsoft Office, Connectix Virtual PC, and Quicken.

Because these were the only programs she really used, I decided to make OS X the primary boot OS. In order to truly put OS X through the paces (and receive its full benefit), I wanted her to avoid having to run in Classic mode if at all possible.

I had to explain to Kay that all the commands she was accustomed to were still there - just in different places once again. She quickly acclimated herself to the new OS and loved it. Several days went by with no crashes or reboots.

She then complained of having to restart one particular program twice in the same day. Upon further investigation, I discovered that it was the Windows application which she used through Virtual PC. It is actually a Windows NT application which connects to a remote Windows NT 4.0 server running Terminal Server. It turns out the terminal server on the other end was locking up and causing all the clients to lock up as well. I showed Kay that all she had to do when that happened was to restart the Windows 95 PC inside of Virtual PC. She was happy to know that she no longer needed to reboot the Mac, nor even to exit and reenter Virtual PC.

However, Kay was still dismayed that this had happened, because I had told her that OS X was "crash-proof." How was I going to get out of this one?

"Well," I began, "Do you remember the old days when you ran Windows 95/98 and had to reboot all the time?"

"Yes, unfortunately I do."

"See, when you run the Terminal Server application, you are still running a Windows 95 PC, with all its inherent stability problems. Unfortunately, neither Apple nor Connectix can be responsible for the behavior of Windows. They have, fortunately, mitigated the effects of Windows crashes to the greatest extent currently achievable and have enabled as speedy a recovery from those crashes as humanly possible."

Kay understood and was at least glad that this was now the only program that ever crashed. It's over a month later and still not a single system crash - just the occasional Terminal Server suicide.

On a couple of occasions, she has gotten the message that either Entourage or Word has "unexpectedly quit," but the other programs (and the OS) are unaffected. To date, we are unable to determine a cause for this. It has not happened often enough to even begin looking for a pattern. She can go right back into the offending program, and it works normally, so admittedly, finding the root of the problem is not a pressing concern. In fact, this seems so innocuous in comparison to problems with Windows and pre-OS X Macs that I hesitate to even classify these as "crashes."

Some problems are to expected with all operating systems and application software. In regard to the above problem, both Apple and Microsoft have done an excellent job of limiting crashes to what they should be: a minor irritation that is remedied in a few seconds, with business as usual thereafter.

As time went by, Kay began asking about some of her other, lesser-used (but still important) programs that were not yet available in native OS X versions (read: games).

With some trepidation, I installed them and demonstrated Classic mode to Kay. I also explained that when running in Classic mode, all stability bets were off. But similar to Virtual PC, if you have problems, you can just restart the Classic subsystem. I have my fingers crossed.

It is only in retrospect that we can appreciate the robustness of OS X. No system lockups or reboots. The few "crashes" are almost nonevents. Based on Kay's experience, I can heartily recommend OS X as a great improvement over any other OS on the market.

If most or all of the software you use is available in Cocoa or Carbon versions, and you have a Mac that can run it acceptably, the benefits of OS X are tremendous.

Others have explored this subject more fully (see the 10 Forward series), but my personal experience has been that OS X is much more responsive to memory than to processor speed. My Power Mac 8500 with a Sonnet G3/300 upgrade and 384 megs of RAM and the iMac/333 with 512 megs of RAM both handled OS X very well on everyday tasks. However, the Titanium PowerBook G4 was sluggish until I upgraded it from 128 megs to 256 megs of RAM.

Personally, I would not install OS X without a minimum of 256 megs of RAM. Also, if you are doing anything graphics-intensive, you should read Rage at Being Left Behind, which details the lack of OS X accelerated graphics drivers for some early G3 Macs.


One Titanium PowerBook G4 running OS X on a full-time basis (and occasionally utilizing Classic) with virtually no problems equals one very happy user - and one very happy husband/technical support representative.

I've changed into swim trunks and have waded out waist-deep!

Next week: One 12+ year Mac veteran + an iBook/466 + tons of Classic-only apps. Will it be our darkest day or our finest hour?

Also: "What Is a Kernel and Why Is Mine Panicked?!?"

Time to climb up on the diving board and get ready for a belly-flop!

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Steve Watkins is the Vice President for Information Technology for a mid-sized bank, an attorney, and an Army Reserve JAG on extended active duty. He has been a Mac user for about 12 years. He has owned some PCs along the way - but always came back to the Mac. If you find his articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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