Actual work on vintage Macs is possible

Stephen Hackett, linking to this article by Andrew Cunningham at Ars Technica, comments:

Andrew Cunningham has learned what I did back in 2008: while OS 9 is fun to play with, it’s terrible for getting actual work done.

Well, that’s debatable. And it really depends on what we mean by ‘actual work.’

I’m probably in an advantageous position, since my ‘actual work’ mainly revolves around text and writing. For that, I can be rather productive even on a PowerBook 5300 (a 117 MHz machine with 64 MB of RAM) with Mac OS 8.1, as you can read in the second part of my article, In defence of the PowerBook 5300.

I’m quite experienced when it comes to vintage Macs and optimising them to make the most of them. The Ars Technica piece by Cunningham left a bitter taste in my mouth, and as I voiced on Twitter and App.net, I believe the author (perhaps due to inexperience and impatience with vintage hardware and software) hasn’t painted a completely fair picture of how these machines and systems can actually perform.

Cunningham writes:

And connecting the PowerBook to my router required a trip to the TCP/IP Control Panel to get things working—the OS didn’t just detect an active network interface and grab an IP address as it does now.

I’d like to point out that this behaviour isn’t the standard, as far as I know. I have a few PowerPC Macs that can boot either in Mac OS X or Mac OS 9, and a Mac OS 9-only machine, a clamshell iBook G3/300 with 288 MB of RAM. Whenever I connect the iBook to my router via Ethernet, I’m automatically connected to the Internet, with no need to manually configure anything. The same happens with my PowerBook 5300 on Mac OS 8.1 — it usually auto-connects when I plug in the Ethernet cable. (Sometimes I admittedly have to check the TCP/IP control panel.)

Mac OS 9 feels much faster on the 800MHz G4 than does OS X 10.4 or 10.5, and when the system is working smoothly things open and close pretty much instantaneously. That is, unless you get a pop-up message that momentarily freezes the OS, or you have an odd, possibly memory-related crash that requires a restart.

I’m sorry if that has been Cunningham’s experience, but again, he makes it sound like something that happens so often, one would think Mac OS 9 is a completely unreliable system. It’s not, at least not in my experience. Granted, if all you’ve known is Mac OS X and expect to open as many apps in a Mac OS 9 system, you won’t enjoy the same degree of general stability. That’s because Mac OS X and Mac OS 9 manage memory differently.

With regard to Cunningham’s poor email experience on Mac OS 9, I can relate. In part. Four years ago I carried out an informal investigation, where I installed as many decent classic Mac email clients as I could find and tried to configure a Gmail account in all of them. You can find a detailed account of that experiment in my article Classic email clients vs Gmail, but in short, I found that the only email clients playing nice with Gmail were Classilla Mail in Classilla 9.x, the Netscape Mail module in Netscape 7.0.2, while the two best clients capable of full Gmail support (at least at the time, in 2010) were Microsoft Outlook 5.02 and PowerMail 4.2.1.

As for publishing articles and blog posts online using WordPress, my workaround has always been posting by email, which WordPress supports. This allowed me to post articles even using my PowerBook 5300 with Mac OS 8.1 and Mailsmith 1.1.8.

Cunningham:

[…] it goes without saying that syncing files between Mac OS 9 and any other system just isn’t going to happen (I mostly use Dropbox, but the service you use doesn’t make a difference). Even using a network share isn’t possible — Mac OS 9 doesn’t support Windows’ SMB protocol, and its version of the AFP protocol is too old to interface with my Mac Mini server running Mavericks. I was only able to do some file transfers using FTP, yet another unencrypted and insecure protocol.

And that’s why I use a Titanium PowerBook G4 running Mac OS X Tiger as a ‘server’ when I need to sync files with Dropbox. Since Dropbox (bless those guys) still supports PowerPC Macs running a version of Mac OS X as old as Tiger, I connect the OS 9 iBook to the TiBook and mount the Dropbox folder in the iBook’s desktop. The experience is seamless enough.

After trying to work in Mac OS 9, Cunningham installs Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard on his test machine, a Titanium PowerBook G4 at 800 MHz. Note that Leopard has a minimum system requirement of a G4 processor running at 867 MHz. While it’s certainly possible (as Cunningham did) to circumvent this limitation and install Leopard on a Mac with a slower processor — I had managed to install it on a 500 MHz machine — you cannot expect optimum performance.

In fact, speaking of TenFourFox — the best and most up-to-date browser for G3/G4/G5 PowerPC Macs — Cunningham writes:

In any case, TenFourFox does a respectable job of rendering pages properly, and I’m sure it runs much better on newer 1GHz-and-up aluminum PowerBooks and iMacs than it does on this old titanium G4.

It does. On my 1 GHz 12-inch PowerBook G4 and 1.33 GHz 17-inch PowerBook G4 it runs very well. But it also runs fine on my 400 MHz and 500 MHz Titanium PowerBooks.

One thing I’ll say about both OS X 10.4 and 10.5 on this hardware is that it’s laggy no matter what you’re doing.

It’s a strange assessment, that doesn’t tally with my experience at all. I have Mac OS X 10.4.11 installed on these machines:

  • A 400 MHz Titanium PowerBook G4 with 1 GB of RAM
  • A 500 MHz Titanium PowerBook G4 with 512 MB of RAM
  • A 450 MHz Power Mac G4 Cube with 1.5 GB of RAM
  • A 466 MHz clamshell iBook G3 FireWire with 576 MB of RAM

and Tiger isn’t laggy on any of them, especially the Cube, where the Finder is actually more responsive than on my MacBook Pro with 8 GB of RAM, running Mac OS X 10.9.5. As for Leopard being laggy on a Mac that doesn’t meet Leopard’s minimum system requirements, well, I’m not that surprised.

Stuff you take for granted on a modern, multi-core computer with an SSD and lots of RAM is totally different on a system this old. Having dozens of browser tabs open at once, playing some music or maybe a video in the background, syncing Dropbox files, even watching animated GIFs consumes precious CPU cycles that an 800MHz G4 doesn’t have to spare. Exceeding the computer’s once-impressive-but-now-paltry 1GB of RAM, something you’ll do without even thinking if you fire up TenFourFox, prompts virtual memory swapping that grinds things to a halt.

There’s nothing technically wrong with what Cunningham is saying here, but “grinding things to a halt” is a bit of an exaggeration. I’m writing this on my 17-inch 1.33 GHz PowerBook G4 with 1.5 GB of RAM running Mac OS X 10.5.8, so it’s a more capable Mac than the TiBook he used, but still, here’s a list of the applications I have currently opened:

  • MarsEdit 2.4.4
  • Sparrow (yes, version 1.2.3 was a Universal Binary)
  • The latest version of TenFourFox, with 7 tabs open
  • The Spotify Mac client (version 0.6.6.10, still working on PowerPC Macs)
  • NetNewsWire 3.2.15, with three tabs open in its built-in browser
  • An instance of Fluid (again, I held on to its last PowerPC-compatible version) running TweetDeck (the Web interface) inside of it
  • Mac OS X’s Dictionary app

The PowerBook is quite stable and doesn’t feel laggy or sluggish to me.

I ascribe Cunningham’s evaluation to his fairly limited time with the test machine, which probably wasn’t perfectly optimised to provide the best experience under Mac OS 9 and Mac OS X 10.5. I insist, you can’t expect Leopard to be very smooth on an 800 MHz Mac when it requires at least 867 MHz. You can see here that such minimum requirement has more to do with the overall performance and user experience rather than something strictly hardware-related.

Back to the initial question — Is it possible to do actual work under Mac OS 9 today? — my answer is a cautious ‘yes.’ It always depends on what you actually do for a living, of course. If you work with audio/video editing tools, for example, you can find professional software. Same goes for image editing or 3D rendering. The big difference is that you’ll have to work with vintage hardware which can do the job but not as efficiently as a modern Mac with current software.

Another thing to consider is that you’ll have to invest some time to properly optimise your vintage Mac. There’s a lot of Mac OS 9 software out there, and sometimes you have to try different applications in the same category to find the best software for what you’re trying to accomplish (like what I did with email clients). I agree, it can become a tiring and bewildering exercise, especially if you never used anything older than Mac OS X.

On one thing I very much agree with Cunningham: the most problematic aspect of using Mac OS 9 today is related to Web browsing and Internet security. Classilla is the most modern browser you can find for Mac OS 9 and the most secure, but it’s all in relative terms. All other browsers are just too old to keep up with modern websites and technologies. If you’re trying to load a certain website properly, all I can suggest is to download different browsers and try them until you find the one that best renders it. Internet Explorer 5.x, Netscape, old versions of Opera, iCab, are all worth keeping around (iCab 3.0.5, the last version supporting Mac OS 9.x, isn’t that bad for example), but it certainly is tedious work and doesn’t make for a smooth browsing experience. Classilla at least tends to favour mobile versions of popular, complex websites, to offer a bit of usability at the very least — the last time I tried, I was able to tweet using Twitter’s mobile Web interface from inside Classilla.

But security? Just forget about it. I mean, I’m not talking about viruses (practically nonexistent for the classic Mac OS), but secure transmission of data. In a nutshell, I wouldn’t use a Web browser under Mac OS 9 to transmit sensitive information (financial data, passwords protecting sensitive accounts, etc.).

When we move up the ladder a bit, however, and I’m talking Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger and 10.5 Leopard, then I can safely say that actual work can be done, and the experience is much less painful than under Mac OS 9. Again, it’s a matter of being patient at the beginning, and take some time to hunt down the necessary software, but I’m still using three G4 PowerBooks and my G4 Cube as secondary machines and I’m pretty satisfied with them, especially the 17-inch PowerBook G4, which is a little powerhouse despite being a Mac that’s almost 11 years old. It is, among other things, my secondary photo archive & editing machine (it runs Aperture 2 decently), my CD/DVD burning machine and sometimes my old-PowerPC-games machine (its ATI Mobility Radeon graphics card with 64 MB of memory can still perform quite well with games produced when this machine was new, games like Quake or Unreal Tournament, for example). And of course I use it for Web browsing, email, RSS feeds, writing.

Of course, if your exploration of vintage Macs and older Mac OS and OS X versions is just something you do in the spur of the moment, and is not meant to last more than just a few days, your experience as a result is going to look pretty much similar to Cunningham’s. I hope this contribution of mine will help paint a more balanced picture of what it means to use vintage Mac hardware and software today — on a regular basis.

 


I’m always trying to find and report great apps that are still available for PowerPC G3/G4/G5 Macs. So far, I’ve written 3 articles listing a few of them:

I think they’re a good enough starting point to assemble a decent software arsenal if you have a nice Mac running Tiger or Leopard in particular.

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8 thoughts on “Actual work on vintage Macs is possible

  1. I do agree with this article. While classic mac OS is not very good for internet stuff anymore, it is still still pretty good for what made it good at the time. Especially graphics design.

    I am a film maker and animator. I do most of my work on a Mac Pro but I have an old powermac 9500 that I still use very often to do sketches, rough animations, backgrounds and landscapes. I also do my compositing on this mac when there 3D is not required. It has a G4 700MHz upgrade, a Radeon 7000, 656Megs of RAM and is running system 7.6. The user experience on this machine is much better than on my 8 cores Mac Pro running Mavericks.

    On the Mac Pro I have managed to do a proper file sharing using Netatalk so all the files I work on with the 9500 are hosted on the Mac Pro. I love this setup.

  2. I’ve yet to upgrade from a G4 1.5ghz Powerbook. I’ve used it for 11 years to edit video (fcp studio 2), record music (MOTU’s Digital Performer v. 5), and work in Adobe Creative Suite (v. 2). Still can do all those things (I can even edit HD video once Compressor converts to ProRes422 codec), plus host my iPhoto library (2009 version), and Dropbox works on it. Web browsing can be sluggish, so glad to hear of this TenFourFox, I will check it out. Gmail serves up a stripped down interface that I rather prefer 🙂

  3. I guess it all depends on how patient you are, and I’m not. I’m writing this on an iMac G4 1Ghz that I couldn’t tolerate in Leopard…not even with just a couple of programs running. After a lot of research and work, it’s now running MintPPC Linux and, for the most part, responds the way I want it to. Libreoffice loads the first time in 12 seconds. Under Leopard it was at least twice that. NeoOffice was even worse. Ice Weasel and Dove (Firefox and Thunderbird for PPC) are up in under 10 seconds. The browser slows down too much if there are several tabs with a lot of motion GIFs on them (i.e. advertising), ,though. I’ll have to try an ad blocker. Anyway, this impatient user is happy with an 11-year old iMac, again. So, in the OS9/OSX PPC battles, I say “neither”. If you’re a little tech savvy, give MintPPC a try. (Save yourself a lot of trouble…don’t use any other PPC distribution or you may spend a lot of time in Terminal. Sound and wireless are particularly problematic.) Oh, BTW, Linux has one major Achilles Heel…inkjet printers. The only company with good support for them is HP. I had to sell the one I had and buy an HP when I changed over entirely to Linux.

    I could go on and on about dual boot, OS9 virtualizer, multiple desktops, free software, etc., but this is already too long. To find out more, go to mintppc.org.

  4. @ François:

    You wrote: On the Mac Pro I have managed to do a proper file sharing using Netatalk so all the files I work on with the 9500 are hosted on the Mac Pro. I love this setup.

    Can you please elaborate? I’ve never been able to get filesharing to work between OS8 or 9 and anything higher than OSX 10.4. I use a G4 running Tiger as a “bridge” for data that needs to go from OS9 (or earlier) to OSX 10.5 or 10.6 (or higher I suppose).

    I’d like to figure out a direct connection from OS9 to OSX 10.8 or 9; it would help me reduce the number of machines I need! I do my productive/paying work in OS9 or Classic.

    About Netatalk, Wikipedia says: Version 3.0 of Netatalk was released in July 2012 and added ini style configuration, AppleDouble backend using filesytem Extended Attributes as default, and removed AppleTalk networking support.

    So I’m going to assume I would have to find an earlier version of Netatalk, running it on the OSX 10.7+ machine, to talk to the OS9 machine.

    What version do you use, François?

  5. Complete tosh from Cunningham! I have a triple boot 1Ghz 1.12GB RAM triple boot Sawtooth G4 with Panther, Tiger and 9.2.2 and I’m using the latter right now to type this comment. To get online, all I had to do was open Classilla and go to this site. That was it! No fiddling around with any settings or any struggling whatsoever and this is the first time that I’ve used 9.2.2 to even get online as normailly I’d do that on OS X.

    Nice to see journalists providing accurate information as always.

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