Feature: Running OS X on Wallstreet and Lombard PowerBooks


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Got a G3 PowerBook? Thinking of making the switch to OS X? Can X be a productive platform with the G3? Is it worth it, or do you need a better, faster Mac?

Here we'll look at the viability of going X on an older PowerBook G3 - specifically, the 1998 Wallstreet and the 1999 Lombard. The most important tests will be speed and usability, particularly compared with OS 9. But first up, let's lay out the test equipment:

1. PowerBook G3/400 (Lombard)
- 1MB L2 cache, 66MHz system bus
- IBM Travelstar 30GT, 30GB, 4,200rpm, 2MB buffer
- 512MB RAM
- 10GB expansion bay hard drive, IBM Travelstar 20GN, 512K buffer

2. PowerBook G3/233 (Wallstreet)
- 512K L2 cache, 66MHz system bus
- 320MB RAM
- Hitachi 3.0GB 4,200rpm, 512K buffer

3. Modifications
- Rage Pro OS X driver hack on Lombard.

Much of what follows will be relevant to the PowerBook G3 (FireWire/Pismo), and also various Beige and Blue & White G3s of comparable clock speed, particularly those with lousy video cards. You may not be able to reproduce the test data below, but you should get fairly close. For the record, I also retro-installed my old 333MHz Lombard daughtercard and it was around 0.5-1.0 second slower on average for the application launch tests.

Where possible, I've tried to use equivalent software, available in the same version for both OS X and OS 9. In some cases (such as Toast), the application was Carbonized for both OS 9 and OS X. Tests included general-purpose productivity software you'd expect most Mac users to employ, including some of the iApps, Office, and freeware such as Acrobat Reader 5.

Here's how the tests turned out.
 


 
Application launch Lombard OS X
10.1.5
(minutes/seconds)
Lombard
OS 9.2.2
Wallstreet
OS 9.2.2
Wallstreet
OS X 10.1.5
Emailer 0.03 
(in Classic mode)
0.03 - -
Word X/2001 0.05 0.05 0.06 0.15
Excel X/2001 0.06 0.05 0.06 0.11
Powerpoint X/2001 0.06 0.03 0.04 0.10
Entourage X/2001 0.10 0.04 - -
Toast 5 0.05 0.03 0.04 0.05
AppleWorks 6 0.04 0.05 - -
Acrobat Reader 5 0.05 0.11 - 0.12
BBEdit Lite  6.1 0.04 0.02 - -
iMovie 2 0.07 0.05 - 0.13
Disk Copy X/6.3/6.5b11* 0.02 0.01/0.03 0.01 0.03
Sherlock 3/2 0.03 0.03 0.02 0.04
Norton Disk Doctor 7.0/6.0 0.07 0.01 0.03 -
iTunes 2 0.03 0.05 0.06 0.11
IE 5.1.2 0.06 0.05 0.06 0.09
MT-NewsWatcher 0.04 0.03 0.04 -
iCab 2.8 0.05 0.05 0.05 0.05
Scroll Word document (a) 0.43 0.07 0.14 1.14
Scroll Word doc 
print preview mode (b)
0.12 0.08 0.12 0.13
Duplicate 320MB file 0.58 0.49 2.13 2.07
Convert 1 minute of QT .mov
to MPEG-1 in Cleaner 5
25.43 15.20 - -

(a) 27-page Word document, 11,500 words, Times font.
(b) Same document as (a). Print preview set for two-page preview.
*OS 9 beta version with same feature set as OS X version.
 

Classic Tests

I didn't do a Classic launch, as there are so many variables here. But Classic performance is important to many, if not most, users. My major Classic app is Em@iler, which will never be available in X. It's pleasing to note it's still speedy in Classic (Classic has become progressively better, and is particularly improved in 10.1.5). Other apps which haven't gone X include Wannabe PPC, the fast, text-only browser. Like Em@iler, it's fast in Classic and sacrifices little speed compared with OS 9.

I also tested Photoshop 4.01 on the Lombard in Classic, and its performance was good. Some apps, like JPEGView and Oxford English Dictionary (both dating from the early 1990s), don't work properly, unfortunately, so there's a limit to Classic performance, although these run just fine in OS 9. I guess you're not going to be running MacWrite, although there are still a lot of devotees of ClarisCAD out there.

Office

Lombard performance is comparable launching Office apps, whether in OS 9 or X. X is a tad more sluggish. However, where X lags - which may be due at least partially to Microsoft's coding of Office - is in various Office functions. Page Setup, Print Preview and page scrolling (the latter being particularly processor intensive) are all much slower in OS X. Bringing up dialogue boxes, such as Print, is also slow. Worse still is an MS Office component I use frequently: MS Graph. In Office 2001, it's tolerable, but it launches like treacle in v.X. For this reason, I still prefer Microsoft Graph 3.0 in Word 5.1. Since 1992, each version of Graph has put on more and more bulk, without adding anything useful by way of features. A true victim of bloatware.

On the Wallstreet, Office is worse. It's clear even in OS 9 that Office 2001 begins to tax the Wallstreet's 233MHz processor. But Office 98 is smooth and fast and not missing many features. By contrast, I wouldn't really consider Office v.X particularly useable on a low-end Wallstreet. I'd be interested to hear some feedback from owners of Wallstreet 250/266/292 and 300MHz models to see what they think of Office X on their PowerBooks.

Internet performance

It's been widely reported that OS X is not yet optimized for internet performance, which means IE, iCab and Opera performance lag considerably behind their OS 9 counterparts in speed. Omniweb is a nice browser, but its slowness makes it more or less unusable, in my opinion.

The main problem is that Apple needs to work on the code to make X more responsive when browsing and using other TCP/IP apps. The problems aren't inherent in the browsers; one Opera product manager has gone on record stating that Apple needs to fix it and then the developers can improve application speeds.

There are some pleasant surprises though. I feel iCab's OS X builds are far superior to their OS 9 and 68K cousins. It launches in X just as smartly and is generally much more stable, on my systems anyway. There's more of a 'wait state' in iCab in the PowerPC and 68K builds. Window drawing in iCab is fast and better than IE in many respects. Its feature set also makes it attractive; 'Launch window in background' is one good one (Omniweb has this as well).

An old favorite, MT-Newswatcher, undergoes the Carbon treatment and is essentially just as speedy in X as in OS 9. You can see when apps are well written in the first place when they make the jump to X and there's little or no performance loss, despite the fact the CPU's working hard in X.

Sherlock performance disappoints. It seems sluggish, and while it launches not much less slowly than its 9 counterpart, you can start typing your search query as soon as you launch Sherlock in 9, and then hit Enter and, bang, it searches. Not so in X; on Lomhard, and especially Wallstreet, you need to wait until the app finishes launching before you start typing; otherwise, the search window ends up with a moronic blank and you have to type the query again. Not impressive. For speed, the original Sherlock in OS 8.5/8.6 is much pacier, even if it lags in the features department somewhat.

General-purpose applications

Again, well-written apps are the most useable here, particularly on the slower Wallstreet. BBEdit 6 is the same fast, sterling, all-purpose app in OS X as it is in OS 9. The guys at  BareBones software know how to write Mac apps and write them well. You don't need a late-model G4 to run apps like BBEdit fast, unlike Office, which always seems to need the latest hardware to avoid the blancmange feel.

Acrobat 5 doesn't fare nearly as well. It's generally agreed that Acrobat 5 (and the Reader, what most people use) is a complete mess, unexpectedly quitting. It's alpha-standard software. For viewing/printing docs, I usually use Acrobat Reader 4, as it's much more solid. Acrobat 5 takes an age to launch on X, and you're much better off just dropping a PDF onto Preview in the Dock - much quicker.

I can't say I've used AppleWorks 6 much (mostly, I've used 5), but it's rapid enough in X, even on the Wallstreet. Given that's it's bundled with iBooks and what's left of the G3 iMacs, it's really all you need in a productivity suite in X, unless you really need Office for work compatibility. But $400 or $500 is a lot to pay for a new license for Office - but it's often the only way to get Powerpoint.

Burning

Roxio's Toast, arguable one of the most important apps in X, does well on both these low-end PowerBooks. Toast is developed for Roxio by El Gato software, who also write very decent FireWire drivers. As always, Toast isn't as fast in X, but it works better multitasking; it appears less likely to burn a coaster when operating in the background. The great thing about X, of course, is if you need to force kill a CDRW burn, you can do it without fear of crashing the Mac. You can get lockups with a burner in OS 9; no problem in X.

One aspect of CD burning that degenerates under X, however, is data speed. On these PowerBook G3s, data read performance from hard drives to Toast decreases appreciably. This is most noticeable when burning MP3s direct on-the-fly to audio CD. If you burn at high speeds (and most recent burners do), the burner will have to drop back (if it supports burn-proof), or it'll write a coaster. Burning from AIFF will fix this, but it's one more annoying step. Of course, iTunes does this by default, but it lengthens the whole process considerably.

With data, this problem is not really noticeable, except that my data read speed from my fastest internal hard drive (a Travelstar 30GT) dropped back from around 9.6MB/ps to 8.2MB/ps. As my SCSI burner is only 6x, this isn't a problem. But it would be if you're using, say, a 24x or 32x burner. Note too, that if you're burning direct from your hard drive, OS X creates so many files, drives become fragmented very quickly. (Use  Alsoft's Plus Optimizer to sort this out from OS 9 - it will deal with X volumes safely).

I haven't had a chance to download  CharisMac's Discribe 5.0 burner software (a 5-burn trial is available) to test its X performance (apologies).

An issue related to burning more generally, but SCSI in particular is OS X's glitchy SCSI support. Apple doesn't support native SCSI on the mobo on these two machines, the last two PowerBooks to have built-in SCSI. Through to 10.0.3, I had a number of problems. With versions prior to 10.1, SCSI support was very flaky indeed. One problem a correspondent of mine noted with SCSI on his Wallstreet II/266 is his total inability to get the Wallstreet to admit SCSI devices are there. He's tried all sorts of things, but can't get a Teac burner in this case to work. Works fine in OS 9. Whether there will be variations from Mac-to-Mac is one question; whether specific SCSI peripherals - CDRWs in this case - are more forgiving and/or compatible with OS X is another.

However, my Yamaha SCSI CDRW does work with both Wallstreet and Lombard, and it also works with Disc Burner and iTunes. Disk Copy in both OS X and its beta OS 9 version (presumably never to be officially released) has some very nice burning features. One thing it does that Disc Burner cannot is write to DVD-RW in SuperDrives (at least, it's my understanding the Disc Burner can't). Toast can, of course, but if you don't have Toast on a given Mac, it's nice to know Disk Copy can come to the rescue.

I don't mind warm-plugging the SCSI CDRW into either Wallstreet or Lombard while they're sleeping (caution: YMMV and I don't advise this). This works in OS 9 and Toast recognizes the burner on wake-up.

But not in X. The trick just doesn't work. Even logging out and back in doesn't. You'll need to reboot to get connectivity happening with SCSI in X. Of course, this point is moot with expansion bay, FireWire or USB CDRWs.

MPEG performance

Wallstreet and Lombard owners were outraged when their Rage ATI chipsets were deemed 'unsupported' by Apple as far as DVD video playback was concerned. Both these PowerBooks use hardware MPEG-2 decoding, whereas the Pismo and later use software decoding. The Pismo also sports the 128-bit ATI Rage card, whereas the Wallstreets use either Rage II or Rage Pro, and the Lonbard Rage Pro, all of which are 64-bit graphics cards. This means no DVDs in OS X.

Worse, Apple had no 2D/3D hardware acceleration for these cards, meaning useless QuickTime performance, and hopeless iTunes screensaver and OS X screensaver frame rates.

And, still, Apple provides no VCD playback (MPEG-1) capability with QuickTime 5 or 6 in OS X. However, Mireth Software's  MacVCD X comes to the rescue.

The Rage Pro problem was very partly solved when Apple hid the capability in OS X 10.1.5. With a minor hack, the Lombard's Rage Pro hardware acceleration is enabled. So QuickTime movies and VCDs play full frame in full screen and Dock switching and window draws are snappier. However, the bad news is that trying the same hack on the Wallstreet simply causes a kernel panic. No go. As a result, with both PowerBooks running 10.1.5, Lombard's graphics performance is dramatically better than Wallstreet's. Not quite up to Pismo standard, but close.

One test noted in the table above was MPEG-1 encoding with Cleaner 5 (Cleaner 6 has just recently been released). Available for both 9 and X, I 've used Cleaner a lot for VCD encoding. While Cleaner works well enough in X, its performance is below par in X on these two PowerBooks. I use the Wallstreet a lot for encoding, which can take around 17 hours for 1 hour of MPEG video (a G4 should be able to do it in 10 hours or less). The Lombard takes around 15 minutes to encode 1 minute of video to MPEG-1 in OS 9; the OS X version of Cleaner takes approximately 25 minutes to encode 1 minute. Do the math; this adds hours to the encoding process. I doubt whether Cleaner 6 will perform any better on these low-end 'Books.

Stuff that Works and Stuff that Doesn't

My Newer FireWire2Go card (about $30 or so if you can find one) works just fine in OS 9 or X without needs any special drivers installed. Foolproof. So does the odd PC card modem I tried for the hell of it. Compact Flash and other flash memory cards in an adapter show up on the desktop just like in OS 9. Plug. Play. Just as Macs should be.

Ditto the expansion bay hard drive and Zip. No problems. CDRWs from MCE and VST also work, I'm told, aa does VST's SuperDisk drive.

Gloom, gloom, my iRez Capsure PCMCIA card doesn't though. No surprises there; iRez don't make the card anymore, and I'm pretty sure I can't find a Zoomed Video driver anywhere in the OS X system. Not to worry; I'm also pretty sure there are no apps in X which support analog video capture . Final Cut Pro 3.0 doesn't, Let me know if this isn't the case.

And, yes, as well-documented, battery life is lower in OS X than OS 9, as there's no decent energy management software yet. I can't test this properly though, as my batteries are all in various stages of degeneration right now.

Conclusions:
Is Low-End X Worth It?

Two answers:

On a 333 or 400MHz Lombard, yes. OS X is now my daily driver on the Lombard. It's not lightning-fast and has some annoying quirks, but its stability make it worthwhile. Its crashproofing is, in fact, its most desirable feature..Jaguar may not improve things measurably for these low-end PowerBooks, but it's worth looking at their performance in 10.1.5 if you've been thinking of making the switch to X.

On a 233MHz Wallstreet - or Beige - I would say "probably not". For running the odd X app, it's useful to have it there, but not as a day-to-day productivity system. However, I'd be keen to hear from owners of other Wallstreets or Beige G3s what they think of running X apps on their box.

"What about the G4 upgrades?", I hear you say. Without having test any of the several now available from Sonnet, PowerLogix and Newer Tech, it's a tough call. With the Lombard's graphics acceleration though, I'd be more inclined to think a 500MHz G4 Lombard is a viable proposition in the medium term. We're still trying to get a G4 Lombard test unit for my Lombard (marketing managers keep resigning on me at PowerLogix every time I ask for a unit - seriously!). We'll keep you posted on this one.

We all want (as opposed to need) a faster Mac. A cooler PowerBook. If you're a Lombard owner, I'd say you can run OS X without too many regrets. If you're on a Wallstreet and OS X is something you want and need, it may be time to off-load the Wallstreet (much as I know that'll hurt) and plunk down the plastic for that iBook or PowerBook G4 you've always wanted. However, bear in mind that for really optimum performance of OS X, you need a G4.