Curiosities: Mac OS X on a Bondi Blue iMac

Friday, 2004-01-09; 23:13:00

Panther on the earliest compatible Mac

(Originally posted on AppleXnet)

When you think of running Panther on a Mac, what kind of system do you envision running it on? A dual 2 GHz PowerMac G5? A 1.33 GHz 17" PowerBook G4? Maybe an iBook G4 running at 1 GHz? How about a Mac with a G3 processor running at 233 MHz?

No, that's not a typo. According to the official Panther requirements page, Panther can run on any Mac with built-in USB ports. That means that the oldest PowerMac you can run Panther on is a Power Mac G3 blue and white (low-end: 300 MHz G3, ATI Rage 128 w/16 MB VRAM), while the oldest PowerBook you can run it on is the PowerBook G3 Bronze Keyboard (low-end: 333 MHz G3, ATI Rage LT Pro w/8 MB VRAM). You can run Panther on any iBook (earliest model: 300 MHz G3, ATI Rage Mobility w/4 MB VRAM), any eMac (earliest model: 700 MHz G4, nVidia GeForce 2MX w/32 MB DDR VRAM), and any iMac, including the first model ever introduced. So, with a 233 MHz G3 processor and an ATI Rage IIc with 2 MB of VRAM, the original bondi blue iMac (revision A) is the absolute worst Mac on which Apple officially supports Panther (even though XPostFacto can help you install it on even earlier machines).

Of course, that's not to say that the original iMac is a bad computer. On the contrary, it perhaps single-handedly rocketed Apple out of the rut in which it was. You remember all the way back to when the iMac was first introduced, right? After Steve Jobs' return to Apple after Apple acquired NeXT, Steve Jobs quickly took over, ended Mac OS licensing, and pared down Apple's product line to where it was actually understandable. But Apple's product line was still languishing, so Apple surprised everybody by unveiling the iMac on May 6, 1998 (it was actually released in August). They had kept it so secretive that even the rumor sites were caught off guard -- they thought that the Columbus project, the codename of the iMac, was a set-top box! Of course, the rest is history: over 150,000 people pre-ordered iMacs in just one week, making it one of the most if not THE most successful computer ever. And, needless to say, it sparked the whole rage of using translucent colors on a wide range of products, not just computers.

The original bondi blue iMac was my first, very own Mac. We had always had a family computer: our trusty Mac IIsi was used for many games as well as word processing and getting on the net through (gasp) CompuServe. But I was increasingly getting involved in computers, and I needed one of my own. So the very Saturday that the iMac was finally released on August 15, 1998, I went to my local CompuTown and bought one. Of course, when you see that "Simplicity Shootout" video, you couldn't help but buy an iMac just because of Brodie the dog. Ah, good memories.

Fast forward about 5 and a half years. My iMac passed through the hands of my brother (who now has my G4 cube), to the school where my dad works, and back home, where it was relegated, powered off, to a desk in one of the rooms. It's almost sad to let that computer go to such waste.

But just this past week, my dad and I decided that we wanted to set up a web server in our house. The victim? That same, one and only, bondi blue iMac. What a perfect time to test out Apple's latest operating system, Panther, on the oldest Panther-compatible Mac! Did I expect it to run? Yes. Did I expect it to run well? Not at all. DID it run well? Well, read on to find out.

The first thing you need to do before installing Panther on ANY iMac is to upgrade the firmware. This is very important: on some iMacs, if you don't upgrade the firmware before initiating the Mac OS X installation, you can literally fry your iMac's logic board. Talking at MWSF this past week with another reporter, he warned me about this issue, seeing as he managed to set back his grandparents a few hundred bucks because of this problem. It seems that even simply starting up from the Mac OS X install CD, including the Panther install discs, triggers this problem: the CDs check the firmware version of the iMac, and in doing so, kills computers that don't have the latest firmware version installed. The lesson? Upgrade your firmware on any Mac before installing Mac OS X.

Luckily, I was warned about this issue beforehand, and Apple provides this handy table of the latest, required firmware updates for any Mac on which you are going to install Jaguar or Panther. And being the update-freak I am, I had already installed all the firmware updates. Firmware updated? Check.

Second item: RAM. Mac OS X requires at least 128 MB of RAM to run, no exceptions. You can attempt to install Mac OS X on computers with less RAM, but the installer disc will hang when trying to load the installation packages (this is first-hand experience with some Rev. D iMacs). So we needed to upgrade our iMac's measly 64 MB of RAM. Since my dad works at a school, he was able to acquire 2 128 MB sticks of memory for iMacs. It's a little known fact that the original Rev. A iMac can only handle a maximum 256 MB of RAM, while Rev. B iMacs can handle 512 MB. So these 2 sticks of memory were going to max out our iMac's memory capabilities. Score.

Of course, there's the actual issue of installing the RAM. And if you've never opened up a tray-loading iMac, you have no idea about the horror of memory installation. To get an idea of this lengthy process, just take a look at Apple's technote on how to install RAM into a Rev. A iMac. Note that that's just the first page: the procedure continues in tech note 43013. You have to unscrew 4 screws and unhook 5 cables, and then pull out the guts of the machine: the whole structure of the iMac literally comes out, which includes the CD-ROM drive and the hard drive, despite the fact that the place where you lift this piece out is at the opposite end of the computer. Not fun. If you want, you can see a video of the process here. It doesn't show the process for replacing the memory in the second slot, though.

To install the memory, you have to first unhook the metal shield on the top of the processor daughterboard. Then, you actually have to unhook the daughterboard from the main piece and flip it over, thereby revealing the other memory slot. After all this, you get to assemble the whole thing again, hopefully without damaging your iMac. Unfortunately, I accidentally snapped one of the plastic pieces that held some cables in place: luckily, no big deal. The hardest part of installing memory in the iMac? Getting that annoying, plastic part on the bottom of the iMac back in place. This piece has 5 tabs that have to go in just so, and if you don't know how to do it, you can spend 10 or 15 minutes just getting it in. It's a pain in the neck.

Of course, Apple got smart only in the slot-loading versions of the iMac, when they redesigned the whole computer in order to put the memory slots near an easy-access slot that just requires the unscrewing of two screws. The single tech note for this process can be seen here. Thanks a lot, Apple. Memory? Check.

Now we were able to start the Panther installation. Keep in mind that we're working on a Mac that has a 24x CD-ROM drive, and (I believe) a 4200 RPM hard drive. Definitely not the latest and greatest. Since we hadn't upgraded the hard drive and only had 4 GB of space, we decided to do a minimal installation: only Italian and French localization packages, only HP and gimp-print printer drivers, no iMovie or iPhoto, and no developer tools. After taking about 15 minutes to do the verification of the installation CD, Panther installed in about 30 minutes. Not bad. Of course, we did have one minor scare: the iMac actually decided to go to sleep during installation: did someone at Apple forget to change the Energy Saver settings on the Mac OS X install CDs?

After going through the first-run setup assistant, we were in! Our beloved iMac was running Panther. I updated the Mac OS X system software to the latest version, and installed all the needed updates except for iMovie, iPhoto, and the iPod software update. All went without a hitch. The only problem was that prebinding, what Mac OS X calls "optimization" and does after every software installation, took a HECK of a long time: probably 30 minutes after the updates including Mac OS X 10.3.2. It took about 15 minutes after installing some secondary updates after 10.3.2, as well as another 5 minutes after installing iCal and iSync.

But what about Panther's actual performance on the bondi blue iMac? Well, needless to say, it's not stellar, but it's far better than I ever expected it to run. After installing Mac OS X 10.3.2, the iMac took 2 minutes and 2 seconds from startup chime to menubar appearing (automatic login was turned on). After installing all the updates and turning automatic login off, the startup sequence was 1 minute and 32 seconds (remember this doesn't include login time).

Surprisingly, though, Panther is completely usable. And I'm not talking Mac OS X 10.1 sense of usable on a relatively recent Mac: I'm talking close to Mac OS 9 speeds. You can navigate around in the Finder just as fast as you can on my current 800 MHz G4 iMac. Exposé works just as fast as it does on any more recent Mac, even though the effect is very choppy. Applications launch in a reasonable amount of time, and you can use all the latest software that runs on Panther. Safari even renders web pages almost as fast as it does on my current iMac.

Here are some application benchmarks:

Application ----- First Launch ----- Second Launch
  Safari         4 bnc, 10 sec       3 bnc, 5 sec
 Sys Prefs       3 bnc, 5 sec        2 bnc, 3 sec
  Mail           3 bnc, 5 sec        2 bnc, 3 sec
 Terminal        2 bnc, 3 sec        2 bnc, 3 sec
  iChat          4 bnc, 5 sec        4 bnc, 4 sec

bnc = bounces, sec = seconds

Note that the bouncemark isn't necessarily accurate, because when an application stops bouncing in the Dock, it doesn't necessarily mean that the application is ready to take commands from the user. So the seconds are provided to more accurately report the time from launch to application ready time. Also, these values are with a virtually pristine install of Panther -- obviously installing haxies, contextual menus, kernel extensions, and other applications will start to degrade the launch times. Barring that disclaimer, though, you can see that the bondi blue iMac is pretty fast under Panther, given what hardware is inside that translucent casing.

The bondi blue iMac can sometimes match the speed of my 800 MHz G4 iMac in some things. Take, for example, the loading of the Kathleen Fent story on Slashdot, one of the most commented-on stories, which makes it a good candidate for testing the load time of a webpage. On my G4 iMac, the page completely loads in just 6 seconds. On the bondi blue iMac, it loads in 10 seconds. The G4 iMac is many times faster than the bondi blue iMac, but doesn't even manage to load this webpage twice as fast. All told, it seems that the bondi blue iMac can run pretty well under Panther.

Another thing to note is that it seems Apple has gotten fairly smart when it comes to effects in Panther. While on previous versions of the Mac OS on newer hardware, Apple sacrificed speed for eye-candy: it wanted all the effects to be fluid. But in Panther on the bondi blue iMac, the opposite is true: fluidity is sacrificed for speed. And it shows: moving a window is just as fast as a recent Mac. Minimizing windows is just as fast. Opening menus is nearly as fast. About the only two places where effects slow the iMac down is when resizing windows, and when applying fading effects (like between preference panes in System Preferences). I can't emphasize this enough: Panther is VERY usable.

This is big. Huge. As John Siracusa of Ars Technica fame said in his Panther review: "Here's another way to look at Panther's performance. For over three years now, Mac OS X has gotten faster with every release – and not just 'faster in the experience of most end users', but faster on the same hardware. This trend is unheard of among contemporary desktop operating systems. It certainly didn't apply to classic Mac OS, where every significant new OS version was perceptibly slower than its predecessor on the same hardware. (Yes, System 7 and Mac OS 8, I'm looking at you.) The world of Windows follows a similar trend. It is usually taken for granted that a shiny new OS will not really sing until you upgrade your hardware. ... Not so with Mac OS X, as my blue and white G3/400 can attest. It has hosted every version of Mac OS X ever released, and the darned thing just keeps getting faster." Mac OS X running on the original iMac? Cool. Panther, the LATEST version of Mac OS X, running on the original iMac? Awesome. Panther being usable on the original iMac? No way. But Panther being fast on the original iMac? Most would say, "You've got to be kidding me!" But I'm not.

In fact, from this feat that my bondi blue iMac demonstrated, I can honestly, wholeheartedly recommend to anyone with a Mac with built-in USB that they upgrade to Panther. That's how confident I feel with Panther's performance on older hardware. If you're relegated to one of those early iMacs or iBooks, and you have the disk space and memory, go ahead and install Panther. You'll have access to all the latest and greatest programs, you'll have a modern operating system, and you won't have to get a new computer. You may not be able to do everything as speedy as one of the newest Macs, but Panther will be far from unusable. Given all the benefits of Panther over Mac OS 9, I can see little reason why to stay with the Classic Mac OS if you have any Mac that officially supports Panther.

In case people were wondering: yes, I did take Xbench scores. I'd like to remind everyone that Xbench scores can vary widely across benchmark reports, but this is probably going to be a fairly representative score for the original bondi blue iMac under Panther. Note that I quit all applications (including the Finder) before running Xbench, to get the maximum score possible. So without further ado, here they are:

Results   16.56   
        System Info             
                Xbench Version          1.1.3
                System Version          10.3.2 (7D24)
                Physical RAM            256 MB
                Model           iMac,1
                Processor               PowerPC G3 @ 234 MHz
                        Version         Arthur v2.2
                        L1 Cache                32K (instruction), 32K (data)
                        L2 Cache                512K @ 117 MHz
                        Bus Frequency           67 MHz
                Video Card              ATY,GT-Bc
                Drive Type              QUANTUM FIREBALL SE4.3A
        CPU Test        13.90   
                GCD Loop        23.60   921.76 Kops/sec
                Floating Point Basic    37.48   135.54 Mflop/sec
                vecLib FFT      5.18    80.37 Mflop/sec
                Floating Point Library  39.25   1.57 Mops/sec
        Thread Test     21.26   
                Computation     14.93   201.52 Kops/sec, 4 threads
                Lock Contention 36.92   463.51 Klocks/sec, 4 threads
        Memory Test     17.94   
                System  18.66   
                        Allocate        179.16  116.87 Kalloc/sec
                        Fill    16.43   130.76 MB/sec
                        Copy    10.60   53.00 MB/sec
                Stream  17.27   
                        Copy    15.69   114.67 MB/sec
                        Scale   15.53   114.61 MB/sec
                        Add     18.89   120.89 MB/sec
                        Triad   19.80   120.96 MB/sec
        Quartz Graphics Test    24.68   
                Line    18.60   473.54 lines/sec [50% alpha]
                Rectangle       23.77   1.67 Krects/sec [50% alpha]
                Circle  25.55   589.00 circles/sec [50% alpha]
                Bezier  20.79   225.92 beziers/sec [50% alpha]
                Text    51.16   833.88 chars/sec
        OpenGL Graphics Test    6.99    
                Spinning Squares        6.99    4.89 frames/sec
        User Interface Test     45.16   
                Elements        45.16   14.53 refresh/sec
        Disk Test       23.60   
                Sequential      18.86   
                        Uncached Write  10.62   4.43 MB/sec [4K blocks]
                        Uncached Write  21.24   8.70 MB/sec [256K blocks]
                        Uncached Read   41.20   6.52 MB/sec [4K blocks]
                        Uncached Read   21.50   8.69 MB/sec [256K blocks]
                Random  31.52   
                        Uncached Write  24.11   0.36 MB/sec [4K blocks]
                        Uncached Write  28.47   6.42 MB/sec [256K blocks]
                        Uncached Read   54.93   0.36 MB/sec [4K blocks]
                        Uncached Read   31.16   6.41 MB/sec [256K blocks]

So there you have it: Panther will roar on any officially supported Mac, bar none. So if you've been hesitating to upgrade your software but not your hardware, now's the time to do it. Just remember to upgrade your firmware before doing so. (And if you're wondering about any other potential benchmarks, leave a comment -- maybe I'll have time to do some of them and report back.)

-- simX

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