Creating an Extreme OS X Monster

With many diehard Mac fanatics now switching to OS X as their full-time primary operating system, many are also switching their hardware. If you have been thinking about upgrading, or buying new, and plan to use OS X, you must read this article!

Normally in Moof'in we stick to the Darwin side of OS X, but this special article will show you how to create and tame the grizzliest Mac system ever created to run Mac OS X. If you are thinking about upgrading what you already have, or want to start over with a new system, I'll show you how to customize a hardware setup that is very aware of your budget, yet will give you power to boot.

With this summer's MacWorld Expo long past (in computer time), and many of us are heading back to school, going away to college, or starting a new job, this is the perfect time to get ourselves ready with a new "OS X aware" computer setup. From my observations, there are three basic kinds of Mac users: the ones with iMacs or iBooks, low-end PowerMacs (Blue G3 or G4 base models), and those with high-end G4s or TiBooks (otherwise known as the Titanium PowerBook G4). Each type of user has different needs and things they want to get out of their Mac. In the rest of the article, I'm going to analyze each type of user, what they have and need, and how to get them in running the most efficiently way in OS X.

The iMac User:

Many Macs users enjoy booting up their Mac in the morning, while sipping on a cup of coffee and checking their email, or maybe typing out a few memos before the day begins. They use the Mac for the simple things in life, digital correspondence, keeping up on timely issues or news, and some casual web browsing. These users don't need the latest and the greatest; they appreciate a quality system that does what they need. These types of people are generally the iMac users. They could really care less about computers, except for the cute little candy-colored gumdrop that is smiling back from their desk, which they have come to love.

The "iMac users" don't typically get into upgrade frenzies when PCXXX RAM drops another 10¢/MB on PriceWatch.com. They use their computer, as it is, until it no longer does what they need, and then they just get a newer candy-colored equivalent.

Typically the iMac users are the ones who are lest likely to make the switch to OS X, until there are no other options (as in Apple no longer provides a base install of OS 9.x on systems and only offers a full install of OS X).

Even though iMac users may be very content with OS 8.1, 8.5, 9 or whatever their iMac shipped with, they can still benefit from OS X too. If nothing else, they will enjoy a user interface that looks as good as the rest of their computer.

There are several issues that need to be addressed when putting OS X on an iMac. If you are thinking about buying a new iMac to run OS X, it is still important that you read this too.

∑ Most iMacs shipped with an insufficient amount of RAM to run OS X, as it was intended. When making the move up to OS X, be sure to buy the most RAM you can afford, your Mac will thank you, and you'll be happier in the long run.

∑ Many of the earlier iMacs shipped with tiny hard drives (by today's standards). OS X needs a good sized partition to run on, and you'll definitely be needing more drive space to keep all the new Carbonized apps that are sure to come out very shortly. Looking into a bigger drive is a very good idea. Even the prices on an UltraATA/100 drive are low enough that shoving a 40-60 giger in there isn't out of reach.

Other than RAM and hard drive, there isn't much else on an iMac you can tweak prior to switching to OS X.

The mid-range Mac users, those who use primarily low-end G4s or higher-end Blue G3s have a lot more options for customizing their system for OS X than the iMac users do. The average mid-range Mac user still enjoys email, web browsing, and word processing like the iMac users do, but also get into a little more processor-intensive work too. Graphic work, light digital video editing, audio editing, more complex desktop publishing, or server activities are some examples of what mid-range Mac users do with their systems.

Depending on what the current system configuration is, very little or maybe a lot of upgrading may be needed. There are a lot of customizable options for these systems. As with the iMacs, RAM is very important. All Blue G3s and G4s take either industry standard PC100 or PC133 SDRAM, which is at an all time price low now. There is no excuse not to have a system with a beefy 1/2GB or 1GB of RAM. If you're on the cheap side, you can even get away with using the generic "high-density" RAM (in some Macs), which is extremely inexpensive.

If you are still using an ATA hard drive as your primary startup disk, I would highly recommend you buy a SCSI controller PCI card and drive. There is a common misconception that SCSI drives are only for servers and heavyweight digital video editing systems. That is very wrong! SCSI is an excellent interface and anyone that is running a system above an iMac needs to have it. It is amazing how simple functions, like launching applications, saving files, and opening documents are so much faster with SCSI than with the Mac's built-in ATA.

SCSI has come down a lot in price lately, and a reasonably fast 80MB/sec drive is a great enhancement to any Mac, and OS X will thank you too. I prefer Adaptec's SCSI cards (Apple also uses them). They have a bunch of excellent Mac cards at their web site: www.adaptecstore.com. If your G3/G4 system still uses the old ATI RAGE 128, I would highly recommend springing for a faster ATI card, or one of nVIDIA's magnificent Mac GeForce cards. Both vendors' cards are available at most Mac retail outlets. If you are into gaming, it is essential that you ditch the older ATI card that shipped with your Mac and get a real nVIDIA card.

Now, moving along to the high-end Mac users. These people are the pros... they demand the best money can buy. They frequently upgrade and get new systems that are already maxed out. These users are typically your full time digital video editors, graphic professionals, and big time audio editors. Since they usually get tons of money from freelance work, or their company buys their system, a maxed out dual 800MHz G4 is not completely out of reach.

There are many options for these users to get a screaming OS X system. Unlike the mid-range Mac users, these guys know the importance of SCSI and it is already a vital part of their system. Depending how maxed out their high-end system is, there may still be room for expansion. As before with the mid-range systems, pros can usually get away with the best graphics card and fastest SCSI drives, where the mid-range users may not need the power or cannot afford it.

In conclusion, each Mac system could stand a little tweaking, mostly memory and hard drive space/speed, in order to accommodate Mac OS X and to gain the peek performance possible.

Since Mac OS X.1 is right around the corner, and I already have a copy... one of the perks of being an Apple developer, the next Moof'in article with focus on how Darwin and the rest of OS X.1 runs on the latest and greatest hardware (a new Dual 800MHz G4 system with SCSI 160 and 1.5GBs RAM). I will also give the lowdown on how OS X.1 performs on older systems, and if it is fast enough to make it worth taking the leap from OS 9.1 to X.1. In addition to the dual processor G4, I will also give detailed information on how OS X.1 runs on an iMac (333MHz, 96MBs RAM), Blue G3 (450Mhz G3, 704MBs RAM), and a G4 Cube (450MHz G4, 384MBs RAM).

I know a lot of you out there have systems very similar, or in the same family, to the ones I'm testing. The next Moof'in article (this Friday) will give you the information you absolutely need to help make an informed decision regarding upgrading your Mac operating system.

...and one last thing, I got several helpful emails informing me that to get out of Darwin, and back to the Mac OS, hold down the Option key as you boot the Mac. You will be asked to select the desired startup disk.

Thanks for reading this edition of Moof'in. Sam Burrish