The Northern Spy — OS X and the 1GHz G4 — A System Overview

The History Lesson

Hands up everyone who remembers the Super Bowl ad for the original Macintosh computer, the one that aired in January 1984–that utopian, libertarian, iconoclastic production that scared the Apple board silly, then ushered in new eras for both computing and advertising. Now, keep your hands up if you actually used one of those computers that very month. What if you had your hands on a Fat Mac on January 24, 1984? “Wait a minute,” the history buffs among you say, “the 512k or Fat Mac wasn’t introduced until September that year.” Five out of ten. True trivia buffs know that two 512k units were indeed made for the January 24 intro. Following the Apple Board meeting, one of those two was carried to the A.P.P.L.E. meeting in Seattle, where those of us who attended got a hands-on experience.

My son Joel was three going on four when Apple loaned me a Mac to do an article for Call-A.P.P.L.E. Later when I toured stores for a piece on computer retailing, he booted up their brand new Macs and played with MacPaint, to the amazement of other customers. Often wondered how many units he sold.

By the way, if you still have your hand up, you probably remember Dr. Dobbs when the magazine’s subtitle included “computer calisthenics and orthodonty–running light without the overbite.” Better yet, perhaps you have on the shelf a copy of the famous red book, complete with monitor listing for the Apple ][ and plans for a serial interface to connect a Teletype machine or paper tape reader. Still a hand in the air? Ever run a keypunch machine, a bucket sorter, an IBM 360? Use the Internet before it was called that? Built your own computer at home?

Ah well, nostalgia ain’t what it used to be, anyhow, especially in this industry. Clock speeds, disk drives, and memory stand still for no one.


Back to the Present

So, a couple of months ago I sprang for a new twin 1GHz G4 to replace my aging PowerPC8600 (albeit with 350 M Hz G3 upgrade). I tricked out the new machine with 1.5 G of RAM, a 250M internal Zip drive, a second internal 80G drive, and an external 160 G FireWire drive. To come: a SCSI bus, and an extra network card. On the software side, OS X 10.1.4 is complemented by the usual suite of applications, utilities and assorted other goodies. Slowly, I’m moving in. In another few months, the new digs will become my daily production environment.


Comparisons are ubiquitous

“Not yet?” you ask. Do you wonder at this point whether you detect a slight hesitation, a small equivocation, a lingering reservation or two? Well, “yes” and “no,” or perhaps I ought to say “maybe.”


The State of the Hardware

On the hardware side, there can be no doubt we’ve come a long way since 1984. A comparison of the first Macintosh with the most recent reveals improvements by a factor of four in data bus width, 125-250 in processing speed, 12 000 in memory, and 100 000 in storage. (Note from the mathematics professor: multiply these by 100 to get percentages.)


Macintosh Comparison Chart

The Macintosh 128k Twin 1GHz G4 Quicksilver
CPU type: MC68000 MPC 7450
CPU speed: 8 MHz dual 1GHz
FPU: None integrated
RAM: 128 k up to 1.5 G
ROM: 64 k 4M + cache
expansion slots: none 4
data bus width: 16 bit 64 bit
bus speed: 8 MHz 133 MHz
floppy: 3.5″ 400k none (250M Zip option)
hard disk: none* 40G
optical disk: none CD-RW/DVD-R combo
ports: 2 serial 2 USB, 2 FireWire
monitor: 9″ mono not included
resolution: 512×342 depends on monitor
modem: none 56k built in
ethernet: none up to 1G
system (min): 1.0 9.2.2 or 10.1.3
applications: MacWrite, MacPaint thousands

* a third party internal clip-on became available later in the year


Originally, of course, floating point calculations were done in software. Later, a separate FPU chip was employed, and now such functions are integrated on the CPU, so that most people don’t know what an FPU is. The (then) groundbreaking 400k floppy later grew to 1.4M, lived out it’s time in the industry, and is now gone. The once ubiquitous modem is disappearing in favour of broadband solutions, and 1G Ethernet has become commonplace. Instead of awkwardly clipping a third-party add-on hard drive to the CPU, one can now add three drives internally (last two with expansion card) and others externally, with a choice of USB, FireWire, or fast SCSI–none of which were available on the original Mac.

Some will cavil that the latest Mac fails to match the performance of Wintel boxes, with their faster bus and processor speeds. And, while it is true that one should normally double stated Motorola clock speeds to properly compare with Intel throughput, it is also true that a twin processor system is not twice as fast as one with a single CPU, and may be slower if the software cannot take advantage.

Still, on the whole, the new boxes live up to their billing. They have a lot of horsepower, and there is a clear future upgrade path for the technology–to faster bus and FireWire speeds, to speedier G4 chips, and to the G5, all without making radical architectural changes. Give Apple an “A” on the new boxes.


The operating System

In 1987, at about the time I bought my first Mac (a Macintosh II–I’m usually a mid-adopter, not super early; the twin 1GHz being merely a speed bump on solid technology) I stole our chemistry department’s technician, showed him how to maintain computers, and taught him to be a UNIX system administrator. I then announced I’d forget everything I’d ever known about UNIX, all I’d accumulated in my personal memory store about mainframes and minis since the mid 1960’s. From now on it was micro all the way. Someone else could memorize and apply a thousand arcane commands, maintain user accounts, and edit files with vi. I’d do things the modern way and save valuable time.

Now, Apple, courtesy the absorption of (by?) Steve Jobs’ Next, has turned back the clock, employing BSD UNIX as the core services provider on top of which is built OS X. Alas, once more I need to know how to use ls -l, usermod, and cron. They say this is good. Is it? I have mixed feelings. Some aspects of Apple’s new OS superficially resemble OS 9, but on the whole it’s a radical departure.

There are valid reasons for this change. UNIX has been around a long time, and, compared to its main competition on Wintel machines, is both robust and reasonably secure–important considerations in a day when too many people have nothing to do with their time but B&E others’ computers. And frankly, the sooner the industry goes 100% UNIX on servers, the better. Besides security, the chief technical advantage is true (pre-emptive) multitasking, replacing OS9’s more crash-prone cooperative multitasking. If an OS9 application hung, the whole system did. If it crashed, it wasn’t safe to continue working without a reboot, even if you apparently could. In theory, with OS X, such problems will be less frequent, and less damaging. Applications will still crash, but shouldn’t normally take down the whole system. Memory management is also much improved.

However (and you knew the caveats were coming), OS X is still a work in progress.

First, while the core services work, and appear to be generally sound and reliable, they have not been optimised as yet. This means that though most applications are able to take advantage of the faster processor and bus speed and are quite snappy, some have a sluggish feel to them compared to similar software in OS9.2.2, or would if I didn’t have a processor rated at three times the speed I formerly had.

Second, many little shortcuts and conveniences that OS9 has accumulated over the years are still missing from OS X, making it at times comparatively awkward to use (spring loaded folders, docking folders at the bottom, the control strip, window shades, etc.) Third party utilities can correct some of these deficiencies, but it isn’t good enough. There’s plenty of work to do here.

Third, and to iterate++, OS X is not a makeover of OS 9, but a completely different operating system. It takes time to get used to the many differences in GUI behaviour, reassigned keyboard shortcuts, different default file and menu hierarchy, multiple users, terminal, and many new ways of doing things. The dock, for example, is not so much better as it is different. Other things, like Finder windows, just don’t behave as you expect.

Fourth, bugs do bite. For instance, window transparency does not always work correctly, there are still crashes, some software (including drivers) is incompatible, and the algorithm for mounting and dismounting volumes is wrong: (i) Dismounting a volume should not eject all other volumes on the same physical drive, and (ii) connecting another computer as an external FireWire device, then rebooting the second one without disconnecting the cable, should not cause the two computers to mount each other’s external FireWire devices rather than their own. (Wow! How do people discover these things? Answer: the Spy has a black thumb.)

Fifth, installation software ought to know the user is logged in with an administrator password rather than having to ask for one every time an install or a backup is done. Moreover, though Apple (and others) assure users that it should not be necessary to enable, much less log in as root, one of Apple’s own installation programs made this demand of me on my very first day of use, and there have been several other times since I’ve had to use this account.

Still, in all, OS X is (or will be when it’s finished) a vast improvement. It’s already quite stable for such an early production release (10.1.4), and has most of the functionality working correctly. In it’s current state, a B+ or an A-.


The Software Advantage

Modern graphics packages and word processors are incomparably more feature-filled than the venerable and revolutionary MacPaint and MacWrite (though one could argue about whether that always translates into “better.”) We have spreadsheet programs, web creation packages and browsers, (the web wasn’t there yet in 1984) video and music editing software, accounting applications, database managers–the whole gamut of productivity and utility software.

Much, but not all, of this software, is available for OS X, and of what is released, most works, usually. For instance, Microsoft’s Office X is a very good looking port of Office 2001. Unfortunately, Office 2001 introduced new bugs, particularly in Excel, and these have not yet been repaired. (Example: User-created buttons on a spreadsheet cannot display their proper formatting, colour, or fonts.) Moreover, Word, though almost overly full-featured, is a mediocre word processor, and the much easier-to-use NisusWriter has not yet been ported. Since I would find therefore myself using the classic environment to do much of my daily work anyway, I may as well stick to the more stable OS 9.2.2 for now. Another laggard is Adobe. Are they in a snit with Apple? Did they just miss the boat? Lots missing here.

On other fronts, Eudora, though labelled as beta for OS X, appears quite reliable, albeit with minor bugs. The fabulous and essential BBEdit is rock solid. So are Apple programs like Sherlock. Internet Explorer works at least as well as it does under OS9. Neither have I any serious complaints about Mozilla, Acrobat, FileMaker, Canvas, MacLink Plus, Stuffit, or Virtual PC. Netscape 6.2, however, would not start up under 10.1.4 until after the files ~/Library/Mozilla/Application Registry and ~/Library/Preferences/Mozilla Registry had both been trashed. (Then Mozilla had to rebuild its user profiles.) Small utilities such as Graphics Converter and Font Reserve have made the transition extremely well, and where would I be without the functionality of Drop Drawers, which may forget icons at times, but is indispensable, given the dock’s limited functionality? Other important utilities such as PopChar are missing altogether, and there are no new applications that could make heads turn. For this group of ports, a B+.

The web server deserves special mention. When you use the preferences panel to turn on web sharing, you don’t get some minimal process that’s barely up to the task, but full blown Apache. If you know what you’re doing, you can drop down into the UNIX Terminal and configure the thing to death. Of course you invoke BBEdit from the command line as your UNIX text editor to accomplish such tasks. Way cool!

Disk maintenance software is another matter. In OS 9, I rely heavily on TechTool Pro, but the corresponding Drive 10 utility for OS X is a partially finished, pale imitation. Intech’s Hard Disk Speed Tools use an alternate disk driver, not available, and perhaps not appropriate under OS X. (You can use disks formatted with the newest versions of these drivers; previous incompatibilities have been worked out.) My little VST portable drive misses the nifty control strip module for mounting/dismounting volumes one at a time. Of course, this doesn’t work anyway, as noted above.

The backup situation is worse still. Retrospect works for data volumes, but cannot yet be relied on to make a bootable backup of a system disk, as there are apparently files it does not correctly copy, even if the user is signed on as root. There are some small utilities that purport to do the job, but I have not tested any of them carefully enough to say for sure. The workaround is to install OS X (and updates) on the partition targeted for the backup, then run Retrospect. It’ll copy everything else, and it won’t matter that there are some things it can’t handle. (Supposedly this is fixed in the release version, but I have not tested it at this writing.) For this group of utilities, a D+, assuming Retrospect now works, lower if not.



I won’t give a complete treatment of this subject here, as it is a worthy topic for several columns at a later date. Suffice it to say that programming is far easier than in 1984. The original Mac was a closed all-in-one box, not meant to be expanded, hacked, or programmed. The lack of a readily available and useable programming notation was one reason market share slipped away–the people who had made Apple the “company for the rest of us” didn’t want to be told they couldn’t write their own applications. Moreover, the learning curve for professionals was very steep. It was fairly said of the original “Inside Macintosh” that before you could understand any one chapter you had to know all the others. Although things did get better in later years, and, for instance, MPW is a very useful and productive environment, Cocoa represents a vast improvement, especially for the semi-professional and amateur. There’s hope for little sister and little brother once again.

My main beef at this time is the lack of multi-language support. Call me an iconoclast still if you like, but I much prefer to program in Modula-2 than in any version of C or Java. It is more readable, has better standards compliance, works across platforms, and has both OO and generics. It is far superior as a teaching language for beginning programmers, as a software engineering tool for very large, multi-million line projects, and for real time programming. Despite the advances Cocoa represents, and even the presence of RealBasic, a B is as far as I’ll stretch this mark until the functionality of MPW as a multiple-notation environment is achieved. Don’t get me wrong. There is much promise here. It just needs fulfilment.


The bottom line

We have incomparably better software and hardware tools now than in 1984. That doesn’t mean Apple can rest on its laurels. The G4 desktop and portable machines need speed upgrades, and Apple needs to ramp up use of the G5. Meanwhile, OS X needs optimization, some bug fixes, and a lot of polishing around the edges to improve functionality, ease of use, and programmability. Already ported applications almost all need work, and many others still haven’t seen the light of day on the new OS. Leading edge programmers and the avant-garde have already switched, and many more of us will in the coming months. But for now, I visit the new machine, install software on it and experiment. It’s not ready to be my daily working environment.

–The Northern Spy

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About the Author

Rick Sutcliffe

Opinions expressed here are entirely the author's own, and no endorsement is implied by any community or organization to which he may be attached. Rick Sutcliffe, (a. k. a. The Northern Spy) is professor of Computing Science and Mathematics at Canada's Trinity Western University. He has been involved as a member or consultant with the boards of several community and organizations, and participated in developing industry standards at the national and international level. He is a co-author of the Modula-2 programming language R10 dialect. He is a long time technology author and has written two textbooks and nine alternate history SF novels, one named best ePublished SF novel for 2003. His columns have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers (paper and online), and he's a regular speaker at churches, schools, academic meetings, and conferences. He and his wife Joyce have lived in the Aldergrove/Bradner area of BC since 1972.