Posts Tagged 'iMac'

Struggling iMac

I’m finally starting to come to terms with the fact that my trusty iMac is no longer able to handle everything I need it to do in quite the same way that it used to.  It’s not that its capability has become impaired, far from it.  It’s every bit as powerful as it was when I got it.  Infact it’s probably more powerful now as it’s had hard disk and optical drive upgrades and the memory has been maxed out to a whole gig of (formerly quite fast) PC133 SDRAM.  It’s just that operating systems and applications have become far more demanding as time has gone by, keeping pace with improvments in hardware technology and reductions in the cost of components.

I bought a second generation G4 iMac in 2002 and managed to secure one from the first batch of new 17″ models to arrive in the UK.  It came with an 800 MHz processor, DVD rewriter, 32 MB graphics card, Firewire 400 and USB1.1.  The design of the machine is impressive – all of the internals are packaged into an ice-white half-sphere while the widescreen TFT monitor “floats” in the air on the end of a chrome plated lampneck.  The monitor can be raised, lowered, turned and tilted with such ease, and that adjustability is constantly put to use whenever I want to change how I’m sitting (or standing) or when I want to show what’s on the screen to someone else.

17" iMac G4 (2002)

17" iMac G4 (2002)

It was a very cutting edge piece of kit in 2002.  It shipped with OS X 10.2 (Jaguar) which had just been released and had an option to alternatively boot into OS9 or run OS9 apps in classic mode.  The dock was a nicely implemented feature of the Finder and with magnification turned on it proved to be a great source of amusement (for the first few days at least).  The applications on the machine even included an OS X version of Microsoft Internet Explorer (which Microsoft subsequently dropped after Apple released their own Webkit-based browser, Safari).

As much as anything, it was nice to be reacquanited with Macintosh after a few years of having had no home computer and only Windows NT at work.  My prior computer experience had begun with an Apple IIe at the age of four, followed by Macs from the SE, LC and Quadra ranges seeing me through to 1997 (with a good dash of DOS, Windows and other short-lived OSs along the way).  But then all of a sudden I had a brand new iMac running OS X, it was quite refreshing!

Apple II

Apple II complete with monochrome monitor and two 5.25" floppy disk drives

Macintosh SE 30

Macintosh SE 30

Macintosh LC III

Macintosh LC III

But, oh how times change.  Along came USB2 with a significantly faster data transfer rate.  Apple released iMacs with even bigger monitors.  The G4 was superseded by the G5, the G5 by Intel’s range of Core processors.  IDE gave way to SATA.  System bus and RAM speeds increased progressively and typical computer memory capacity grew.  Graphics cards with astounding abilities started showing up in new products.  A new version of iTunes saw Apple put an end to iPod synching over Firewire in favour of USB2.  I was stuck with the far more sluggish USB 1.1, but at least it still worked.  My 802.11b wifi card couldn’t compete with 802.11g so I restricted the iMac’s network connection to ethernet so I could run my wireless network as g only (it’s now n).

27" iMac (current)

27" iMac (current)

The latest iMac, in contrast to my own, can be bought with a 27″ screen, Intel Core i7 processor, Firewire 800, SD card reader, 802.11n, a super-charged graphics card and take up to 8 GB of (ten times faster) RAM.

I upgraded the OS on the iMac as new versions were released through to 10.4 (Tiger) and the machine still held up well.  Then 10.5 (Leopard) came along and G4s running as slowly as mine were for the chop.  Leopard required a G4 to be running at a minimum of 867 MHz, my 800 MHz was just not enough.  Just 67 MHz difference.  Unfortunately I couldn’t even accept the lack of support and just stick the OS on my machine, the installer prevented it.  Was that not unfair that my happy, Tiger-capable machine was not going to be supported on the latest OS?  Was it not just a marketing ploy to get users to buy new hardware?

Well, yes and no.  Of course Apple want users to keep buying new hardware, that’s where they make their money.  They (seemingly – no insider knowledge here) plan revisions to their products years in advance, not introducing too many features in one go so as to give their customers compelling reasons to upgrade as new products are released.  It’s good business on their part.  It means that they can stay in the public eye and keep customers interested with frequent product refreshes.  If they were to release a new product which contained all possible bells and whistles in one go, they could well then find themselves unable to release a follow-up with the same wow factor.  Public interest would quickly start to decline in such circumstances.

But it wouldn’t be fair of me to jump to such a conclusion.  The other reason they prevent installation on lower spec machines is that they are well aware of the bad press they’d get if users were unhappy with the OS running too slowly.  That’s quite reasonable really.  Rather than having users running the OS sluggishly on sub-par machines and then complaining that it’s rubbish, it’s probably better to be upfront and say, “This software cannot be used on this computer”.  Of course, I didn’t settle for doing as I was told and I modified my installer so that it would work for me.

When I did a straight upgrade, the resulting installation was so slow that the machine was unusable.  So I restored to Tiger and at the next opportunity, I performed an “Erase and install”.  That was far better, it was working.  It was perhaps a bit slower, but all of my applications worked once I’d reinstalled them.  So I was on 10.5 and the machine was usable!  But it was a bit slower.  My massive iTunes and iPhoto libraries were certainly slowing down their respective applications, more so than they were in Tiger.  Multitasking performance was also reduced, particularly when combined with heavy data transfer.  The downsides to running 10.5 were apparent.  I’ve managed to stick it out for over a year so far though, glad to be on the most recent OS and the same one that’s on my wife’s notebook (although it’s no longer the latest: 10.6 (Snow Leopard) has been out for a while and is Intel-only).

But I am now starting to feel the strain more heavily and find myself watching the spinning beachball far too often.  Recently, high definition and h264 video, amongst other technologies, have become increasingly prevelant and the 2002 vintage iMac with its puny graphics card just can’t handle them.  Flash video just cripples my browser in all but optimal conditions, and the higher the resolution, the worse it fares.  In fact, my machine struggles with any complex Flash app on the web, for which reason I’ve installed ClickToFlash.   I tried to watch a presentation at Macworld by John Gruber on YouTube last night and after listening to the first 15 minutes (and viewing the odd frozen frame) the audio became mangled and started cutting out every two seconds.  My attempts to reduce CPU and memory usage in other parts of the system didn’t help.  I battled with it for quite a while and ended up resorting to watching the remainder of the video on my phone, which I should probably have tried to do in the first place as it worked flawlessly.

So I realise that I need a new computer, especially as my phone can now perform a number of similar tasks with greater efficiency, but it will have to wait until I have some more available cash.  Money isn’t the only reason for waiting though.  My iMac is the last of its kind to have USB1.1, all of the following revisions have had USB2.  Although not in particularly high production yet, USB3 is ready to go and should start to appear in a lot of computers and peripherals during 2010.  It has a ten-fold bandwidth advantage over USB2 and is likely to feature as a major inclusion in the I/O interfaces of computers over the next few years (at least until the optical Light Peak technology is finalised and brought to market).  It is probably worth my while waiting for USB3 as it will allow me to take advantage of the next generation of high speed peripherals.  It has been tough being stuck with USB1.1 for the last few years while everyone else has been on 2, but USB2 has now been around for ten years (and in wide usage for the last seven) so it’s no longer the new kid on the block.  I don’t want to find myself in the same position again, so a slightly longer wait is manageable.

I don’t think I could bear to part with my iMac, so I’ll need to repurpose it once I have a replacement.  When that time comes, I’ll likely reinstall Tiger on it to make it a bit faster for general use, and ensure that I throw any demanding tasks at whatever my new machine happens to be!  Perhaps it could live out the rest of its days as a pretty file server or something.  Leave a comment if you can think of any other interesting uses for an old G4 iMac.


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