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ATPM 9.09
September 2003





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The Legacy Corner

by Chris Lawson,

Picking the Optimal OS for Your Mac

I’m often asked what the best OS for a certain Mac is. While there’s certainly no universal answer, some general guidelines are useful food for thought. Keep in mind that this is going to deal primarily with Macs in a home or home-office setting; those of you administering computer labs probably have your own guidelines, either handed down from above or based on your own experiences and what you prefer. My general rule of thumb is that faster is better, so my own recommendations are biased in favor of overall speed, sometimes at the (minor) expense of features.

On the earliest Macs, those with a 68000 CPU, there’s little reason to go above System 6. In fact, the 128 and 512 won’t even run System 6, because they have too little RAM, so you’ll need to track down an earlier OS. The best place for tracking down System 6 or earlier, including many international versions, is Gamba’s Where To Download Mac OS page. The 68020-based LC and Mac II can run System 7 if you choose, but both are noticeably faster if you stick with System 6.

Starting with the 68030-based Macs, System 7.1 becomes a much better balance of features and speed. System 6 will run on many of them, including most of the Mac II series, but is not significantly faster than 7.1 in my experience, and System 7 provides a user experience more akin to that of Mac OS 8 and up, in contrast to the rather stark and seemingly barren System 6. If you’re used to OS 8 or higher, go with System 7.

With such add-ons as the Drag Manager, the Thread Manager, and the CFM-68K Runtime Enabler, you can make System 7.1 rival Mac OS 7.6 for features, but with much greater speed. Further information about (and links to) these add-ons, as well as others that will enhance the features of System 7.1, is available from Gamba’s System 7.1 Favorite Add-Ons page. (As a brief aside, I would recommend that anyone working regularly with 68K Macs become intimately familiar with the URL for Gamba’s index page. It’s perhaps the most information-dense Mac site on the entire Internet.)

The biggest point of contention with the various “best OS” articles on the Mac Web has traditionally concerned the 68040-based Macs. My stance, after quite some experience, is that 7.1 with the aforementioned add-ons is your best bet. System 7.5 or 7.6 will be significantly slower to boot, use more RAM, and will be somewhat slower once running, but some people find the few additional features included with later OSes worth the wait. The same applies to Mac OS 8.1, although I find 8.1 to be extremely slow on 68Ks. (Don’t even think about running 8.0. Apple recommends all Mac OS 8.0 customers upgrade to 8.1 immediately due to several bugs and speed issues.) The principal use for Mac OS 8.1 is in an application such as a home file server (typically used for MP3s or the like), where reboots and user interaction with the UI are rare, and HFS+ is necessary in order to use multi-gigabyte hard disks efficiently.

There is little or no reason to run anything below Mac OS 8.1 on any PowerPC-based Mac. The fact of the matter is that virtually none of the OS is optimized for the PowerPC CPU in pre-8 OS versions, and despite the marginal increase in RAM usage and the general “creeping feature-itis” of Mac OS 8.5 and up, an optimized installation of even Mac OS 9.1 will be substantially faster than 7.6 or lower on any Power Mac.

The first-generation (pre-PCI) Power Macs are best off with 8.1 unless Sherlock or other features of 8.5 and later are absolutely required, in which case Mac OS 9.1 is preferred. (Some users swear 8.6 is faster than any prior version of OS 8 and any version of OS 9, but my experiences have not borne this out.) Most PCI Power Macs will run 9.1 quite acceptably, though those of you unfortunate enough—like myself—to be saddled with a 7200 may wish to experiment with 8.1 as well and see which best fits your needs. Mac OS 8.1 is the fastest OS on the 7200s, though 9.1 is quite tolerable with plenty of RAM. Incidentally, those of you attempting to run post-8.1 versions of the OS in less than 128 MB real RAM will likely find the experience less than satisfactory. Fortunately, RAM is inexpensive and still fairly easy to find for these machines—a 128 MB module can be had for virtually any pre-G3 PCI Mac for about $30.

The question with a G3- or G4-based Mac, then, becomes, “Do I want to run OS X or OS 9?” And that, dear readers, is another article in itself, and getting distressingly close to what I would begin to consider not “legacy.” I’d never hear the end of it if I left you hanging, though, so next month I’ll cover the 9 vs. X question.

Also in This Series

Reader Comments (19)

anonymous · September 3, 2003 - 10:35 EST #1
Just a remark:
One of the biggest boons of staying with OS 8.6 is that you are able to use SpeedDoubler. That combo is the swiftest ever!
Danal Shappeno · September 3, 2003 - 12:33 EST #2
Another advantage of older systems is the delight of being able to run After Dark as a screensaver!
Lee Bennett (ATPM Staff) · September 4, 2003 - 00:48 EST #3
Danal - Admittedly the plethora of modules are not (yet) available, but After Dark X is now available for OS X.
Gerry Coleman · September 11, 2003 - 14:36 EST #4
I'm in the process of upgrading - and in a few cases, "downgrading" - my '030 Macs with System 7.5.5. My IIci and LCIII were running System 7.6.1 but, unless I am using them as just internet and mail portals, most of my software seems to run faster and more stable on 7.5.5. My Classic runs great with System 7.1 (and 4 MB of RAM), and my 7100/80AV runs very well on OS 9.0.4, but it also has 128 MB of memory - always a plus to have more memory, no matter what the Mac is.
Sprocket999 · September 12, 2003 - 12:10 EST #5
When working at a full-time job, I think I've used everything from the last version of System 6.x to OS 9.22. Frankly, I'll use whatever a *paying* employer gives me. BUT, at home, I have a sweet penchant for my G3 Wallstreet and 3400c PowerBooks, both on OS 8.1. Memory is maxed on both, both run identical software (Quark 4.1, Illustrator 8.0, Photoshop 4.0 ... you get the point). The beautiful thing is, unless I get into production work (which I don't), this stuff is MORE than sufficient. A few of my colleagues use System 7.5/7.6 and earlier apps . . . and are perfectly happy. I mean, what gives with these bloatware software manufacturers? Don't they realize there comes a certain point when people are 'just fine' with what they have? My gear is from '97-98 and I love it because I am very productive with it. It doesn't surprise me the least that the hardware side of the market is hurting, as I know there are scads of others like me out there. Call me a 'retro-grouch' if you wish, but I'm doing just fine, thank you very much!
Chris Lawson (ATPM Staff) · October 2, 2003 - 18:31 EST #6
SpeedDoubler does almost nothing on OS 8.5 and up due to the much greater amount of PPC code in the later OS versions. Almost all speedup you perceive is due to the placebo effect. Admittedly, there are some features of SpeedDoubler that aren't related to its PPC code, such as the network copying acceleration, but most of what SpeedDoubler was good for became part of the OS after version 8.1.

Flip · October 28, 2003 - 22:24 EST #7
This article was extremely helpful in rationalizing a bunch of Macs that are hanging around here, including two IIsis and an LC III. My Power Mac 7300/180 is currently running OS 8.1 and I have been hesitant to upgrade, but I think I will boost the RAM to 128mb as you suggest and move up to OS 9. I wonder which is best, however: 9.0, 9.1 or 9.2.2? I am keeping the 7300 as an office partner to my new 1.25 GHz iMac (OS X) so it can continue to run my pre-OS X peripherals (floppies, zips, printers, etc.)

P.S. - My older Macs are not off to retirement, rather to family, schools, and other organizations. They still run fine!
Chris Lawson (ATPM Staff) · October 28, 2003 - 22:31 EST #8
Mac OS 9.0 was horrid.

Mac OS 9.1 was wonderful.

Mac OS 9.2.x is similarly wonderful but only works on Macs with a G3 or higher from the factory, so your 7300 is not a candidate.

Stick with 9.1 but up the RAM as much as you can afford. 128 MB is good, but 256 MB would be MUCH better.

anonymous · January 26, 2004 - 11:16 EST #9
I'm running OS 8.6 on a Power Tower Pro from Power Computing with a Newer Technologies G3 300 card. It's got almost 1 GB of RAM. The OS' performance sucks and I need an upgrade to a version of OS 9 to use some software from my broadband provider that will optimize my settings. Would OS 9.1 be the most stable? I'm looking to upgrade anyway.
Chris Lawson (ATPM Staff) · January 26, 2004 - 13:00 EST #10
Just as in Flip's case, your Mac won't run OS 9.2.x without a lot of hacking, thus OS 9.1 would be the best for your Mac, as well.

Mary E. Tyler (ATPM Staff) · January 26, 2004 - 19:59 EST #11
Once upon a time, I ran OS 9 on a PTP. OS 9.2.x is probably your best bet. I recall it being a good bit more stable than OS 9.1. I'm not sure how the upgrade card will affect it but, otherwise, OS 9.2 should run fine on the PTP.

Ted Goranson (ATPM Staff) · January 26, 2004 - 20:13 EST #12
I have nearly that same combination. OS 9.1 is what you want, but be sure to do a clean installation and reinstall the Newer extension before doing anything else. The combination is a solid as a rock.

joseph birdsong · May 16, 2004 - 20:28 EST #13
I have a imac 8.1. I just bought a cannon printer which needs at least a 8.6.1
How do I upgrade, any suggestions?
Chris Lawson (ATPM Staff) · May 16, 2004 - 22:24 EST #14
Unless your iMac is very short on RAM, I would suggest you get Mac OS 9.1 from Apple. (They won't be eager to sell it, but they *should* still sell you a copy. You will probably have to talk to them on the telephone to get it.) You can then upgrade (for free) to 9.2.2.

If you're short on RAM, buy more RAM and then follow the above steps.

If Apple absolutely refuses to sell you a copy of Mac OS 9, you can sometimes find copies in stock at online retailers. Try searching at or at and see what turns up. If that yields nothing, there are usually copies on eBay.

A word of caution about eBay auctions for OS software: many of the Mac OS system CDs sold on eBay are system-specific. Said another way, they will only boot and install on a certain model of Macintosh, typically the Mac they shipped with. This makes a lot of them worthless as install CDs for other machines. Be sure you don't bid on a CD that shipped with a specific model of Macintosh, and ask the seller for photos if none are provided. Model-specific OS CDs are typically a solid pastel colour, while the OS 9 retail CDs were usually white with a very large yellow-gold "9" printed on them (just like the image on the retail box).

Tom Kruesel · September 20, 2005 - 20:18 EST #15
I'm looking for upgrades for 8.0. I got a new printer that says I need 8.6.

Anyone know where I can find it?

ATPM Staff · September 20, 2005 - 23:38 EST #16
Tom - I'm not positive, but I think OS 8.1 is the most recent version that Apple now offers for free. I didn't find 8.5 or 8.6 in their archives.

Anything you can obtain for free is available on the legacy download page.
Paul Fried · December 9, 2005 - 14:36 EST #17
I have an older iMac 400 Mhz. I beefed up RAM to 1 G - so it runs fast. I am not happy with Internet software. The best seems to perform IE 5.1.7. I run E-mail via Netscape Communicator 4.7.9. Otherwise Communicator is useles for Internet. I hoped that recently downloaded Netscape browser 7.0 wil work fine - but there are many problems.. Can anyone comment or recommend anything else ?
Chris Lawson (ATPM Staff) · December 12, 2005 - 08:41 EST #18

I'm assuming you're running OS 9.x, thus the Netscape 4.x version.

Both those browsers are so outdated that they're virtually useless now. Your best bet is probably something like iCab, and you might want to consider switching to Eudora for e-mail.

Craig Ehrlich · January 27, 2006 - 01:38 EST #19
Paul - Although Opera 5 and 6.0.3 for Mac may be outdated web browsers (but they may be freeware now too), I have found them to be fairly fast on my 3400c running 8.6 with 48mb ram, with Opera v5 being more stable than v6.

I have heard good things about Claris Emailer as well (as far as how old that emaiil application is, that's another story).

Q: What office applications would offer the best WIndows compatibility? Or maybe I should look into Win98 emulation (yuck)!


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