What's the Best OS for a Power Mac?

Originally published 26 February 2001 as a Mac Daniel column for Low End Mac.
Rated "Best of Mac Daniel" (top 15 most-read columns) from six months after its publication until it was pulled from the site.
Revised slightly 31 July 2003.

Q: Should I be running OS 9.1 (or 9.2.x) on my Power Mac? If not, what OS should I be running for maximum stability, speed, and features?

A: Mac OS 9.1 (and 9.2.x) brings a host of improvements over Mac OS 9.0.4, which was the current OS last time most of this topic was beat into the ground, so things have changed a bit. :)

Having used OS 9.0.4 as my daily OS since it came out, and having just upgraded to 9.1, I can certainly say that 9.1

  1. feels faster in daily use
  2. is significantly faster in boot time
  3. so far seems somewhat more stable.

Mac OS 9.2.x makes minor improvements on all of the above but runs only on Macs with a factory G3 or G4 CPU. There have been significant numbers of people who've had trouble with trying to run 9.2.x on pre-G3 Power Macs, so I recommend against attempting the installation (though it can be done with some ResEdit hacking).

A quick note before I start. If you have less than 64 MB of RAM in your Mac, don't even think about upgrading to 9.1 unless you plan on using Virtual Memory (or RAM Doubler, once they release a 9.1 compatible version). If you have 32 MB or less, either upgrade the RAM or forget 9.1 entirely and stick with what you have. The Mac OS is using nearly 55 MB on my PowerBook G3/266 with 192 MB RAM and VM off. One other note: I'm not going to address the issue of clones here.

The first-generation Power Macs are still too slow to use Mac OS 9.1, despite 9.1's improvements over 9.0.4. Stick with Mac OS 8.1 unless you really need the features of 8.5, and if you do, get 8.6, because it's faster and more stable than 8.5.x was. If you've upgraded that trusty old NuBus-based Mac with a G3 and your upgrade maker supports 9.1, by all means upgrade to 9.1 if you're already running 9.0.x.

If you're running 8.6 now, don't bother spending the $99 (you can probably do better at DealMac) to upgrade unless you think you really need the features of OS 9. If you're in a sysadmin-type job where you have to support a bunch of Power Macs, you might want to keep all of them at the same OS, no matter what CPU they have.

My 7200/90 downstairs won't be getting the upgrade either; its 90 MHz 601 just isn't up to the task. It's happily running 8.6 and will probably stay that way until the day it dies or until I get a good deal on one of those Sonnet upgrade cards. (Sonnet, if you're listening, I have a proposal for you. I do a review of your card, and you sell it to me at half price because it's used. Email me if you're interested.) The same goes for any other Power Mac with a 601 or 603 CPU under 120 MHz — it simply won't handle 9.x well. If you absolutely need the features or want to maintain a common OS on all your Macs, then get the upgrade, but be aware it will slow you down.

The 52xx/53xx/62xx/63xx Macs are sort of the odd man out. They had horrid reliability problems and were far slower than they should have been. If you're running anything over 8.1 on any of these (besides the 6360, which was actually a good machine and should run OS 9.1 well), I applaud your patience. If you have a G3 upgrade card in one of these, and 8.6 is speedy enough for you, go ahead and upgrade to 9.1.

The 5400, 5500, 6400, and 6500 are fine machines to put OS 9.1 on, especially if you've done any sort of upgrade to the machine.

Any of the 604-based Macs (the 7300, 7600, 8500, 9500, etc.) are good candidates for OS 9.1, but the lowest-end 604s, like the 8500/132 and the 7600/132, are probably on the low end of what will feel fast enough. If you have a G3 or G4 upgrade card in the box, go ahead and put 9.1 on there — it's a great improvement over 9.0.4, and over 8.6 as well.

If you've got a G3 or G4 and insist on running the Classic Mac OS, make sure you upgrade all the way to 9.2.2. If you're one of the original iMac owners or beige G3/233 owners and still running 8.1, I implore you: upgrade. You'll appreciate it. Get 8.6 at the minimum, but 9.1 will be best.

For you G3 and G4 owners, OS X may or may not be what you want at this point, especially if your machine is still nearly stock and is fairly old. Jaguar (10.2.x) has solved a lot of the speed issues that were present with the first two iterations of OS X, but it's still too slow for daily use on my Wallstreet 266 with 384 MB RAM. I run it on there because it beats OS 9 for Web serving purposes hands-down, but for browsing the Web, or even doing e-mail, it feels ponderous and clunky.

copyright ©2000-2004 by Chris Lawson