What's the Best System for My Mac?

Originally published 05 September 2000 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: What's the ideal version of the Mac OS for my Macintosh?

A: Well, that really depends a lot on the Macintosh you have. I'll start with some very rough guidelines and break it down from there.

68000-based Macs, such as the Mac Plus, SE, Classic, Portable, and PowerBook 100, should use System 6.0.8.

All other 68K Macs should run 7.1 with extras such as Open Transport, Drag Manager, Thread Manager, etc. installed.

Pre-G3 PPC-based Macs should use Mac OS 8.1.

G3- or G4-based Macs can run Mac OS X, but unless they've been upgraded fairly heavily, Mac OS 9.2.2 is probably the best bet.

Now that I have my rough guidelines out, I'll break it down. The Macintosh 128 and 512/512e can't use System 6 very well due to their low RAM. You can get disk images of System 4.2 or System 5 from the Mac 512 User Group. The Macintosh Plus works great with System 5 or 6, especially if you only have 1 MB of RAM. If you have an external hard drive, you can use System 7, but it won't be nearly as speedy as 6.0.8.

The SE and Classic should really stick with 6.0.8 as well, but both will run System 7 reasonably well if you need the features. If you are lucky enough to have a Plus, SE, or Classic upgraded with an '020 or '030 accelerator, you can run System 7.1 without any trouble, as long as the upgrade card's drivers work well with it. (Many don't; be sure to check this out before you upgrade.)

The Mac II series is happiest running System 7.1. The IIfx can handle 7.5 or higher if you really need the features, but 7.1 is noticeably faster.

The SE/30 and Classic II are fastest with System 7.1, but System 7.5.5 can be used if you desperately need the features. The same goes for the Color Classic, which can also use 7.6.

If you have an LC or LC II, System 6.0.8 is really your best bet, but both will run System 7 acceptably. An LC III can run 7.5 or higher with reasonable speed, but for maximum benefit, stick with 7.1.

The Colour Classic II, which is effectively an all-in-one LC III+, is fastest with 7.1 but can run 7.5 or higher if necessary. Any of the aforementioned Macs with '040 upgrades should be running 7.1 for an optimal setup.

The '040-based Macs are fastest with 7.1, but 8.1 offers HFS Plus support (though you still need an HFS partition as your boot volume) and better disk drivers, as well as a standardised appearance. It's universally slower, but can be used if needed without drastic penalty.

The first-generation Power Macs should really stick to Mac OS 7.6.1 or Mac OS 8.1, depending on your needs. Mac OS 8.5 and higher are just a little too much for their (relatively) slow system buses and CPUs to handle. PCI-based Power Macs with PPC 601 processors (the 7200 and 7500) should stick to Mac OS 8.1 or Mac OS 8.6, again depending on your individual needs. Mac OS 9 is a bit of a burden on the 601 chip, though with lots of RAM, 9.1 is acceptable.

Early 603-based Power Macs, such as the 52xx, 53xx, 62xx, and 63xx machines, should run Mac OS 8.1 at the most. Of course, if you have a G3 or G4 upgrade in any of the early Power Macs, you should be running Mac OS 9.1.

If you have a 604-based Mac, such as the 7300, 7600, or 8500, Mac OS 9.1 is your best bet. The 604 makes short work of the additional overhead of the later OS versions, and you can keep right up with the latest G4 owners without much difficulty.

G3- and G4-based Macs with upgraded video cards can run Mac OS X acceptably well, and even in cases where OS X is noticeably slower than OS 9 (for instance, on the beige G3s, first few iMac revisions, and Wallstreet PowerBooks), the additional features of OS X may sway the decision in its direction. Stock G3-based Macs are generally disappointingly slow with OS X.

The same general guidelines given here apply to portable Macintoshes as well, but the 68000-based portables can run System 7 better than their desktop counterparts.

copyright ©2000-2004 by Chris Lawson