The obsolescence road block

Last weekend, I got to a first dead end: Mac OS X 10.5, installed on my Mac, being deprecated and not accepting any new application, including Firefox, Google Chrome, SmoothMouse, the Razer Synapse driver and probably many others. Besides the difficulties installing applications, I had issues with YouTube playback in both Safari and Chrome (before I broke it). Playback was choppy, especially when going full screen.

I ended up ordering the Snow Leopard DVD from online Apple Store. That worked better than I expected. I got it on Wednesday. UPS left it at my door, so even if I wasn’t at home, I wouldn’t have to go pick it up somewhere I cannot reach or make a phone call to them to schedule another delivery.

I sticked that DVD in my Macbook on Friday, December 12. The installation process happened to be simpler than I was expecting. Inserting the disk poppped up a wizard proposing me to upgrade to Snow Leopard, directly from Leopard, no need to boot from the DVD. I did that, but the upgrade took more than 45 minutes, longer than any Ubuntu or Windows installation ever, at least for me. Then I had to download and install the combined upgrade that bumped the system up from 10.6.3 to 10.6.8, then another set of updates for iTunes, Java and security.

After this, I was able to access the App Store and connect to it using my Apple ID. When I did it, I felt I was binding this machine to me, this was becoming a bit more mine.

The day after, I was able to toss in Firefox, latest and greatest version. I installed Razer Synapse, but that failed to start. I had to uninstall and reinstall to get rid of the partial non-working installation done in Leopard, but that finally worked and got rid of this damned mouse acceleration that was starting to drive me mad and creating pains in my wrist. However, font size is still too small, making the use of this machine prone to awful pains in the neck. If I don’t have to schedule an appointment with my physiotherapist before the end of this nightmare, I will need to spend a significant amount of time thanking God.

However, as soon as I started to feel this great, things went south once more. The machine became incredibly slow, starting to load from the hard drive almost endlessly. Clicking on the menu bar, including the Apple menu, was freezing the machine for a few seconds. Switching tabs in Firefox was taking a couple of seconds. And the hard drive, almost put to the torture, was never never stopping to spin like crazy.

Yesterday evening, I decided this was enough and worth trying a clean fresh install. For this, I inserted the Snow Leopard DVD once more, hooked up a USB keyboard and turned off the machine. Then that’s when the fun starts. There IS a somewhat reliable way to reach the boot manager. You need to wait for BOTH the chime and a sign of activity on the external keyboard. So I powered the Mac on, and stared at my keyboard’s lower part. As soon as I heard the chime and the Razer logo lit up, I pressed the Alt key. Pressing the key before will not send the Alt KeyPress signal to the Mac, so it will NEVER know I pressed Alt! And pressing too late gives OSX the time to boot off from the hard drive. It also seems that sticking a disk in the DVD drive, any disk, will slow down the boot process enough to leave more time for the USB keyboard  to power up. This time, that worked, so I had the menu allowing to choose between the hard drive and the DVD drive; I selected the DVD drive and pressed Enter.

It took more than three minutes, if not five, to boot up from that DVD. After that, I was in the Mac OS X installer.  From there, I launched the Disk Utility, wiped the hard drive, exited the Disk Utility, and started the installation. This took more than half an hour, I don’t know exactly how much time. After that, I tossed the combined upgrade in once more, then the other updates. I discovered with desperation that Razer Synapse was only available for 10.7. Did this changed suddenly or did Google lead me to a web site that just offered me the download? So I was maybe installing something for 10.7 on 10.6 or 10.5. I thus tried with SmoothMouse instead, and that worked great. Mouse acceleration stopped driving me crazy, and I knew it would work for ANY mouse, not just Razer ones.

The formatted machine was faster, no doubt. It wasn’t freezing when clicking on menu items, Firefox was usable, but things went bad once again when I went to The hard drive started to spin like crazy, scrolling became choppy and playback was almost impossible, even without going full screen. I tried with the HTML5 video player instead of the Flash player; that helped a bit.

Then I got issues with LibreOffice which was working somewhat correctly at start, but froze completely when I was searching for a way to automatically format dollar amounts in Calc. Right-clicking on its icon in the Dock had no effect. I tried to access the menu: no response. The menu was locked up as well. I would thus have to switch to a different machine, search on the Web and find the ackward impossible to remember combination of keys to shut off a program forcibly. Tired of being blocked by all possible applications, even on a freshly installed OS, I yanked the plug and put that damn machine away.

This morning, I sent a new message on the Apple Support forum about the issue. What I got just confused and discouraged me quite a lot. Somebody replied to me that this October 2006 MacBook Pro wouldn’t accept more than 2Gb of RAM and would not upgrade past 10..6.8, and that would be pushing to limits. Ideally, it seems I should order yet another DVD, this time to downgrade to 10.5 and have no possibility of installing any application. This is as frustrating as if I got a 2006 laptop, would install Ubuntu 6.06 on it (the most recent at that time) and would end up not being able to upgrade past this!

According to MacTracker, the machine would accept up to 4Gb, although only 3Gb are addressable. It would also accept Mac OS X 10.7. Whether it would work well with 10.7, even with 3Gb of RAM, remains to be determined. Moreover, I’m not sure at all the MacBook Pro would happily work with the SO-DIMM chip I would find for it. What if I cannot get 667MHz DDR2 SO-DIMM? Would the MacBook Pro and/or Mac OS X live with a 800MHz DDR2 SO-DIMM, of course using it as a 667MHz one? I have no way to know, because Internet is not reliable anymore, sellers in local sellers all tell me they don’t support Mac and Apple is just helpless unless I schedule an appointment with a tech during work hours, bring up that machine to an Apple Store I will have trouble finding and pay an undetermined amount of money, possibly to be told one week later, maybe even after the upcoming Christmas holiday, that it is worthless to do anything with that old laptop.

I am also suspecting issues with the graphic card, because from my extremely bad YouTube experience, even on OSX 10.5, it seems there is no graphic acceleration at all. Maybe the video memory is flawed and the OS/graphic hardware works around in some clunky way.

The best way to know about this would be to boot from a Ubuntu Live DVD or USB. Ubuntu will not apply such workaround, so if the graphic hardware is faulty, it will crash, freeze, hang, etc. If Ubunt works correctly, that means that Mac OS X took the same bad route as Windows, becoming slower and slower with releases. A better CPU will just compensate bad programming, nothing more.

Same issue happened when switching from Windows 3.1 to Windows 95, from Windows 98 to Windows XP, etc. Ubuntu is less prone to this, because if the system becomes too slow for the machine, switching to a lighter UI will usually help (e.g., using LXDE instead of GNOME or Unity). Windows and Mac OS X not having this modularity, users are stuck.

With a UNIX base, Apple could have done differently from Microsoft, but they just misused that UNIX base, simply grabbing a BSD kernel to make publicity about illusion of openness.