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My phatty Mac

By Remy Martin, April 23, 2002

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If you know me, then you know that I love Mac OS X, and for all of the smack that I talk about how great OS X is, it would be wise to assume that I would never throw myself into the clutches of Mac OS 9 again if I could avoid it, especially on my personal computer at home. So, what would you say if I told you that I have been using OS 9 at home for a long time, even while graciously calling for its demise?

I don’t know what you would say, but I would say that it isn’t my fault. You see, my main OS X computer was an old G4 that the good folks at my office were letting me use because I said I needed to do research and there really wasn’t anybody using it at the office. So, I took the computer home, let my trusty 8600 collect dust, and happily sang the OS X tune full-time at home and at work. Unfortunately, a new person was hired at work and I had to give the G4 back.

As you can imagine, I was a little upset, especially when I couldn’t get authorization to even grab an old G3 for home so I could still hack around in OS X. I mean, my 8600 has been infused with some G3/400 juiciness thanks to the kind folk at Sonnet Technologies, but it is "unsupported" for OS X and I didn’t need the extra stress. Sonnet does have a product called PCI X installer and Ryan Rempel has done wondrous work with his XPostFacto utility to get older computers running, but I kept giving myself excuses to stay with OS 9. Chief among these excuses was that the application I use most in OS 9, my email client (Mailsmith from Bare Bones Software), was not ready for OS X and I really didn’t want to use Classic.

Last week, Bare Bones broke my good excuse and released a Carbonized version of Mailsmith (if you still use OS 9, it’s not worth the upgrade), so I decided it was time to get on the OS X bus with my older computer.

At this time, I should try and explain the term “phatty” for people who may not be familiar with the term (at least as I have learned it). “Phatty” is not the same as “phat,” the term that has usurped “keen” for a whole generation of young Americans. “Phatty” simply means that my device is not stock. If you take a look at the parking lot of your local high school, you are likely to see some phatty Civics, Neons, Mustangs and probably some phatty pickups as well. My 8600 is phatty because I have a G3/400 card, an ATI Rage 128 VR and some aftermarket SCSI hard drives pulled from another computer. My computer really isn’t “phat,” because it really could be a lot better – like brand new.

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While cursing my employer under my breath, I went about my work. First thing I did was back up all my data to CD. There was no telling how marvelously I was going to screw up the Mac. Next, I formatted one of my drives using Apple Drive Setup. I was using Anubis, but I wanted to eliminate the driver issue when installing OS X. For the record, I haven’t tried installing on a disk formatted with something other than Drive Setup, but OS X has been able to read and write drives that are formatted with FWB, Anubis, SpeedTools and Silverlining. I ponied over the US$29.95 for PCI X Installer, because I have a Sonnet card and figured it wouldn’t hurt to be able to email my problems to the company’s tech support if things went wrong.

After installing PCI X Installer, I booted my computer into Mac OS X for the beginning of the installation process. Since nothing good ever comes easy, I was surprised to see that the little Happy Mac and spinning beach ball appear straight away. I was brought back to earth when a kernel panic and stack trace replaced the Happy Mac about 30 seconds later. Ugh. Time to open up my computer and remove the USB, FireWire and Rage 128 card and restart. I did that (taking ten minutes to find my ADB mouse) and was immediately greeted with garbage on my screen. Blast! My onboard video was hosed, so I was going to have to try and wing it with the installation on the ATI card. That would’ve been fine except that nobody has been able to install OS X with an ATI card in the PCI slot. After many reboots and kernel panics, I had to give up, resigned that my onboard video had screwed me out of my OS X installation.

All hopes were not dashed, of course, as I wouldn’t have written this article if I wasn’t successful. I woke up in the middle of the night and realized what was wrong. Yes, it is quite pathetic to be dreaming such things, but at least it solved my problems. You see, I remembered that when I was installing my G3 card, I had removed everything on the motherboard that wasn’t RAM. I’d read somewhere that motherboard L2 cache on PCI Macs can degrade performance when used with a G3 card. Along with the L2 cache, I had removed the VRAM from the motherboard, which was causing the display freakiness. The next day, after replacing the VRAM and removing the ATI card, I was able to install OS X without a problem.

The OS X install went well. Sort of. My first mistake was installing it on the slowest drive I had in my computer. It took an awfully long time to get the one gigabyte or so worth of data onto the drive, and after that, it takes an awfully long time to start up and run applications. Since the virtual memory was also running on the slowest drive, any sort of VM functions were hampered as well. Back to the install, I chose not to install many extras to save disk space and fixed myself a nice omelette while I was waiting. After installation and rebooting the computer, I got another kernel panic. This is because the OS X installation removes some of the items necessary for OS X to run. To get these files back, I booted back into OS 9 and copied the files detailed in the Sonnet PCI X Installer (or XPostFacto) readme and booted back into OS X.

By the time I had finished all of the above, Sonnet’s tech support people had replied to my initial plea for help with my installation. Although I had pretty much figured out everything I needed to get the install to work without their help (their suggestion of formatting everything using Drive Setup was not necessary), I was given a nice little note about an ATI ROM update available for certain video cards to make them OS X compatible [Ed - It should be noted that since the time of writing, XpostFacto has been updated to eliminate these ATI video card incompatibilities]. I ran the ROM update and moved a couple of extensions files, and when I started my computer with the Rage 128 card, there was no kernel panic. This did not mean that I was able to use the PCI video exclusively; OS X would still hang if there was nothing connected to the onboard video. To get around this, I started OS X with a spare monitor connected and made the monitor connected the the ATI card the primary monitor using System Preferences. Thanks to a tip from Accelerate Your Mac!, I was able to get around the issue of having the onboard video connected by pulling the VRAM and connecting a VGA adapter to the computer. My computer now started up correctly and acted as if there was only one monitor rigged up to the thing. Snooch.

After an hour or so of updates (optimizing during installs takes forever), I now had a computer running Mac OS X 10.1.3 with about the same functionality as my computer at work – including a working USB card and Microsoft Intellimouse Optical combo, seriously necessary for my computer enjoyment.

Now comes the time where everybody asks me how I am enjoying it. Well, it actually isn’t that bad. Then again, about the only thing I am doing on my home computer these days is Web browsing, email and listening to MP3s. I wouldn’t, however, torture myself with Classic in this setup, and so I am living with AppleWorks to do any productivity stuff, and with the new update, it is more than adequate for the stuff I need to do. iMovie sits there in the Dock as a big joke, daring me to try and run it. The ATI card is almost a necessity; it makes video so much faster in Aqua. Still, I would love to be able to turn off transparency and live window dragging/resizing to make everything that much faster.

If it ends up that I have to go with this setup much longer (I haven’t yet told my boss that I plan on moving to Los Angeles this summer), I plan on upgrading the computer with some more memory and dropping in an IDE card and fast IDE drive to speed things up as well. When it comes down to it, your computer can never really be too phatty. If I didn’t have such a completely horrible health insurance plan, I would have invested in a 14" iBook or G4 a long time ago. In the meantime, I will live with Mac OS X on my old Mac and you can all take comfort in knowing that I actually do take some of my own advice.

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