Logo Rob Buckley – Freelance Journalist and Editor

Mach OS X

Mach OS X

OS X 10.4 is Apple's fastest system yet, but older Macs might not be getting the full benefit of Apple's latest tune-up. Here we explain how to turbocharge Tiger

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The spinning rainbow beachball is not our friend. When we see it on our Macs, we don’t think warm thoughts. We don’t greet it. In fact, we wish it would just go away.

With OS X 10.4, you’d think there’s be a tiger in your tank by now. It’s definitely faster than Panther – OS X 10.3 – and if you have a G5 or one of the latest iBooks and PowerBooks, it’s definitely no slouch. But if you’ve had your Mac a while, you’ll have a G3 or a sub-1GHz G4 processor and, at times, Tiger still won’t leap into action any faster than an Action Man with the batteries taken out.

However, all is not lost: you needn’t sacrifice your Mac to the great god eBay just yet. Over the next few pages, we’ll give you more than a few hints that should help you get your Mac doing more new tricks than an old dog has any right to. And if you have a new Mac, read on, too: there’s always room for improvement.

First off, a few hardware basics. Dull, dull, dull, we know, but no pain, no gain. Your Mac’s processor, whether it’s a G3, G4 or G5, processes instructions. These instructions come from your programs and from OS X itself. For your Mac to run OS X and your programs as quickly as possible, your processor needs to get those instructions as quickly as possible. Their location will therefore affect your Mac’s speed a great deal.

The fastest location of all is the “cache” on the processors, followed your Mac’s memory, its hard drive, removable disks, servers on a network and then things on the Internet such as your iDisk.

Your processors’ caches only have about 1MB of storage at most, which makes memory the best place for data. When you launch your Mac, the first thing it will do is copy all the vital and necessary parts of OS X from your hard drive into its memory. When you launch an application, it will do the same thing. If you don’t have enough memory, your Mac will use your hard drive, swapping the things it needs for things it doesn’t need. This whole process takes time and your hard drive is many, many times slower than memory so you really want to avoid this if possible.

So the number one best thing you can do for your Mac is buy it more memory. As an improvement, it’s relatively cheap since you get an excellent amount for just £60. With Tiger, the crucial level is about 512MB of RAM. That gives you enough room for Tiger itself and to run a few programs simultaneously. Up it further to 768MB for greater comfort. If you have a G5-based Mac, however, we’d recommend 768MB as a basic level and 1GB for comfort. Why do you need more for a G5? The G5, as Apple likes to brag, is a 64-bit chip, while the G4 and G3 are both 32-bit chips. That means that the G5 can attack data twice as quickly, but it also means that all the instructions take up more space than their 32-bit equivalents.

Fortunately, one of the expansion options available to just about every Mac – with the exception of the Mini – is to add more memory. Your Mac’s user guide will almost certainly have detailed instructions on how to add memory to it and it’s by no means a difficult operation. There also online guides in Apple’s online support section (http://www.apple.com/support). Sure, it’ll terrify you something chronic initially, but after the first time, you’ll have a new air of confidence, a swagger to your walk and the ability to fearlessly pluck the top off anyone’s Mac at a moment’s notice. We wouldn’t recommend that, though.

The best place to buy RAM is absolutely not Apple. We say this not because we’re a mischievous bunch, honest, but because its prices are pretty steep. At the time of writing, Apple is willing to add 512MB of RAM to a new iMac for a seemingly reasonable price of £60 or so. For the same money, you can get 1GB of RAM from Crucial, say (http://www.crucial.com/uk/mac/index.asp). That’s right: Apple has a “one for the price of two” offer running at its store.

In general, actually, we’d recommend Crucial for memory upgrades over most suppliers – and not because we have shares in them (we don’t). They’re cheaper than many, yet have good reliable memory. They’re not completely PC-oriented. And they have a handy online guide to tell you which memory chips you’ll need: tell them you have an Apple iBook G4 1.2GHz and Crucial will correctly report back you need a 200-pin SODIMM. Sounds like gobbledygook, doesn’t it, so do not, under any circumstances, try to guess what kind of memory your Mac needs: you will be wrong. You won’t damage your Mac by ordering it, since you won’t be able to fit the memory without bending it into a new shape, but you will waste time and money – and potentially order slower memory than is helpful. Rely on Apple’s support site or Crucial’s memory advisor.

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