Apple’s dirty little secret: sluggish Mac OS X still annoyingly slow

Remember those “Pentium Snail” ads from Apple a few years back? It feels like I’ve got one of those escargots in my PowerBook when I run Mac OS X 10.2.1.

It’s time to face facts here, folks. And to those of you who don’t like the truth, don’t ever boot back into Mac OS 9 because you’ll be shocked; you’ll think you’ve got a new computer that really is twice as fast. Mac OS X 10.0 was faster than computing everything manually and sketching screen redraws by hand, but just barely. Mac OS X 10.0 equaled unusable. I won’t even get into the Mac OS X beta here. It was a beta version and as such is exempt from me characterizing it as a beautifully packaged, beautiful to look at, wonderfully conceived, half-baked, slower than evolution, piece of you-know-what. So, we waited with baited breath for Mac OS X 10.1 and when it arrived, it really was faster! Faster than Mac OS X 10.0, which isn’t saying much.

Mac OS X 10.1 is where I switched from full-time Mac OS 9 to “Mac OS X running Classic 95% of the time.” Hey, baby steps, right? I had to bite the bullet somewhere along the way, didn’t I? Now, with 10.1, we were finally going places! I could use a state-of-the-art operating system on Macintosh hardware and enough time with 10.0 had desensitized me to Mac OS 9’s actual speed to the point where I even believed Mac OS X 10.1 wasn’t slower than a one-legged puma. I even had two applications that didn’t require Classic! God, I hate Classic. It’s a wonderful accomplishment, mind you, but I’d do anything short of switching to Windows to not have to launch Classic. The day I got Photoshop 7 (after getting 17 other native Mac OS X apps along the way) and could go a whole day without Classic, was the day I began to wonder, hey, this might work after all, if only Apple could optimize the damn thing for speed.

So, one hot July day, after getting up at 3 AM and sitting on a cold tile floor in a penned-in line for six hours, I found myself sitting in the giant black air-conditioned room with the rest of the Faithful at the Javit’s and watched Steve demo Mac OS X 10.2. Caught in the RDF like a feather in a hurricane, I lost all objectivity again and began salivating for the wondrous speed Steve was demoing in between downing Evians by the case and forcing us to listen to Katsumi Ihara mangle the English language while reading off of index cards for what seemed like hours. Quartz Extreme. Quartz Extreme!!! Praise Steve! “This just had to be it,” I told myself. No more spinning beach ball! No more lags and waiting and wondering just what the hell my Mac was trying to figure out every time I clicked something that seemed so simple that it should be instantaneous. It looked very fast up there on stage. Even though I wondered subconsciously whether Steve was running this on a normal PowerMac or some experimental liquid-cooled Quad G4, I was hooked. I actually volunteered to participate in a local Mac OS X meeting/party/revival the night of Jag’s release, just to get 10.2 early. What a dupe I am.

As I sit here today banging this out, running Mac OS X 10.2.1, with 1GB of RAM, on an 800MHz PowerBook, switching between three open browser windows and TextEdit, waiting for each one come to the front after a brief, but psychologically unbearable delay, I want to run screaming to the Startup Disk pane and switch back to Mac OS 9.2.2. I would, but my mental state wouldn’t be able to take the delay I’d have to endure to do so. Would it be feasible to initiate a class action suit against Apple for giving us such a near-perfect, beautiful, elegant, wonderful operating system that also happens to drive us freakin’ crazy with spinning beach balls, and brief, but unfathomable, excruciating waits? Mac OS X 10.2.1 Jaguar is indeed, “snappy,” but only when compared to Mac OS X 10.1. And, before you write, I’ve tried it on over 10 different Macs of all shapes, sizes, and speeds and Jag has the same nasty stickiness on every machine to varying degrees.

Now, it’s not like the pauses (they’re like tics, actually – my Mac running Jag acts like Forrest Gregg on crack) that pepper my daily Mac OS X usage are interminably long. No, these are brief waits, split-second usually, but they’re the kind of pauses that want to make you scream, “what the @#$& are you waiting for?!” They happen on simple things, like closing a window and they happen on things like switching between applications, they just happen on all sorts of actions that OS 9 executes instantly. And these Mac OS X tics happen frequently, too. I hate that damn beach ball. You get the feeling that Apple felt they needed to change its look because we’d seen it so often we got bored with it. The truth is that Mac OS X is still slower than Mac OS 9. It’s getting better, but the difference between the two is still easily noticeable and it’s time we admit it to ourselves and the world.

Don’t worry, I don’t think that this admission is going to dissuade any potential switchers, Mac OS X has too much going for it, but if we don’t talk about this dirty little secret, I’m worried that Apple will think we’re okay with it like the music industry thought we were okay with US$19 CD’s. Apple, we’re not okay with it. We know Mac OS X is slow. Not deadly, unusable slow, but annoyingly slow like a case of workflow hiccups. Please stop adding features for the time being and instead OPTIMIZE THE DAMN THING FOR SPEED! Thanks so much for listening. It’s a measure of just how good Mac OS X is that we put up with the sluggishness it brings to our lives. Here’s to hoping that Mac OS X 10.3 really will be “snappy” and will actually be faster than Mac OS 9.

P.S. I wonder if that’s why Apple doesn’t want to let us boot into OS 9 with the next version of Mac OS X? Not just to juice hardware sales, but also so we won’t be able to directly compare Mac OS 9’s speed against Mac OS X Panther on the same machine?

SteveJack is a long-time Macintosh user, web designer, multimedia producer and a regular
contributor to the MacDailyNews Opinion section.

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