Just Like Starting Over

Mac OS X PantherMac OS X is great and all, but I’m feeling a little down on its susceptibility to the effects of accretion. My experiences with both Jaguar and Panther have been that life starts out all hunky dory when you have a new installation, but over time things gradually start to break down — utilities stop working, mysterious crashes occur, speed takes a hit. This is to be expected with complex operating systems, but it makes me pine a little bit for the old days of Mac OS 9, when you could clean out a system simply by moving files in and out of select folders and then reboot — now you need to run the Terminal and invoke all sorts of arcane UNIX-style commands and shit.

Eternal Lines to Time

I’m thinking about this not just because the much wider-read Jon Gruber happened to write about something similar today (I had started to draft this before coming across that, I swear), but because I’ve been dealing with these problems for the past few months. First, the indispensable Default Folder X weirdly started locking up my system, causing me to very reluctantly remove it altogether. Then the Finder’s Connect to Server command decided that, each time I invoke it first after rebooting, it should command five full minutes of intense processing power before releasing the Finder back into its normal, responsive state. I also get strange system crashes at inexplicable times, a symptom perhaps related to the fact that my AirPort card will frequently decide that it can no longer see any of the eight or so wireless networks in my apartment building unless I reboot. It’s not nearly as bad as the first fifteen minutes with a new Windows box, but it’s a less than perfect experience.

Were it not for the impending release of Mac OS X Tiger, I’d probably reinstall everything as soon as I can find an afternoon to do so. I suspect that, like a lot of people, I’m anxiously awaiting Mac OS X 10.4 in part because it affords me a good excuse to start all over. Reinstalling a system from scratch — operating system, applications, utilities, enhancements and documents — is a nontrivial task. It’s slightly crazy to hope for a new major release of the system software to take on such a chore, but it makes some sense, too. Once you’ve installed a system, that should be the end of the story… you shouldn’t need to perform major maintenance on it at all, and in fact you shouldn’t need to think about installing another system until its successor is ready, beckoning you with a whole new slate of bells and whistles — with bugs and quirks all their own.

  1. Hm. That doesn’t sound right at all – I’ve been running the same install of OS X for just over a year with no issues, and have been just upgrading as new OS upgrades are releawsed. Have you tried running Cocktail or some other maintenance application to clean caches, repair permissions, etc.?

    Don’t forget you also have the option of doing an Archive and Install, which is pretty much like getting a new System install without having to reinstall all of your applications. When in doubt, the arhive and install has worked wonders.

  2. April 15th. I’ve got it marked in red on my calendar. I’ve been feeling very much the same way recently – there are things that just ain’t working the way they used to. My favourite: every day at 10.57, the portion of my menu bar containing clock, Airport status, iChat, volume and iSync freezes, so that until at least 1.30pm I think “Jeez I’m getting a lot done today – it’s only 10.57”. If I hover my mouse over the area, I get the beachball of death, but the rest of the system’s quite fine. Bring on the Big Cat.

  3. Having just done a backup/format/re-install of my heavily used iBook two weeks ago, I can attest that it’s a non-trivial task. On the other hand, I’ve always noticed performance improvements afterwards on all my desktop PCs and on my iBook.

    For years now, I’ve been doing the whole dance every six months or so, mostly because Fred Langa [http://www.langa.com] told me to back when I was running Windows for Workgroups 3.11.

    Incidentally, it’s also a great excuse to back EVERYTHING up as well as download new versions of applications and updates for old ones–two things I’m prone to avoiding otherwise.

    I agree that things shouldn’t get worse over time with any system. But then again, I know I mess with all sorts of things I don’t understand here and there in the quest to solve some minor quirk or install some software I never end up using. So, maybe I’m alone on feeling that I share in the blame. Or, perhaps, not.

  4. With the exception of finding a screw in my optical drive and Acquisition ceasing to connect since I updated to 10.3.8, I haven’t had any problems with my PowerBook since I upgraded to Panther, over a year ago; still boots in about 15 seconds and works the same as the day I installed it. Do you use any scheduled maintenance programs like Macaroni?

    Oh and for the record, I suspect the screw was accidentally dropped in there during a chassis panel replacement I had done. I thought I noticed a mysterious rattling for almost 8 months before the screw revealed itself and scratch the hell out of my Kill Bill Volume 2 DVD… *sigh*

  5. I don’t know why everyone is beginning to have problems now. I’m on the install I received when Apple reformatted my HD (which I didn’t want them to due to the fact that I had no backup for that year of my life and didn’t want to shell out the extra $50 for them to make a backup   I shouldn’t have to pay for that! They should just do it) when they repaired my screen and didn’t repair my audio in or slight case deformation. That was last summer. I’ve updated the first day on all of the updates and everything. I’ve not had any of these problems. I’m fairly confident that then Panther version I installed (archive and install over Jaguar) back when it came out would still be running fine today [if my memories had never been erased by a stupid apple tech (software corruption that didn’t corrupt anything)].

  6. Yes it would seem you have some major problems as I have never had any such problems with any version of OSX except for a weird crash a few months ago. I rarely shut down my Powerbook, I just close the lid and put it to sleep.

    Sounds like third-party software issues to me…

  7. I have noticed a bit of deterioration in my system’s performance as well. As with any complex system, OS X is fallible and can degrade over time, especially with third-party extensions and software that updates the operating system. Partly, I think it’s more noticeable to those of us who both extend our systems and who make more extensive use of them.

    Still, I have to say that OS X is infinitely more stable than any copy of Windows I have ever run. I can remember having to reformat almost monthly when I ran Windows 98 for my system to run smoothly; Windows 2000 was probably the most stable and smooth version, but even that required a full system rebuild about twice a year. With OS X, I generally only rebuild for completely new OS upgrades (from 10.3 to 10.4, not incremental upgrades).

  8. My experience with OS X has been completely different from yours. Since moving to Panther in December 2003 I haven’t experienced a single problem that would be serious enough to make me consider reinstalling th OS. What also differs me from most OS X users is that I don’t use any third party haxies. Coincidence?

  9. Then the Finder’s Connect to Server command decided that, each time I invoke it first after rebooting, it should command five full minutes of intense processing power before releasing the Finder back into its normal, responsive state

    I was having this exact, maddeningly sporadic problem. The first workaround I found was opening Safari (or any other App) and using ‘File>Open’. In my sidebar, I have an alias of a folder which resides on our servers, selecting that folder seemed to give the OS a kick in the butt, allowing me to sign in to the server.

    The second, more successful solution was going to my Users>Library>Recent Servers folder and trashing the contents.

  10. The first issues you site sounds to be more of a problem with a third-party beta piece of software. I don’t really think the system can be blamed when software screws it up… especially betas.

    Your problems with connecting to the network and airport sound a bit more like something buggy with the system it’s self, although, really, it could be a problem with any number of things. The airport could be the problem, the network could be the problem, someone mooching off your signal could be the problem.

    Having just started using 10.3 at home, I am on the new side of things, and have not had any problems so far. having said that, though, I have a huge biased towards OS X, because for the past three years I’ve been using a G3 266 running 10.1.5… and had no problems until I loaded Comcast’s software a couple weeks ago.

    Unfortunately, no matter how great of an OS someone makes, there is no guarantees that a third-party piece of software isn’t going to give it conniptions.

  11. I have to add myself to the group of people saying “I don’t have any of these problems, but I don’t really use 3rd party extensions”. The only time I’ve ever had any real problems was when one of the landlord’s builders at my old place tripped up and kicked the machine across the room when it was running; I got a few kernel panics until I repaired permissions, and certain system components (e.g. apache) never worked again, but I was just astonished that the system would boot and run all my normal apps, given the amount of damage to the disk.

    I’m sure that if that hadn’t happened, I’d still be running off the same install without a care in the world. Reading the description of Default Folder X, it certainly sounds useful, but I think I can get by with the existing system facilities if it stops my system grinding to a halt 🙂

  12. Um, to come at this from a geekier perspective, why should (in real life) installing a very complex system such as an OS be a “do it once and it works forever with no problems or maintenance” task? Ever try that with a car? Ideally a car should be the same – nobody wants to pay for tuneups and oil changes but it’s well-accepted that you do have to.

    Granted this isn’t a perfect analogy, and hopefully we’ll get ever-closer to a perfect no-maintenance-required OS at some point, but I think it’s pretty unrealistic at this point. Sorry to rain on the parade!

    I’d guess if you never once ran any Apple updates or patches, or installed any system-level software, things would probably stay pretty consistent to your initial install. Disk space can get fragmented, but OS X is supposedly pretty good at managing that on its own.

    Many production UNIX and similar systems (maybe even some Win) run for years, *but* they are very closely monitored, tuned and maintained by experts, not casual users.

    Just look at as annual-biannual-whatever spring cleaning. For that fresh new install feeling!

  13. This is not good news for those of us who are disgruntled PC users looking forward to switching once we can justify the cost. I’ve been sick of having creeping slowness problems with my PC and expecting a Mac to alleviate that. As a long-time Unix devotee, I’d expect Mac OS X to perform better than this. Hmmmm…..

  14. Man, I feel this pain. I don’t spend a lot of my time with power-hungry apps, so any slowdown I experience is minimal compared what it could be. However, in recent weeks I have been fortunate enough to contract some peculiar bug that has so far eaten about 30GB of my HD. I’ve tried all number of utilities to ascertain where this mysterious 30GB has gone, yet it will not reveal itself, wherever it may hide.

    But bug aside, some slowdown, surely, is par for the course. To join ToddG in the search for a perfect analogy, I would suggest that an OS is like your desk. Sure, you can just keep stacking stuff on top of itself – papers, notebooks, CDs, coffee cups, mini staplers, lip balms, chocolates, big staplers (to give a sample of my desk) – and you’ll know roughly where stuff is. But you’re never running at full capacity until you dump it all on the bed, chuck most of it out, and start again.

    Bring on Tiger, I say. Cause I’m ready to dump Panther on my bed and pick its bones. (Someone give me a yell when that analogy’s run its course, would they?)

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