Housebreaking an iMac

iMacThere’s a witch hunt going on inside my new iMac; last night I made the resolution that I would excise from my hard drive as many applications as possible that rely on Apple’s Rosetta. That’s the supposedly invisible translation layer that Apple provides on its Intel-based Macintoshes in order that users may run programs originally written for the platform’s previous motherboard tenant, the PowerPC chip.

The reason is that, after several weeks of usage, I’m sufficiently fed up with the slow application switch times, the spinning beach balls and the unfortunately frequent crashes that I encounter using this Intel-based machine. I’m not sure it’s entirely accurate to blame Rosetta (I suppose it could be the relatively paltry 1 Gigabyte of RAM that I have installed, but if that’s a more accurate cause of my troubles, I’ll also say it’s an unreasonable one) but forgoing as much ‘dynamic translation’ as possible seems like as good a tactic as any for increasing the responsiveness of my machine.

Trouble in Paradise

All of which points to the regrettable state of affairs of this iMac, my very proud recent acquisition and my first foray into the new world of Intel-based Macintosh hardware. I was all in favor of this switch from PowerPC to Intel, not in the least because my platform of choice is now the only computer hardware available anywhere that can reliably run all of the major operating systems in the marketplace. But, if these first few weeks of ownership are any indication, Apple has bought into the general flakiness of Intel chips as much as they’ve bought into those chips’ flexibility.


Here are just a few of my troubles: The system exhibits a general stubbornness when it comes to remembering to actually launch certain log-in items. The system exhibits painful, almost glacial slowness after some long bouts of inactivity. The system refuses to display the Force Quit menu when certain applications hang and I invoke command-option-escape. The system is unreliable with regards to networking to another Mac via IP Over FireWire, which is one of my favorite uses of the FireWire bus. The system occasionally and erratically disconnects from my AirPort network.

Maybe the most annoying thing of all is that the built-in iSight, which worked fine for the first few days that I owned the machine, is now completely unresponsive. I can’t get it to work. After a lengthy call to Apple tech support, they determined that the camera is in fact broken, and it now has to be repaired by a technician. Grrr.

Classic Days of Classic

Anyway, for now, I’m focusing most of my frustration on Rosetta-reliant applications. Unfortunately, there are more than a few crucial laggards to the Intel-based Mac world, so completely eschewing these is impossible. This whole situation reminds me of my early days using Mac OS X, though, when moving over from the legacy Mac OS 9 environment meant waiting patiently for software developers to overhaul their products.

I guess I should consider it a plus that, by and large, Rosetta is a far superior experience than Classic ever was. And it consoles me a bit, too, to know that with time, this system will only get more and more stable, just as Mac OS X did over the course of several major revisions. However, by the time the Intel-based Macintosh environment is mature and reliable, I’m sure it will time to make yet another canonical platform shift of some kind. Sigh.

  1. I thought you have 2 Gigs installed. I think you said you did in comments you left in your recent article last month about your first impressions. I could be wrong, though.

    I am slightly new to your website. I read a reference to you from John Gruner’s blog, and now I subsribe to your blog. Thanks for putting yourself out there. Here. Somewhere.

  2. It’s hard for me to believe that all the problems you describe are processor-related (though it’s quite possible they are related to growing pains in the Intel version of OS X). When you get that iSight looked at, you might also describe your symptoms to the technician and see if they can check out other components for problems. You might also take a look at the system logs for clues. What you’ve described could be motherboard-related, which could also explain the iSight failure and firewire issues.

    That said, I take this article and others like it as validation of my decision to stay away from Intel hardware in the lab I manage, at least for the first year or so. Though I’ve yet to use any of the new Intel hardware, stories like yours seem fairly commonplace, and we rely heavily on Adobe software. Guess there’s something to be said for staying behind the curve. But I think before too long the Intel decision will prove to be a good one. (And then, yeah, you’re right. We’ll probably be on our next transition. Conspiracy? Probably.)

    Anyway, hope you get your problems ironed out.


  3. I just got my 20″ Core 2 Duo a few weeks back, and I have to say I haven’t encountered any of the issues you mention. No flakiness. No beach balls. No general unresponsiveness after inactivity. Although I do have problems copying large amounts of files from my Powerbook over FireWire (it seems to hang after a certain amount of copying – not so great for doing backups!).

    This includes frequent running of Rosetta apps like Photoshop, InDesign, and Fireworks alongside Universals like Transmit, BBEdit and Safari.

    I would strongly, strongly suggest you bump your RAM up to 2 GB. Really, very strongly. It may make more problems than you’d think disappear.

    But even if I did have these issues, they cannot dampen the awe that is Parallels. It has blown my world. I can check rendering in IE5, IE6, and IE7 concurrently, while editing a stylesheet on the server via Mac OS X apps, and do it all real-time. I can’t even believe it as I type it. It’s too good to be true. Purchase price of the iMac almost worth it right there.


  4. Khoi, I believe we got our Intel-based Macs around the same time. I’m not certain, but I would assume you opted for the 24″ whereas I bought the lowly 20″. I did however go with 2Gb of RAM and the 256MB video card. I can agree with your frustrations that Rosetta apps do slow the machine down some and there is a bit of lag in switching between Rosetta emulation and standard processing. On the other hand, I’ve had no problems whatsoever with crashes (minus MS’s RDC for working on the servers at work) or my iSight going out. I agree with Derek in that you might wanna bump that RAM to 2Gb. Other than that, could you have gotten the Apple Lemon?

  5. Yeah, I’m sorry to hear you’re having such a bad times with your new iMac. I have a MacBook that I got since they were released and use it constantly with very little issues. I run Photoshop and TextMate on it constantly. Then I boot up Parallels from time to time to check things in IE/Win. I can’t stress enough how vital it is to max the ram out if you want to contend with any Rosetta-reliant applications. This makes a huge difference. Photoshop is completely usable for me since I maxed my MacBook out with 2GB. But being a Web designer helps this setup. If I boot up Illustrator as well, then things start moving into the glacial slowness you describe.

    Also, it could just be a flaky machine. I went to an Apple Store when the Mac Pros came out and ran it through the motions. I started up Aperture and messed around a bit. I couldn’t get over how unresponsive it was. Something had to be up with it. Not to mention that Macs at the Apple Stores always tend to feel faster since they’re much cleaner then my own Macs (less bit rot, etc.).

    March 2007 can’t come soon enough for the Adobe applications to become Universal. In some ways, I really do wish Apple would pick up the slack and offer their own creative pro solutions in this area. But I know this would entirely upset Adobe. It reminds me of the early browser situation with OS X. Safari picked up the dead weight (or wait) of Internet Explorer and ran with it. Plus wouldn’t some real competition for Adobe be healthy now that they somehow got away with acquiring their only real competitor?

  6. It sounds like you got a machine with a hardware defect. There’s probably a bad connection somewhere or the motherboard needs to be replaced.

    You might want to make a list of all the issues and send the machine back for repair or replacement. This is _not_ normal behaviour for an intel based Mac at all.

  7. I have the same sluggishness after periods of inactivity, it’s infuriating and gets worse and worse until I find I eventually have to reboot. This is on my dual core Mac Mini. I’d originally put this down to non universal apps running rosetta but now I think i’m 100% universal and it’s still happening. I’m yet to figure it out.

    I also had an issue with the built in iSight on my iMac. I’m sure you have already done this but I found that I needed to upgrade Quicktime to the latest version to get this working properly. This happened because I did a Mac Software migration from my old mac and the older quicktime was moved over. It took a while for me to work that one out.

  8. Do what systemsboy says. Your machine is hosed. If it was just down to the Intel processor, the problems would be very widespread and we’d be hearing about class action suits and ‘how low can it go’ on Apple’s share price.

    I’ve an Intel Mac Book Pro, and at work there’s a couple of Intel iMacs – all totally rock solid. I get a bit of lag switching to and from PhotoShop, but nothing serious and besides, I get the same thing happening on my dual-Xeon Mother-of-God Windows workstation too.

  9. It sounds like you have some fairly serious issues. I have a Macbook Pro and it exhibits none of your problems so I’m fairly certain it isn’t processor related. Sounds like some form of operating system corruption or possibly hardware error. One technique I use to discover if its a hardware issue is to create a new user and test out applications under that user. This normally shows whether the problems are user related and of course this won’t show if you have corrupted operating system files as these are shared between users.

    Have you run any diagnostic tools like Techtool Pro?

  10. Khoi, have you looked in troubleshooting the issue fully?

    Best place to start is the console app in utilities (you may have done this already but you didn’t mention) look at the console.log and system.log to start, then google on anything unsual (or repeated significantly). Its possible you are suffering from a similar problem to Joel.

    Another good test is logging in as a new test user (just add a temporary account for this pupose) and playing for a bit (if you don’t have probs then its likely to be user preference related as you’ll get a fresh set for the new user).

    Moving forward from there its possible to be hardware related – running the HW test from boot CD is a good start although doesn’t always catch problems. I had an issue with Ram fault causing intermitant crashes until I took out RAM (which was third party certified for mac) and replaced. 2GB will always help speed wise but shouldn’t have any affect on app/system crashing. I’ve got a couple of MacTel machines which have had the odd issue – but always managed to track down and resolve – otherwise they have been great.

    Hope that helps thanks for the great site.

  11. “Apple has bought into the general flakiness of Intel chips”

    Since when have Intel microprocessors been flaky? Because you associate Intel with Windows, perhaps.

    Reading through your previous posts I suspect your myriad of time saving customisations may be a factor or, as other people have noted, a more serious hardware problem related to firewire.

  12. Sorry to hear about your problems. I have the same 24″ Intel iMac that you have. The only difference is that I have 2GB of ram. I haven’t had any of the problems your describing. The only “problem” I’m having is that Photoshop is pretty sluggish. I would say Photoshop ran better on my older slower PC.

    My iSight still works… however, I haven’t used it that much at all. I’ve only used it long enough to play with Photo Booth.

  13. “The system occasionally and erratically disconnects from my AirPort network.”

    Not sure how you have your AirPort set up, but my Intel Core 2 Duo repeatedly lost its AirPort connection when using WEP, especially when waking from sleep. I tried troubleshooting everything and a myriad of configurations. I found the problem didn’t occur when using an open network (which I didn’t want to do) or when using WPA (which is more secure anyway). Since reconfiguring for WPA I haven’t had any AirPort disconnect problems.

  14. I’ll second Dan Wilkinson’s assessment of your network difficulties. The wireless network at my office is WEP and the one at my house is WPA. Never fall off at home, fall off a couple times a week at work.

  15. I have no idea how all this Rosetta goodness works but it seem that while the performance of the workhorse activites of Photoshops are great, Filters, processing etc, Quartz seems to have issues drawing the UI. I’ve had the same with the PowerPC version of TextMate, as soon as I switched to the Universal it ran like a rocket.

    One thing I’ve learned from my short spell with OS X is that one problem tends to cause more problems, for example a custom mail bundle messed up my Bluetooth and AirPort because it was crashing the IO kit.

    Perhaps your dead iSight is causing some hidden but annoying problems?

  16. Khoi – I got a 24″ iMac a few days after you and I have to say I’ve not had the same experiences as you – it’s all been wonderful.

    Full review.

    I would get the machine checked out as it sounds like a hardware problem to me.

  17. My office currently runs about a dozen power PC macs, that have no problem running 10 apps at once, and running them with style. Earlier this year we bought 3 iMacs and 2 Mac Book Pros, all running Intel chips. Your criticisms are like a page out of my diary, I’ve wanted to throw everyone of these machines out of a window at one time or another. Start up problems, crashes, just generally poor performance.

    Apple does have a historic tendency to plunge boldly into new technological frontiers, without much thought or concern to what that will mean to their consumer base. I think a more coordinated approach should have been in order with software providers like Adobe being involved. I’m sure they’ll win us back again, as they have so many times in the past.

  18. Khoi, are you running off of the default, factory-installed version of OS X or did you use the migration tool to move your files over from a previous machine?

    When I made the transition from PPC to Intel I wiped my new iMac clean, installed a fresh copy of the OS, and manually moved my files over from my previous PowerPC. This is after I used the migration tool to move over my files from my old machine while running the factory-installed OS. All of my issues (except for the relative slowness of apps under Rosetta) disappeared.

    Might be worth a shot.

  19. Chris,

    You’re right in that they do plunge boldly into new technology frontiers, but I disagree that they do so with little regard to their consumer base. An over-concern for the consumer base leads to paralysis in the tech industry. It’s why floppy disks were around for as long as they were and why USB floundered for as long as it did. Apple cracked that nut. And yes, it was a large inconvenience for Mac users at the time, but look around you. We are much better off because of it. Same with Mac OS X. And the same will be the case once the Intel ripples fade away.

    If you step back and look at this latest transition, the news isn’t that Apple has transitioned Mac OS X from PowerPC to Intel, it’s that they’ve transitioned nearly all Mac OS X applications from PowerPC to any architecture — should Apple choose to support that architecture in Mac OS X/XCode. All universal binaries are now XCode-dependent and architecture-independent. The next time Apple decides to move from one processor to another, all the developer has to do is recompile their app in the latest version of XCode.

    So you see: it’s for the better.

    I argue that it’s the tech company that doesn’t “shepherd” its users from one technology to the other which truly lacks concern for its consumer base.

  20. I’ll second Nell’s comments. When I first got my MacBook Pro, I used the migration tool to transfer everything from my G4, and had all sorts of problems – general sluggishness, crashes, extremely slow shutdowns, etc. After about two weeks, I started over with a fresh install, and everything has been great since then. I use photoshop and illustrator on it all the time and generally have 10-12 apps open at once. I rarely restart and I’ve had very few problems. It does take a few seconds switching to Photoshop, but nothing terrible.

    Also, at my day job we have a few Intel Minis and iMacs running the Adobe apps and Quark in rosetta, for print production work, and while they definitely aren’t as fast as our newest G5s, it’s tolerable.

    Sounds to me like your iMac has deeper problems than just Rosetta.

  21. Folks: Thanks for all the feedback, and sorry I haven’t had a chance to get back to you on it. It was very helpful to know that a lot (most?) owners of the 24″ iMac haven’t had the problems I have. I think what I’ve been experiencing comes down to a few things: one or two faulty hardware parts (e.g., iSight), some misbehaving software (e.g., crashing problems), and finally the fact that I just don’t have enough RAM installed.

    I’m not ruling out the idea that there’s something funky going on with the motherboard, though, but I’m going to run the machine a while in a less aggressive mode to see if the problems persist. I don’t really have an explanation for the AirPort periodically dropping (I’ve been using WPA since day one, not WEP) nor for the IP Over FireWire inconsistencies.

    As I mentioned at the beginning of the post, I’m going to be purging my daily software habit of all the Rosetta-dependant applications I can. And, as much as my wallet rebels at the idea, I’m going to spend yet more money to probably maximize the RAM I have. Hopefully that will improve things. I’ll let you know. Thanks everyone!

  22. Sorry to hear about your iMac experiences. I too have a new iMac (two weeks now), and I love it. I have to use Rosetta a lot. I use Creative Suite (CS2) often, and, get this, I use Office X, the first version of office for OS X (I think it’s 4-5 years old). I have never had a problem–no beach balls at all.

    I got two upgrades when ordering my iMac: 2GB RAM and 256 VRAM.

    Hope you get things squared away.

  23. Purchased 3 20″ Intel Duo Core iMac’s at the same time not too long ago.

    Bought the first one thru MacConnection. Dead on arrival after opening the box. Returned the machine to MacConnection for full refund.

    Bought my second iMac at my local Mac store. It worked the first day. Second day it wouldn’t start. Called tech support and they walked me thru a power management reset. Worked that day, but the next day couldn’t start.

    Returned it to the Mac store for a replacement. Opened that one up at the store, set it up and no problems. Did get the 2 gig ram installed, and so far no problems.

  24. khoi, i feel your pain, sorry to hear of your headaches. i have a 14-day old Mac Pro Quad Xeon that i am pretty happy with…(i did not say “perfectly” happy with) i have 4GB ram, which i think is *just enough*. i am not kidding.

    my ideal working environment will have ALL OPEN:
    – adobe photoshop CS2 (Rosetta, typ file open 30MB)
    – adobe illustrator CS2 (Rosetta)
    – apple mail
    – apple address book
    – apple iCal
    – MS word (Rosetta)
    – Luxology Modo 203
    – Aperture 1.5
    – Parallels running XP Home
    – MS Remote Desktop (1 active session)
    – Adium (jabber client)
    – Safari with at least 5-6 Tabs open
    – FontBook

    seriously, any hardcore design/devel day requires all this stuff to be running simultaneously, and notice i have no motion stuff here.

    4GIG is *minimum*.

    by the way – i think Parallels is absolutely life-changing. works f–king great.

    i will personally get you another 2GIG of RAM my friend. you deserve it.


  25. After one night of working on the new, mighty, whizbang 24″ iMac,
    I am ready to box it up and send it back to the nerds who produced it.
    I am running CS2… working in Photoshop & InDesign and the switch and lag time is ridiculous. This is my fourth Mac and is by far the most disappointing. The amount of time to open and process even small files in Photoshop (100-200mg or so) is pathetic.

    At work, I have a G5 with a gig of ram and 240 on the hard drive.
    That one is two years old and it moves things along quite nicely.

    InDesign crashed a number if times… that must be one of the un-advertised, surprise benefits that comes with the new computer.
    I will probably add the additional ram this weekend to see if that
    helps the performance any. Right now, I feel like I have been had!!!!!!!!!!!!

    I have until November 10th to return this box of rotten fruit or get
    it sufficiently domesticated… I think that’s all I can whine about now…

    Pat Osborne

  26. Khoi Vinh,
    Thank you for your post – in you I finally find an ally who is prepared to tell it like it is – I’ve had nothing but frustration with my Intel iMac since I got it, and despite the blindness experienced by some, I am convinced that the troubles ARE processor related.

    I ‘switched’ to Mac in 2003 after eight years of heavy windows usage and have a very good memory of the type of general unresponsiveness, and style of crashes which intel gave me – all of these were exorcised by my switch to OS X (PPC) – initially 12″ Powerbook, then 15″ (1.5 GHz with 1GB RAM) – I now use the iMac (1.83 GHz with 1GB RAM) and Powerbook in equal measure each has exactly the same software installed and I am very sure of which is the faster machine – the Power PC – why do X-boxes sport PPC chips?….

    Oh, and my inbuilt iSight has just failed – it flickered on, and then straight off… the light comes on but the screen is black… more frustration 🙁

    All the best Ian G

  27. NEW iMAC 24″ 2 GB 667 MHz

    I too am having unbelievable slowing down of processing from one program to another, spinning, lag time to go simply from my Entourage to Skype to Microsoft word just awful.. It use to work so well and now all I do is wait it seems… Programs I need to work on simultaneously:

    – Entourage
    – apple address book
    – apple iCal
    – MS word
    – Parallels running XP Home
    – MS Remote Desktop (1 active session)
    – Adobe GoLive
    – Safari with at least 5-6 Tabs open
    – Firefox
    -Adobe acrobat
    – Skype
    – FileMaker Pro
    What gives? Spent a bundle getting it all set up, and for the first couple of months, perfect… Now it is so increcibly slow, reminds me of my very first Mac Classic I bought way back in 1980… Takes so long to finish my work now.

    Any advice to make this run more efficiently, please send my way.. . Much appreciated.


  28. I bought an iMac 20-inch at a Christmas gift for my wife. It’s been a nightmare!

    We experienced the wireless disconnect problem but think we worked it out. Create a new Location (Apple menu, Locations, Network Preferences…,) and turn off all other network ports in it except for Airport. Make that new one your working Location. Get yourself reconnected to your wireless network in that Location. What you are doing is leaving the OS no other choices for networking. It seems to help it hold its concentration on your wireless LAN.

    Our main gripe with the Intel iMac 20 is that the optical drive quits working about three hours after turning on the machine. If it is playing something, it quits. After that, sometimes it won’t eject the media. If you are lucky enough to get the first one out, it won’t recognize any you put in afterward. And it won’t eject, either. The “fix” is to shut down and let the thing cool overnight with the media still inside. When it starts the next morning, it recognizes the disk at once, and will play or eject it just fine. Of course, three hours later it quits again.

    The AppleCare technician was here today to put in a new motherboard, cooling fan (there are actually three of them inside the thing) and optical drive. The new optical drive failed to work immediately when he turned it back on. So he put the old one back in, hoping the problem was on the motherboard or the in the fan. Of course it played just fine. Until three hours after he left, then it quit again. BTW he broke the wire leading to the IR remote, so it doesn’t work now, either.

    Bottom line, after AppleCare the iMac is worse off than before!

    I want my money back. At this point I’d rather take my chances on a new Vista machine. But of course we will keep working with AppleCare to get a resolution. Maybe they’ll just swap us for a new one pretty soon.

    I’m intrigued by the number of comments about not using the migration tool. We did use it, moving from an iBook running 10.3.9. I noticed that some of our software did not migrate, i.e. Excel (although the rest of MS Office 2004 did move over.) That suggests problems with the migration tool. If we get a chance to start over with a clean machine, I won’t do that again.

    (Flame on me, if you must, Mac fans! But consider that I’ve owned and loved Macs since the very beginning. My SE30 was a workhorse; I still have it. I owned some Performas that made me wonder if Apple had forgotten what business it was in. My PPC Mac Mini that I’m writing this post on runs like a top! OS X is a pleasure. But my new Intel iMac 20 makes me think of those Performas. I fear that Apple is drifting back into the box-making mentality that nearly drowned them ten years ago. I don’t want to go through that again. Windows isn’t horrible, just different, and the way Apple is handling my problems with the new iMac 20 so far has me looking at the grass on the other side of the fence again…)

  29. Mac replaced my iBookG4 with a MacBook a couple of weeks ago. Man I wish I could go back in time and undo that transaction! I hate this machine. It’s sooooo sllooowww. And if I open any Office 2004 for Mac apps, it all but stops completely. Force quit doesn’t work half the time…because it won’t even come up. The camera bogs everything down and sometimes crashes completely when in use.

    What give? I was having a passionate affair with mac until this critter came to my doorstep. I wanna step on it!

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