Rosetta-free makes life merry

I love old hardware and software, going as far as finding modern applications for an Apple II. But this time, my stubbornness was giving me more pain than pleasure.

My day-to-day computer has been getting slower and slower as of late. This MacBook Pro is less than a year old, bought last June to replace a broken PowerBook G4. There's no hardware-based reason for something this new to be running this slowly, I thought. I'd recently cleaned my hard drive of software I wasn't running; maybe it was time to take a look at the software that I was.

The slowdown seemed to occur most when running Safari. I was still running the older v2.0.4 of the Web browser, which dates back to Mac OS 10.4.10 and earlier. I'd even reinstalled 2.0.4 when an upgrade to 10.4.11 tried to force Safari 3.1.1 on me, as my last attempt at running anything newer had been unpleasant — hence my reluctance to relinquish the tried-and-true. But one look at the Activity Monitor convinced me to give it another go.

Moving from a PowerBook to a MacBook last June changed my CPU from PowerPC-based to Intel. That means that, although my PowerBook's old applications would still run via a transparent emulation software called Rosetta, they wouldn't run as well as programs optimized for the new Intel chip. Safari 2.0.4 predates that transition, requiring Rosetta. And since Web browsing is my most common and intensive activity, that means a very busy additional layer of processing was constantly running. Here's what I saw in Activity Monitor:

Safari 2.0.4 Activity Monitor

For optimal performance, the number in the "% CPU" column should be as low as possible, and "Kind" should more often than not reflect the type of CPU you're running. Safari was not a native Intel app and, not coincidentally, was using up a quarter of the CPU — sometimes leapfrogging to 70% or even, inexplicably, 120%.

I headed to Apple's Web site to download Safari 3.1.1. Before installing, I made a full backup and also cleaned out my /Library/InputManagers/ folder, which may've contained old plug-ins that would be incompatible with the new Safari. I archived my old Safari, installed the new, downloaded updates to my most essential plug-ins, and tried again.

This time, Safari 3 worked flawlessly. It retained all my autofill form data, it didn't crash, and my plug-ins worked. Best of all, my Activity Monitor appreciated the effort:

Safari 3.1.1 Activity Monitor

(In both screen shots above, Safari was the only app I manually launched after a reboot, giving it four tabs to load.)

I realize that a fuller upgrade to Leopard is inevitable, and that other browsers such as Firefox (which I also use daily) are viable alternatives to any version of Safari. But the more general lesson to be learned here is that at some point, you (or, more accurately, I) need to weigh the costs and benefits of sticking with that older software, as a short-term investment in upgrading can quickly pay off.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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