The Leopard Report: Another Perspective on Troubleshooting Issues

February 20th, 2008

So I set up a brand, spanking new second-generation Mac Pro for a client the other day. This is the super duper Apple workstation that incorporates the new Harpertown or Penryn versions of the Intel Xeon processor, with more onboard cache, faster memory throughput, higher bus speed, improved onchip support for multimedia and similar goodies.

The computer was dressed to kill in most respects. Although its owner opted for the base 2.8GHz dual quad-core configuration, he didn’t suffer significantly. After all, the difference between that model’s performance and the speediest version, 3.2GHz, averages less than 10% in most cases. So paying $1,600 for a speed bump that will never be detected except in timed benchmarks and extended 3D rendering didn’t make a whole lot of sense.

However, this box is smartly configured otherwise. It came from the factory with a pair of 500GB internal drives, the NVIDIA GeForce 8800 GT graphics card, a $200 option, and built-in AirPort. On top of that, we acquired four 2GB RAM cards from my friend Larry O’Connor’s Other World Computing, and the end result was a 10GB powerhouse for less than $3,900. You don’t want to know what Apple charges for that memory upgrade, by the way, and, as third-party tests show, OWC’s product is just as good at a fraction of the price.

Anyway, when I set up this computer for the client, I didn’t bother to actually run it until the RAM upgrade was installed and all peripherals connected (including an external FireWire backup drive and two networked printers). Sure I was probably taking a huge chance, but living on the edge sometimes makes sense, and, by the way, I rarely encounter bad memory when you get it from a responsible supplier.

Still, after reading all the troubles and tribulations people have reported with Leopard, you’d think I was making an open challenge to the “Gods” here, but I don’t think so. I have a great batting average setting up new Macs.

After migrating over 150GB of stuff from an older Mac courtesy of Apple’s Migration Assistant, I set down to downloading the latest Leopard updates. After 10.5.2 and a handful of other files were installed, a restart and a recheck of System Update brought news of the infamous Leopard Graphics Update 1.0.

Now Apple doesn’t say an awful lot about that update, although the name implies it’s primarily an archive of new graphics drivers. Since Leopard is known to have a few graphics-related performance shortcomings, I suggested to Jim Galbraith, Macworld’s Lab Director, that he test several computers before this update and after. To his credit, he — a rare breed indeed — listened to me, or maybe I simply affirmed what he planned to do anyway. The test results published by Macworld show a respectable performance jump.

At the same time, there has been some complaints about strange graphic artifacts after the graphics update is installed, but a few “voodoo” fixes, such as zapping the P-RAM and other age-old maintenance maneuvers, often set things right.

Now I have to tell you that you can’t take a survey based on a single sample and apply it to everyone. However, this Mac Pro is the best example of a pristine platform, since the only thing done before it was fired up for the first time was to install extra memory. However, it also had all the files transported from a well-used Power Mac G5. So if there was anything in those files that would compromise a successful update, it surely would have happened.

It goes to the basic point that I rarely seem to encounter the issues that others have experienced with Apple’s updates. This isn’t to say that Leopard has been perfect for me, and it’s also true that people I respect have encountered all sorts of difficulties in certain areas. Take John Rizzo, publisher of the popular cross-platform integration site, John says that many issues involving connecting and networking Macs with Windows PCs remain unresolved even in the 10.5.2 update. Remember, too, that similar issues erupted in the wake of Tiger’s release, it it took even more updates for things to settle down in a reasonable fashion.

Before you suggest I got a specially-manipulated Mac Pro for the client, bear in mind that it was a standard custom-order unit ordered from Apple, to be sure, but still not given any special handling. It had third-party memory and lots of third-party software.

However, Apple faces a losing battle trying to make their products fully compatible with thousands upon thousands of different system configurations. No company is large enough or has enough cash and personnel to test for every single possibility that something might go wrong.

Yes, you and I are the final beta testers. That’s the way it is, and things are still considerably better on the Mac platform, particularly when you consider the known issues that create havoc for Windows users, but they will never be perfect.

Sure, Apple likely needs to bake its products a little longer before they’re released. But you can say that about every single tech company, every auto maker, and then some. That’s the price we pay for the great wonders these companies have delivered to us. But you have to expect the pain as well as the reward.

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2 Responses to “The Leopard Report: Another Perspective on Troubleshooting Issues”

  1. Adam says:

    This mirrors my experiences as well. I have very rarely run into issues with Apple products and I do tend to customize my Macs quite a bit. Bigger (or just plain more) hard drives, more RAM, OS haxies to make my environment as I like it, etc… I tend to install new operating systems about 2 days after release, after I have had a chance to see what issues are common. When Leopard was released I was still working at the Genius Bar and frankly had I had my copy of Leopard installed on the date of release, my home systems could have had major issues. Why? Because I might or might not have remembered to disable my application enhancer from Unsanity before upgrading. As it turned out, my upgrade path was smooth as silk. A fresh install on a blank drive in my Mac Pro with Users and Applications migrated, and an Archive and Install on my MacBook. After 4 weeks I completely ditched all vestiges of Tiger by reformatting the Mac Pro drive and deleting the Previous Systems from the MacBook. With any new “cat” I always use one of these options over “upgrade”.

    I spent well over 2 years as a Mac Genius. Most of the Genii I know have a long history of success supporting Macs before taking that job, but the average “in position” life span of a Genius is considerably less than my tenure. Also, if there is an Apple store nearby, that is the first place people go with problems, especially after just purchasing the product in question. The number of times I had brand new systems, or newly upgraded operating systems, come in for trouble was shockingly low. Far less than 1% of the product I saw sold in our store. For computers we are talking single digits for truly DOA systems! The vast majority of OS upgrade troubles I saw ended up being compatibility issues with non-Apple software.

    Are Apple products perfect? Heck no! Are they amongst the best to hit the market? I think so. That also raises the bar for Apple, though.

    FWIW: I discovered Other World Computing about 7 years ago. I shop around – a lot – and I nearly always end up going to them for RAM, hard drives, and other miscellaneous upgrades. I have recommended them innumerable times, including when appropriate at the Genius Bar – even if we had a competing product in stock. Along with SmallDog they are one of the best companies I have ever dealt with as a technology consumer.


  2. Andrew says:

    I’ve never run into trouble with a new Apple system UNTIL Leopard, and even then, my troubles (my wife’s actually) are extremely minor. Of course, I NEVER, EVER upgrade a new OS onto an older, rather always do either a clean install or an archive and install.

    My wife’s MacBook Santa Rosa, entry-level) came with Leopard and has the strange habit of losing access to the dock from time to time. Relaunching the finder always brings it back through, so it is only a minor glitch.

    My daughter’s MacBook (pre-Santa Rosa, entry-level) originally ran Tiger and now runs Leopard without issue after an archive and install.

    My MacBook (Santa Rosa, Black), which also came with Leopard, is also flawless.

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