The Mountain Lion Planned Obsolescence Report

July 13th, 2012

So it appears that some bloggers are waking up to the fact that a fair number of not-so-old Macs will be unable to run OS 10.8 Mountain Lion. Although the system requirements were published early on based on information presented by developers, and Apple made them public after the WWDC last month, it seems some of you expected things to change. But history shows that, when preliminary system needs for a new version of OS X are posted, very rarely will those requirements change to any significant degree.

Once again, here they are:

  • iMac (Mid 2007 or newer)
  • MacBook (Late 2008 Aluminum, or Early 2009 or newer)
  • MacBook Pro (Mid/Late 2007 or newer)
  • MacBook Air (Late 2008 or newer)
  • Mac mini (Early 2009 or newer)
  • Mac Pro (Early 2008 or newer)
  • Xserve (Early 2009)

But why should perfectly serviceable and powerful Macs that are as little as 3.5 years old not be eligible to run Mountain Lion?

Well, according to developers who have looked at the situation, it’s all about kernels, kernel extensions and graphics hardware. Among the big improvements beginning in Snow Leopard was enhanced use of graphics hardware to boost performance. But that requires compatible chips, and a number of entry-level Intel-based Macs sported basic Intel integrated graphics, which aren’t really up to the task of supporting such features as OpenCL. OpenCL, also part of Lion and Mountain Lion, allowed some processing functions to be offloaded to the graphics hardware. Clearly Apple hopes that more apps can take advantage of this feature if all Macs deliver the needed hardware support.

It’s also about the ability to load a 64-bit kernel and 64-bit graphics extensions. Arcane stuff, but not something millions of older Macs can do even though they have 64-bit processors. So these are the lines of demarcation.

Now I suppose there may be ways to trick Mountain Lion into installing on older Macs. But I also expect performance will be subpar, and, in the end, not worth the effort. I also realize that Apple will, once again, be criticized for a supposed arbitrary approach to removing older Macs from the supported list, though you can see that it’s not at all arbitrary, and it’s not just about greed, the desire to sell you a new Mac.

On the other side of the tracks, you will be able to install Windows 8 on very cheap older PCs. But that doesn’t guarantee that you’ll experience acceptable performance. So either Microsoft assumes Windows users will be just pleased as punch to be running Windows 8 to overlook any performance lapses, or maybe they are used to tepid performance. Maybe that’s why all those companies with online tools that promise to magically put your PC on steroids are doing so well, even though what they do may only be snake oil.

Regardless, I can understand that Apple will be criticized no matter what they do. It comes with the territory, particularly when they are doing so well financially these days. I also expect that, at $19.99, Mountain Lion will be a roaring success. Unless there are serious bugs in the early releases, expect 10.8 to be a far better release than Lion, which struck me as somewhat ragged about the edges because of the efforts to integrate OS X with the iOS. There are still blogs online where you get detailed instructions on how to de-iOS Lion, although I find most of this a little extreme. Other than the scroll bars that normally appear only with a mouseover and reverse scrolling, most of the other iOS elements can be ignored.

You do not, for example, ever have to use Launchpad or Mission Control. I grant Apple’s Auto Save and Version features were in need of fine tuning, but the real problem is that few apps really support those features. Even though Microsoft Word 2011, for example, now supports Lion’s full-screen capability, that’s little more than lip service. Word also has its own automatic saving capability, as do other apps. So while Apple took a step in the right direction, requiring app developers to use special system hooks — rather than have it just work — merely means that compatibility remains hit and miss.

While I cannot really say much about Mountain Lion, what I have seen really promises better performance. Lion, for the most part, was essentially the same as Snow Leopard for most of you when it comes to apparent system snappiness. I also see indications that Apple took the iOS integration process more seriously this time, which means the new features are delivered in a more tasteful fashion, without detracting from the traditional Mac user experience. And that’s a very important thing, because it means that you don’t have to waste lots of time trying to figure things out. Most things will work as they did before.

Contrast that with the Windows 8 situation, where so much has changed that many long-time users will be confounded trying to make some sense of it all. It’s not that Microsoft shouldn’t try to deliver a more relevant OS, but changing features that work and adding features that require retraining is not the answer. You buy a personal computer to run apps, and anything that puts up a wall between you and that goal is a bad thing. This is why I embraced Macs early on. I am not someone who spends all day fiddling with system settings. I just want to get my work done and get on with my life. That’s something Microsoft, with their Windows everywhere obsession, can’t understand.

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10 Responses to “The Mountain Lion Planned Obsolescence Report”

  1. Andrew says:

    I’ve usually found both Apple and Microsoft operating systems to run very well if you follow the guidelines for minimum specification, with drivers and clean installation having a lot to do with it.

    For instance, Microsoft, back in the day, required a Pentium 133MHz processor for Windows 2000, and a lot of users with such systems complained. I had (still do) a Toshiba laptop with a 133MHz Pentium processor (not even the faster MMX version) and installed Windows 2000 and found performance to be slightly slower than it was with Windows 95, but actually faster than Windows 98. Of course, I did a clean installation and had the recommended 64 MB (I actually had 80 MB) of RAM. With Windows especially, though with Macs as well, upgrade installs tend to have leftover junk from the older version that can slow things down.

    Other common-sense tricks for fast-enough performance on older hardware with a modern OS include memory upgrade, as I did on that ancient laptop, a hard disk or even SSD update (that ancient Toshiba had a 7200 RPM hard drive) and most importantly, configuring your system for speed. That means keeping background processes to a minimum, avoiding non-essential utilities and on Windows systems, optimizing your paging file and keeping your disk defragmented.

    Apple has been more aggressive in cutting off older hardware from its new OS releases, at least since Panther. This means that unlike with Windows, any supported Mac will generally be powerful enough to not need any tweaks or help to run the latest OS and feel just as nice as a new Mac. Personally, I prefer having the option to go forward with a reduced performance level on older hardware and still have the option.

  2. DaveD says:

    Yep, it is one of the biggest reasons why I continue to choose a Mac.

    The Mac OS/Mac OS X/OS X gets out of my way after spending time upfront tweaking and learning what’s new.

  3. dfs says:

    According to a recent Ars Technica article, “Apple declined to tell us the reasoning behind leaving some of these models out of potential Mountain Lion upgrades, but we suspected it is related to an updated graphics architecture that is designed to improve OS X’s graphics subsystem going forward. Our own Andrew Cunningham suspects the issue is more specifically related to graphics drivers, since the GPUs not supported under Mountain Lion have drivers that were written before 64-bit support was common. Information included with the first Mountain Lion GM now corroborates the connection to 32-bit graphics drivers as the culprit. While Mountain Lion is compatible with any Mac capable of running a 64-bit kernel, the kernel does not support loading 32-bit kernel extensions (KEXTs). Furthermore, Macs with older EFI versions that are not 64-bit clean won’t load Mountain Lion’s 64-bit only kernel. As you might have already guessed, graphics drivers are KEXTs under OS X. And the GPUs in some of those early 64-bit Macs were deprecated before 64-bit KEXTs became common. Since those older drivers are 32-bit, Mountain Lion won’t load them. We believe Apple decided it was better to draw the line in the sand for some older machines rather than invest the resources into updating the drivers for these older GPUs.”

    Now, assuming this diagnosis to be at least approximately accurate, I don’t think it’s fair to Apple to identify the fact that ML won’t run on all 64-bit capable Macs as “planned obsolescence” in the sense that this phrase was invented to describe the cynically calculating business practices of certain Detroit auto makers. Due to such influences as Ralph Nader and (heh heh) our old friend Consumer Reports, we are all quick to demonize corporations and see their every move as greed-driven and anti-consumer. I won’t say that Apple could or should be given a blanket exemption from such suspicions, but in this case I think they deserve a pass.

    • @dfs, Dana, you’re merely quoting a version about what I wrote about in the article, that the issues involved in losing ML support are the graphics chips and the decision to remove support for 32-bit kernel extensions.


  4. David says:

    Cutting off older video systems is nothing new for Apple, they’ve been doing it since Panther.

    I think you’re right about the motivation. Many people at Apple seem to genuinely believe their users are best served by current hardware/software. That desire to have us use the best platform drives them more than the increased dollars flowing their way that such a strategy yields.

    Microsoft makes Windows compatible with as much hardware as possible. They don’t want to limit potential sales, performance and user satisfaction be damned. They also know that most people never update Windows, but keep running the same OS their machine shipped with. Enterprise is very slow to adopt new Windows versions which further reinforces that behaviour in anyone who uses Windows at work.

    I’m only on day 2 with Mountain Lion, but I’m not impressed with the performance so far. Many of the inexplicable little delays that existed in Lion are still there in ML. OTOH the new notification centre is really nice. I’ve usually got applications spread across 3 or 4 “spaces” so being able to get all incoming communication in one unified spot is a real time saver.

  5. bap says:

    I feel that Apple should look into firmware updates for the older machines.
    This is a major problem going forward.
    At some point we need to get upset about these issues.
    At the very least allow people to trade up to newer stuff.
    I have had this happen to me many times since I have been with Mac going back to 86.

    Many of these issues were necessary and some appeared to be just to get rid of old CPU’s and or software. As a home user, a new device every few years is OK, but as a business owner, I cannot afford to update all of my old iMacs to newer ones, and they no longer have modems so I can’t use them as fax servers.

    Apple did not tell me that the iMacs I bought were not truly 64 bit. And actually they aren’t. They will run as full 64 under windows, it appears that the problem is the Apple firmware.

    • @bap, Being able to run 64-bit software, as your iMac can do, is not the same as the question of 64-bit versus 32-bit kernel extensions, or the capability of the onboard graphics. It’s more complicated than just sending out a firmware revision. If that’s all it took, there’d be a third-party hack to make it happen. There may still be, but Mountain Lion performance may not be acceptable.

      Besides, nobody forces you to upgrade. Just stick with what you have until you are ready to buy new Macs.


  6. Fred says:

    None of the articles mention upgrading the hardware. With the Mac Pro, it is easy to upgrade the video card, so that the 64-bit drivers can be used.

    But is this enough to be able to use Mountain Lion? Is the 32-bit EFI in the MacPro 1,1 is a critical item?

    Apple seems to not want to test older hardware, even if the software or hardware will work on the older machines.

  7. john says:

    Apple really wants users to do frequent upgrades. Microsoft wants to satisfy enterprise and as much hardware as possible. It really depends on you mindset which you prefer? I myself am finding Apple to be more snooty about upgrades of late. Such as not including snow leopard users in the iCloud switch. This was a real issue for me with Apple. Basically I have always believed that upgrades in any OS come as either a positive or a negative. If you really benefit from moving on then you should,if your PC will perform or operate worse then you should not. Apple I think feels that older machines will not provide a good user experience with Mountain Lion. I can respect that. But Apple should also respect the loyal Apple fan who feels they cannot afford to upgrade hardware just because Apple chooses to not support your Mac. I think of all the Windows XP users who still have no problems running apps today. That’s a strong statement about long term support from Microsoft.

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