How To: Speed Up Your PowerPC Mac (Running Leopard)

Here is a roundup of those tweaks that I’ve used to gain significant performance on my obsolete iBook G4. Follow these to speed up your PowerPC Mac.

I have been a Mac user from the time that I was toddling around our home office.  I’ve dabbled in the other major platforms, but have always seemed to come back to the Mac for its ease-of-use and rich application environment.

iBook G4

iBook G4

In 2005, I purchased an iBook G4 for my wife’s use.  She had never used a Mac, and she was cautious; but she has since seen the light and save for her work environment and gaming, she uses her Mac exclusively.

In 2007, after running rock-solid for two years, we developed a fried DC in board, and we finally decided to upgrade to an Intel-based Macbook.  It was no easy feat, but I replaced the DC in board on the iBook, and suddenly I had myself a laptop to use on a regular basis.

To say that the iBook is underpowered would be a gross understatement.  Even though all applications that live on OS X today are universal binaries, even the newest applications begin to bog the system down.

I maxed out the RAM (at only 1.5Gb) and replaced the hard drive with a 5400 RPM drive, but this still didn’t solve the speed issues I was experiencing.

So, I did what any self-respecting (and financially broke) geek would do and scoured the web for any small tweak that I could make to cause the system to run a little smoother.

Here is a roundup of those tweaks that I’ve used to gain significant performance on my near-obsolete iBook G4.

Table of Contents:

Dashboard

I’m not sure about you, but I never use the Dashboard.  Throughout my research, I see a recurring theme talking about how the Dashboard tends to be a drain on resources, as each widget carries its own process as well as RAM requirements.

Disable Dashboard

When RAM is scarce and you’re working with a single-core processor, disabling the Dashboard is well advised.  Disabling the Dashboard requires two easy terminal commands:

defaults write com.apple.dashboard mcx-disabled -boolean YES; killall Dock

This command disables the Dashboard and restarts the dock.

Dock Tweaks

Though the dock itself doesn’t suck resources significantly, we can do a few things to reduce its impact on your system.

Disable 3d Dock Theme

By default, the dock uses a 3d theme which uses reflections and can take its toll on your graphics processor.  If you put the dock on the left or right hand side of your screen, you are greeted with a more streamlined 2d theme.  But if you enjoy using your dock at the bottom of the screen, apply this terminal command to change the theme from 3d to 2d:

defaults write com.apple.dock no-glass -boolean YES; killall Dock

Disable Dock Animations

Another drain on your system are the default animations associated with maximizing and minimizing your windows to the dock.  Mac OS X provides a number of animations for you to choose from, but in my experience, the scale effect tends to use fewer resources.

Open up your System Preferences and choose the Dock panel.  To get the best performance, you’ll want to:

  1. Disable Magnification
  2. Change the Minimize effect to “Scale”
  3. Uncheck “Animate opening applications”
Dock System Preferences Panel

Dock System Preferences Panel

When all is said and done, your dock should look similar to this:

Slimmed Dock

Slimmed Dock

Battery Tweaks

If you are using a PowerPC laptop, most likely you have the original (read: old) battery, and time is something that can be fleeting in a well-used Lithium Ion battery.

Reduce Screen Brightness

The easiest tweak you can make to your desktop to improve battery life is to simply turn the brightness down on your laptop.  It may not be comfortable, but it will increase the time you can work off the grid.

Change Desktop Background

Causing strain to your graphics card can also drain the battery quickly.  Choosing a solid color for a desktop background can reduce the strain on your graphics card, and increase your battery life.  There are a few included solid colors in the “Desktop & Screen Saver” System Preferences panel, but I opted for a solid black color instead.  If your favorite color is not installed, it’s a simple process to add it yourself:

  1. Create a 128×128 pixel .png image of the solid color. (or download this black .png)
  2. Copy the .png to your [Boot Drive]/Library/Desktop Pictures/Solid Colors folder.
  3. Your custom color should now appear in the Desktop System Preferences panel.

Calibrate Your Battery

Apple suggests calibrating your battery on a regular basis to keep the estimated time left consistent with the actual amount of power left in your battery.  For iBook users, follow these steps:

  1. Plug the power adapter in and fully charge your computer’s battery until the battery indicator lights turn off and the adapter plug light goes from amber to green, which indicates that the battery is fully charged.
  2. Disconnect the power adapter and use your iBook or PowerBook. When your battery gets low, you will see the low battery warning dialog on the screen. Continue to use your computer until it goes to sleep. At that point the battery has been sufficiently drained for calibration.
  3. Connect the power adapter and leave it connected until the battery is fully charged again.

For other Apple portable users, consult the Apple Knowledge Base article for battery calibration instructions specific to your model.

Startup Tweaks

Cleaning up the Startup panel’s applications for your login can make a big difference in boot time, and also reduce the constant load on your CPU and RAM while running everyday applications.

Remove Unneeded Startup Applications

Open your System Preferences and navigate to the “Accounts” panel.  Click the lock icon to make changes to your account.

Be sure to keep any startup items that you use on a regular basis, such as “Helper” applications for software:

Accounts System Preferences Panel

Accounts System Preferences Panel

Note: Simply checking “Hide” will NOT remove the application from the startup processes.  You need to select the application and click the “-” button.

Visual Tweaks

These tweaks will reduce the visual splendor of Mac OS X Leopard, but they may also provide a boost in speed and battery life.

Disable Transparent Menu Bar

The menu bar in Leopard is transparent, which can be nice to look at, but ultimately it serves little to no purpose at the expense of performance.  Luckily, you just need one terminal command to disable the transparency feature:

sudo defaults write /System/Library/LaunchDaemons/com.apple.WindowServer
'EnvironmentVariables' -dict 'CI_NO_BACKGROUND_IMAGE' 1

This changes the default transparent menu bar to a solid white color after a system restart. (If copy/pasting, be sure this command is all on one line before executing)

Disable Window Drop Shadow

The drop shadow on windows in Mac OS X adds depth and can make working easier on the eyes.  This feature also requires use of the graphics hardware to render the effect.  You can disable the drop shadow with these two commands:

defaults write com.apple.screencapture disable-shadow -bool true
killall SystemUIServer

Alternatively, if you would rather not kill the SystemUIServer process, you can simply log out and back in, or restart your computer to apply this setting.

If you would like to reset this setting to the default, simply run this command to reverse the process:

defaults delete com.apple.screencapture disable-shadow
killall SystemUIServer

Change Color Depth

Open the Display panel in System Properties and change the “Colors” drop down to show “Thousands” instead of “Millions”:

Color Depth Preference

Color Depth Preference

Changing this setting will dull down the vibrancy of your display, but it will free up some graphic resources.

Personally, I chose not to use this tweak, as I like to keep the display as crisp as possible.

Hardware

One of the quickest ways to maximize the lifespan of your older Mac is to upgrade the hardware.  Today’s prices for both storage and memory are all-time lows, and you can get a decent amount of bang for your buck.

I would suggest considering these two modifications:

  1. Max out your RAM – The iBook G4 has a limit of 1.5GB of RAM, which by today’s standards is quite low.  RAM is extremely inexspensive, and can provide immediate gratification.
  2. Upgrade Your Hard Drive – The default hard drive in the iBook G4 runs at only 4800 RPMs, and has a capacity of 40GB.  I’ve upgraded to a 5400RPM 80GB model for around $60.  The performance gain is noticeable, providing faster boot times and application loads in addition to more room for my files to breathe.  Note: A faster hard drive can result in shorter battery life.

Software Tweaks

The default Leopard install leaves a lot to be desired in terms of both footprint and excess baggage.

Update to The Latest Software Versions

Software Update

Software Update

Apple releases updates to Leopard and its core applications (iWork, iLife, etc.) on a regular basis.  These updates include bug fixes and various other changes that could result in better performance on legacy machines.  Always keep your system software up to date using the Software Update application in your Apple menu:

Delete Printer Drivers

If, like me, you never use a printer, there is a large amount of your hard drive taken up by unnecessary drivers.  Customizing your Mac OS X install to not include the drivers when upgrading is the easiest way to avoid this waste of space.  But some may be using their Mac out of the box, so this is not an option.

Locate the drivers folder in [Boot Drive]/Library/Printers and simply delete the drivers you do not need.  This can save you hundreds of MB of hard drive space, leaving your drive a little bit less cluttered.

Remove Unused Applications

No OS X tweak guide would be complete without this tip.  A lot of times, a user may install an application for a one-time use, or simply move on to an alternative.  This leaves some hard drive space occupied where it could easily be freed.

AppZapper Interface

AppZapper Interface

In a stark contrast to the ease of installing applications on OS X, Apple has not (yet) shipped an easy to use application uninstaller.  There are many free applications out there that will do the job, but my favorite 3rd Party uninstaller is AppZapper.

AppZapper presents you with an intuitive drag and drop interface to uninstall your applications:

Simply open your Applications folder in Finder and drag the desired applications onto the AppZapper interface.  AppZapper locates all associated files and allows you to clean them from your hard drive.

AppZapper is not free, but does provide a 5-Zap trial period.  I would recommend purchasing this useful application.  After all, it is only $12.95 for a single user license and a lifetime of updates.  I own a license, and since I’ve turned a corner, it feels good to support independent developers and get an ever-useful application in return.

Perform Regular OS Maintenance

There are many ways to go about performing regular maintenance in OS X, but I’ve found a small program that keeps things inline, with the ability to schedule and script batch routines.

MainMenu

MainMenu

MainMenu makes running these tasks simple, allowing you to free up your time on more interesting work.  This simple to use application provides you with the functionality to:

  • Clean caches to improve application performance
  • Rebuild your Spotlight library for faster search
  • Repair disk permissions for faster disk access.
  • Clean log files
  • Remove temporary files
  • Flush the DNS cache
  • Disable and enable the Dashboard
  • Remove corrupted preferences files.
  • And More…

MainMenu is not free, but it is well worth the $20 price tag.

Remove The “Universal” From Universal Binaries

When installing new applications and Apple updates, you are inadvertently installing not only PowerPC code, but also Intel code.  This can take its toll when the system needs to sort through applications at runtime, and also drastically increase the footprint of the application you are trying to run.

XSlimmer

XSlimmer

This is where XSlimmer comes in.  XSlimmer is an application which removes language profiles and extraneous platform code from Mac applications.  I run this on both my PowerPC and Intel Macs, and I see a solid performance increase after “slimming” my applications folder.

I have seen disk space savings in excess of 9GB of disk space on an Intel Macbook Pro when using XSlimmer.

As always, use caution when modifying the binary applications you use on a regular basis.  XSlimmer provides you with an easy mechanism that backs up the original application components for quick regressions should you see any “funkiness” in your applications.

I tend to send the backups to my Linux-based file server, thereby eliminating the footprint of those backup files on my system.

XSlimmer is also not free, but only costs $12.95 for a lifetime license.  I couldn’t imagine running a PowerPC Mac without this application.


And that’s the end of my guide to getting more use from your old PowerPC Mac.  Certainly this is not the end-all be-all of speed guides for Mac OS X, but these are tweaks that I have used and have proven effective in keeping my iBook G4 usable and relevant.

Do you use any other tweaks to speed up your PowerPC Mac?  Let everyone know in the comments!  Thank you for reading.

  • Isis

    I’ve “since seen the light,” huh? :P

    Remind me to disable dashboard on mine, or have you do it for me.

  • Jordan

    Great guide! Thanks.

    I’ve never used a Mac, but I am considering getting an older PowerPC based Mac to get a taste of things.

    I am confused though – I see that I can run OS X on, say, a G5 Mac, up to version 10.4 (?) – but does that mean that any/all applications that simply state it requires OS X, will work regardless of whether it’s an Intel or PowerPC based Mac?

    Any help would be greatly appreciated.

    Many thanks,

    Jordan.

  • http://www.stroz.net Benjamin M. Strozykowski

    @Jordan
    Not necessarily. You have to look at applications that are “Universal Binaries”, which means they have been compiled for both PowerPC and Intel architectures on the Mac.

    Mac OS X 10.5 (Leopard) is the last release that will work on PowerPC Macs. 10.6 (Snow Leopard) is a more streamlined version with all of the PowerPC internals ripped out, and thus is Intel-only.

    Most applications do maintain Universal Binaries, at least up until they begin focusing on Snow Leopard.

  • Jordan

    Thanks Benjamin.

    I know a little bit more now =)

    All the best,

    Jordan

  • http://www.mark-up.com/apple.stuff/dashboard.enabler/ Bob

    I have three PowerPC Macs running Tider.
    I always disable Dashboard if I do not use it.
    Here is handy tool for that:
    http://www.mark-up.com/apple.stuff/dashboard.enabler/
    Hope that help somebody too!
    Bob

  • hi

    very helpful. it would be useful for impatient, unschooled people like me if you put warnings about single-line cutting/pasting into terminal BEFORE the code. i only saw the warning after i pasted it. thanks!

  • RunnersDialZero

    Excellent guide! Just from running the command line stuff and tweaking my dock’s settings, my machine feels so much faster!!!

  • Headsign

    Thanks for these valuable tips. Specially disabling Dashboard seemed to have given my old G5 a significant speed boost.
    Just one thing that should be mentioned: stripping the x86 (or alternately the PPC…) code from an app can break the update chain, specially for Adobe applications, which then need to be reinstalled.

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