The Computer Blog

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Playing with Leopard and Virtual Machines

Even though I have my MacBook Pro set up to run Windows using Boot Camp, I decided a few weeks ago to install some kind of virtualization software on it to allow me to run Windows (and Office 2007, specifically) without having to boot out of OS X. That would also allow me to access the other application I use most often, i.e., AOPA’s Real-Time Flight Planner directly from Leopard’s desktop.
The two major virtualization packages are VM Ware’s Fusion and Parallels Desktop 3.0. I decided to take a quick look at both of them using trial versions that can be freely downloaded from each manufacturer’s website. You can reach those sites by simply asking Google to find either Fusion and Parallels.

I started by downloading VM Ware’s Fusion. Its installation was straightforward. On the first launch of the application, a wizard detected my Boot Camp installation and automatically configured Fusion to run from it. The Windows desktop appeared inside a large, silver window that was slightly smaller than the entire desktop and required using scroll bars to reach parts of it. One of the buttons on Fusion’s toolbar was “Full Screen”, and clicking on it replaced the Leopard desktop with the Windows desktop surrounded by black borders. (To get the XP desktop to fill my screen, I would have had to change the screen resolution within Windows itself.) Redraws of my mouse cursor as it moved across the Windows desktop sometimes showed abnormal artifacts due to an apparent slow refresh rate. An advisory message told me I needed to install VM Ware Tools to improve graphics and mouse response, so I clicked on the menu items to do so but didn’t see any kind of noticeable response. Windows then said I needed to activate it, but it crashed before I could. All in all, though it hadn’t been too bad, Fusion just hadn’t provided the kind of system response I was hoping for. It could be that my version had not been tweaked for running under Leopard. And my overall impression was that Fusion simply didn’t seem to have the feature package Parallels did.

After uninstalling Fusion, I surfed over to the Parallels site and downloaded the latest trial version of Parallels Desktop 3.0. The Parallels trial period is a bit stingy; it only lasts for 15 days while Fusion’s lasts 30. The Parallels installation also went smoothly; and just like Fusion, Parallels detected the Boot Camp partition and then set itself up to work with it. The initial part of the Parallels launch went smoothly, but when I commanded XP to start, I got an error message stating it “could not allocate enough memory to the monitor PE!” I found a discussion of that problem at a Parallel’s forum. There didn’t seem to be a cure, but knocking down the amount of virtual memory assigned to the virtual machine might help. I tried that but got no improvement until after a second reboot when Parallels launched XP normally. Once I got to the XP desktop, I flipped the system from windowed mode to full screen mode to Coherence mode; and it responded beautifully. Coherence mode is my favorite; the XP Start menu and bar resides at the bottom of the screen and the Leopard Dock rides up the right, and Windows applications appear on the Desktop as if they were native OS X applications. I did some writing (of this article, actually) using Word 2007 in Coherence mode. It worked great.

However, Finder’s menu bar was showing me a battery icon that was nearing empty. To shut down XP before my battery died, I commanded XP to shut down, but it hung. I tried bringing up Task Manager to see what was going on but had no luck. I tried commanding XP to shut down again but saw no response. Ultimately, I wound up doing what I didn’t want to do, i.e., commanding Parallels to Force Quit.

At that point, I wasn’t sure if the Boot Camp partition had been damaged, so I rebooted into Windows using Boot Camp. The first black screen appeared followed quickly by the dreaded message I’ve seen too often when Windows wouldn’t boot; it could not find the file “hal.dll”. I rebooted back into OS X hoping Parallels might fix the situation. If not, I’d have to reinstall XP; and if I did that, Parallels was coming off my system.

The first time I tried to restart Parallels, I got the “memory allocation monitor” message again. I reset the virtual machine memory allocation down to 512K from 1024, quit Parallels, then relaunched it and tried again. This time, Parallels launched XP and it appeared to be normal. Once in the XP desktop, I commanded it to shut down, and it did but not until I manually quit several routines it reported weren’t responding. I rebooted back into XP using Boot Camp, and this time it all worked as it was supposed to. Then, I went back into OS X and uninstalled Parallels. I decided, just like I had some time ago, that the risk of having Parallels corrupt my boot partition was a risk I simply wasn’t willing to take.

My wife uses Parallels all the time and exclusively. She has no problems with it; so, despite my own decision not to use it, it wouldn’t take a lot for me to change my mind about it. VM Ware’s Fusion is a worthy competitor for Parallels, though the latter seems more feature-rich. I believe Fusion will need another upgrade to crank out its best performance under Leopard while Parallels could use the same to make it more stable.

I found out recently I qualified for a free upgrade from Parallels 2.0 to 3.0 (by buying P2 after May 7, 2007). I’m still waiting for Nova Development to send that my way; and when I get it, I’ll decide whether I’m going to give that to my wife (probably) or use myself. If the latter, I’ll blog about it again; but, for now, it looks like Boot Camp is good enough for me.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Leopard, Part 3 - Bugs and Bitches

As much as I like Leopard…and make no mistake about it, I do like Leopard…there are, as you might expect with any new operating system, bugs that aren’t working right and things that Apple changed that just don’t sit well. In this part, I’ll cover the bugs I’ve seen and the bitches I have so you'll be informed of what you might encounter if you decide Leopard’s right for you.

Let’s talk about the “bugs” first.

The most noticeable problem is occurring only on my Mac Pro. The specific steps that cause the problem are: (1) start a movie or video in iTunes player window in the bottom left corner of the application, (2) double-click on the window to turn it into an individual window playing the movie, (3) allow the movie to play for a few seconds, (4) then pause the movie and close the window so that the movie jumps back into the iTunes player window. Now, (5) click on the window’s tiny “down arrow” to close it altogether. The window will begin to close but then hangs with about 20% to go. The spinning beach ball appears, and the application now hangs. Interestingly, I found I could clear the hang by swiping my mouse cursor up the Dock to make some of the Dock application icons magnify and jump back. For a “permanent” workaround, I've gone into iTunes’ preferences and changed them to always play video in a new window. I’ve had no problems with playing video in this mode. I’ve tried reinstalling the latest version of iTunes to see if that would fix the problem, but it had no impact. (The latest version, iTunes 7.5, also did not fix the problem.)

The second bug is one that is being widely discussed within the Mac community and has appeared on every one of my machines. When trying to “Repair Permissions” using Leopard’s Disk Utility, the utility goes into a “barber pole” mode that seems to spin almost forever before any permissions are checked; and once they are checked, the following warning message appears: “Warning: SUID file System/Library/CoreServices /RemoteManagement/ARDAgent.app/Contents/MacOS/ARDAgent" has been modified and will not be repaired.” It also shows lots of "ACL missing" messages (Access Control Lists). While this problem has not interfered with operation in any sense, it has occurred on every Mac that has been upgraded to Leopard. Speculation is this will be fixed by Apple soon, though Apple has not made any official statement about the problem.

The third problem is also one that has occurred on every Mac upgraded to Leopard. Essentially, I believe the keychain structure within Leopard has changed, and the operating system the user keychain isn’t found and/or integrated. (The keychain on a Mac is the application that stores all user passwords in an encrypted form.) This manifests itself with an error message that says the user keychain can’t be found and it gives you two buttons, i.e., Cancel or Reset to Default. Fearing that “reset to default” would cause me to lose any hope of keeping my previous keychain together, I clicked on “Cancel”. Apple shortly thereafter published a software update to deal with the error, which I have downloaded and installed. So far, I have not had to re-input passwords to anything; but I also cannot access the keychain and find the old user keychain I used to be able to see.

Obviously, I don’t fully understand the technical details behind either of these, and I’ll write more about them as I come to understand them.

A really great new feature in Leopard is Boot Camps’ ability to now allow you to designate a hard disk other than the boot disk as the Windows hard disk. As a result I decided to modify the current hard disk configuration of my Mac Pro and designate my Bay#3 hard disk as “Windows-only”. The Assistant that accompanies the Boot Camp application states it will rename the Boot Camp hard disk “Windows” during the Windows loading process, but it failed to do this when I used Boot Camp to reinstall Windows. Instead, it left it named “Untitled”. I worked around the problem by booting into Windows and using tools within XP to rename the hard disk “Windows XP”.

I’ve only had a few applications that Leopard rendered problematic or useless. Juniper Networks VPN client crashes on launch. (To be honest, that was not unexpected. I had seen the same problem when Tiger came out, so I figured the company would be behind the power curve here.) Roxio states that Toast 8 is not fully compatible, though I have used it to add files to a CD being used to store updates. Adobe states that CS2 products may not be compatible, but so far we’ve had no problems with Photoshop CS2 on my wife’s iMac. Parallels 2.X seems to work problematically. It worked until I booted into Windows using Boot Camp but then declared it couldn’t find drivers it needed and to try restarting Parallels in a few minutes, something that never worked. (Parallels has a recent update to Parallels 3.0 that is Leopard compatible.)

That’s all for the bugs we’re experiencing. Let’s move onto bitches, i.e, those things I hate that are characteristics of the new operating system.

The Semi-transparent Menu Bar – Someone please tell me what a semi-transparent menu bar was meant to accomplish. It doesn’t look slick; it looks cheap. And Apple gave me no way to turn it off. Please, Apple, give me the choice of turning the thing of and making it take on the silver bar look that matches up with the other Leopard windows.

The White Dot on the Dock; Bring Back the Arrows! — In earlier versions of OS X, a black arrow points to an application on the Dock that is open or opening. In Leopard, the arrow has been replaced by a white dot that’s barely noticeable when the Dock is on the right or left side of the screen (when the Dock is 2D and dark) and invisible when the Dock is on the bottom (when the Dock is 3D and reflective). Bring back the arrows!

Arbitrary Change of the System Preferences icon – There are several changes that Apple appeared to make for the sake of change, and this appears to be one of them. The System Preferences icon has been for some time the white box with an Apple in the center of it. Now, it’s a silver gearbox. The icon makes sense, but I have to stop and think about what System Preferences looks like now.

Applications Folder/User Folder Confusion on Dock – In general, Leopard uses embossed folders to designate special folders such as Applications, Music, Downloads, etc. As Leopard boots, the embossed Application folder is what first appears on the Dock but is superseded by the Address Book which is stacked on top of other application icons that are barely visible. An embossed Applications folder stacked on top of the others in the user profile supercedes the User folder, which used to be represented by an easily understood House. This stacking and replacement creates a lot of confusion as well as the impression that Apple realized late in the development cycle it was creating a problem for the user. Put the House back and leave the Application folder embossed instead of making me look at an Address Book icon and making me tell myself it’s NOT the Address Book application.

Inconsistent Startup Disk icon usage – Earlier versions of Boot Camp placed a Startup Disk icon in both Mac OS X’s System Preferences and in Windows’ Control Panel. Leopard uses a “Startup Disk” icon in System Preferences but then uses a “Boot Camp” icon in Windows’ Control Panel. It’s inconsistent and confusing. I’d like to see “Startup Disk” in both places.

The Windows hard disk automounts on the Desktop – I like an uncluttered Desktop and allow only external hard or removable disks, optical disks, or connected servers to mount on it. Leopard mounts your Windows hard disk on the Desktop whether you want it there or not and gives one no obvious control to turn it off. Give me some control over that, Apple! It’s a pain in the butt to have to “Eject” it after every boot!

And with that, I’m going to stop here. If I did any more, you might get the impression I don’t like Leopard and I really do, and that’s even before I’ve had a chance to play with its really nifty features like Time Machine or iChat’s still photo or video backgrounds.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Leopard, Part 2 - Performance

There’s a lot of press out there about Leopard being faster than Tiger. I say, "Maybe." My testing says it can be a function of the machine configuration you’re running.

To compare Mac operating system performance using some simple benchmarks, I timed application launch, machine boot, and machine shutdown times on each of my machines under Tiger and under Leopard. For my MacBook Pro, I did it in both configurations I typically run it, i.e., using its internal hard drive or booted from an external Firewire hard drive. For the following discussion, you’ll need a copy of Microsoft Excel or some other application that can open an Excel file. Click here to open the file, and then click on the “MacBook Pro” tab and position its window so you can read the blog and glance at the table at the same time.

The table shows the various times for Tiger and Leopard using the machine’s internal hard drive, i.e., a 120GB FUJITSU MHW2120BH, as well as the times using Maxtor One Touch III Firewire 800 external hard drives with Tiger and Leopard installed. The internal hard drive is a 5400 rpm drive that uses native command queuing. The rest of the specs for the MacBook Pro (MBP) are: 2.33 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor, 3 GB DDR2 SDRAM with a 667 MHz front side bus, and the ATI Radeon X1600 GPU with 256MB VRAM.

First, let’s talk about the results obtained running on the MBP’s internal hard drive alone. Nothing was gained in boot-up time, with both operating system times close enough to call them in “a dead heat”. Adobe Photoshop CS3 actually took 1.24 seconds longer to open under Leopard, but I would call that a tie with Tiger since I was manually timing and subjectively judging when the application was “open”. Adobe Illustrator CS3 took about six seconds longer to open in Leopard, but Adobe InDesign CS3 opened six seconds faster than it had under Tiger.

The first opening of Microsoft Word 2004 after the Leopard upgrade took significantly longer time under Leopard than the first of the day under Tiger. That appeared to be due to some font menu operations going on with Word during the very first opening after the upgrade; “Optimizing the Font Menu” hung across the opening window. The second opening, after completely killing Word, took only 5.26 seconds. To be fair, I rebooted and re-timed a Word opening under Leopard while writing this article, and it timed out at 13.99 secs, slightly faster than Tiger’s 15.3 second time. (This time is from application launch to the appearance of the Project Gallery window, all of which is being handled by Rosetta.)

PowerPoint 2004 didn’t exhibit such a lag (perhaps because Word had previously done the deed with the font menu) and opened under Leopard in 14.14 secs compared to Tiger’s 5.09 seconds. (I probably need to re-time that one to ensure some kind of optimizing wasn’t causing PPT to open too slowly under Leopard.)

Some of the biggest speed gains seem to be with Apple’s own applications. Mail opens blazingly fast (I’ll give you actual numbers when discussing performance on the Mac Pro). iPhoto 08 with only 71 photos took 10.31 secs to open under Tiger but only 6.79 secs under Leopard. Shutting down is also significantly faster under Leopard. The MBP took 31.94 seconds to shutdown under Tiger but only 8.67 seconds under Leopard! That’s one thing I noticed right away.

Some of the most interesting numbers came from running my MacBook Pro using Maxtor One Touch III Firewire 800 external hard drives. There were some rather large differences between the two operating systems in those scenarios. (At this time, I don’t have a good way to see if any of it was due to differences between the two hard drives; theoretically, at least, performance was supposed to be almost identical. But it wasn’t.) Adobe Photoshop CS3 took 48.97 seconds to open under Tiger and 14.11 seconds to open under Leopard! Illustrator took 43.56 seconds to open under Tiger but only 29.13 seconds to open under Leopard! Similar performance gains were seen under Leopard using In Design CS3 which opened in 31.56 seconds under Tiger but only 21.44 seconds under Leopard. Word and PowerPoint pretty well tied but Mail opened about 36% faster under Leopard (3.14 secs versus 4.87 secs under Tiger) and iPhoto 08 opened up about 39% faster (6.91 secs under Leopard vs 9.58 secs under Tiger).

(The far right column shows even slower performance using the Tiger external hard drive. In that case, it was daisy-chained to the MBP through the other FW800 drive. The other Tiger column shows performance under a direct-to-drive FW800 hookup.)

Any questions?

Now, let’s move onto the Mac Pro. Mine is a 2.66 GHz Quad-Core with 6GB RAM and four hard drives. The Mac OS X boot portion is on a 500GB hard drive partitioned into a 337 GB for OS X and a 128GB for Windows XP Pro. Hard drives 2 and 3 are 250GB hard drives running in a RAID 1 set, and the fourth is a 500GB hard drive used solely as a backup drive. The video card is the standard Nvidia GeForce 7300 GT with 256 VRAM that came with the machine.

The Mac Pro was upgraded to Leopard just like the MacBook Pro was. Similarly, both sets of performance numbers show the same basic trends, i.e., most applications actually take a bit longer to launch in Leopard than in Tiger. You can see the values on the spreadsheet, so I won’t repeat them here, except for the times associated with Apple's Mail.Under Tiger, Mail took 14.24 seconds to open, but under Leopard it took only 3.31! That aside, the one thing that surprised me the most is Leopard doesn't shut the Mac Pro down any faster than Tiger did, unlike how it handles the MacBook Pro.

Admittedly, I haven’t shown any benchmarks with respect to application performance under Leopard. I might do that at some point in the future; but, for now, here are some from the premiere website on Mac performance, Bearfeats.com.

Numbers aside, Leopard feels snappier than Tiger. The data show that sometimes Leopard is faster, and sometimes it is not. Still, considering that each operating system upgrade is always bigger than the one before, I have to say I’m pleased with what I’m seeing. Leopard is responsive if not the speed demon I had hoped it would be.

Next blog: My Leopard Bugs and Bitches