posted by Scot Hacker on Mon 17th Dec 2001 17:34 UTC

"The Bad and The Ugly"
Overall, I'm happier than a pig in shit. What could I possibly find to complain about?

Whereas BeOS is renowned as one of the fastest and most efficient operating systems ever designed, OS X may well be one of the slowest. Problems with performance and efficiency in OS X have been discussed ad nauseam all over the net, but the BeOS user feels this contrast more acutely than most, because the BeOS user has been so completely spoiled by the amazing speed of BeOS.

According to some reports, the PowerMac 867 is functionally equivalent to a 2Ghz Pentium, CPU-wise. Loaded up with 640Mbs of memory, this machine should absolutely fly through just about anything I could care to throw at it. But that's not the case. With this much horsepower, performance is merely acceptable. OS X on a lesser machine is an exercise in pain. OS X apologists have a myriad of excuses for OS X's high resource requirements -- it's the Finder's fault, it's Quartz' fault, it's the window buffers that give you all those cool transparency effects, etc. etc.

I'll allow for one thing: Optimization is the very last thing developers do with a code base, and Apple has steadily increased performance with every point upgrade to the OS to date. There's no reason to think that future updates won't raise the performance bar as well. In fact, this discussion implies that the next release may offer significant efficiency gains in the window buffering department. In reality, I don't think the problem can be localized to any one OS element -- there are probably improvements to be made in nearly every aspect of the OS.

Still, BeOS never had this problem. While BeOS did get faster as years went by, the OS was a speed demon from day one -- radical efficiency was one of its hallmarks from the start, and one of its great drawing cards. The fact of the matter is, BeOS on a Pentium 233 with 64 Mbs of memory is faster than OS X is on this so-called supercomputer. The Mac's CPU is roughly 8x faster and the machine is stocked with 10x more memory, but the BeOS machine out-performs the Mac. BeOS boots faster, applications launch faster, windows resize more smoothly, you can play more simultaneous audio and video clips without affecting system performance.

This wide delta is partly explained by the fact that BeOS was designed from the ground up and didn't carry any baggage, partly explained by the fact that OS X's windowing system is so advanced and does so much, and partly explained by OS X's youth. But I can't help but think that Apple is being somewhat lazy here. Fast CPUs and memory are very cheap these days, and Apple seems to be using that fact as an excuse for inefficient OS design. If Moore's law weren't in effect, the market would not be stocked with so many fast machines, and OS X would be dead in the water without radical improvements to general efficiency.

Try this: open a Terminal window (instantaneous on BeOS, a few seconds on OS X) and run "top." Then resize its window. The resize operation is clunky and blocky. Now try the same on a far lesser BeOS machine -- the resize operation is silky smooth, even if several CPU-intensive processes are going on. I even tried this on a dual 800 at MacWorld Expo, and found the same chunky resizing behavior.

Now launch four QuickTime movies and get them all playing at once. Move them around on screen, and resize them while playing. Try the same on a far lesser BeOS machine. The difference is night and day.

I do a lot of MP3 encoding, so it's a drag to discover that other tasks in the OS are noticeably affected (not hugely, but noticeably) when encoding is in process. Not so in BeOS. Neither OS creates glitched MP3s when encoding under load though.

There is not a single operation I can find that involves multithreading and multitasking that is not leagues faster on a lesser BeOS machine than it is on a hot-rod OS X box. If the performance hit is a tough pill for OS 9 users to swallow, imagine how much harder it is for the BeOS user. We could go into a long discussion about priorities, kernel scheduling, and effective multithreading techniques, but the bottom line is that it's all about the user experience. Be nailed this one a decade ago, while Apple still hasn't gotten it right.

I should, however, take a moment to say that most of the time, and for most of what I do, OS X on this machine is fast enough. I'm not typing ahead of the cursor, I'm not sitting on my thumbs waiting for hourglasses, and I'm not in any real-world way stymied by OS X on my current hardware. It's just that I have lived with a very high standard of performance for long enough that it started to feel normal to me. Be's performance bar is going to be a tough hurdle for Apple. Unfortunately, the vast, vast majority of the Mac-using population has never tried BeOS, and doesn't know what they're missing.

Table of contents
  1. "Out of the Frying Pan..."
  2. "... And Into the Fire..."
  3. "Smells Like Home Cookin"
  4. "A Lot To Like, First Impressions"
  5. "Networking Nirvana"
  6. "CD Burning, Disk Images"
  7. "Applications"
  8. "iMovie, iDVD"
  9. "Browsers and E-Mail"
  10. "Power Editors"
  11. "Community"
  12. "The Bad and The Ugly"
  13. "File System Shoot-Out"
  14. "Application-Binding Policies"
  15. "Alien Filesystems"
  16. "Miscellaneous Moans and Groans"
  17. "All Told, Life Is Good"
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