Installing El Capitan on my 2008 Mac Pro

My 2008 Mac Pro arrived, and it’s a shiny beast of a machine 🙂  It’s sitting beside a younger relative, a 2002 Power Mac G4 Quicksilver.

It came with OS X 10.5 Leopard installed – it looked like it was a clean install, but as for any used machine, I like to do a clean install so I know what I’m starting with. Downloading OS 10.11 El Capitan from the Apple Store from my MacBook Pro, I created a bootable USB flash drive using the steps described here.

On my first attempt to install, it looked like after about 20 mins of install when it attempted to reboot for the first time, I had a blank screen and no activity. Rebooted back to the USB flash drive and started the Disk Utils, the drive checked clean and everything was good, but there wasn’t a bootable partition.

On the second attempt, I think what had happened the first time was the powersave settings had kicked in and the monitor output had turned off, but it wasn’t waking from keyboard or mouse input. The second time the screen turned back on, and the installer was stuck at ‘about a second remaining’,

but pressing Cmd-L to see the installer logs, there was a huge amount of errors scrolling by to do with TSplicedFont and Noto fonts. This seems to be a common issue with El Capitan, as described here. Ignoring the errors and waiting it out though, after about 20 mins stuck at ‘about a second remaining’ it did reboot and the installation continued as expected.

After successfully completing the install, it started up successfully, and after walking through the installation dialogs to select language preferences and create an account, I was up and running with 10.11 El Cap.

First impressions: for a 9 year old computer, this thing is pretty snappy. It’s comparable to my 2012 MacBook Pro with an i7 in responsiveness, although from only having a regular mechanical HDD, it could be faster booting and loading apps, but it’s definitely acceptable. For a desktop daily driver, it’s definitely perfectly usable. The dual Xeon 2.8GHz CPUs are holding their own, I haven’t seen anything beyond 5% to 6% CPU usage from using Chrome and browsing the web with about 20 or so tabs open. Where I think I might start to suffer though is this machine only came with 4GB RAM. With my current Chrome usage it’s eating up about 3GB so I have some to spare, but the interesting thing about these Mac Pros is the expandability – the 2008 will support 32GB per specs and 64GB unofficially. I bet if I put in 16GB or so I would get a much better experience. Time to plan the upgrades 🙂


Retro collection just acquired a more recent, not-so-retro, addition (2008 Mac Pro 8 core)

Having grown up with 8 bit computers, starting with an Atari VCS and then a Sinclair ZX Spectrum, I find it fascinating that decades later there’s an increasing level of interest in computers from the 80s and 90s with thriving online communities, podcasts and even meetup groups of enthusiasts who get together to discuss the original hardware and also new device add-ons, blending modern tech (e.g. using SD cards for storage) with old.

The ZX Spectrum recently has a number of modern remakes:

As much as I really wanted to get a ZX Spectrum Next, I couldn’t bring myself to put down 175UKP for the base model. I suspect I might come back and pick one up at some point.

My other favorite computer was an Atari ST, I had an 520STFM. I picked up an 1040STF with an Atari monitor on eBay a while back, and it sits on my desk in my office. I also picked up an CosmosEx device which is an interesting example of current tech complementing old – it’s a Raspberry Pi based device that provides SD card support for floppy disk and hard disk images, as well as USB keyboard and mouse support, and also networking.

Something that’s interested me for a while is what it looks like to browse the web using old hardware. The short story is that it’s generally a terrible experience (slow, and current web technologies are poorly supported, if at all). I’ve tried setting up CAB on my ST, but with only 1MB RAM it can’t load anything but the simplest HTML page with text and 1 or 2 images before it fails from not enough memory.

For a while I browsed eBay looking to pick up a used Atari Falcon, but for a 25 year old 16/32 bit computer, it’s incredible that they typically go for anything about $800 to $1000 if you can even find one (they cost 599 UKP new when the launched). With it’s 68030, it has significantly more grunt than the original 68000 based STs.

I then got distracted by the idea of picking up a modern remake of an ST – the Coldfire project has developed the Firebee, which uses a 264MHz Coldfire processor and 512MB RAM, with 68000 backwards compatibility, but with the addition of modern hardware features like USB, PCI expansion slots, ethernet networking, and many of features we currently take for granted in current devices. Despite torturing myself by watching every Firebee video on YouTube, the current price of a new Firebee of 560 Euros is a little more than I can justify to buy a modern Atari ST in 2017 (despite how awesome it actually is).

Continuing with my (odd) interest of browsing the web on old hardware, I picked up a Power Mac G4 2002 Quicksilver.  Classilla in OS9 is perfectly usable and TenFourFox in Mac OS 10.4 is ok, but (at least on my single cpu G4) not really good enough for a daily driver (scrolling is sluggish).

I very nearly decided to up the horsepower and look for a dual G5 Mac Power Mac,

but noticed the price started to get close to what you could pick up a used Intel Xeon Mac Pro for, so … long story short, I just picked up a 2008 8 core Mac Pro on eBay. Super excited for when it arrives!