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Which System Software is Right for My 68k?

This document grew up and left home. It moved over to Low End Mac. This page and that both have their up and down points, so you might consider reading both.--Tyler

A technical blurb by Tyler Sable, spam at fenestrated dot net
Find me on the 68kMLA forums::TylerEss

Guide by Model | System 6.0.8 | System 7.0.1 | System 7.5.5 | MacOS 8.1 | Summary


There have been many writeups about how to decide which version of System Software to run on your 68k Macintosh, but none have covered the whole range of "modern" System Software versions. Each of these System Software versions has its advantages and disadvantages, and choosing the right one can greatly increase one's productivity and the fun of vintage computing.

I have owned dozens of vintage Macs, from the original Macintosh to the Quadra 840AV, and almost everything in between. I've used these System Software versions, and now I'm here to throw in my two cents. Often the argument is "your computer has N MB of RAM, so you should use System Software X.Y.z", but that advice is hollow; With vintage RAM so cheap and accessible, (Check eBay, I mean it) there's no reason to punish yourself with a low-RAM system. Small macs should be upgraded to their maximum, and larger ones to at least 16 and preferably 32 MB.

Which System Software is good for my 68k System? | Top

The 68k Macintosh family can be broken down into four broad groups, and each group is best served with a different group of System Software versions. Here's how I'd break it down:

The Antique Macs

Macintosh 128k
Macintosh XL
Macintosh 512k
Macintosh 512ke

These systems are much more limited in their use in modern day-to-day computing tasks than their later bretheren. However, many people enjoy them every day. System 2 is a good choice for the Macintosh and Macintosh 128k, System 3.2 is excellent on the Fat Mac and Mac XL, and I hear System 5.3 is functional on the 512ke. Your mileage may vary, but with these ancestral Macintoshes the journey is the destination, so enjoy the ride!

The Littlest Macs

Macintosh Plus
Macintosh SE (SE, SE FDHD, SE SuperDrive)
Macintosh Classic, Classic II
Macintosh LC, LCII
Macintosh Portable (and Backlit Portable)
PowerBook 100
Macintosh Color Classic
Performa 200, 250, 400, 405, 410, 430
PowerBook 140, 145, 145b, 170

These 68k systems have a very low RAM ceiling (4, 8, or 10MB).

For these Systems I recommend System 7.0.1 to users with hard discs. It has a very small RAM footprint, less than 2MB for a fully up-to-date system, and has broad functionality. System 6.0.8 can also be an excellent choice. If you're feeling adventurous, try both versions, and see which works better for you! The System 6--System 7 choice is a hard one, sometimes.

For users of floppy-only Macs, System 6 is a much more practical choice than System Seven. I recommend no newer version than 6.0.8 for users without hard disc.

The Powerful Macs

Macintosh SE/30
Mystic Color Classic (LC575 Logic Card in Color Classic)
Macintosh Color Classic II
Macintosh II series machines
Macintosh Quadra series machines
Macintosh WorkGroup Server machines
Macintosh LCIII, LCIII+
Macintosh LC 4XX, 5XX, 6XX series machines
Macintosh Performa 450, 460, 466, 467
Macintosh Performa 5XX and 6XX series

These systems frequently come with more than 16MB of RAM, and if not they can usually be upgraded cheaply. I recommend these machines be upgraded to at least 16MB of RAM and preferably to 32.

For 68k Macs with at least 16MB of RAM, I recommend System 7.5.5. System 7.5.5 is freely available and is compatible with almost every 68k Macintosh program available. It can be updated to interchange data by disk and network with the newest computers easily. 7.5.5 is fast and stable. Other system versions that I recommend for these Macs are 6.0.8 if you know the software you need is System 6 compatible and your Macintosh will run it, 7.0.1 if you can't upgrade the RAM for some reason, and MacOS 8.1 if you want to impress your friends or have some program that really requires it.

The Hard-To-Find-RAM Macs

Macintosh IIfx
PowerBook 150, 160, 165, 165c, 180, 180c, 190, 190cs
PowerBook Duo 2XX series
PowerBook 5XX series

These 68k systems are often a "what you get is what you get" proposition, in that RAM upgrades are often hard to find or expensive. If you can find a system with a large installed RAM or if you can find a RAM upgrade cheaply, they are all fast enough to run System 7.5.5 (or even 8.1, maybe). The problem is that they may not come with enough memory to run 7.5.5 and an owner may not be able to find an upgrade affordably.

For these systems, I recommend 7.5.5 if their installed RAM is greater than 12-16MB or if they can be realistically upgraded to at least that level. If a RAM upgrade is not forthcoming, System 7.0.1 (or 7.1 for later machines) is probably the best option.

System 6.0.8 | Top

System 6.0.8 is the best System Software version to use whenever it is appropriate.

It is by far the fastest System Software version reviewed in this article, and has a tiny memory and disk footprint. Running on one of the 8MHz Macs, System 6.0.8 users can expect system startup times of around one minute. If I were interested in building the most responsive word processing workstation I could, I would run System 6 on a Quadra 700 with a 50Mhz Overdrive or a IIci with a 40Mhz Turbo040 and a fast SCSI disk on a JackHammer or SiliconExpress IV NuBus card. It'd be "cooking with gas" and likely start up in 15 seconds or less.

For speed and slimness, System 6.0.8 is really the hands-down winner. What's the catch? System 7 was a major milestone for System Software, and lots of the software you want to use will require System 7. Combine limited software compatibility with an 8MB RAM ceiling and you've got two strong arguments against System 6.

If you know just what you intend your 68k machine to do for you, check out The System Six Heaven and Gamba's System Six Page. See if System 6 will meet your needs. If your needs are well suited to the strengths of System 6 then you'll be very very happy, but if you want more than System 6 can give, you'll be very disappointed.

System 7.0.1 | Top

System 7.0.1 is the System Software that I recommend for all Macs that don't have enough speed or RAM to run System 7.5.5 successfully. It has a very small RAM and disk footprint, though not as small as System 6, and runs almost as fast as System 6 does. Any Macs that can't be upgraded to at least 16MB of RAM and a 25Mhz 68030 processor are good candidates for System 7.0.1.

The advantages of System 7.0.1 over System 6 are the following: Support for "Requires System 7" software, and support for lots of RAM. Many tasks don't require a particularly fast CPU, but require more than 8MB of RAM. System 7's multitasking is much better than that of System 6 as well. System 7's interface is much more modern than that of System 6, which I personally take to be an advantage.

In addition, System 7 can run NetPresentz and share files with modern computers of any operating system. System 7 includes built-in Apple File Sharing and can support Ryan Tempel's Joliet File Access software to access windows CD-R discs. In general, System 7 is much more interoperable with modern computers than System 6.

The disadvantages of System 7.0.1 versus 7.5.5 are lack of compatibility with some very late 68k applications, notably 4.x generation web browsers. Also, System 7.0.1 is not able to connect to TCP/IP based file-sharing like that of MacOS X Tiger. OpenTransport cannot be used with System 7.0.1, but most of the Macs that are best used with 7.0.1 don't support OpenTransport anyway.

For more information about System 7.0.1, check out the article "Updating Macintosh System 7.0.1" which is linked from my Macintosh page.

System 7.5.5 | Top

System 7.5.5 begins with the modernity of 7.0.1 and builds upon it with AppleScript, OpenTransport, QuickDraw GX (genuine vintage modernity, there!), QuickTime 4, TCP/IP file and printer sharing, Appearance Manager, CFM-68k, Macintosh Runtime for Java, and other technologies.

System 7.5.5 still isn't too memory-intensive, at about 6MB required to boot a fully-updated system and 4MB to boot a "slim" updated system using QuickTime 2.5 and without MRJ. Because of its greater complexity than System 7.0.1, I recommend 7.5.5 for all Macs with 16MB or more RAM and a 68030 CPU at 25Mhz or faster (or any 68040).

The disadvantages of System 7.5.5 are greater resource-intensity than 7.0.1 and lack of the HFS+ support present in MacOS 8.1. While a "slim" 7.5.5 only consumes a couple of megabytes more RAM than 7.0.1, a hard disc with at least a few hundred megabytes capacity is a must.

To learn more about System 7.5.5, read my articles on installing a complete and updated 7.5.5, accessible from the Macintosh page. The system described there is the system I use every day for almost all my computing.

MacOS 8.1 | Top

MacOS 8.1 is the most modern of the 68k Mac operating systems, and the last system release for 68k Macintoshes.

Its biggest advantage over a properly-updated System 7.5.5 is HFS+ support. Other advantages are the impressiveness of running such a modern MacOS version, simplicity of installation (the Modern 7.5.5 procedure does have a lot of steps, I must admit), and compatibility with the few remaining applications that a totally updated 7.5.5 does not support.

The disadvantages of 8.1 are lack of native support for 68030 Macs, the fact that it is not freely available, and the fact that it takes almost twice as much RAM as System 7.5.5. MacOS 8.1 is not recommendable on any Mac with less than 32MB of RAM, and 64 is really preferable.

Users have reported good speed with MacOS 8.1 on even 68030 Macs that have enough RAM. Gamba has a great webpage to help users get 8.1 up to speed on their 68030 (unsupported) Macs, and users who can't find a boxed copy but are HOT to download it can just get in LINE.

If I ever need to replace my trusty 7.5.5 SE/30, I think it'll be with a Mystic Color Classic with 132MB of RAM, 42Mhz 68040, and MacOS 8.1. I hope the day never comes, though. :-)

Summary | Top

System Software Version




System 6.0.8

Extreme speed, small memory and disk requirements, vintage look and feel

Lack of software compatibility, more difficult interoperation with modern computers, no support for lots of RAM


The System 6 Heaven

The best when it is applicable.

System 7.0

It's System 7

"The Disappearing Folders Bug"

Use 7.0.1 instead.

System 7.0.1

Broader software compatibility, much greater modern computer interoperability. Still small RAM footprint.

A little fatter than 6.0.8, a little less capable than 7.5.5.

Available from the Mac Resources Page.

Best "new" system for small Macs.

System 7.1 versions including System 7 Pro

Support for several 7.5.5 features. Smaller than 7.5.5. Supposedly more stable than 7.5.5.

Not freely downloadable, stability advantage disappears once all updates are applied.

Use 7.5.5 instead.

System 7.5, 7.5.1, 7.5.2, 7.5.3, and 7.5.3 Rev 2

Freely downloadable. Support for more technologies than 7.1. Can be updated to 7.5.5.

Less stable and less up-to-date than 7.5.5.

Upgrade to 7.5.5.

System 7.5.4

Exactly the same as 7.5.5 but with a greater novelty factor. 7.5.4 update was pulled days after release. PowerPC Performa bug is irrelevant to 68k Mac users.

Hard to find. Obscure bug crashes certain PowerPC Performas.

Impress your friends!

I know where to find this software. Email me.

System 7.5.5

Very broad software compatibility. Strong stability. Good interoperability with modern computer networks and disks.

A little fatter RAM footprint and a little slower than 7.0.1. Much fatter disk space requirement. Slightly complicated install/update procedure.

TCP/IP Connectivity with 7.5.5

System 7.5.5: Favorite Add-Ons

MacOS 7.6

Essentially a 7.5.5 on CD with several updates pre-applied. Universal CDROM driver. Larger volume support than 7.5.5.

Not freely available. Larger volume support a bit of a tease without HFS+ support.

Use 7.5.5 or 8.1.

MacOS 7.6.1

Update to 7.6

Unconfirmed rumor has it that 7.6.1 is buggier than 7.6 and unstable.

Use 7.5.5 or 8.1.

MacOS 8.0

Sherlock. Larger volume support than 7.6. More modern interface.

Modern interface is available on 7 with Aaron or Appearance Manager. Resource hog. Really just an overgrown System 7.

Use 8.1.

MacOS 8.1

HFS+ support. REAL large volume support. Impressive.

Twice the RAM requirement of 7.5.5--32MB (realistic) minimum. May or not be slower than 7.5.5. Requires hack to install on 68030 Macs.

Gamba's 8.1 on 68030 page


Questions? Comments? Additions? Email Me! spam at fenestrated dot net

Text and Images copyright 2005 by Tyler Sable