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Update Madness

Most computer consultants will tell you that doing computer consulting for a living will expose you to some astonishingly weird problems. First, let me say that my first Macintosh was an SE (an old one, with an 800K drive) running System 6.0.5. I then jumped to a PowerBook 145 and then to a Centris 650. I have worked as a Mac consultant at the Cornell Information Technologies (CIT) help desk, and during that time I had the opportunity to use – and sometimes abuse – almost every Mac up to (but not including) a Power Mac.

It’s my experience that most problems are not related to bugs in the System software or the hardware, at least in the Mac arena. They are, in fact, the result of users not understanding how their computers work. People aren’t born knowing how to use computers, and many have no intuition at all about them. That’s normal. I have no intuition for cars, for example; I can drive a car and I can change a flat tire, but that’s it. On the other hand, some people have an incredible intuition for cars. They can listen to your automobile make a funny noise and tell you what’s wrong with it at once.

Let me give you an example. A student once came to the CIT help desk and complained that every time he took his floppy disks home, exactly one wouldn’t work the next day and would have to be re-initialized (not the same one every time). We asked him all sorts of questions about his computer and what programs he used. After almost burning our heads into oblivion, a fellow consultant offhandedly asked him what exactly he did with his floppies when he got home. It turned out that, in order not to forget to bring them to school the next day, he would use a strong magnet to make one of his floppies stick to his refrigerator door.

All right, I admit it: we all thought this was pretty funny. But the student didn’t! As naive or irresponsible as that action may have seemed to our trained minds, it was something we should have accepted as normal. People may not understand how or why certain things work and therefore they may make mistakes. Then, if nobody tells them what they did wrong and why, they often blame it on the equipment or, worse yet, on themselves.

That said, I’d like to humbly step up on the soapbox and add my two cents worth of opinion about Systems 7.5 and 7.5.1. I’ve recently read many messages to Info-Mac, criticizing System 7.5 and its update, 7.5.1, many stating that people have tried them but switched back to 7.1 because 7.5 is such a drag, very unstable, full of incompatibilities, and so on. As I recall, people used to say the very same things about System 7.1. When 7.1 was the new kid in the block, a lot of people criticized it. Now, people criticize 7.5 because it’s the new kid. Has 7.1 suddenly become better? Certainly not.

So, what’s going on? My answer to that will be in the form of some advice. I hope it will serve you as well as it has served me.

Do a Clean Installation — Although not every problem may be solved this way, it always helps to do a clean install. I remember, from my CIT days, many cases in which people would install parts of a system from one machine into another simply by copying the relevant file onto a floppy disk and then to the other machine. Often, they would mix components from different system versions – a sure way to computer users’ hell.

Sometimes users would install one System on top of another. Although the Apple Installer often knows it should remove older stuff, I don’t trust it. In fact, a recent message to Info-Mac talks about how someone requested a custom installation without some items and the installer put them in anyway. [This can happen when different custom installation options rely on one another – Apple should show in the interface when something must be installed due to other selections. -Adam]

So, when I install a new version of the System software, I first back up the old System Folder and compress it – this saves space and avoids the installer thinking that the backup System Folder is the active one. (No, you don’t really need to compress your System Folder; you can just copy it to another location on your hard drive, then change the name of the copy and move its Finder to another folder. But compressing it is generally safer and less confusing.) Then I boot from the Disk Tools disk [or you may be able to boot from your System CD, if you have one -Tonya], delete the previously active System Folder, and proceed with the installation.

I never choose the Easy Install option, because I know what I want installed and I know what I should choose to accomplish that. If you know what you need and what you don’t, do a custom installation. Otherwise, go for the Easy Install. After installing and restarting, I open and check all the Apple control panels. Most of them don’t require any knowledge of what’s going on inside the Mac, but some do. If you don’t know how to set up a particular control panel, leave it the way it is and hope that Apple set the defaults correctly.

Add Third-Party Software Slowly — Add any additional extensions and control panels one by one. Test-run the system for a few days, under your real-world conditions, before you add the next extension or control panel. This will help pinpoint incompatibilities. Also, use only what you really need. Having 97 icons filling up multiple rows of your 21-inch screen at startup sure is fun to watch, but that’s not what your computer was designed for! Besides, you can make a Quadra 950 run like my old SE that way. [A good rule of thumb is if you don’t use a particular system extension at least once a week, consider removing it. -Geoff]

The Benefits of Experience — Now that you have the picture, I must say that what I’ve described is not really what I do. It’s what I used to do when I was learning how to live peacefully with my computer. And that behavior brought me to where I am now: I have a 16 MB (32 MB with RAM Doubler) Centris 650 running 7.5.1, with several extensions and control panels, and with lots of minor alterations that I made to the System and the Finder themselves. Yet, I rarely experience a system error. Am I a Mac guru? No. I’m just careful. I’ve proceeded slowly and one step at a time, until I understood enough of the computer to experiment with it. And I kept myself informed.

My final advice is for people not to be afraid of System 7.5, but to exercise common sense, to be careful, and to ask for help if you need it. Also, much of this advice applies to application programs as well. Sometimes the help you need cannot come from the online world, but good places to look for help online include:

  • The Info-Mac mailing list: You can subscribe to the list by sending an email message to the machine that runs the list. Send the message to <[email protected]> with "subscribe info-mac your-full-name" (sans quotes) in the body of the message. Make sure to include your real name in the place of "your-full-name."
  • One of many Macintosh newsgroups: Try posting to a newsgroup, such as <comp.sys.mac.misc>.
  • Check out Ric Ford’s MacInTouch Home Page, which lists a collection of bugs and solutions. In particular try following the link to the MacInTouch Tips page.

Disclaimers — In the interests of full disclosure, there are a few disclaimers I should make:

  • I don’t work for Apple, and never did. I think they make great computers, though.
  • Yes, System 7.5 has its problems too.
  • Yes, I do experience system errors sometimes. So does my computer.

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