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mac.column.ted: Intel Mac NSFAQ

mac.column.ted: Intel Mac NSFAQ

Ted Landau
February 2006

Thinking about getting an Intel Mac? Perhaps you have some questions you want answered before you decide for sure. Then you've come to the right place. But this article is a bit different than some others you may have read. Its focus is on Mac OS X software, rather than the new hardware itself. In particular, it looks at some of the problems you may confront running Mac OS X and related software on an Intel Mac ? and how to solve them. I call this my Intel Mac NSFAQ (not-so-frequently asked questions).

Q. Where is Rosetta?

A. Rosetta is Apple's name for the PowerPC "emulation" mode used to run software written for the PowerPC processor on Intel Macs. Until current software is updated to run in the Intel "native" mode, Rosetta is essential to run the software.

Where exactly is Rosetta located on your drive? Is there a Rosetta application in the Applications folder? Nope. Is there some Rosetta program in the CoreServices folder of the /System/Library folder. No again.


You can use search for it via Spotlight or almost any other means at your disposal and still not find it. This is because it is mainly contained within the Mac OS X kernel, low level software that is normally invisible on your Mac. There is no file with the name Rosetta on your drive.

A consequence of this is that there is no obvious indication of when Rosetta is in use. When you launch a program that requires Rosetta, no separate Rosetta program launches, no Rosetta item appears in the Dock. There isn't even a message or icon that pops up informing you that you are using Rosetta.

Q. So how do I tell if a program is running under Rosetta or not?

You have several choices here:

  • If you want to check for a specific program, the easiest way is to access its Info window (by selecting the application's icon and selecting the Get Info command in the Finder's File menu). Look at the Kind item at the top of the window (in the General section). It should read "Application" followed by a term in parentheses. The parenthetic term will either be "PowerPC" (which means the program requires Rosetta to run on an Intel Mac) or "Universal." A Universal application includes code both to run in Intel mode on Intel Macs or to run in PowerPC mode (either via Rosetta on Intel Macs or directly on older Macs). On Intel Macs, it runs in Intel mode by default.

    There is a third possible term, although it is rare at the moment: "Intel." This means that the program can only run in Intel mode and cannot run at all in Rosetta or on older Macs. For now, Apple is encouraging developers to make their software Universal. Over time, as Intel Macs become a larger percentage of the installed base, you can expect to see Intel-only software become more common.

  • If you want to get the status of all applications on your drive, whether they are currently open or not, launch System Profiler. Go to the Software section of the window (in the column on the left side) and expand it if needed. Select the Applications item. In the list that appears, there will be a Kind column. The column data will include the same terms as in the Info window (PowerPC, Universal, or Intel) for each application.

  • If you just want to know the status of software that is currently running, launch Activity Monitor. Again, the column you want to check is Kind. In this case, however, you will not see the Universal term. You will see only PowerPC or Intel. This is because Activity Monitor shows the mode that the program is actually using (Universal indicates that a program can potentially run in either of two modes; the mode actually in use is what will appear in Activity Monitor).

Q. Does this mean that Universal programs contain double the amount of code: one for working in PowerPC mode and another for Intel mode?

Yes. Parts of a program's code may be accessible from either mode, so a Universal version of an application may not necessarily double in size. But it might. For example, I compared the PowerPC vs. Universal versions of GraphicConverter 5.7.5. The PowerPC version weighed in at 14 MB. The Universal version was more than three times as big: 48.4 MB!

Two other comparisons (where the PowerPC version is a bit older than the Universal one):

  • Fetch, a popular FTP application: Fetch 5.0.5 (PowerPC version) is 13.9 MB; Fetch 5.1b2 (Universal) is 41.4 MB.

  • Podner, a program to convert files to iPod format: Podner 1.2.1 (PowerPC) is 4.4 MB; Podner 1.3.1 (Universal) is 7.6 MB.

Q. Wow! That's a lot of extra size for some of those files. Assuming I have an Intel Mac and don't care if a program contains code to run in PowerPC mode, can I eliminate the PowerPC code to save space?

Yes, you can. There is a freeware program called TrimTheFat that does exactly that. When I tried it on the Universal version of GraphicConverter, it eliminated 21.8 MB of code, leaving an Intel-only version that was 27.3 MB. The Intel version was still almost twice as large as the PowerPC version, but close to half the size of the Universal version.

By the way, TrimTheFat will also trim Intel code from a Universal application. Which direction it goes depends upon the Mac you are using: PowerPC or Intel.

A caution: Make sure you have a backup of any file that you trim. Although trimmed applications worked fine in my tests, there is no guarantee that TrimTheFat will not cause irreparable damage to a program. Saving the original is also useful should you want to revert to the Universal version at a later point.

Q. So does this mean that all existing software will run on Intel Macs, either native or via Rosetta?

In theory, yes. In practice, no. Most applications will run in one or the other mode, but there are exceptions. In a few cases, programs will not launch at all on Intel Macs. More common, the program will launch in Rosetta but at least some features will not work as expected. As you might imagine, given what they do, disk repair utilities have problems running on Intel Macs. For example, DiskWarrior launched okay but always claimed "No Disks Available." Drive Genius launched but some features, such as its Repartition feature, did not work at all. Personally, with Intel Macs, I would not even try to use any repair utility except Apple's Disk Utility until the software has been specifically updated for the Intel platform.

A couple of other examples: Apple's Final Cut applications do not work on Intel Macs. For Adobe's Creative Suite 2, the Version Cue Workspace will not run under Rosetta on an Intel Mac, although the other components do work. Expect all of these to be updated over the next several months.

Unfortunately, no specific error message appears when an Intel conflict occurs. However, if you are running a program in Rosetta that worked fine on a PowerPC Mac, you can safely assume that an Intel conflict is the cause.

While waiting for the release of a Universal update is the primary solution to these problems, there is one glitch that you can work-around right now. It happens when you launch a Universal application that uses component software that is PowerPC-only. This happened to me when I was using Safari (a Universal application in Mac OS X 10.4.4) and tried to play a video file that required Microsoft's Windows Media Player (WMP). Safari kept saying that the needed plug-in was not installed. But when I checked, it was clearly there.

The problem was that Safari was running in Intel mode but the WMP plug-in was PowerPC software. This combination does not mix well! The solution is to get Safari to launch in PowerPC mode, using Rosetta, rather than run in Intel mode. To do this:

  1. Quit Safari.

  2. Select Safari in the Finder and access its Get Info window.

  3. In the General section, look for an item that says "Open in Rosetta." This item should be present in the Info windows of all Universal applications. Enable the checkbox.

  4. Launch Safari again. It should now launch in PowerPC mode and the WMP plug-in will now work.

Q. So, should I just leave the "Open in Rosetta" checkbox enabled all the time? Is there any downside to running in Rosetta?

There is definitely a downside. In almost all cases, a program will run significantly faster in Intel mode on an Intel Mac than when running via Rosetta. As one example, on my 17-inch Intel iMac, the MacFixIt home page took about 40% longer to load when Safari was running in Rosetta than when running in Intel mode. So, unless you know that you need to shift to Rosetta to avoid a conflict, do not enable the "Open in Rosetta" feature. And, if you do need to turn it on, turn it off again when you are done.

By the way, running in Rosetta is not only slower than running in Intel mode, it is typically slower than running the same application in PowerPC mode on a PowerPC Mac of comparable speed. For example, Adobe Creative Suite applications (e.g., PhotoShop) run noticeably slower on an Intel Mac than on a G5 Mac. So if top performance is critical to you, you may want to wait until the Universal upgrades of your software are out before moving to an Intel Mac.

Q. Changing gears a bit, what about starting up from an external drive? Can I do that with an Intel Mac?

Sure. But be aware of some problems that may occur if you do not do things the "right" way. In particular:

  • Intel Macs require a different drive format for bootable volumes than do PowerPC Macs. The result is that a given drive can only be used to boot from one platform or the other, Intel or PowerPC, but not both.

  • Currently, there are separate builds of Mac OS X 10.4.4: a PowerPC build (8G32) and an Intel build (8G1165 on my iMac; there is apparently an even later one installed on some Macs). You can see the build number on your Mac by selecting About This Mac from the Apple menu, and clicking the version number.

    Each build will only run on its respective platform (PowerPC or Intel).

    By the way, Apple developers have now been seeded with beta versions of Mac OS X 10.4.5. But currently, it is only a PowerPC version. It is not clear if and when an Intel version of 10.4.5 will be seeded or released. However, Apple has informed me that they eventually plan to have a universal build of Mac OS X. They just would not say exactly when. Even when a universal OS X version is released, however, it will not eliminate the drive formatting difference.

Bottom line: To create a bootable external volume that runs on an Intel Mac, you need both to format the volume correctly and to install an Intel build of Mac OS X. Such a volume, however, will then not be bootable from a PowerPC Mac. [Note: I have read reports of users supposedly able to get a partitioned external drive to dual-boot both on PowerPC and Intel Macs. I have tried many, although not yet all, combinations of drive formats, partitions, and OS X installations ? and have been unable to duplicate this as yet.]

Here are the specific steps needed to create a bootable external drive for Intel Macs:

  1. Get an Intel Mac, as the required option does not appear on PowerPC Macs. Mount the desired external drive.

  2. Launch Disk Utility. From the left column, select the drive (the entire drive, not a volume on the drive).

  3. Select Partition from the row of Tabs.

  4. Click the Options button that appears at the bottom of the window.

    This button only appears if you have selected to work with an external drive. It does not appear for the internal drive, as Apple assumes the internal drive will always be formatted to be bootable on the machine that contains it, so there is only one possible option.

  5. From the Partition Scheme pop-up menu, select "GUID Partition Scheme." This is the option that only appears when running an Intel Mac.

    You can instead format an external drive using the "Apple Partition Scheme" (APS). An APS formatted drive will mount on both PowerPC and Intel Macs, although it cannot be a bootable volume on an Intel Mac. This is the recommended choice for a volume intended to store data (such as for backup or multimedia files). However, I had no trouble getting a GUID-formatted drive to mount on Macs of either platform, at least as long as the Macs were running Mac OS X 10.4.4.

    Note: Although you can erase and reformat a drive via Disk Utility's Erase tab, this does not offer the option to switch the partition scheme. For this, you must use the Partition tab.

  6. Click OK after selecting a partition scheme.

  7. Make any other changes to the partition settings, as desired, and click the Partition button, bearing in mind that partitioning will erase everything currently on the drive.

  8. Install Mac OS X on the drive, using the Mac OS X Install Disc 1 DVD that came with your Intel Mac. You can do this without having to restart from the DVD by going to /System/Installation/Packages and double-clicking the OSInstall.mpkg file.

Figure 1: Disk Utility's Partition options on an Intel Mac.

Once again, if you don't do things "right," and problems occur when trying to install Mac OS X or booting from an OS X volume, don't expect to see any useful error messages, explaining what is going on. You'll have to figure that out on your own. That's what happens when you are living on the frontier of new technology.

Q. What about Windows? Can you boot Windows on a Mac?

While Apple's states that it did nothing to prevent Windows booting on Intel Macs, don't expect to be doing this yourself any time soon. The main reason is that the firmware on Intel Macs is something called EFI (Extensible Firmware Interface). Current versions of Windows instead use something called the BIOS. Thus, barring some serious hacking, the firmware difference prevents booting Windows on an Intel Mac. Windows Vista (due out by the end of 2006) will use EFI. In theory, this should make it a simple matter to boot Vista on a Mac. However, this remains only a theory at the moment.

As Virtual PC is among the programs that do not work at all on Intel Macs, this currently leaves Mac users in the ironic position of being able to run Windows easier on PowerPC Macs than on Intel Macs.

Q. Does the shift to EFI mean that Open Firmware is gone on Intel Macs?

Yes. Open Firmware is the name for the firmware found on all PowerPC Macs. It no longer exists on Intel Macs. Holding down the Command-Option-O-F keys at startup, which brings up the Open Firmware command line interface in PowerPC Macs, does nothing on Intel Macs. This means that Open Firmware commands (such as reset-nvram, a fix occasionally recommended on MacFixIt) no longer function.

Unfortunately, Apple has not yet provided any user interface to the EFI, nor any guidelines as to what commands to use to accomplish what Open Firmware previously did. Hopefully, this is a matter Apple will address fairly soon.

Q. But I just checked the /Applications/Utilities folder on the Mac OS X Install Disc 1 DVD that came with my Intel Mac. It still includes a utility called Open Firmware Password. What gives with that?

Indeed you are correct. This utility, on PowerPC Macs, provides a simple graphical user interface for setting an Open Firmware password. If enabled, this offers a security protection that prevents users from starting up the Mac via anything other than the internal drive ? unless you supply the Open Firmware password. The utility bypasses the need to otherwise enable this option by booting into Open Firmware at startup. Given that Open Firmware no longer exists on Intel Macs, I was surprised to see this utility included on the Install DVD for my new iMac. Even more surprising, the utility had been updated to a Universal application.

But the biggest surprise was: It still works! I tested this out by enabling the password and restarting the Mac while holding down the Option key. This gets the Startup Manager screen to appear (which allows you to select a startup volume from any connected bootable drive or disc). However, before the Startup Manager appeared, a password screen popped up from which I had to enter my "Open Firmware" password before I could proceed.

Is this actually an EFI-based password? Does this mean the Open Firmware Password utility should be renamed EFI Password? I assume so, but have been so far unable to confirm this. Just one of the minor mysteries still to be resolved...and perhaps answered in a future NSFAQ.

This is the latest in a series of monthly mac.column.ted articles by Ted Landau. To see a list of previous columns, click here. To send comments regarding this column directly to Ted, click here. To get Ted's latest book, Mac OS X Help Line, click here.

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