How Universal is Your Mac?

Apple did the Mac community proud when it released the first round of Intel based Macintosh systems.  The new machines perform brilliantly, and provide the speed increases that users have been clamoring for.  Unfortunately that performance increase has become something of a double edged sword.  The applications that really let the new systems flex their muscles are referred to as Universal Binary.  The term indicates that the software has been compiled to run natively on older PowerPC based systems as well as new Intel based hardware.  And while Universal Binary applications shine on the new machines, older PowerPC optimized applications run in emulation and their performance suffers greatly as a result.

For the average user, telling the difference between Universal and non-Universal software can be less than intuitive.  The most direct way to find out its to simply use the Finder’s Get Info command on the application’s icon.  The info window clearly lists the application as either Universal, or PowerPC (or in rare cases, as Intel).  See the icons below.

While it is fairly easy to find whether applications are running native on an Intel Mac (look for an application kind of either Universal or Intel), the invisible services that run in the operating system’s background are much more difficult to examine.

Why should a user care if the applications they run are Universal Binary?  Simply put, the applications run faster and perform significantly better.  But running a non-Universal application is one thing.  The computers seemingly invisible background processes are often another matter.  The background processes run constantly and have a persistent effect on the computers overall performance.  For this reason, it’s important for users to be aware of the non-native processes that are running.  Once the user is aware, it becomes possible to upgrade that software as Universal versions become available.

This is one of many areas where the Activity Monitor really shines.  It’s located in /Applications/Utilities and it provides users with a great deal of information on what is happening deep inside the operating system.

After launching the Activity Monitor, make sure the Show menu at the top of the window is set to All Processes.  Next, look for a column in the display below called Kind.  If its not listed there, just right-click on any of the column headers and make sure the option Kind has a check beside it.  If the check is already there, simply open the Activity Monitor window wider, or use the horizontal scroll bar at the bottom of the window.  The Kind column is normally located at the far right side of the window.

Clicking on the Kind column header makes it easy to sort the process information based on the application kind.  Once this is done, all of the older PowerPC processes are grouped together.  In my screenshot below, I get an inside look at the applications and services I am currently running.  Activity Monitor makes it painfully obvious that Entourage and Word are non-native.  But it’s arguably more important to know that services like Alerts Daemon, Hamachi, Database Daemon, and Pitond are all running in emulation.  Since they are all services, there is no way for me to know that they are running in emulation and causing constant overhead on my system and with that, effecting my overall performance.

So, once we have this information, what do we do?  All we can do is keep an eye out for updates to the software and upgrade to the Universal versions as they are released.  Looking at the process name might not be instantly intuitive.  It might be necessary to search for the process name in Google just to get an understanding of the software package that installed the service.  For example, Pitond is a background daemon that is installed by EMC Insignia’s Retrospect while Database Daemon and Alerts Daemon are both parts of the Microsoft Office suite.  Hamachi is software VPN package that we have written about several times in the past.  It includes a command line based application that runs constantly in the background.

Looking at the process list in the Activity Monitor, it becomes very obvious how much software has already been ported to include support for Apple’s new Intel based systems.  In just eight and a half months, most of the applications I use daily have been updated.  And thanks to the Activity Monitor, I have an inside look at the software that is running invisibly in the background.  Whenever possible, update to Universal Binary applications.  The less software running in emulation, the less overall system overhead and the better system wide performance will be.


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One Response to How Universal is Your Mac?
  1. KW Reply

    Interresting that all the mentioned programs are ‘non workplace’ workers use Quark Photoshop The Dreaded hungry Adobe bits of slow cumbersom apps not I this and that or PC emulators – get real please

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