Mac users can get passionate about running the latest and greatest. But it’s worth tempering that enthusiasm, as on any OS, with some healthy caution about your critical machines. Photo by Mark Pang. (Beautiful office, mate!)

Apple’s "point" releases — those seemingly-harmless updates you get automatically in Software Update — do sometimes break stuff. I tend to ignore the updates until I’ve had a chance to confirm they’re okay. Case in point: it looks like 10.5.2 can result in glitchy audio on laptops.

Native Instruments has an official statement out on the problem, but according to them, this issue can affect software from other vendors, as well:

User feedback and internal testing indicates that recent changes introduced by Apple in Mac OS X 10.5.2 can cause audio dropouts and similar problems on Macbook/Macbook Pro computers. This issue is not limited to NI software in particular, but applies to performance-criticial music software in general.
Therefore, Native Instruments currently cannot guarantee the proper operation of its products under Mac OS X 10.5.2. If possible, users should refrain from upgrading beyond Mac OS X 10.5.1 until further information about this issue becomes available.

Now, I will say this: I am frustrated with Apple’s OS upgrade approach — and I think on any OS, media support is the most vulnerable area.

It’s not uncommon for changes to Mac OS and QuickTime, changes that have significant effects on third-party developers, to show up in these point updates. I talk to developers regularly, and I know they are regularly caught by surprise. That seems unnecessary — especially given Apple’s otherwise sparkling OS record. Users are encouraged to automatically update their systems, so presumably those updates should be critical bug fixes and security updates only. Bug fixes in one place can introduce bugs in another, of course. But that’s another reason third parties need to have their hands on this changes sooner, with better communication about what’s happening, so issues get fixed before, not after, an OS gets released.

By and large, I think Apple deserves the credit it gets for the quality of the OS and Core Audio. And responsibility lies equally with third-party developers to test as aggressively as possible; I can’t say whether they’re using builds as soon as they get them, because I don’t know. But of course, on any operating system — Linux and Windows, as well — music/audio (and video) are the areas most often affected by these kinds of subtle problems. On any OS, improving communication between OS developers and application developers, and increasing the amount of testing and quality control on changes impacting media playback could improve the experience for everyone.

In the meantime:

  • I suggest, as always, avoiding system updates until you’ve verified compatibility, particularly if you have a machine you’re using for critical tasks like live music performance.
  • We’ll keep an eye on this issue here on CDM and let you know when we hear more.
  • If you are using 10.5.2, let us know your experience — and I imagine it’s possible, as with all of these kind of issues, that you’re running 10.5.2 on a MacBook/MBP with no problem at all.

And you may even want to avoid upgrading to Leopard from 10.4 until you’ve verified compatibility with your tools. Native has another statement out, this one apparently vendor-specific, that suggests RTAS issues with NI software on Pro Tools. I’m still running 10.4 on my Macs here, just because it’s doing it’s job, and it remains a fantastic OS. I know plenty of people equally happy with 10.5, but it’s worth some research.

See full NI details on Leopard here:

Compatibility with Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard

And stay tuned.

Updated: Is Airport the Problem?

Well, there’s a reason I ended this headline with a question mark. The update in question may actually be an Airport update, not an OS update. From our first comment:

Rather than this being a 10.5.2 problem, it could be a separate issue with Airport software. I’m running 10.4.11, and since a recent software update I have to turn off my Airport card when doing audio stuff.

This was suggested to me by Ableton, who say this is a common problem.

As far as 10.5.2, there aren’t direct changes to Core Audio (as I said, the point is that audio performance is vulnerable to changes elsewhere). 10.5.2 has some specific AirPort changes:

* Improves connection reliability and stability
* Includes 802.1X improvements.
* Resolves certain kernel panics.

About the Mac OS X 10.5.2 Update

Lest you think this can fuel your latest OS war argument, there was recently a similar issue involving networking and audio performance on Windows Vista. This stuff is really incredibly delicate.

I’m not sure about 10.4.11; that update doesn’t mention AirPort, and it came out in November. I’ve been running it without incident, as have others. There was, however, an AirPort Extreme Update released on March 27 for Intel machines running 10.4.11. I don’t want to implicate something without evidence, but if anyone with these updates can let us know what your experience has been, that’d be helpful.

More updates: Serato also reports issue

Check out our latest story for still more details; it seems Serato have also reported issues with 10.5.2 (and recommend avoiding the upgrade), and the most recent AirPort update for 10.4.11 is likewise suspect. Time to turn Software Update off altogether? I’m considering it on my Tiger-running performance MacBook.

And still more info:

A fix for Tiger, and evidence that the newest Penryn laptops (using Broadcom Wi-Fi chips, evidently) are unaffected.