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I am going to do a clean install of OS X on my old MacBook (Late 2008), but the computer will only be needed for:

  • tabbed web browsing (Safari/Chrome),
  • word processing (Office/iWork),
  • and maybe some iPhoto work.

The most important factor is speed (operating, startup, etc.), and all the added features of each OS X are secondary.

Which operating system — the latest Tiger, Leopard, Snow Leopard, or Lion — will run the fastest on this MacBook?

Computer specifications:

  • 2.1 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo
  • 4 GB 667 MHz DDR2 SDRAM
  • 120 GB HDD 5400-rpm
  • Currently with OS X 10.5.8 (Leopard)
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You can almost certainly bet on the latest version to run the fastest. –  duci9y Apr 5 '13 at 17:49
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@duci9y, source? From my experience, newer versions of OS X require more resources — especially graphics, but I remember that Snow Leopard was faster than Leopard for me (on a MacBook Pro, however) –  Baumr Apr 5 '13 at 18:23
    
No source, personal experience with multiple Macs. –  duci9y Apr 5 '13 at 18:49
    
I support duci9y's claim. Try installing Mountain Lion. I am sure it's faster than the previous versions. –  Noah Apr 5 '13 at 19:14
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During the Pre-Lion era I had lots of machines that I worked on take different speed hits from the upgrades, I think it's a valid question. Yes, some do get faster, but certainly not across the board. Unfortunately, I don't retain the memory to recall the 'spreadsheet' of performance hits/boosts from the various machines that would have been fun to see… also, I've deleted unnecessary files from the OS (GB's of print drivers, languages, removed factory apps, etc.) run cache-cleaning scripts, and defragged often to keep older machines in tip top, especially with no new SW updates rolling out. –  NOTjust -- user4304 Apr 5 '13 at 19:57

2 Answers 2

I have the same machine & spec, and have not noticed any slowdown when operating at the latest supported version of Lion when compared with previous versions. Of course, this is purely anecdotal, but reviews have also fairly repeatedly suggested a slight increase in basic speeds incrementally with new versions.

One this is for sure, throw in a cheap SSD of the same size as your existing disk, and it will fair fly compared whatever it feels like now.

Compare, for example, your specs to my Macbook Air 1.6Ghz Core 2 Duo, 4Gb RAM and SSD, which supports ML and feels faster than my 2.93Ghz iMac with 8Gb on the same OS (or did until I put an SSD in the iMac).

Put simply, your CPU and RAM can handle whatever you want to run just fine. Your disk may start to feel the pinch a little, but small SSDs are very cheap these days and will easily make your machine feel like new - that particular macbook is at the sweetspot of benefitting most from an SSD for the least money.

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Getting a small SSD is a great suggestion — perhaps further down the line if this MacBook actually ends up being used –  Baumr May 21 '13 at 9:29
up vote 1 down vote accepted

I ended up going with Snow Leopard because Leopard itself was slow (SL offers countless improvements in how it is built, for Intel Macs only), and Tiger, as reminiscent at it would have been to use it, didn't have Time Machine (which admittedly wasn't a requirement in the original question).

The reason why I didn't go for Lion is because I wouldn't be able to have it in it's best iteration: Mountain Lion is reported as superior in speed (but not compatible with this MacBook).

Snow Leopard is running fast and smooth, and personally, I think it's the best fit for this machine.

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from my personal experience (using a macbook pro 15" late 2010: upgraded vom 10.6 to 10.7 to 10.8) 10.6 Snow leopard ran the fastest .. especially in terms of battery life (Lion and Mountain noticeably have shorter battery run time due to more intensive use of graphic acceleration). Typical battery run time on a usual day @ uni: 10.6:(8-10) hours (depending on brightness etc), 10.7 (4-5 hours), 10.8 (6-7 hours) p.s. I took into the account that the battery loses its performance. –  Chrisii May 21 '13 at 10:10

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