Old Macs still rock: Putting an iBook G4 back into service

by Milind Alvares

Old Macs still rock: Putting an iBook G4 back into service

by Milind Alvares on December 1, 2010

Post image for Old Macs still rock: Putting an iBook G4 back into service

I remember when I got my first Mac, the iBook G4 14-inch. Powered by a 1.33Ghz G4 processor, 512MB RAM, 60GB hard drive, and a resolution of 1024×768 (meaning 91 pixels per inch), all of which was absolutely stunning at the time. I used it all the time for Adobe’s CS2 suite, productivity, and the internet. It ran all of this mighty fine, and I never felt it ‘slow’ and unusable. As is the case with any new piece of technology.

Of course, software evolved, Leopard came along, hard drives got full, and relative to the newer machines, the G4 felt slow to a point that it wasn’t usable anymore. Then after 4 years, the battery died, and we didn’t see the value in buying a new battery for a dying machine. It was used tethered to the power socket for a while, and then one day the OS crashed, and ended up being shelved, collecting dust.

The other day I came across Dave Coalo’s article on how he has switched to using his G4 iMac as his primary work machine. The iBook immediately popped to my head, and I was determined to bring it back to life.

Most of the tasks we use the computer for remain the same. You can’t type faster than *any* computer. The iBook ran MS Office just fine, it ran Safari just fine, and email worked perfectly. If it did so much back then, why not make it do all that today?

Newer software is the biggest cause of sluggishness in older hardware. I remember when the iPhone first came out, the first opinions were that it was super fast. Apps loaded instantly, lists scrolled butter smooth. What happened? Software updates happened. Of course in the case of the iPhone it’s near impossible to go back to version 1.0, both technically and in terms of features. But Mac OS X Tiger was a fairly mature platform, with little that it can’t do over Leopard — I’m talking about real world output, and not just the kinds of software features each platform provides.

The first step, was to find out what was wrong with it; it wasn’t progressing beyond the startup chime. Simply resetting the PRAM (holding down Cmd+Opt+P+R during startup) got it back on its feet — when you’re determined enough, no problem is too big, and vice versa. I then installed a fresh copy of Tiger from the install disks, and ran it through all its updates. I installed Office 2004 instead of 2008, and installed the Open XML converter for compatibility with the new document format. These are all fully functional applications, where the newer versions simply add needless features. I did update Safari to version 4 because it includes a newer webkit engine, for better compatibility with the web.

The iBook is surprisingly capable. It starts up in less than 50 seconds. Launches Safari in 8 seconds. MS Word in 18 seconds. iTunes in 6 seconds. But more importantly, it runs all these apps smoothly in the background, effortlessly switching between. iPhoto v5 with a few thousand images thrown in launches faster than iPhoto v9 on my iMac. I’m sure I could install Photoshop CS2 and it too would perform admirably.

Of course, using Tiger means I personally couldn’t use a lot of the apps I require, like Espresso, nor could I manage Photoshop or InDesign with such a small visual canvas. I can’t stand notebooks anyway. But the intended audience wasn’t me. I chose Tiger over Leopard because it was intended on being used by people in an office environment, who needed word processing, internet, and email. And this is what most people use a computer for. They’ve been using the iBook for the past week, day-in day-out, and I’ve received no complaints so far — they have no clue that the brushed metal UI is ugly, even though they also have a Snow Leopard Mac mini running.

Techno-lust can lead to a flawed vision, making it difficult to see the true value in things.

•••

To do great work you need great determination, not tools. You don’t need a high end Mac Pro to develop applications. Take Daniel Jalkut, developer of MarsEdit:

I do everything on a relatively low-powered MacBook. Is this constraining? A little bit. But I think it goes to show that you don’t need the fanciest Mac or the largest screen to get the job done.

Recently, I profiled Samurai on Beautiful Pixels. I was surprised to find out that he created all of his CSS experiments on his 13 inch MacBook. I’ve been using a first-of-the-Intels iMac for the last four years. It runs all the software I need, and runs it well. Aperture and InDesign slow it down a bit, but I’ve learnt to manage memory without thinking about it. While the urge to get a svelte new aluminium iMac is only growing, every time I feel a weak, I look at this article on ewaste.

•••

Macs have been beautiful machines since right from the beginning. The first iMac is still insanely beautiful if you look at it in the right light. You don’t need to upgrade until it begins to hurt. And when you do, remember that there’s always someone else who can make good use of your old hardware.

I wonder, how many of you are actively using older generation Macs?

Leave a Comment

We'd love it if you would add your opinion to the article or discussion, whether positive or negative. We reserve the right to moderate comments at our discretion.

Previous post:

Next post: