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Summary:

Under my desk is a PowerMac G4 with a whopping 512MB of RAM. When I acquired the old boy, it was running Tiger, had been used and abused and desktop support had put it out to pasture. But I knew all it needed was some TLC.

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Under my desk is a PowerMac G4, sporting dual 1.42 PowerPC processors and a whopping 512MB of RAM. When I acquired the old boy, it was running Tiger and had files scattered all over its hard drive. It had been used and abused, and desktop support had put it out to pasture. I saw it huddled forlornly in the corner of a co-workers cube, and knew I could put it back to work. All it needed was a little TLC.

Operating System Upgrade

The first thing I did was upgrade the operating system to Leopard. It’s too bad Apple decided to drop PowerPC support with Snow Leopard, but I can understand why it did. The move to Intel chips has been a phenomenal success for Apple, and I don’t think anyone can argue that it was the wrong thing to do. Thankfully, Leopard is pretty close to Snow Leopard. It’s close enough that I’m only missing a couple of features, and it has the same look and feel as a modern Mac. A lot of my favorite apps have dropped support for Tiger, but not too many have dropped support for 10.5 just yet.

Cleaning House

[inline-ad align="right"]The next thing I did was clean house. Opening up the hard drive in Finder was an interesting look into how normal people use a Mac. There were aliases to nothing, a few shared folders, old disk images, and, of all things, Netscape Navigator (hello, what are you doing here?) in the root of the hard drive. People drop files everywhere. There was also an outdated version of Norton AV running…that got the axe pretty quickly. The scattered files reminded me of how neat and clean iOS is when compared with OS X. OS X didn’t seem to mind where the files were as much as I did though.

App Installation

With the filesystem cleaned up and the operating system upgraded, I set about finding my “must have” apps. I created an “Applications” folder in my home folder, and downloaded TextMate, Twitteriffic, OmniGraffle, CyberDuck, Yojimbo, CoRD, and NetNewsWire. I don’t run apps like Yojimbo or Twitteriffic in the same fashion on the G4 as I would on a MacBook. In the interest of saving RAM, I’ve found it best to close any background apps. When I need them, I launch the app, then quit it again when I’m done. The same goes for Mail and Safari, apps I’d normally leave running constantly on a newer machine.

Slow, Middle-Aged Champ

The PowerMac still runs like a champ, but a slower, more middle-aged champ. He’s not the thoroughbred he used to be; it takes a bit longer for some apps to start, and from time to time the dreaded pinwheel pops up for a few seconds, but nothing earth shattering. Unfortunately, there’s still a couple of Windows apps that I need to run, so I keep my Dell laptop on the side to run the latest version of Lotus Notes and VMware VSphere Client. It’s not the perfect setup, and I’ll be upgrading to a MacBook Pro to replace both of them soon, but it’s been fun finding out just how useful the older G4 can be. There’s very little I’m unable to do with it, and I think if I had more RAM, the system would be much, much faster.

The same setup I’ve got now can be had on eBay for less than $200, maybe even with a monitor to go with it. With a good Time Machine backup for peace of mind, and a little patience, a PowerMac G4 can still be a great day-to-day computer.

  1. How much RAM you’ve got? My dad is still running (soon to upgrade) his 867MHz G4 12″ Powerbook. That is running max RAM of 640MB. It is a bit slow but works just fine for day to day tasks. In his office he has a Mac Mini G4 1.42GHz with 1GB of RAM. That thing runs like a champ. The two computers will be consolidated when he’s upgrades (and the Mini will get a 1TB external hard drive and become a house server). He has been looking to upgrade to a 13″ Macbook Pro but I told him to hold off when the most recent model came out with Core2Duo CPUs.

    I strongly suspect that if you max out the RAM on your desktop it will run just fine with two 1.42GHz CPUs.

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    1. Hamranhansenhansen Thursday, August 5, 2010

      It doesn’t seem practical to me for him not to upgrade at this point. There’s this thing called YouTube he might like to try out.

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  2. I’m using the very same Mac with 2GB RAM for everyday music production with Logic Pro 8. It surely has a DSP card inside to take a bit of the load off the processors but even without it, it’s working just great.
    Switching off unnecessary background tasks is a must, flash-based stuff a slight PITA. But you can’t blame the G4 grandpa for the latter;)

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  3. Can’t believe you didn’t reformat the HD. One of the first things I do in cases like this.

    That G4 is a keeper though. I believe that is the most powerful Mac that can still boot Mac OS 9. Be great for playing classic games and using classic apps that don’t run in OS X.

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  4. Any machine that has been used and abused as much as you describe should be completely reformatted. You should “clean house” before you upgrade, not after. I’ve learned the hard way to always perform clean installs instead of upgrading if I see that a Mac has been used improperly.

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  5. My OCD is sending me into overdrive right now. Why would you not wipe the drive before installing the new OS. I don’t even own the machine and I feel all dirty just thinking about this.

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    1. Yea, I know… But honestly, I never see the old files. And since nothing is running in the background OS X doesn’t seem to mind at all. My work environment is clean, and Im happy with it.

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  6. Using an old Mac tower to it’s fullest is a great experience. I’ve unfortunately always had all-in-ones. So when the day came that I was able to my hands on a 1.25Ghz MMD G4 I was overjoyed. First thing I did when I got it home was pop in the hard drive from the eMac I tossed out. Plugged it in and wha-la! Was like I never got rid of the old beast.

    I had a box of computer parts laying around and quickly found and maxed the 2GB of ram, added two more hard drives in raid-0 and added an 80mm fan to the pci vents to draw out more heat. Then of course I added 10.5 to complete the build.

    All in all it still runs really well, just a little slower. And for no cost to me, that’s a win in my book!

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  7. I too am flabbergasted as to why you didn’t just wipe the machine clean and start from scratch; I’m assuming there were some files that you didn’t want to delete, or maybe you were just up for a challenge (I challenged myself to turn an old 450 MHz Sawtooth from a surplus store mess into a powerhouse for under $100).

    Rigs like that just beg to be hot-rodded; apart from RAM and HDD upgrades, mounting some extra 60 mm fans (to the rear and front grilles on the inside of the case) to help cool the CPU and RAM are useful. One nice trick I did on one MDD G4 was to install a USB PCI card with internal USB ports, and to connect to that a stick-shaped LED USB light, positioning it into the little space between the air intake and the forward HDD bay. Chintzy, in a “look-how-cool-my-Honda-Civic-is-because-I-just-installed-lights-on-the-bottom” way, but cool nevertheless.

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  8. An old PowerMac G4 put to good use is a sweet thing, I find intel macs are spectacularly overpowered for day to day tasks. I feel like most people who aren’t rendering HD video really need to think long and hard before they plop down a pile of cash for a new mac. It all boils down to: how much processing power do you really need?

    I bet if you put 2 Gigs of RAM in that bad boy the spinning beach ball would disappear.

    PowerPC forever (or at least for as long as we can keep the useful)

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  9. Yea, there’s a bunch of files and apps already installed on this hard drive that I couldn’t wipe out, hence the in-place upgrade instead of a clean wipe. If I had a second USB drive to clone this internal one on to before hand, then I probably would have just wiped it.

    Any suggestions on some cheap RAM for the ol’ boy?

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  10. Those G4′s have a lot of life left in them. You’ll see a radical increase in speed and your productivity if you:

    1) Max out RAM … 2GB is the max, it’ll cost you $120 for 4 sticks of 512MB at OWC

    2) Install an SATA card, and then install an SATA drive… these cards are harder to come by, my favorite is from MacSense. It combines two internal SATA ports with an ATA-133 port. The card is about $70, a 1TB drive is about $80.

    Given that a new Mac Mini is about $700, it still is worthwhile upgrading this, and there are some reasons to run a PPC and OS 10.4, esp. if you need Classic support.

    Cheers!

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    1. Hamranhansenhansen Thursday, August 5, 2010

      Those are good suggestions, but I think $270 is too much to spend on this rig. That could fund a future Intel Mac salvage job, or even bring the price of a new mini down to $429.

      I would just be on the lookout for dead Power Macs of the same generation and scrounge extra hard drives and RAM from them, as well as other spare parts.

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      1. I’d think $400 or less in upgrades can get a decent payback, assuming the apps are still viable for the next 2-3 years and the OS doesn’t get targeted (heavily) by hackers.

        No one mentioned video card or USB card upgrades. I’ve upgraded my stock ATI card in my G4 to a Nvidia GeForce card, and that was almost as good as a processor upgrade, given how tied the OS is to its graphical interface. A USB 2 PCI card can be had for cheap and will make portable drives usable, not to mention free up the only two USB ports built into the G4.

        If you’re daring, you can buy cheap RAM and hard drives used (e.g. eBay).

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