Blog Post

Bringing a PowerMac G4 Back to Life

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 (s aapl) decided to drop PowerPC support with Snow Leopard, but I can understand why it did. The move to Intel (s intc) 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 There was also an outdated version of Norton AV running…that got the axe pretty quickly.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 (s msft) apps that I need to run, so I keep my Dell (s dell) laptop on the side to run the latest version of Lotus Notes (s IBM) and VMware VSphere Client (s VMW). 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.

28 Responses to “Bringing a PowerMac G4 Back to Life”

  1. Alvin Wallace

    I have a chance to get an old mac G4. I only plan to use it for CS3 nothing else. What do I really need to make this run properly? I have never owned a Mac before. All comments will be taken seriously and will be welcome.

  2. I have a mid 2010 17 inch Macbook Pro with the 2.53GHz i5 processor. I was on that thing constantly during grad school. Now that I’ve graduated, I haven’t taken it out of its case for a few weeks. I’ve been surviving on an old 20 inch iMac G4, 1.25GHz with 768MB of RAM. It works great for simple things like e-mail, typing up lists with MS word 2008, and that sort of thing. I don’t know why I’m doing this, truth be told. Growing up I always had hand me down computers from my Fathers workplace, so maybe that is why :). In reality, it didn’t matter. I was still on an old 6100/60AV when we were using Pentium 133MHz machines at school, and that was a recent trade up from a Mac IIci. When you don’t get exposed to the latest and greatest hardware, you have no idea what you have is “slow”, or “obsolete”. One important fact to keep in mind, and one that I have run into numerous times during my higher education, is that the user defines obsolete. If the machine still does what it was originally implemented to do, it is not obsolete. Unfortunately, the corporations (Apple, Dell, etc) like to convince people they are the ones who define what obsolete is. If we let them do this all the time, we’d be upgrading every 6 months. Ouch! Sure, eventually I had some friends that gave me the occasional “dude, you need to upgrade”. Really? I NEED to upgrade? What eventually got me into the cycle of “needing” a newer, faster computer were games. UT2004 to be exact. My old G4 machines simply didn’t do the job anymore, so I upgraded to a 20 inch core 2 duo iMac, etc etc until I wound up building a quad-core gaming PC not too long ago. Sometimes I wish I never would have started playing games…uh oh, I have to go help Commander Shepard save us from the reapers. Later!

  3. I still have a powermac G4 quicksilver machine (dual 800) used daily at home. It’s now at 9 yrs old and It’s slower than my dual G5 and intel mac pro, but it’s one of the most solid mac’s I have ever owned. Still has a lot of power and speed (and uses half the power of a G5.) G4s have outlasted most G5s. Look at the used market and you will see a lot of broken G5s and G4s still running. Currently has 1.5 GB ram, 120 GB hd, ATI Radeon 9800 128mb, USB 2 (pci), and I run the Adobe CS3 software without any problems. Also have it connected to the Apple pro speakers which really make it look beautiful. By far one of Apple’s best machines. I know I can count on my G4 for years to come.

  4. I use two G4 Power Macs daily (one with Tiger for Classic Mode, one with Leopard for almost everything else I do), and the key to unleashing their power is RAM. With 1.25 GB to 2.0 GB, you can have a dozen or more apps open at once.

    At a minimum, double the RAM you’ve got, and you’ll be blown away by the difference in performance.

    • Is there a support group for Mac hoarders? Why throw them out if you can still utilize some of the great apps you’ve collected. Max out the RAM, update the hard drives, add USB, firewire, SATA, external drives, and give it purpose. I still keep some os 7 machines just for the novelty. My PowerTower Pro 225 running OS9.2(9600 Clone) is still a great machine for Classic apps while my army of G4s and G3s are workhorses and my 2Ghz Intel Core2 Duo Macbook with 4 Gigs of RAM and a 320 Gig HD is great for all kinds of things except Final Cut Studio. HD video is the only reason that keeps me salivating over the newest fastest and most expensive models. Don’t forget to upgrade to wireless N and gigabit networking wherever feasible. I am quite sure I am not the only one out there with Mac hoarding issues. I really need to quit my jobs so I can have more time at home with my Mac collection.

  5. Thomas Keeler

    I am using 2 DA733 G4’s with 1.5GB of ram and 64mb video cards for home theater machines. I know I don’t have netflix or hulu support but I just love the Apple front row interface. They just sit there and hum right along all day and night without a hic-up at all.

  6. I’ve got a MDD G4 dual 867 that still runs like a champ. I’ve got a GB of RAM in it, and a 500 GB Hard Drive with Leopard installed. My only gripe is how loud it is. I rely on my Unibody MBP for my every day use, but the G4 works great for digital media storage (iPhoto, iTunes library, etc). It was the 1st Mac I ever bought so I’ve kept it around for sentimental reasons.

  7. I’ve got 34 G4s still in service.

    I pity the poor temps who have to use them.

    I use a 12″ G4 Powerbook for IMing when I’m not at desk and Diskwarrioring those G4s, but that’s mostly due to the form factor being so nice. I also have a G4 Mini at home that gets used as a torrent machine, but not much else since Netflix doesn’t support PPC machines which nixes it as a set-top box.

  8. Bob Barker

    Ah, the memories!

    Up until about three years ago I had what I lovingly called my Frankenmac. It was an original “Sawtooth” G4 Powermac, the first one Apple put out with AGP graphics. The following are the improvements I put in to it:

    single 450MHz -> dual 1.3GHz CPU
    64MB RAM -> 2GB RAM
    ATI Rage Pro 16MB GPU -> ATI Radeon 9000 Pro 64MB GPU
    64GB drive -> 2x160GB drives, running off of an ATA133 card (stock on Sawtooth was ATA100) in a striped RAID config

    It was a great Mac. Loud, but great! Retired it when I went MacBook Pro.

  9. My mother has been using a similar Mac for years. Her job requires a system 9 application because we haven’t found a reliable method of converting that file type to something a modern application can use. Poor thing can hardly finish a single task without getting bogged down or crashing, but it still tries. It’s got true grit, and still looks better than most PCs I’ve seen. I bet if we could do a clean install, it would be completely usable again. Unfortunately we don’t have a system 9 disk anymore. And my mother is afraid that such a big effort will just be too much for it…

  10. Darren Eveland

    MorphOS should be out soon for that machine and you will be able to download the ISO and test it for free. Right now MorphOS is at version 2.5 and doesn’t support the PowerMac G4, only Mac Mini G4 and eMac, but next version, 2.6, should support PowerMac G4.

    I assure you that machine would run super fast with MorphOS :)

  11. My old Dual G4 450 with 384MB Ram is still going strong in my parents house. It has a lot of original software and isnt connected to the web but it does great for photos, music and word processing. Plus I don’t know about any of you but it feels sad to ever let a mac die. Up until recently my 9600/233 was still being used with OS8.6!

  12. I’m thinking of setting up something like this but with an old G4 Mac Mini. Run it headless, and really just use it for remote desktop sessions for when I need an OS X app for something specific (ie iTunes server – should handle the file sharing and library sharing like a trooper.) and will give me another terminal I can connect to if someone is using my main MAC when I want a full remote desktop while I am on the road connecting back home.
    I might even see if I can scrounge up a copy of OS X 10.5 server – would make a perfect mail/iCal/print/file/wiki server for 2-3 users. I just hope that 10.5 for PPC keeps getting patched for a little while longer.

  13. Charles

    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.


    • Hamranhansenhansen

      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.

      • 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).

  14. 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?

  15. 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)

  16. rampancy

    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.

  17. 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!

  18. 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.

    • 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.

  19. 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.

  20. 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.

  21. 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;)

  22. 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.

    • Hamranhansenhansen

      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.