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 There was also an outdated version of Norton AV running…that got the axe pretty quickly.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.