Sunday, 7 December 2008

Re-using old hardware - Mac Edition

I've written in the past about re-using old PCs, whether you use XP or Linux to power them and so forth. But what about the "other side"? The land where the switchers are all young, happy, cool, editing their videos and using iTunes without so much as a backward glance towards us mere mortals?

Well, yes, there are what are affectionately referred to as Low End Macs (or LEMs). As with PCs the low end is a constantly moving target, but realistically to have any chance of doing something useful you'll need to try and get hold of a G3 or higher. In case you are coming from the PC side of things, a G3 is one of those strange breed of CPUs that Apple insisted on using (allegedly because they were better than the Intel line) before mysteriously switching to Intel based CPUs a couple of years ago.

I've just rescued an old beige Power Macintosh G3 off the scrap heap, so let's see what we can do with it.

Stage 1 - what the hell do I have?

So how fast is it? It's a 233mhz Power Macintosh G3. It started off with around 378meg of ram, which I've upgraded to 512meg. As far as G3 Macs go, this is about as slow as you get. To put it into some sort of perspective, when this Mac first came on the scene, a top of the range PC would have been a P2 400.

The default 4GB hard drive is still installed (but blank). USB support is via a plug-in card.

After a bit of a hunt around I installed OS9, which worked well and allowed me to get on the internet without problems. If you are a Mac novice, then you'll need to remember to hold down the "C" key when booting up if you want to install from the CD.

OS 9 only took less than 15 minutes to install, and worked OK. It certainly allowed me to test that the Mac actually worked.

Stage 2 - Installing OS X

However a Mac without OS X is less than useful. After another hunt around I retrieved a spare set of OS X 10.3 install CDs, at which point I encountered my first problem: You need built-in USB in order to install 10.3, which the beige G3 doesn't have. If I had 10.2 or lower I'd have been fine.

However all is not lost. Providing you already have OS 9 installed, you can download XPostFacto which allows you to install OS X on unsupported Macs.

One hint, download the .SIT archive rather than the DMG otherwise you'll have a fair bit of fun trying to open the damn thing. . .

Running XPostFacto allows you to choose your OS X install CD, and away you go.

Just be warned that this will take a while.

A long while.

One hour later. . .

Sorry, but it's still installing. I'll give you a shout once it's done.




While we're waiting for OS X 10.3 to install a quick word about the various versions of OS X. There are one hell of a lot of them, all of them using various large felines for their version.

So we have 10.0 (Cheetah), 10.1 (Puma), 10.2 (Jaguar), 10.3 (Panther), 10.4 (Tiger) and 10.5 (Leopard). Rumours that 10.6 will be called House Cat are entirely unfounded.




Another point worth mentioning are the things that OS X doesn't support, like internal floppy drives and non-usb printers. Yes, I know that floppies are SO last century, but sometimes people do have things stored on them that they might need to access. Depending on what model of LEM you are using you can either try and install the Open Source drivers for the internal floppy (available from here) or invest in an external USB floppy drive and ignore the onboard one.




The annoying thing about the long install is that I'm pretty sure I'm gonna have to blitz the install and drop in a larger hard drive anyway, and a lot of the install time is taken up by installing support for languages that I'll never use (for example my grasp of Chinese - simplified or otherwise - doesn't go much beyond "ni hao").




Wow! It's finally installed! Taking nearly two hours, the install has finally completed. After a mandatory registration page (complete with your name, address and phone number) you can get to install the updates and start using the system.

Stage 3 - Post Install

After the install the 4GB hard drive has just under 1GB left, which to be honest is more than I'd expected. There were something like 150meg of updates waiting to be downloaded and installed, but really the whole thing, apart from it being time consuming, wasn't that bad.

I'm not thrilled with the registration process, something that personally I think is intrusive and unnecessary, but hey, this is the price you pay to be one of the cool kids.

So how does it work? It's not the speediest beast that I've ever used, I'll admit that. However it isn't as bad as I'd expected it to be. Moving and resizing windows is fast enough. Browsing the internet is a bit choppy, but not too bad. It's certainly usable, as long as you aren't in a rush to get things done.

So to answer the question posed at the start, yes, you can make use of that old G3. Just don't expect miracles from it!

Bonus Stage - Overclocking the G3

BIG FAT WARNING TIME: You'll probably break your Mac trying this. Honestly. Don't do it!

Still desperate to try? Well you could try the instructions here, and also the full list of jumper settings here, but if you do so then you're on your own. If you manage to fsck up your trusty old G3 whilst trying to get some more speed out of it then that's your problem.

You may also want to have a search on Google too. But just so we're clear on this, I DO NOT RECOMMEND YOU TRYING THIS!

I, however, are about to give it a shot, wish me luck.




After following the instructions on the linked page, removing the "VOID Warranty if seal is broken" sticker, and setting the CPU jumpers to positions 1, 5, 6, 7 (which is for a 300mhz CPU) I powered on and. . .


At this point I noticed that I'd set the jumpers wrong (I'd set them to 1, 6, 7, 8 by mistake). After setting them to their correct position I powered up again - and everything worked!

The boot up was noticably faster, the "About this mac" screen claims that this is a 300mhz G3 on OS 10.3.9, in fact, so far so good as far as the overclock goes!

Trying to overclock higher just didn't work.

Ah well, time to test this thing at 300mhz. Internet browsing is better, but not perfect. Youtube sucks on this, but the fact that it is using Flash Player 7 probably doesn't help. Upgrading to Flash 10 isn't possible on this setup, as it is restricted to OS X 10.4 and higher, so that leaves me with upgrading to Flash 9.

Youtube performance still sucks, but not quite as bad as with Flash Player 7.

All in all, for basic browsing, email and the like (as long as you can live without YouTube) the overclocked G3 isn't that bad.

No comments: