Turning my third-generation iPod into a flash-based device

iPod 3G in box
 
After successfully upgrading my iPod mini, replacing its failed 4 GB MicroDrive with an 8 GB CompactFlash card, I wanted to try to do the same thing for my older third-generation iPod. It’s my very first iPod, a 10 GB model purchased in 2003, and it has a great deal of sentimental value to me. Sadly, its internal hard drive stopped working sometime in 2009, and I never got round to fix it. By 2009 I had many other alternatives to listen to music on the go — I had the iPod mini, an iPod shuffle, and an iPhone 3G — so what was once my only iPod was now left in a box with its accessories. Every now and then I would take it out to recharge the battery (while feeling guilty because I was neglecting it), and every now and then I would search online for a new Toshiba hard drive of bigger capacity, but prices have always been a bit too high for my tastes. But recently I started considering the CompactFlash route, and when I stumbled on a very cheap 1.8-inch drive to CF adapter on eBay, I decided to go for it.

What follows is my personal experience, not a proper guide, so your mileage may definitely vary.

Disassembling the iPod to remove the hard drive

I followed the excellent iPod 3rd Generation Hard Drive Replacement guide by iFixit. Opening the iPod was hard and cost me lots of patience, attempts, a few tiny scratches on the iPod’s white surface, and a moment of panic when I thought I had broken something inside with the putty knife I used to separate the plastic front from the metal rear of the iPod. Follow the guide faithfully and pay special attention to the warning at Step 7 regarding the disconnection of the internal headphone jack connector.

Inserting the CompactFlash card

Unlike the iPod mini, for which it was simply a matter of swapping the MicroDrive with a CF card, in this case a 1.8-inch drive to CF adapter is needed. This is what I found and bought on eBay for a few Euros:

CF adapter

At first I thought I’d have trouble inserting it the right way, but I soon found out that there’s really no risk of making mistakes once you examine how the original hard drive connects to the drive connector. A small obstacle in my path at this point was a small plastic protrusion that enters a hole in the hard drive plastic edge near the 50-pin connector (evidently to help you insert the drive in the correct orientation and to align the pins properly). When I pushed the CF adapter down, this small protrusion prevented one edge of the adapter’s connector to insert all the way down. So I clipped it with a pair of small scissors, just enough to eliminate the interference.

Then I slid the CF card in. I was satisfied with the price and quality of the 8 GB SanDisk Ultra card I got for the iPod mini, so I purchased a 16 GB card of the same brand and model.

iPod with 16 GB Card

Connecting to the Mac and iTunes

Dealing with the hardware for this kind of upgrade hasn’t been particularly challenging. But as I was browsing the Web for information in the past weeks, I stumbled on a few different horror stories of third-generation iPods being especially fussy with this upgrade, some not recognising the card, some not being recognised by iTunes, some needing firmware modifications to work, and so on and so forth. I was ready to face troubles and complications, so after inserting the CF card and connecting the drive and headphones connectors, I didn’t close the iPod just yet.

Now, this generation of iPods was the last to be able to connect to Macs and sync with iTunes over FireWire. And being the first iPod with the long-lasting 30-pin Dock connector, it could effectively connect to Macs via FireWire and to PCs (and Macs) via USB. Tempted as I was to connect it to my Intel MacBook Pro over USB, I instead connected it to the same-vintage iMac G4 over FireWire. Like I did with the iPod mini, I just put the CF card inside without formatting it, assuming it was ready to use with a DSLR camera (therefore being preformatted in FAT-32 format).

Lo and behold, iTunes 10.6.3 on the iMac instantly opened and recognised the iPod and the CF capacity, but not the Serial Number and the Software Version, though it prompted me to update, telling me that “A newer version of the iPod software is available (version 2.3)”. (Also note “Format: Windows”)

IPod recognised 1

And the quirkiness begins

Naturally, I click on Update, and the (very fast) update process begins. iTunes downloads the iPod software version 2.3, copies it on the iPod, then — a typical final step in any iPod update — the iPod disappears from the iTunes sidebar, reboots, and remounts. iTunes warns about this with a dialog box that auto-dismisses itself after a few seconds. But the iPod doesn’t reboot. On the iPod’s display the message “OK to disconnect” appears. So I disconnect, then reconnect the iPod to the Mac. iTunes opens and warns that there’s an iPod with a corrupted drive connected (Uh-oh!) and offers to restore it and update the software. I let iTunes do its thing, and I’m presented with the same situation as before: the iPod should reboot (iTunes is telling me so) but it doesn’t. On the display, again, “OK to disconnect”.

I stop and think: evidently the iPod isn’t able to complete the update process by rebooting, so this time instead of disconnecting it, I manually reset it (by holding the Menu and Play/Pause buttons). It’s the right move, because after rebooting, under the Apple logo a progress bar appears. And since there’s now a CF card inside, the firmware update proceeds at an amazing speed. After 5 seconds, the Language Setup screen appears and the iPod is fine. I quickly go to Settings > About and all information shows up correctly: iPod name, capacity, available space, Software Version, Serial Number and Model Number. Success! But…

But now iTunes doesn’t see the iPod.

I reboot the iPod, nothing. I reboot the iMac, nothing. I disconnect and reconnect the iPod, nothing. Then I remember something I read on the Web… someone complaining that after the CompactFlash upgrade their iPod could only sync with iTunes via USB. So I take a USB cable and connect the iPod to the iMac via USB. iTunes opens and immediately recognises the iPod:

IPod recognised 2

Note that now everything appears correctly, and the Format is Macintosh.

Since I don’t have music yet on the iMac, before closing the iPod for good, I want to try copying some music on it, and to check if everything is okay when plugging the headphones. So I connect it to my MacBook Pro and — whew — no problems with the latest version of iTunes. As predicted, transferring music to the flash-based iPod is really fast, and once I plug in the first pair of earphones at hand, I can hear music just fine. However I notice an interesting detail: the iPod is not charging despite being connected to a high-powered USB 2.0 port directly. Quite baffling. I disconnect it, take a FireWire cable and connect the iPod to the G4 Cube. iTunes doesn’t open, but now the iPod is charging. So, was what I read in that forum true then — that after upgrading a third-generation iPod to use a CF card, it can only be synced over USB and only be charged over FireWire?

At this point I’m still utterly puzzled by the initial fact that, after updating the iPod to the latest software version, it stopped being recognised by iTunes over FireWire and just developed this behaviour. It’s not logical. In the end, what I’ve done is just replacing the hard drive with another ‘drive’, only it has flash storage. And then I have an idea. I connect the iPod to the MacBook Pro again over FireWire (like this: [iPod] → [30-pin to FireWire 400 adapter] → [FireWire 800 to FireWire 400 cable] → [MacBook Pro]). As predicted, the iPod starts charging but iTunes doesn’t recognise it. Then I put the iPod into Disk Mode manually. With this iPod, the procedure is as follows: you toggle the Hold switch on and off (set it to Hold, then turn it off again), you press and hold the Play/Pause and Menu buttons until the Apple logo appears, then immediately press and hold the Previous and Next buttons until the Disk Mode screen appears. (Source: Apple Knowledge Base).

As soon as the iPod enters Disk Mode, it gets recognised by iTunes as usual and it keeps charging!

And then another quirky thing happens: transfer speeds when copying music on the iPod are really slow. Not exactly USB 1.1 slow, but certainly slower than USB 2.0 or FireWire 400. I still haven’t had time to figure out this particular detail, and if I find something I’ll update this article.

Other minor quirks noticed so far

  • The iPod freezes every time I eject it from iTunes after syncing. For both iTunes and the Finder, the iPod has been ejected correctly, but the iPod’s display remains stuck on the “Do Not Disconnect” screen. Rebooting the iPod puts everything in order.
  • I’ve also noticed occasional hiccups: earlier today, I selected a song and playback wouldn’t start, as if I had pressed Pause right away. The whole interface was fully responsive and registered every button press, but songs wouldn’t start playing. Putting the iPod to sleep and waking it again solved that.
  • The battery icon appears to have become rather unreliable at displaying exactly how much charge there’s left (more on this below).

Battery life

When it was a new model in 2003, this iPod had an advertised play time of 8 hours. I used it very often back then: 2003 to 2007 were the years of most intense use. Its hard drive failed gradually, and in the last weeks before finally stopping working, it got quite loud and sometimes copying music was painful, with intermittent transfer speeds, aborted copies, and so on. What I had started noticing in these circumstances was that the iPod got unusually warm, and that battery life had decreased dramatically. So I didn’t expect much when I started my test this morning after leaving the iPod to recharge overnight.

All in all I’m not disappointed. The iPod played continuously for just about three hours (backlight set to its minimum setting, 2 seconds; frequent interactions to change album and sometimes the volume). Honestly, I didn’t think it would last this long, considering the little 630 mAh lithium ion battery is 13 years old.

I also didn’t think it would last that long because the battery icon in the status bar completely misbehaved during my testing. When I disconnected the iPod after leaving it on the charger all night, I expected to see a full battery icon. Instead it was at about 60%, and during playback it trickled down to zero in about an hour. I thought that’s what little life there was left, but the iPod kept going, kept going, and played music for two more hours with the battery indicator completely empty.

Conclusion

Working iPod
Overall, I’m happy with how things turned out. The 16 GB CompactFlash card and the adapter didn’t cost much, and I spent about three hours between the ‘surgery’ and the tinkering. It hasn’t been a smooth ride like with the iPod mini, but at least I have revived this third-generation iPod, the very iPod that started the ‘digital music revolution’ for me. The iPod I used as a boot drive to work from my 12-inch PowerBook G4 when its internal hard drive failed and I was waiting for a replacement. I’m glad to see this old buddy playing music again after being left in a drawer for seven years. I still can’t fathom why this specific iPod generation is so fussy when you perform the CompactFlash upgrade, but these quirks I’ve encountered are nothing insurmountable. Ultimately what counts is that the iPod is perfectly usable (by the way, I also put it in Diagnostic Mode, and it passed all the tests), and the occasional hiccup can quickly be resolved with a reboot.


Sparky

Sparky

This is one of my favourite Macintosh computers never produced.

During the design investigation (circa 1992-1996) that eventually led to the creation of the Twentieth Anniversary Macintosh (codenamed “Spartacus”), lots of different ideas, mockups, prototypes were produced. In my previous entry, A seed of the iMac G4 design, I showed one of the first concepts. When, at a later date, the general design for the machine was getting closer and closer to the final result, the Apple IDG (Industrial Design Group) “presented smaller and larger versions of the concept to illustrate how a Spartacus product family might look.”

Here I’m quoting again from the book AppleDesign — The Work of the Apple Industrial Design Group, by Paul Kunkel with photos by Rick English (Graphis 1997). The passage continues:

The smaller version, called Sparky [pictured above, it’s Plate 396 in the book], was designed by Tim Parsey using a 10.4-inch flat panel display and internal components borrowed from a PowerBook 550c (the Japanese version of Blackbird). Conservative in its rear geometry compared to Spartacus, the Sparky design is more complex and eye-catching on the front, with an interesting mix of color and texture, inward-curving surfaces, framing elements around the display and hard buttons, such as a moon-shaped control that puts the unit into sleep mode and a sun-shaped button that wakes it up. Speaker holes below the screen convey the idea of sound travelling outward, which strengthens its visual appeal.

This image and the text above are the only mentions of the Sparky prototype in the book. While I really love how the Twentieth Anniversary Macintosh turned out, I find the Sparky design to be cleaner and less cluttered (the absence of a CD-ROM unit on the front helps a lot), and I think it’s a true pity this machine was never finished and produced. The Twentieth Anniversary Macintosh design still doesn’t look dated, and I find Sparky to be even less so. It would have been a great next-generation Colour Classic, and despite having been designed in October 1994, it looks much better, more visually pleasant than the later iMac G5 and pre-aluminium Intel iMac’s form factor.


Flash-based iPod mini: an informal battery comparison

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Since upgrading my 4 GB iPod mini with an 8 GB CompactFlash card, not only have I noticed faster file transfer speeds and a more responsive interface, as expected, I’ve also witnessed an increased battery life, but when I wrote the previous article it was too soon to say anything more specific than that. Now that a couple of days have passed, and I spent more time listening to music with the iPod mini, I am positively astonished by how better battery life has got.

Keep in mind that this iPod still has its original lithium ion battery that it’s more than 10 years old. When the second-generation iPod mini was introduced in early 2005, the playtime declared on Apple’s site was 18 hours. In the months preceding the failure of its 4 GB MicroDrive, battery life had worsened so much that I could barely squeeze two hours of continuous play on a full charge.

When I upgraded the iPod the other day, it wasn’t fully charged. The battery indicator on these old iPods doesn’t give accurate measurements in percentages like modern iOS devices, just an icon that gets progressively empty. So let’s say that when I started listening to music after the upgrade, the battery was roughly at 90%. Since then, I was able to listen to seven different albums, each lasting an average of 50 minutes. Before writing this article, I took the photo above as I began listening to the eight album. As you can see, battery is at about 20%. Which means it took it about six hours of playtime for the battery to go from 90 to 20%. As I’m writing this now, that Jaco Pastorius album is over — it was about 42 minutes long — and I’m three songs into the next album. There’s still about 10-15% battery left. So the battery is already lasting more than seven hours. It’s nowhere near the original 18 hours of playtime, but 7-8 hours is nonetheless an excellent number given the age of the battery. The new CompactFlash card has definitely made this iPod usable again.


Extending the life of my iPod mini

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Second-generation iPod mini — Introduced in February 2005, discontinued in September 2005

I own a second-generation 4 GB blue iPod mini that my wife passed to me when she was given a first-generation iPod touch in 2007. This iPod was never heavily used, and so it has remained fully operational — and with good battery life — for ten years, until sometime around October 2015 its internal hard drive (Hitachi 4 GB MicroDrive) failed while transferring some files. That saddened me. For some reason, despite the obvious convenience of using my iPhone to listen to music, I’ve always preferred the classic iPods for that activity. And my third-generation 10 GB iPod already died in 2008 (another hard drive failure), so now that my iPod mini stopped working too, I was left with just my iPod shuffle.

But while the easiest way to repair a third-generation iPod is to find another small-sized Toshiba hard drive for it, the iPod mini is notoriously easier to upgrade. These iPods used MicroDrives as internal storage solutions, and they are essentially small hard drives with the same dimensions (and most importantly, same connection) as CompactFlash cards. Which means that you can replace them with CompactFlash cards and enjoy a few advantages in return:

  • Today, you can easily find 8, 16, and 32 GB CompactFlash cards at reasonable prices. These cards are usually designed for heavy-duty usage with professional DSLRs.
  • They are long-lasting and offer much higher transfer speeds than the old MicroDrives.
  • Along with having more storage space (iPod minis originally came with 4 GB and 6 GB MicroDrives), CompactFlash cards do not have moving parts, which means better battery life.

The original 4 GB of storage space never felt really tight for me. While I do have a lot of music in digital form, I was never one of those people who have to copy their whole iTunes library on an iPod. I’ve always transferred just a small selection of favourite albums I love listening when out and about. I also didn’t want to get too big a CF card for fear of some unexpected incompatibility or similar issues, so when it was time to purchase a CF card to make the upgrade, I opted for a conservative 8 GB card:

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Then I looked online for tutorials on how to proceed with the part replacement. The first stop was iFixit, of course, but this tutorial over at Instructables helped too.

The process isn’t extremely complicated, you just need to be a bit cautious, but the hardest step is definitely the first: removing the white plastic on the top bezel. If you look at the aforelinked iFixit guide, this step appears deceptively simple:

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Source: iFixit.com

The problem is that the piece of white plastic is securely glued to the metal underneath, and it won’t come off easily. If you don’t proceed with patience and keep pulling up with a screwdriver, you’ll likely bend or break the plastic. Instead of a screwdriver, I used a small putty knife and tried to gently separate the white plastic from the metal casing. But the best tip to make this step even easier was given to me by Peter Emery on App.net (and it’s also suggested in the Instructables tutorial): use a hair dryer to soften the glue.

I know it sounds dangerous to expose the iPod to heat this way, but my iPod wasn’t harmed in any way. Just to be cautious, I used the hair dryer on the minimum setting and directed hot air on the top of the iPod in short bursts. After 5-6 times of gently prying and heating the plastic, it finally came off. It’s virtually impossible to avoid scuffing the white plastic top a bit — just think that, at least, you’ll have a working iPod later.

Same story with the piece of white plastic on the bottom (surrounding the 30-pin Dock connector), but in my case this came off much more easily. I didn’t even need to use the hair dryer. The iFixit tutorial has the best images, so follow the steps until it’s time to remove the MicroDrive. This tutorial is for a hard drive replacement, so once you get to Step 13, what’s left to do is to carefully remove the MicroDrive from its connector (get rid of the black tape and the blue bumpers), insert the CF card (make sure you keep the label on top — see Step 4 of the Instructables tutorial), and reattach the connector to the iPod’s motherboard. Another great advice is given here in the Instructables tutorial: You don’t need the rubber bumpers or tape but you will need a small piece of double sided foam tape to attach the card to the motherboard and keep it from rattling around inside your Mini. I suggest you follow it. The CF card is lighter and thinner than the MicroDrive — it will rattle if you don’t secure it.

The hardware part of the upgrade was done, but before reassembling everything, I wanted to make sure the iPod was properly recognised and formatted, so I connected the ‘naked’ iPod to my MacBook Pro and iTunes 12 immediately recognised it as a Windows-formatted 8 GB iPod mini. I tried copying an album to it, and the copy went smoothly and was insanely fast compared with the original MicroDrive. But since I read online that a good practice at this point is to do a full Restore using iTunes, that’s what I did, and iTunes 12.3.2 failed to complete the operation, throwing a ‘1430 error’. This Apple Support article (unsurprisingly) wasn’t really helpful. The solution was connecting the iPod to my PowerBook G4 with Mac OS X Leopard and iTunes 10.6.3, which correctly recognised and restored the iPod right away and without problems.

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Now the iPod was ready to be reassembled:

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Since upgrading the iPod, I’ve roughly filled half of it with music, and I’ve instantly noticed the benefits of having a CompactFlash-based iPod: file transfer is really fast, the battery appears to last more than before (I’m still testing, but in the last period with the 4 GB MicroDrive, battery life was quite poor), and the iPod remains cool. With the MicroDrive, the iPod started getting warm after a while; I don’t know if it’s normal for a MicroDrive to get warm or if that was a sign of imminent failure, but with the moving parts of a hard drive and the heat, it’s no wonder battery life was impacted. Now the situation is definitely better on this front, and I’m actually amazed that a 10-year old battery is still capable of holding such a charge.

Here are a few more photos. As you can see, the backlight is still very bright after all these years. Long live the iPod mini!

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A seed of the iMac G4 design

Through the libraries of the local Polytechnic University, I fortunately have access to a seminal book: AppleDesign — The Work of the Apple Industrial Design Group, by Paul Kunkel with photos by Rick English (1997). The book went out of print not long after being published, and it’s an amazing treasure trove of information on Apple’s design approaches and investigations from the early Apple II days until 1997. And that means not only a lot of details about several projects which never saw the light of day, but also a lot of photographs of prototypes and mockups illustrating the various ideas and explorations within the projects — whether they led to a known Apple product or not. Needless to say, I find this to be incredibly fascinating, and I return to this book on a regular basis even though I know it quite well by now.

Since I’ve just talked about the most recent addition to my collection, a 17-inch iMac G4, I’ll share a brief extract from that book showing a design idea that, while considered many years before, and for a different project, might be viewed as a first seed of the iMac G4 design.

The Pomona design investigation

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(Image source: KCG Computer Museum)

The final design of the iconic Twentieth Anniversary Macintosh (codename: Spartacus) was the result of a long investigation that had started a few years before, in the autumn of 1992. The investigation was internally code-named Pomona. From the AppleDesign book:

“For years, I’d wondered how the computer would evolve from a box into something more physically compelling that would fit better in the home,” says Bob Brunner [the Director of Apple’s Industrial Design Group at the time]. “In survey after survey, customers told us they want ‘power systems’ with expansion slots and extra drive bays that allow them to add to their system at a later date. That demand forced us to adopt a box-like design to hold the cards and drives. But most home users never add to their system, which leaves them with unused slots, drive bays that remain empty, and a box they don’t really need.”

Eventually, says Brunner, “home users should realise they only need a standard setup with a single expansion slot. When that happens, we can stop thinking of the computer as a plastic box and instead give it a shape that expresses its function, using materials such as wood, metal and leather that are more in tune with the home environment.”

To anticipate this change, Brunner launched the Pomona Design Investigation in October 1992, wrote a two-page design brief, and invited IDG’s designers, as well as consultants from Silicon Valley, Tokyo and New York, to submit concepts in an effort to redefine the home computer, invent shapes to better address user’s needs and employ materials that would function as well in a domestic setting as Apple’s platinum grey plastic works in the office. […]

The Pomona design brief was distributed to IDG’s designers and five outside consultants — Eric Chan of EC Design (New York), Tangerine (London), IDEC (Tokyo), Montgomery & Pfeifer (San Francisco), and IDEO Product Development (San Francisco). Their task was to create a desktop Macintosh with high object value using miniature components, high aesthetic content, and alternative materials. […]

As Brunner expected, the Pomona brief sparked an avalanche of ideas, many of which did away with the traditional computer box or shrunk it to a barely noticeable size. Eric Chan and his staff at Ecco Design generated dozens of sketches showing tabletop, desk-mounted and freestanding concepts.

One of such concepts took inspiration from Richard Sapper’s Tizio lamp, with the motherboard and drives housed in a desk ‘base’, and a flat panel display mounted on a long, adjustable arm. Sounds familiar?

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(Source: P. Kunkel, AppleDesign — The Work of the Apple Industrial Design Group, page 212)

Above you can see a scan of plates 388-389 from the AppleDesign book. The notes on the sketch should be fairly readable, while for sake of completeness I’ll transcribe the caption printed in small text under the photo:

Pomona Design Investigation: Hard Models. 388 Phase One Sketch for a Desktop Computer, by Eric Chan (Ecco Design, New York, NY), inspired by Richard Sapper’s Tizio Lamp. 389 Tizio Concept. Industrial Design: Apple Computer: Robert Brunner, based on a sketch by Eric Chan. Dates of Design: January-April 1993.

1993 means almost ten years before the introduction of the iMac G4. Now, I don’t know if the iMac’s design was achieved internally through a completely different, independent route, or if the designers went back looking at past ideas and thought about giving this concept a second chance, but it’s a nevertheless intriguing connection.


Added to the collection: 17-inch iMac G4

iMac G4 (front)

This year, Christmas came a bit earlier. Richard — the same generous soul responsible for this amazing donation — surprised me again with this marvellous Christmas gift that arrived on my doorstep on 21 December. It’s a first-generation (2002-2003) 17-inch iMac G4, with an 800 MHz PowerPC G4 7450 v2.1 processor, 768 MB RAM, 80 GB hard drive, tray-loading 2x SuperDrive capable of writing CD-R, CD-RW, DVD-R and DVD-RW discs. It came with a fresh installation of Mac OS X 10.5.8, and even if technically Leopard isn’t supported on this machine (the minimum requirement being an 867 MHz G4 processor), the iMac handles it quite well. I’ve already started installing a minimum set of applications and, at least for now, I have no reason or interest to downgrade to Mac OS X Tiger.

iMac G4 (back)

As you can see in the photos, this iMac is in excellent condition, and thanks to Richard’s careful packaging it arrived safely to my house without unfortunate accidents during shipping. The display arm is tight and sustains the display in any position and at any angle I’ve tried it. The display is bright and flawless. The polycarbonate white is still uniformly white and, thankfully, there’s no trace of yellowing or other colour alteration I happened to see on other iMac G4 models in the past. It really looks like new.

(The blueberry Apple USB Keyboard and round USB mouse are, of course, a temporary solution. Only the main iMac unit was given to me. They were the original keyboard and mouse that came with my previous iMac G3.)

A tiny dream come true

Adding this iMac G4 to my collection means a lot to me. I’ve wanted this type of iMac since it was introduced back in early 2002. But with a starting price of €1,599 (for the 15-inch iMac G4/700 model), I just couldn’t afford it at the time. Or rather, I could have afforded it, but not after making a decision that felt right then, and foolishly sentimental in retrospect. In late 2001, my beloved iMac G3/350 blueberry broke down due to a nasty thunderstorm frying its motherboard and analogue board. I was finishing one of my first big assignments as technical translator, and that iMac G3, purchased in late 1999, had accumulated a lot of sentimental value to me. When it broke, I was really bummed and panicking because I had work to deliver on a close deadline, so my first gut reaction was to have it repaired at all costs. The technicians at the repairing centre where I took it, once they assessed the damage, told me that it would have been much more cost-effective to throw it away and buy another iMac G3 second-hand. I was too stubborn and too saddened by the loss of my iMac to listen to reason, so I ended up spending more than €1,000 to have it fixed.

When the first iMac G4 was introduced shortly after, in January 2002, I wanted to eat my hat. If I had known, I would have saved that money and used it to purchase the new iMac G4, instead of holding on to a machine that was getting old fast. And you know what happened just a few months later? The iMac G3 broke down again, thanks to another sudden, violent thunderstorm (and certainly to the poor electrical system of the old building I was living in at the time). Lesson truly learnt, I threw away the iMac G3 for good, but then I only had money for a second-hand iBook G3/466 SE FireWire. (I’m not complaining, that iBook is still working today, the only two things I’ve replaced are the battery and the DVD drive.)

But since then, two Macs always remained at the top of my wishlist: the Power Mac G4 Cube, and the iMac G4. I got my Cube itch scratched in 2006, and now, finally, unexpectedly, it’s the turn of the iMac G4. Both the Cube and the iMac G4 are, in my opinion, the coolest desktop Macs in relatively recent times — for the platinum era, I’d say the winner is the Macintosh Colour Classic, and the all-time winner remains of course the Twentieth Anniversary Macintosh.

While the Cube has undoubtedly a few design quirks (the position of the ports is rather unfortunate and impractical), the iMac G4 is such a joy to use. Despite having an internal fan, it’s not much louder than the fanless Cube, and the display design is just amazing because it is such a perfect combination of wonderful æsthetics and sheer usefulness. You can have the display in front of you at just the right angle, you can easily move it to the side to show something to someone else, and when you’re sitting at the iMac, it’s like having the screen float before your eyes.

The iMac G4’s design was a staggering departure from the previous G3 model, but was also a true improvement inside and out. It was a lighter computer, with a smaller footprint, and thanks to that display design, it felt even lighter, airier. Only the short-lived 20-inch model was a little unbalanced and out of proportion — that 20-inch display was perhaps too big and heavy for the overall design of the iMac.

However, when the first iMac G5 was introduced in mid-2004, its design was a huge letdown for me. Sure, I appreciated the engineering feat of basically having a display with a whole computer inside, and having a faster G5 processor in a consumer-grade product was great, but at the time I felt that the design was a step back compared to the move from the iMac G3 to the iMac G4. Even today, when I look at the whole iMac line, the white G5 and later white Intel models are just ugly, thick desktop beasts, something rectified by the later aluminium models. And speaking of these later aluminium models, while they’ve got thinner, more beautiful and functional year after year, their design is fundamentally unchanged since 2007. They’re simply boring compared to the iMac G4, whose unique, iconic design has remained quite fresh and a reminder of that whimsical touch Apple seems to have forgotten.

Put to good use, as always

This new entry in my small collection, like other vintage Macs I own, is not going to just sit idly in my living-room as a museum exhibit. I haven’t yet decided a specific purpose for it, but its placement as the only desktop Mac outside of my studio makes it an excellent candidate for writing and collecting my thoughts in a less visually cluttered environment. It could also serve as a good media server, and it’s certainly a fantastic solution to listen to music — both my local iTunes library and streamed music via Spotify (the old PowerPC client still works and its interface is actually better than the current one).

Years ago I was given the Apple Pro Speakers you see in the photos above, by a friend who thought they were the Apple M7963 USB Speakers for the Power Mac G4 Cube. They look similar, but can’t be used with the Cube, so I kept them all this time just in case, in an unknown condition because I couldn’t attach them to any other Mac in my possession to test them. Well, it turns out they work fine and deliver a surprisingly rich sound and loudness for their size.

Having another Mac capable of writing DVDs doesn’t hurt, either. I still use optical discs as a backup solution for old files and archives. So I immediately installed the excellent Disco app to easily handle future disc burns.

As for other software, I added the usual set of essentials (for me): TenFourFox for browsing the Web, Sparrow for email, Transmit for FTP, The Unarchiver for unarchiving basically any compressed file, Hazel for a bit of automation in file handling, MenuMeters for keeping an eye on network speeds, TextWrangler and Notational Velocity for text editing and synchronised note-taking, the old Cloud.app version I’ve kept, which still works and syncs with the CloudApp service, and NetNewsWire 3.2.15 to check my feeds. Even if I don’t find a specific task for this iMac, it’s still a great general-purpose machine for doing a lot of light work — and a very cool-looking one at that.

Once again, my deepest, heartfelt thanks to Richard for his generosity.


And finally, thank you to all of you for reading and following this humble blog. My apologies for having updated it so intermittently over the course of 2015 — I’ll try to do better next year. Have a great 2016, everybody!


A modicum of synchronisation

I’m still irked by Dropbox dropping support of PowerPC Macs running Tiger and Leopard. I know I’m not a typical Mac user, and that expecting support for an architecture that — at least on the Mac — was left behind in 2006 is a bit too much, especially given the short memory technology has nowadays. Still, I use a bunch of PowerPC Macs as secondary machines, they’re still useful and capable enough. When I work on some of my projects away from home, I often leave the Intel Mac at home and bring with me one of my G4 PowerBooks. When Dropbox worked, my workflow was excellent. I kept everything in sync without effort. I started working on documents on the PowerBook G4 to finish them later at home on the MacBook Pro, and vice versa. It was a seamless process.

Dropbox wasn’t the only thing I used to keep stuff in sync, but it had the best interface for handling files. Now that I’m left without it, here’s a brief overview of the tools I still use — tools that still work on PPC machines — to retain a modicum of synchronisation between my PowerPC Macs and more modern Apple devices:

  • Notational Velocity — This is an amazing tool for keeping notes in sync. The app is a Universal Binary that works great on a system as old as Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger and as new as Mac OS X 10.11 El Capitan. The syncing service is through Simplenote, so all my notes and bits of text are also available and in sync on iOS devices thanks to the Simplenote app.
  • CloudApp — It’s a great software/service for quickly sharing screenshots and all kinds of different files (images, videos, code snippets, documents, etc.), and I also use it as a sort of ‘Dropbox Lite’ whenever I need to pass one or more files from my MacBook Pro to my G4 PowerBooks and vice versa. I was an early adopter, and version 1.x of CloudApp was available for PowerPC Macs running at least Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard. Surprisingly, it still works. Up until a few months ago, if you went to CloudApp’s Download page, you could still download older versions (unsupported, of course). Not anymore. But the WayBack Machine is your friend. And if that archived link should stop working as well, I have saved version 1.0.3 for PowerPC Macs here.
  • Firefox Sync — I only recently had the proverbial ‘eureka moment’, when I realised that by creating a Firefox account, not only could I keep browser tabs, bookmarks, passwords, history, add-ons and preferences synchronised between my MacBook Pro and my iOS devices, but I could also include my PowerPC Macs because TenFourFox supports Firefox Sync — at least for now. It’s great and very handy.
  • FTP — Always an option, of course. I resort to FTP when dealing with big files. I upload them on my server and use Transmit to handle my stuff. You can download older versions of Transmit from Panic’s archives at this page (the last version supporting PowerPC Macs should be 4.1.9 — You’ll still need to purchase a licence to use the app, naturally).

This is an important subject: having some form of synchronisation available to create a bridge between vintage Macs and modern devices is essential in order to keep older Macs useful. If you have other ideas, use other methods, or know about other applications/services which still support PowerPC Macs, feel free to chime in. Recently, I became interested in BitTorrent Sync, but it doesn’t explicitly support PowerPC Macs. However, by looking at the supported platforms, I was thinking that maybe there was a way to make the FreeBSD versions work… I’m not fluent enough in UNIX, though; if you are, your suggestions are welcome!


Accessing Gmail from an older version of OS X Mail

I have lost more than thirty minutes trying to solve a small but annoying problem. The solution is rather simple, but it may not be apparent at first. I hope this post can help others who have stumbled upon the same issue.

I have a low-traffic Gmail account I usually check on my Power Mac G4 Cube using Mail.app in Mac OS X 10.4.11. Since it’s low-traffic, I don’t check it very often. But today I felt that a check was long overdue, so I opened Mail, clicked the Get Mail button, and I was presented with the annoying dialog box I sometimes see when there’s a network problem, the password confirmation dialog box. It appears that the pop.gmail.com server rejected my account password, so I was prompted to insert it again. I did, repeatedly, but to no avail.

So I logged in via the Web interface — without any problem — and found a message from Google that told me Google prevented the sign-in because it is from “an app that doesn’t meet modern security standards.”

At first I thought Google had updated/changed the server ports for incoming/outgoing mail, and after tweaking a few settings (I had the outgoing server port still set to ’25’ instead of ‘465’), I tried again to download my email messages. No joy. I then tried to look for an answer in the Gmail support pages, but my frustration and annoyance prevented me to find what I was looking for more promptly.

I was about to give up, when I noticed an error message in Mail from the Gmail server that thankfully contained the link I was searching, and access to Gmail from Mail.app under Mac OS X Tiger was restored. The essential page is this one: Allowing less secure apps to access your account. You have to make sure you reach this page after you have signed in the problematic account via the Web interface.

Look down the page until you find this bit:

Gmail less secure

Click on the “Less secure apps” section of MyAccount link and you’ll be taken to the Less secure apps page. Click the Turn on radio button to allow access for less secure apps. Now go back to Mail, check for new mail, and the messages should start downloading.

Again, I hope this helps. And I hope it’s clear that in so doing, you’re choosing to weaken the security of your Gmail account(s) in exchange for the convenience of accessing the account(s) from a vintage Mac with older software. In my case, it’s not an important or primary email account, I have been downloading mail on the Cube from that account for the past six years, and I wanted to continue to do so.


A nice UI detail in NEXTSTEP’s Webster app

Nextstep webster

It’s that time of the year when I get drawn to the NeXT platform once again. Unfortunately I do not own any NeXT hardware, so I have to resort to software emulation to explore and interact with the NEXTSTEP operating system.

After starting the NEXTSTEP 3.3 virtual machine in Fusion, I was checking some unrelated information, when I remembered that NEXTSTEP had its own built-in Webster dictionary. When I opened the application, I noticed a nifty UI detail. You can tell the application to search for a term in the Dictionary, in the Thesaurus, or have both results in the same window. You can see at a glance where you’re searching, because the icon in the Dictionary and Thesaurus button will appear as an open or closed dictionary accordingly. So, in the image above, you can tell at once you’re just seeing results in the Webster Dictionary. To search the Thesaurus, you click on the Thesaurus button, and it’ll change to an open book icon. Vice versa, if you only want to see results from the Thesaurus and not the Dictionary, you click on the Dictionary button and it will ‘close’. It’s a very subtle, very clever UI detail that’s perfectly intuitive because it depicts exactly the action you’re carrying out — ‘opening’ the book you want to consult, and ‘closing’ the book you’re not interested in.

It’s interesting to note that in Mac OS X’s Dictionary app, you can’t have a concurrent view of the results from both the Dictionary and the Thesaurus, unless you open the app’s Preferences, deselect all the resources you don’t want to display except the Dictionary and Thesaurus, and select All in the sources toolbar after entering the search term in the main window. (Or you can choose File > New Window from the menu and have two app windows, one for the Dictionary, one for the Thesaurus, but it’s more cumbersome because you have to type the same search term in both windows.)


A brief status update

handling-floppies.png

Brief status update

No, this place is not dead, but since April I haven’t had much time to write something related to this blog’s usual topics. I also spent less time with my oldest Macs, and all the other, more modern PowerPC Macs have been running very well and without issues. I’m always amazed by the stability and reliability of my small fleet of G3 and G4 systems running either Mac OS X Tiger or Leopard.

Conversely, I’m amazed at how utterly crappy and flawed the DuoDock power supply unit is. As you perhaps recall, in February I was given a complete Duo system consisting of a PowerBook Duo 280c and a DuoDock II. Unfortunately, the DuoDock didn’t power on and the PSU was emitting the infamous ‘tick of death’. Richard, the very generous donor, was a gentleman and shortly after sent me a working spare PSU. I swapped it with the faulty one and everything was fine, until one day last month this PSU too started ticking, and the system wouldn’t power on. I guess one day I’ll buy a soldering iron and learn to repair these things myself. But I swear, I’ve handled Macs and a lot of related peripherals for more than 25 years and I’ve never seen another machine or part as unreliable as the DuoDock’s PSU.

After the loss of Dropbox

In May, Dropbox stopped supporting PowerPC Macs running Mac OS X Tiger or Leopard. Needless to say, this was a major blow to my typical workflow, since I use a mix of current and vintage Macs and devices. I’m still trying to perfect an alternate solution that can be as smooth and ‘just working’ as Dropbox was. I’ll post it here as soon as I find it worth sharing. It’s a pity that Dropbox hasn’t been able to offer an ‘end of life’ version of its desktop client for Tiger/Leopard Macs.

About my data retrieval service

I thought the way I explained how my data retrieval service works was clear enough, but the way I’ve been contacted about it lately warrants a brief rant.

Four people have written to me enquiring about my service and my methods and my equipment. They all have critical data to be retrieved but they can’t make a copy of their original media and are afraid of sending me the original disks. I understand the concern. The only assurance I can make is that I will treat the disks as if they were my own and with the utmost care possible. These people, after a long email back-and-forth, after asking me every little bit of information, every detail of how I intended to handle their data, interrupted our correspondence and did not ultimately commit. Again, I understand that entrusting your precious data to a stranger and having to ship the disks internationally is a concern, but making me waste a considerable amount of time to then disappear is not cool, either.

It’s also not cool to pester me with repeated requests for tips and tricks about how to retrieve the data yourself. I mean, I can certainly give the occasional bit of advice, but I’ve been contacted by people who evidently could use my data retrieval service, but want to do the retrieval themselves, probably because they don’t want to pay me for it. And yet, they ask advice. Like going to an auto mechanic and, instead of leaving your car for a complete check-up, you approach the mechanic and ask him ‘tips’ to do the work yourself. It doesn’t seem quite fair, does it?


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