iBook to go

According to coconut IdentityCard, my clamshell iBook G3/466 Graphite SE FireWire just turned 10. I haven’t checked, but probably my other blueberry iBook G3/300 is turning eleven as we speak. Ten years is a long time, especially in ‘computer years’ considering the rapid evolution of the technology. Still, my clamshell iBooks get a surprisingly lot of use. That’s why I wanted to properly celebrate them with this post.

Small list of amazing facts

  • I purchased my graphite iBook second-hand in 2002 and, apart from the DVD drive, all the original parts are still there and functioning. I’m especially impressed by the original 10 GB hard drive, considering I’ve been using this iBook a lot, especially from 2002 to 2004 when it was my main work machine.
  • The original battery still holds approximately 45 minutes of charge. I purchased a new battery (a third party model) in 2005, which I swap between the two iBooks when I need the juice, and with this new battery I still get more than five hours of charge (with AirPort turned on, and screen brightness at 80%). Don’t believe me? See for yourself:
  • 5 hours on the iBook

  • My two clamshell iBooks both own the longest uptime record of all the Macs in use in my household: 394 days for the blueberry iBook, 358 days for the graphite iBook.
  • I believe these iBooks are the toughest portable Macs ever built. Possibly the toughest Macs of all time. I didn’t happen to me, luckily, but I witnessed a tangerine iBook being accidentally dropped down a flight of stairs, and after the owner (still in shock) picked it up, everything was working fine and nothing was broken.

Use cases, past and present
So, for what am I still using these humble, yet amazing vintage iBooks? Today, their main uses are essentially three:

  1. Running Mac OS 9 natively. I have a lot of other PowerPC Macs around which can dual-boot and run Mac OS 9, most of them more powerful than the iBooks, but I like to use the iBooks for that because I don’t have to reboot them in OS 9 every time I need it. I usually leave the blueberry iBook in Mac OS 9 and boot it into Mac OS X Panther occasionally. Plus, the iBooks are handy, since they have so long-lasting batteries.
  2. Connecting to the Newtons. Everything is already setup and working flawlessly on the graphite iBook. I use a Keyspan Serial Adapter and the great Newton Connection for Mac OS X (NCX) by Simon Bell to connect and exchange files with my Newtons. The eMate 300 and the iBook look like they’re made for each other, too:
  3. eMate and iBook

  4. As a scanning workstation. See this post for more information.

As regards to the past, I think it’s worth mentioning that my graphite iBook acted as a wireless base station for a long time, while I was saving money to purchase a couple of AirPort Express Base Stations (they were more expensive, then). That little guy was connected to the broadband modem via Ethernet and shared the connection wirelessly for all the other Macs and PCs in my home network. And never missed a beat.

A clamshell-related message I wrote to the Mac OS 9 list a while ago

A couple of months ago, someone in the Mac OS 9 List asked:

I have an orange clamshell and would like to give it internet capabilities. How can I do that?

What follows is my reply, slightly updated. I think it’s worth publishing here, it contains some information which may be useful for the passing System Folder reader:

Other people have replied to this, but to summarise, if you’re on Mac OS 9.2.2 the options are:

  • Ethernet, either via a direct connection to the modem/router, or to another Mac sharing the Internet connection. The TCP/IP Control Panel should be enough to set up a proper configuration.
  • Wireless, via an AirPort card. Its presence can be easily detected by lifting the iBook’s keyboard. As others have pointed out, wireless encryption under Mac OS 9 is limited to WEP.

For browsing the Web under Mac OS 9, I recommend Classilla. It works well in my blueberry clamshell iBook.

I see that in the discussion thread people have mentioned Mac OS X support and performance on these iBooks. Since I own two clamshell iBooks, I thought I could chime in.

To run Mac OS X decently on these iBooks, the first important thing is maxing out the RAM. The second important thing (especially if one wants a dual-boot OS 9/OS X iBook) is replacing the original hard drive with a bigger one – although the procedure is quite the nightmare, since you’ll basically have to dismantle the iBook. Unless you want to go Mac OS X only, in that case, with a minimal installation, you could end up with 1.5 GB of free disk space.

On the blueberry and tangerine iBook G3 — the original models with a 300 MHz processor and no FireWire port — the maximum OS X version you can install is Mac OS X 10.3.9 (Panther). Maximum RAM is 320 MB. [Yes, the actual RAM that can be installed is 544 or 576 MB, basically adding a 512 MB RAM stick to the 32 or 64 MB already on the motherboard, but as I wrote in a later message to the list, since I had some issues with different G3/300 iBooks and 512 MB sticks (as in: RAM not recognised, and yes, the memory stick was fine), I prefer to err on the side of conservativeness.]

On later clamshell iBooks — the Indigo, Key Lime and Graphite line with a 366 or 466 MHz processor and the FireWire port — the maximum OS X version you can install is Mac OS X 10.4.11 (Tiger). Maximum RAM is 576 MB.

I have a blueberry G3/300 iBook with 288 MB RAM and a bare bones installation of both Mac OS 9 and Mac OS X (10.3.9), leaving around 700 MB free. Performance is slower under Mac OS X but the iBook is still usable. Since my home wireless network has WPA2 encryption, I usually connect the iBook via AirPort under OS X with no problems. When I have to use Mac OS 9, I just hook the iBook up to my Ethernet switch and the iBook enjoys the shared connection coming from my MacBook Pro.

I also have a graphite iBook G3/466 SE FireWire, with Mac OS X 10.4.11 and 576 MB RAM and Mac OS X Tiger is definitely usable on that iBook. (If replacing the hard drive were easier, I’d put at least a 5400rpm drive in it, since the original 4200rpm drive is dog slow, but I’m digressing).

Anyway, if you’re content either with a wired connection to the Internet or with a wireless connection with low protection, my suggestion is to keep the tangerine iBook a Mac OS 9-only Mac. It’ll definitely feel faster, and you’ll enjoy more free disk space since Mac OS 9 is a more lightweight installation than OS X.

If you want more mobility and the ability to connect to WPA-class WiFi networks, then by all means max out the RAM and install Mac OS X 10.3.9. (Provided, of course, that there’s already an AirPort card present, otherwise you’ll have to look for one — they’re usually fairly cheap on the used market).

Another interesting story
One day, as I was searching the Web for some vintage technology information, I stumbled upon this long article about the many uses for a clamshell iBook. It was written around 2007, but many bits of information are still valid and many points the author makes still agreeable. If you like the subject, also take a look at the page titled A Lot Can Be Done With Just A Little Technology.

My clamshell iBooks are ten years old, but they do feel younger. I still think they’re very handy, very useful machines for a lot of tasks. Over the years, I’ve found their surface and shape to be the best design for typing comfortably and without straining my hands or wrists. The main limitations, in my opinion, are mostly related to the screen estate (800×600 is a little too tiny today) and the presence of a USB 1.1 port (at least the FireWire models have a FireWire 400 port). For some people, they’re slow machines, that’s why I recommend maxing out the RAM and — if you’re courageous enough to venture in the hard drive replacement procedure [PDF] — putting a bigger, faster hard drive.

As for the screen, I might try a daring procedure myself. A dear friend was kind enough to send me the screen assembly and bezel of his otherwise dead iBook G3/700 model, which has a 1024×768 resolution, and I think I’ll try a transplant someday in the future, so that I’ll end up with a 1024×768 clamshell iBook.

As usual, feel free to share stories, experiences, tips, advices, questions related to the clamshell iBooks in the comment section. Long live the clamshells!

One thought on “Clamshelliana

  1. Nice article and links. It is so frustrating to talk with so-called Apple users who know not from whence we came and have never dealt with a SCSI interface or installing their os with discs 🙂

    I’m typing this on my (six month old for me) ebay deal, Graphite Special Edition using OS X 10.4.11. I installed the max RAM and a 40Gb 5400 RPM Hitachi HD with 3 partitions: OS X, 9.2.2, and a “warehouse” for downloads and storage. With the advent of iFixit’s great downloadable directions I began to make my Macs “My Macs” some years ago.

    Since it is my fun computer (carry it in to a a cyber cafe by its handle, then fire it up and people get very curious) to use for the joy of it, not the need, I have trimmed it down quite a bit and customized it with Pref Panes in X and Control Panels in 9. I also like doing hacks with Terminal in X and ResEdit in 9.

    Only prob I have had is this: I picked up a Mac OS 9 install disc (Orange and white SN:691-3334-A as recommended by an Apple person. After a clean install and an install of my stuff on it acts strange. Some of the keyboard commands won’t work like Opt-Cmd to drag an alias off of some folder or app, etc.? Every run into that? I search many of the forums to no avail.

    Take care and keep on Clamming 🙂

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