The Duo 280c is alive after all

From Duo System

I’ve always loved the idea behind the PowerBook Duo system, so much I think it could still be handy today without feeling obsolete. (Today we have notebook computers that can transform into tablets, no? So the concept still stands). I was really happy back in 2000 when I acquired a full Duo system consisting of a PowerBook Duo 280c, Duo MiniDock, the DuoDock II, a 14-inch Apple colour display, and an AppleDesign keyboard plus ADB mouse II. I remember using this system rather frequently in the 3-4 years following the acquisition and before purchasing a second-hand clamshell iBook G3/466. I had a battery for that Duo with enough juice to last me about a couple of hours, so I could use the Duo 280c while commuting, then recharge it while I was at the university, then more writing on the train back home and, once home, I would insert the Duo in its Dock and continue where I left off, but on a bigger display and with a full-sized keyboard.

Then the problems started. One day, after a power surge, the DuoDock II power supply died. At the time I didn’t have the options I would have today if I wanted to search for a replacement. At a local shop and Apple reseller they told me they could import the part, but when they gave me an estimate of the final price, I decided it was not worth the trouble. From then on, I would use the Duo MiniDock instead. The loss of the DuoDock meant having to extract the internal hard drive (that was bigger in storage size than the 230 MB internal one of the Duo 280c) and put it in an external SCSI enclosure. Not being able to use the DuoDock floppy drive was another loss, as it was one of the most reliable units I had ever used. Luckily I still managed to handle floppies by connecting the external floppy drive of my PowerBook 100 [image source]. I also lost Ethernet connectivity (the Duo MiniDock doesn’t have an Ethernet port), but since it was mainly used for transferring files locally, I switched to LocalTalk; slower, but better than nothing. I was still able to use the Duo in desktop configuration by connecting the 14-inch display and the AppleDesign keyboard via the MiniDock.

Then the problems continued: the display stopped working, but I had another available from another acquisition; but then of course the DB15 cable broke down. At that point I didn’t have much time to take care of what appeared to be a streak of Duo-related bad luck, so I just used the main Duo 280c unit when out and about, because it was still the lightest, most compact option for writing when not at home.

Fast forward to late 2014: one day, for no apparent reason, the Duo 280c stopped working. By that time, my vintage Mac collection had grown, and I had other machines readily available to keep carrying out the tasks I used the Duo for. But no other portable Mac was that compact and lightweight. Losing the PowerBook Duo 280c was a blow.

Imagine my joy when a very generous donor contacted me and sent me — among many other things — a complete Duo workstation with another 280c unit that was even better configured than mine (more RAM, more storage space). For a while, I enjoyed having such a workstation on my desk again. It was a bit like going back to those years when I was making the most out of it. Unfortunately, the power supply in that newer DuoDock II died shortly after. That generous donor was awesome enough to send me another power supply — which lasted for about three months. Both power supply units showed the dreaded ‘tick of death’.

Fast forward to three days ago. I’ve now moved to another apartment, and after finally settling down, I’m doing a general check-up of all my vintage machines. I plug in the Duo, and it doesn’t boot. Since everything was working seven weeks before, the first thing I thought was that I had to reset the Power Manager. I followed the instructions, but to no avail. The Duo still didn’t boot. This useful article on TidBITS reminded me to try the trick of disconnecting the internal backup battery and perform a full Power Manager reset. Nothing. The Duo wasn’t showing any sign of life.

(As you can see, at this point I could very well give a title to this saga, something like The vintage Mac conservator and the curse of the PowerBook Duo, but it seems there’s a happy ending after all.)

Now, if there’s one thing I’ve learnt after 30+ years of dealing with computers and related accessories is that everything can just stop working out of the blue, no matter its apparent reliability — and so I thought: what if the Duo’s AC power adapter is the culprit? Regrettably, I don’t have the necessary tools to test whether an adapter is working or not, so the only empirical test I could perform was to connect another adapter and see whether the Duo booted. The only viable candidate was the Macintosh PowerBook 45W AC adapter I use with my PowerBook 1400c.

AC Adapters

The connector is the same, but since it’s a more powerful adapter than the M2693 that came standard with the Duo, I was hesitant about connecting it right away. Checking the specifications, it appears that both adapters feed 24 Volts to the computer, but the slight difference in amperage (1.5A for the original Duo adapter, 1.875A for the 45W AC adapter) got me concerned. So I asked for advice on Twitter and other social networks. Thomas Brand chimed in and suggested that, provided the two adapters feed the same voltage and have the same polarity, there was no harm in connecting the 45W AC adapter to the Duo. Given his extensive experience, I trusted him and proceeded with the test.

The PowerBook Duo 280c booted instantly:

The Duo is alive

Conclusion

I apologise if it took me so long to get to the point of this post. I wanted to offer a good amount of context to explain how sad I felt when even this second Duo 280c unit appeared to be dead. I decided to write about this because perhaps there are other vintage Mac enthusiasts out there who encountered a similar situation and asked themselves: Could I just switch adapters? Will this other one work? In this case the swap worked. The general advice is: pay attention to the AC adapter’s specifications, and to the things Thomas Brand mentioned above. And be wary of third-party adapters, especially if they came cheap and from ‘unknown’ manufacturers. I hope this helps.

Reminder

As indicated in my vintage wishlist, I’m still looking for a PowerBook Duo 2300c, in whatever configuration provided the machine works. If you have one and want to donate it, I’ll assure you it will go to a good home, and I will pay the shipping costs, of course. Thank you for reading!

2016 in review

Overall I’m glad to be leaving 2016 behind, as it wasn’t a particularly great year. However, as far as vintage computing goes, I can’t complain at all.

State of the vintage Macs

My smallish collection of vintage Macs had a good year. Touching wood, the older group of beige Macs — SE, SE/30, Classic, Colour Classic, LCII, Performa 630CD, Power Macintosh 9500 — hasn’t manifested any faults or new issues after the latest check-up. Sadly, yet another power supply in the DuoDock II has failed, and I still haven’t had the time to take care of the problems afflicting the Quadra 950. A minor problem has just occurred with the Power Mac G4 — its internal hard drive is on its way out, only managing to complete the boot occasionally and with effort. Repetitive mechanical noises during the boot process are a certain sign that it’s failing. (If you have a spare IDE drive in good health, of at least 60 GB capacity, please let me know.)

As for the older Mac laptops, the PowerBook 1400 with upgraded G3/333 processor remains my most used portable Mac of the pre-PowerBook G3 era. It has a bright display, a fantastic keyboard, and it’s the quickest machine to take out when I have to check old media (it has a floppy module, a ZIP 100 module, and a CD-ROM module, so it’s easy to just insert the one I need and get going), or when I have to pass files from one vintage media to another when I need to perform some kind of data retrieval.

The PowerBook 5300 still works fine, but opening and closing the lid has become really problematic due to cracks in the hard plastic of the display assembly near the hinges, so I’m using this Mac only occasionally. One day maybe I’ll get a better display assembly on eBay and fix this issue, but as you can imagine, it’s not exactly one of my top priorities.

The ‘new’ PowerBook Duo 280c (generously donated to me in February 2015) is working fine and I’m using it mainly as a font database server and as a very portable solution to download and manage the photos taken with the QuickTake 100.

Speaking of Macs of more recent vintages, my four most used PowerPC Macs in 2016 have been:

  • The 12-inch 1 GHz PowerBook G4 — still my lightest, most dependable machine when out and about. I’ve used it for writing, email, Web, some image editing and even for watching videos and movies when I was on holiday last August.
  • The 17-inch 1.33 GHz PowerBook G4 — It’s the fastest, most capable G4 I have, and I use it for pretty much the same things I use the 12-inch for, but when I either need a bigger screen or power is more important than portability. It also has a reliable CD-DVD burner, and it’s a great Mac for exchanging files with various different sources, since it’s equipped with two USB 2 ports, a FireWire 400 and a FireWire 800 port, and a PCMCIA card slot (I use a PCMCIA CompactFlash adapter to quickly exchange files between this PowerBook and the PowerBook 1400, for example).
  • The Power Mac G4 Cube — Always a trusty sidekick, it remains on the left of my main MacBook Pro desktop setup, and its big 22-inch Cinema Display is great for checking additional pages on the Web and my RSS feeds, for performing the occasional image editing, running older applications in the Classic Environment (including games), and it’s also been my scanning workstation for almost 10 years now (I own a 15-year old Canon USB flatbed scanner that has always worked reliably, and its Mac OS 9 drivers and management software are still a tried-and-trusted solution, so why fix what’s not broken?)
  • The 17-inch iMac G4 — Donated to me almost a year ago, it has proved to be another workhorse. It’s a bit of an all-purpose machine (again, I use it for writing, checking RSS feeds, email, browsing the Web, burning CDs and DVDs for archival purposes (its SuperDrive is quite reliable), and it’s also a great Mac for listening to music (local audio files in iTunes, audio CDs, Spotify) thanks to the Apple Pro Speakers delivering a surprisingly rich and powerful sound.

Other Mac laptops (the two clamshell iBooks, the PowerBook G3/400 ‘Lombard’, the two Titanium PowerBook G4) have been used more sporadically, but they still work just fine considering they’re 16/17-year-old machines. I’ll say, the blueberry iBook G3/300 still manages to make heads turn when I use it in some coffee shop or in a library. The battery of one of the Titanium PowerBooks still lasts approximately 2 hours and a half, and I know it’s not much in the era of MacBook Airs that last more than 12 hours on a single charge, but I find it impressive nonetheless, given that that battery is at least ten years old. I still use the TiBook(s) when I want a fast Mac OS 9 machine on the go, or to use some OS 9 and OS X applications and dictionaries whose licences are tied to a specific computer.

iOS devices

Okay, normally this wouldn’t be the place to talk about iOS devices, but considering the fast pace at which both iOS hardware and software are moving, all iOS devices in my collection are vintage tech now, so they’re worth mentioning. I have:

  • A 32 GB iPhone 5 (current main device), a 16 GB iPhone 4, a 16 GB iPhone 3GS and a 16 GB iPhone 3G. All working except the 3GS.
  • A 64 GB fourth-generation iPod touch, a 32 GB third-generation iPod touch, and a 16 GB first-generation iPod touch. All working.
  • A 32 GB third-generation iPad (Wi-Fi only), working very well, with a battery that still manages to last almost 2 days on a charge.

The iPhone 5 and the iPad 3 are my main devices, and the reason I’ve been accumulating other vintage iOS devices is that I’m working on a small book on iOS and I need to have working devices with different iOS versions installed. So far, I have iOS 3 to iOS 10 covered, except for iOS 8. On a practical level, these older devices still retain a degree of usefulness. They’re all still great for listening to music, or even podcasts; or for playing old games or using old apps that still serve a purpose. The iPhone 3G is still in use as my secondary phone, and the iPhone 4 is perfect as a personal hotspot when I visit my parents in Italy and need to use yet another SIM with a great data plan to connect to the Internet.

Newton devices

My Original MessagePad, MessagePad 2100, and eMate 300 are all still in use, but I’ll admit I’ve been only using the MessagePad 2100 on a regular basis in 2016. And sadly I’m in the process of cleaning this unit after discovering that the last batch of alkaline cells I put into it leaked, and leaked badly. The MessagePad 2100 is my true digital notebook, it’s always by my desk when I need to take some notes that a) I know won’t get lost, and b) I can just naturally write down in longhand instead of typing on the relatively small iPhone virtual keyboard. I know it may sound quirky or quaint, or perhaps even cumbersome, but bear in mind I’ve been using a Newton MessagePad since mid-2001 — that’s a lot of time, fine-tuning, and muscle memory; note taking on a Newton is very easy and handy for me.

Conclusion

Not long ago, I received an email out of the blue from someone who plainly asked me: How do you manage all that, all those machines and devices? It must be exhausting. Two or three years ago, for a brief period, I experienced a sort of crisis due to ‘vintage tech saturation’, for lack of a better expression. A few of my vintage Macs had developed a series of issues at the same time, and I felt overwhelmed, because I wanted to fix everything but had no time to do so. I started thinking that the fun of tinkering with vintage technology kind of vanishes when it all become a maintenance game. I was weary and stressed and for a moment I even considered the idea of selling or throwing all away and embrace tech minimalism. Of course I didn’t go through with it. When you have a collection of aging vintage machines and devices, you have to come to terms with the fact that you can’t take care of everything all the time, especially if, like me, you have a family, a job (translating/localising), a vocation (writing fiction), and other things you’re equally passionate about (photography).

So you just take it easy. You maintain these machines and devices the best you can, focussing on those you feel you rely on the most, and addressing issues one at a time when they surface. Thankfully, Macs are especially long-lasting, dependable computers, and in the end the real problems a G3 or G4 laptop may present, for instance, all revolve around hard drives, optical drives and batteries. I always try to look for spares when I have some time because I know these are the weakest spots for aging laptops. It’s a bit like having always fresh backups in case of emergency. Still, sometimes I’m caught by surprise — like with the Power Mac G4’s hard drive failure — and I have to wait a bit before I can take care of it.

As a final note, I continue to be amazed at what these 13-to-17 year old Macs can still do (provided you have a clear idea of their limits today and adjust your expectations accordingly). Given the current lukewarm interest Apple seems to display towards the Mac, it feels oddly reassuring to be surrounded by older yet reliable Macs and Mac OS software with which I still can carry out a certain amount of tasks rather effortlessly.

→ The Macs Apple was selling in 1996

I thought it would be interesting to offer an overview of the Macintosh models Apple was selling in 1996 and make a few related observations. In a nutshell: there was some level of organisation in what many have called the chaos of Macs available back then, and despite the long list of Mac models, the families and form factors were just a few; one of the main causes that generated confusion in the Macintosh product line was the frequent rebranding, and the progressive meaninglessness of the Performa line as the consumer choice versus the Power Macintosh as synonymous of ‘Pro’ machine.

Continue reading the article on my main website.

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 4.2 — 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!

Added to the collection: quite the vintage package

My recent post A few About boxes from vintage Mac applications received a lot of attention, mainly because it was first linked by John Gruber at Daring Fireball, and was then mentioned by The Loop and by The Unofficial Apple Weblog among others.

It was completely unexpected, and amazing. The feedback I received — both in the form of public comments, mentions on Twitter, and especially private emails — made me giddy, and I wanted to thank every person who wrote me (I’m still answering emails after more than two weeks from the blog post).

Another unexpected by equally thrilling side-effect of this brief moment of Internet fame was that a few people, out of the blue, got in touch to donate a few things they saw I was looking for in my vintage wishlist. One particularly generous donor and splendid fellow has been Richard, who sent me a Christmas-worthy package, which arrived this morning. So, for the mere cost of shipping, this is what I’m going to add to my collection — which in my case means, here’s what I’ll be putting to good use as soon as possible:

PowerBook Duo 280c and DuoDock II

PowerBook Duo 280c, DuoDock II, plus a spare battery for the Duo.

As with the rest of the contents of the package, I was blown away by the excellent condition of these items. And most of all I am happy to already have a replacement for my poor Duo 280c which quietly broke down just less than two months ago. And it’s a better replacement, too. It has 40 MB of RAM and a 1 GB hard drive (my old Duo had 24 MB of RAM and a 320 MB hard drive). Unfortunately, the DuoDock II’s power supply doesn’t work, but a replacement may come sooner than later. I also found a spare battery, but it appears it doesn’t hold a charge. Instead the one in the picture, that came inside the Duo, appears to be working. I may have to reset the PowerBook’s power manager, though, because — just like my old Duo started doing at some point — the Mac boots up and works correctly on the AC adapter and with the battery removed, but as soon as I insert the battery, it abruptly shuts down.

 
Iomega SCSI ZIP 100 drive

Iomega ZIP 100 drive (SCSI version).

Again, I was amazed at finding everything in like-new condition. I love vintage packaging as much as the products, so it’s great to have everything in its original box. The SCSI cable included is also great to have, as I have more vintage Macs and peripherals than working SCSI cables. That floppy you see above the drive is to install the Iomega drivers on Windows/DOS machines. It’s still sealed, of course. I tested the drive by connecting it to my Colour Classic. At first the drive was only detected by SCSI Probe, but I couldn’t mount any disk without the Iomega Driver extension. I connected my PowerBook 1400 and copied the one I loaded there, but it was too new for the Colour Classic (version 6.x). Luckily there was also an older Iomega Driver 4.2 extension, and that was the right one. After a restart, disks were recognised, mounted, formatted without issues. I also noticed how quiet the SCSI ZIP drive is compared to my (more recent) USB unit.

And speaking of disks…

 
Lots of disks

ZIP 100 disks, three SCSI terminators, an Ethernet card (Apple branded), Apple rainbow stickers, two 88 MB SyQuest cartridges and a 230 MB 3.5″ magneto-optical disk.

Yes, those are thirty-three ZIP 100 disks. I guess that, together with the dozen or so I already have, I won’t be needing more ZIP disks anytime soon! That’s about 3 GB of storage space, and I can practically back up the contents of all the working vintage Macs I have. I also love those Iomega 6-disk holders — very practical and stackable.

I still have to check, but I hope I’ll be able to install that Ethernet card on the second motherboard (from an LC580) I use when I need to speed up things with the Colour Classic. Tomorrow I’ll also check those two nice 88 MB SyQuest cartridges.

 
Logitech ScanMan Model32
Logitech ScanMan hand-held grayscale scanner Model 32 for Mac.

This has been another great surprise. I remember wanting this manual scanner so bad back in the day, but could not afford it. Now, I know that scanner technology has rendered this product obsolete, but it may be a nice solution to quickly scan a few documents while I have my Macintosh SE or SE/30 set up. When I opened the box, I was surprised by that unit looking like an external floppy drive, and I thought that Richard had actually put one in the box, taking advantage of the perfect size of the cut-out. It turns out that it’s the necessary interface for the scanner, i.e. you connect the beige box to the Mac, and the hand-held scanner to the box. Also worth noting, that Mathematica demo floppy!

Like with the ZIP 100 drive, I love to own the original packaging of the Logitech ScanMan. So I took another photo of the back of the box, which I think it’s worth sharing:

ScanMan box

 

I can’t thank Richard enough for his kindness and generosity — a true gentleman. I shall put all these items to good use and take care of them in the best possible way: it’s the right thing to do to honour donations such as this.

Compact Flash performance on the PowerBook 5300: very first impressions

In my article about the recently received PowerBook 1400c, I wrote:

The intriguing part of this setup is booting from the Compact Flash card: everything is even more responsive (opening applications, opening files, saving files) and the PowerBook becomes practically silent. […]

Just for fun, I performed an informal test. I booted the PowerBook 1400 in Mac OS 8.1 from its internal hard drive, then I booted in Mac OS 7.6.1 from the CF card, then I booted in Mac OS 8.6 from the PCMCIA Toshiba hard drive, measuring boot times using my iPhone’s stopwatch (all the following are cold boots, not just restarts; all times are approximate):

  • Internal hard drive (Mac OS 8.1): 54 seconds.
  • Compact Flash card (Mac OS 7.6.1): 47 seconds.
  • PCMCIA hard drive (Mac OS 8.6): 1 minute, 12 seconds.

As you can see, on this PowerBook 1400c there isn’t a dramatic difference between booting from the internal hard drive and from the Compact Flash card. Maybe it’s because the hard drive isn’t a bad performer after all; maybe it’s because of the G3/333 processor upgrade; I don’t know. Earlier today I wanted to test a hunch I had — that the Compact Flash solution would be an even better alternative for my PowerBook 5300. This machine has just a 117 MHz processor, and a noticeably slower hard drive than the one in the PowerBook 1400.

So I inserted the Compact Flash card with Mac OS 7.6.1 in the PowerBook 5300 and performed the same test as quoted above. First I booted the PowerBook 5300 from its internal hard drive, then I selected the CF card in the Startup Disk control panel, turned off the machine, and booted it from the CF card, again measuring boot times with a stopwatch. The results:

  • Internal hard drive (Mac OS 8.1): 2 minutes, 30 seconds.
  • Compact Flash card (Mac OS 7.6.1): 1 minute, 5 seconds.

Less than half the time when booting from the CF card! True, those are two different versions of Mac OS, but the amount of extensions loaded during start-up is more or less the same.

After starting the PowerBook 5300 from the CF card, I opened control panels, applications, files, and the PowerBook 5300 felt way more responsive than when operating from the internal hard drive. And considering how noisy the 1.1 GB IBM hard drive is, one really appreciates the quiet when working from the Compact Flash card.

As I said, these are just very first impressions, and I’ll perform a more thorough investigation in the following days, but what I’ve seen so far has left me rather amazed. I expected a better performance overall, since that internal hard drive is definitely a slug, but the difference is noticeable even after a cursory examination.

Sometimes they go quietly

PowerBook Duo 280c

After spending two days trying to figure out why my beloved PowerBook Duo 280c wouldn’t boot, this morning I gave up when finally a distinctive smell of something burning and an unusually hot machine gave me the final clue, that something’s gone wrong with the internal power circuitry of the PowerBook.

I hadn’t used the Duo for three months or so. I don’t use it often, but I always like to return to this small, lightweight laptop for some writing sessions every now and then.

I purchased this little buddy second-hand sometime in 2000. I think I paid 400 Euros for it at the time, but it was well looked-after, and I got the whole package: the PowerBook Duo, the Duo MiniDock, the DuoDock II, a 14-inch Apple colour display, an AppleDesign keyboard and an ADB mouse II, and a bunch of floppy disks full of software (among which, the original disks for installing WordPerfect 3).

In the years 2000-2005, I used the PowerBook Duo a lot, and in the way it was intended to be used. Since I had managed to get hold of a new NiMH High Capacity Type 3 rechargeable battery a few months before acquiring the Duo, the little PowerBook really became my go-to machine when I was out and about. The battery lasted a lot, and when I returned home I would insert the Duo in its desktop Dock and transferred the files I created or handled during the day back to my iMac G3. I have always been a fan of the Duo concept, and I think it could still be useful today.

Anyway, in early 2005 the DuoDock stopped working after a power surge in the building I was living at the time, and since I was about to relocate to another country, I sadly had to throw the DuoDock away instead of bringing it with me to attempt repairs at a later date. I had limited space on my van, and the DuoDock was literally dead weight. Thankfully, the PowerBook Duo retained its expandability by way of the MiniDock, except for the Ethernet port, which was a serious blow to the Duo’s connectivity.

In the following years, as my vintage collection grew and I had to take care of other machines, the Duo got used less frequently, but it was always there when I needed it. Starting up became slightly more problematic after the main battery ceased to hold any significant charge. Every time I plugged the Duo, I had to remove the battery, perform a PMU reset, start the PowerBook on AC alone, then put the battery back in. To avoid performing this procedure every time I dug out the Duo, I just kept the machine plugged in even when not in use.

When I went to turn on the Duo the other day, I wanted to use it more comfortably in the living-room, so I had to unplug it from the mains in my studio and plug it in again in the living-room. So I wasn’t really surprised it didn’t boot at first, though I noticed something it didn’t usually do under similar circumstances: as soon as I plugged the AC adapter, the sleep light in the Duo display assembly came on, and nothing else happened.

I tried the procedure outlined above (remove battery, reset the PMU, etc.) multiple times. No joy.

Perhaps the PRAM battery was completely drained and it was preventing the Duo from booting. I disconnected it, and tried booting the machine again. Nothing. Just the sleep light coming on.

After browsing the Web a bit, on a discussion thread in some forum I stumbled on to a post where someone suggested checking the display switch where the latch locks the PowerBook lid when you close the computer. If the switch remains pressed for some reason, the PowerBook may think it’s in the ‘sleep’ position and won’t turn on. So I checked, but everything was okay.

I opened the PowerBook for a visual examination of the motherboard, to check for the presence of dust, corrosion, leakage, etc., in the components. The motherboard looked very clean, and nothing stood out, not even near the power circuitry. I was utterly puzzled.

The last thing to check was the Duo AC adapter itself. Honestly, I wasn’t inclined to blame it: when plugged in, it got warm as it had always done, and so did the Duo around the power circuitry area, as it had always done. I don’t have another AC adapter for the Duo, but browsing the Web and eBay, I saw pictures of working Duos connected to the 45W PowerBook adapter used by the PowerBook 5300, 1400, and G3 series. I have two of them, and I know they work, so I tried them both, but nothing would change: after plugging in the Duo, the sleep light would turn on, and no boot would follow. Repeatedly pushing the back power button resulted in the sleep light coming on and off and on again, and nothing else.

Yesterday it was getting late, so I eventually left the PowerBook Duo plugged in to resume my reviving efforts today. However, when I went to take the Duo this morning, it happened what I’ve described at the beginning of this post.

If you’re reading this, you’re a vintage Mac enthusiast like me, so I know you’ll understand when I say that I’m extremely saddened by all this. This little PowerBook is still in great shape and it just hurts to see it reduced to a pretty, useless shell. At the moment, I unfortunately cannot afford sending the motherboard to someone capable of repairing/recapping it. I really want to have a working PowerBook Duo in my collection. If you have a battered Duo 280c with a working motherboard and you’re willing to donate it, please get in touch. If you have a PowerBook Duo 2300c, it’s still in my wishlist if you want to donate it. I do my best to give vintage Macs a good home and put them to good use, but sometimes things like this happen, and it’s truly frustrating.

Added to the collection: PowerBook 1400c

PowerBook 1400c

This year, Christmas has come a bit earlier for me — I’m truly grateful to Alex Roddie for donating this beautiful PowerBook 1400c. The machine is in great shape, has very nice tech specs, and came with a bunch of extras which pretty much make it a complete system.

This is a PowerBook 1400c/166 from 1997, which means that it was already one of the best models in the PowerBook 1400 series when it came out, featuring the better active-matrix colour (TFT) 11.3″ display (the 1400cs had a DualScan passive matrix display), and the faster PowerPC 603ev CPU at 166 MHz. But what’s even better is that this unit comes with a Sonnet Crescendo G3 processor upgrade card installed, meaning its original processor has been replaced by a PowerPC 750 (G3) running at 333 MHz. It has 48 MB of RAM and an internal 2 GB hard drive.

Sonnet Crescendo sticker

And now, the extras:

  • Floppy drive module, 6x CD-ROM drive module, and VST Zip 100 drive module. All three drives work perfectly.
  • Two Transcend PCMCIA Compact Flash adapters. One includes an industrial-grade Transcend 512 MB Compact Flash card.
  • A Farallon PCMCIA Ethernet card, plus cable, plus an Ethernet cable extension (which is really useful when you have short Ethernet cables).

The PowerBook came with Mac OS 8.1 installed on the main hard drive, and a standard install of Mac OS 7.6.1 on the 512 MB CF card.

The only two ‘issues’ (between quotes, because neither really bothers me): the PowerBook doesn’t have a battery, and the CD-ROM drive module is missing the front panel. The latter, I’ve read, appears to be a common issue with this kind of modules. The drive works well and has read all the CDs I’ve thrown at it in the past few days, so I really can’t complain. As for the missing battery, even if the PowerBook had one, it would have probably held very little charge anyway, and it would have added a considerable weight to the machine. Thankfully, Alex left the empty plastic shell, so that the battery compartment looks populated from outside and there isn’t a hole where the battery is supposed to be. Normally, a PowerBook 1400 weighs 3 kilograms fully loaded. Thanks to the missing battery, my unit weighs approximately 2.7 kilograms. Not bad. (For comparison’s sake: the PowerBook G3 Lombard weighs 2.7 kilograms, the PowerBook G4 Titanium weighs 2.4 kilograms, the PowerBook G4 12″ weighs 2.1 kilograms, and the original clamshell iBook G3 weighs 3.04 kilograms.)

I’m still in the ‘playing around’ phase, importing needed applications and documents, and generally getting the feel of this machine, but I’m already impressed by its responsiveness (thanks to the G3 upgrade), its expandability and versatility, and of course by its keyboard. I had heard many people praise the PowerBook 1400’s keyboard as one of the best keyboards in an Apple laptop, and I can confirm its reputation. I was already finding the PowerBook 5300’s keyboard good enough, but the 1400’s is an order of magnitude better.

The intriguing part of this setup is booting from the Compact Flash card: everything is even more responsive (opening applications, opening files, saving files) and the PowerBook becomes practically silent. If you have a PowerBook of this vintage that has at least one PCMCIA slot, and want to try this kind of ‘solid state’ solution, check out this article on Alex Roddie’s Macintosh HD blog: Create a Compact Flash boot drive for your old PowerBook.

I also happen to own another excellent accessory that has become even more useful since this PowerBook 1400 entered my little collection: a 2 GB PCMCIA Toshiba hard drive. It’s not particularly fast, but one real advantage is that it can be used to quickly transfer files between older and newer G3/G4 PowerBooks, since it is recognised by all PowerBooks without having to be reformatted.

Just for fun, I performed an informal test. I booted the PowerBook 1400 in Mac OS 8.1 from its internal hard drive, then I booted in Mac OS 7.6.1 from the CF card, then I booted in Mac OS 8.6 from the PCMCIA Toshiba hard drive, measuring boot times using my iPhone’s stopwatch (all the following are cold boots, not just restarts; all times are approximate):

  • Internal hard drive (Mac OS 8.1): 54 seconds.
  • Compact Flash card (Mac OS 7.6.1): 47 seconds.
  • PCMCIA hard drive (Mac OS 8.6): 1 minute, 12 seconds.

(My main machine, a mid-2009 MacBook Pro, with a 2.66 GHz Core 2 Duo processor and 8 GB of RAM takes no less than three minutes to complete the boot process. I really need to replace its hard drive with an SSD, but I’m digressing.)

I’m truly enjoying this ‘new’ PowerBook 1400, and it will likely replace the PowerBook 5300ce as my main vintage laptop for writing, Newton connection and QuickTake photos management. It’s simply faster, has a better keyboard, and is even more versatile. It’s a pity that its main limitation is the maximum amount of RAM — 64 MB, which was okay in 1997, but feels a bit tight especially if you own a PowerBook 1400 with a G3 processor upgrade. Due to the low amount of maximum RAM, you can’t install Mac OS X on this machine (though I guess the performance would be ridiculous even if it were possible), and even Mac OS 9.2 is problematic. All the suggestions from PowerBook 1400 owners I’ve read online point to Mac OS 8.1 and 8.6 as preferred system versions for this machine (if you have more than 24 MB of RAM installed), and I have to agree. I’m happy with the 8.1 installation that came with the PowerBook, and I’ll probably upgrade to 8.6 to see if I can get a PCMCIA Wireless card working with the PowerBook.

Final fun fact: I inserted the PowerBook 1400 serial number in TattleTech and the resulting information is that this unit was assembled in Elk Grove, California, USA on July 30, 1997.

Links

  • I think it’s worth adding Alex Roddie’s Macintosh HD blog to your bookmarks. Much like this site, it’s not updated very often, but when it is, it’s always a pleasure to read.
  • If you’re looking for PowerBook 1400-related resources, an excellent starting place is Low End Mac’s PowerBook 1400 page. There are a lot of interesting links at the bottom. You’ll occasionally stumble on a dead link, but the Wayback Machine is your friend.
  • If you’re specifically interested in reading about the Sonnet Crescendo G3 upgrade card, you’ll like the review by Joost van de Griek.

Taking the QuickTake 100 for a spin

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A couple of weeks ago, I received a fantastic donation: a working Apple QuickTake 100 camera in its original box and in like-new condition. Since I’m not the kind of Apple collector who just puts his conquests on display and routinely dusts them, the first thing I did after taking the camera out of the box was to look for the necessary QuickTake software, put some fresh batteries in, and start taking test photos in different lighting conditions.

This article is meant to be an overview and a series of impressions gathered after using the QuickTake for a few days. Still, I hope it’ll give you an idea of what is like handling a 20-year-old camera and the associated software.

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Tech specs, a refresher

The QuickTake 100 is a camera that was designed in 1992, introduced in January 1994, and discontinued in May 1995. By today’s standards, every technical aspect of the QuickTake 100 is ridiculous, and you immediately realise how far we’ve come in twenty years of digital camera technology advancements.

The QuickTake takes 24-bit full-colour images at a maximum resolution of 640×480 pixels, which means less than 1 megapixel. As for the optics, the QuickTake is equipped with a fixed-focus lens, has a built-in flash, its AE system picks a combination of aperture from f2.8 to f16 and a shutter speed of 1/30 to 1/175 of a second. The camera doesn’t have a removable flash card for storing pictures, but an internal 1 MB Flash EPROM (you read that well, one megabyte), which can hold 8 high-resolution images (640×480), 32 standard-resolution images (320×240), or a combination of the two. Images are saved in what I’d call a QuickTake flavour of the PICT format, since you need the QuickTake™ Image extension to be able to see the pictures that come straight out of the camera.

The QuickTake connects to the Mac via serial cable. If your vintage Mac comes with separate Modem and Printer ports, you should connect it to the Printer port. If you connect it to the Modem port, you’ll still be able to access the camera, but you’ll have to turn AppleTalk off (the camera software will issue such warning.)

The system requirements are rather modest and include a wide range of Macs: any Macintosh with a Motorola 68020 or faster processor, with System 7.1 or later, will do. As the QuickTake software’s Read Me document informs, The QuickTake 1.0 software works best on a Macintosh with at least 8 MB of RAM or 4 MB of RAM with 8 MB of virtual memory.

Battery life

The QuickTake 100 needs three AA cells to operate. (It supports rechargeable NiCd batteries, Alkaline, R6P, or SUM-3 NiCad or lithium batteries.) Battery life looks good so far: after a few days of use and roughly 40 shots, the battery indicator is still on ‘full.’ This is nothing conclusive, of course, since I’ve used the camera only occasionally, and shooting sessions have been brief affairs so far.

Handling the camera

I love the design of the QuickTake 100. The camera isn’t exceedingly bulky, and it invites you to handle it as it were a pair of compact binoculars — though of course you don’t need to hold the camera with both hands. You turn on the QuickTake by sliding the front lid that protects the lens, the viewfinder lens and the sensors:

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The viewfinder is a rather small window without overlays or indicators. The only thing you get is a round green light below the window, which will be on when the camera’s ready to take a photo.

I also like the design of the door covering the serial port and the power adapter port:
 
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The door doesn’t feel flimsy at all, and as you can guess by looking at the photo, to open it you have to push-and-slide, so that it’s unlikely you’ll open it by mistake when handling the camera. The battery compartment door is, again, sturdy and you’ll have to exercise a bit of force to open it.

I love the design and position of the shutter release as well. When you hold the camera, you feel it under your index and middle fingers. You don’t have to press it much to snap a photo, and it’s really quiet.

Despite having a hard plastic body (the same material of the PowerBooks of the era), the QuickTake feels sturdy and ‘full’ when you hold it. No cracking sounds or the feeling that something got loose inside, if you know what I mean. The camera, with the 3 AA cells necessary to power it, weighs exactly 500 grams; that surprised me a little, because it feels lighter during use. For comparison, my Newton MessagePad 2100 weighs 140 grams more, but feels much heavier when I hold it.

The controls on the back of the camera are, um, essential. Next to the viewfinder is a small square LCD display indicating number of pictures taken, number of pictures left, battery life, flash, self-timer and current resolution. Around it are three small buttons to alter resolution, flash settings (Auto, Always on, Always off) and self-timer, and a fourth recessed button to delete the stored images. The LCD display has a great contrast, and it’s quite readable despite not being backlit.

The software

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At the time of writing, I’ve only used the QuickTake 1.0 application, which is, again, a bare-bones yet functional piece of software. You can use it to preview the images stored in the camera (the interface nicely presents them as ‘digital slides’), open & edit a single photo if you so desire, download all images or just the selected ones to the Macintosh, and even control the QuickTake from the Mac:

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In the Camera Controls window you’ll see an exact replica of the camera’s LCD display, and you can operate all the buttons from the Mac, including the shutter release. Pretty cool, considering it’s 20-year-old technology. (By looking at the screenshot above, you can also see that the QuickTake 100 apparently suffers from the Y2K bug, since it displays 1914 instead of 2014 in the timestamp above each photo.)

The QuickTake software offers a limited set of exporting options:
 
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I wasn’t able to successfully export an image in any of these formats because just when the application was almost done writing the exported file, it crashed with an “Error 1” if I remember well. A great alternative (with many more editing options) has been Graphic Converter, which is an application I highly recommend whether you’re using the latest Intel Macs or vintage, pre-PowerPC Macs.

Converting and exporting images in another format than the original QuickTake PICT is essential if you want to see the photos on more modern Macs or Macs lacking the QuickTake™ Image extension in their Extensions folder. You won’t see anything otherwise.

When I downloaded the first photos I took with the QuickTake, I forgot to export them, I just copied them directly to my Titanium PowerBook G4 running Mac OS X 10.4.11 (and the Classic Environment, luckily). When I opened them and saw a blank image, these are the steps I had to follow to be able to see the pictures:

  1. Put the QuickTake™ Image extension in the System Folder of the Mac OS 9 installation. (That extension can be found in the software download at the Macintosh Garden I mentioned in my previous article.)
  2. Make sure I had a QuickTime Pro registration (in the QuickTime 6 software package running in Classic).
  3. Restart the Classic Environment.
  4. Open the QuickTake PICT files with PictureViewer (or with any other graphic application running in the Classic Environment for that matter — I suggest PictureViewer because it’s included with Mac OS and it does the job).
  5. In PictureViewer, choose File > Export.
  6. Export the file(s) in JPEG format, for example.
  7. The photos will be converted to JPEG and will be visible.

The photos

Honestly, I can’t say the QuickTake 100 takes great photos. We’re talking about a 0.3 Megapixel camera with 1993-1994 technology, after all. Still, some shots taken in particularly favourable conditions turned out better than I expected, given the hardware. None of the following photos has been altered in any way except for a PICT-to-JPEG conversion.

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This last photo surprised me because, as I’ve found out, the QuickTake isn’t usually very good at taking indoor photos without flash. In this shot, instead, the camera managed to capture the exact lighting of the place without altering the colours (the cafeteria was, admittedly, a bit less dark, but still) and to retain some details in the darker areas. Again, nothing extraordinary, but keep in mind the kind of hardware and technology we’re dealing with.

The camera takes better photos in broad daylight, or even indoors provided there’s ample illumination. I rarely use the flash when photographing, no matter which camera (or portable device) I’m using. Finding a good use for the QuickTake’s flash was difficult. When shooting indoors in a poorly-lit environment without flash, the result will be a uselessly dark picture. Using the flash in the same conditions will result in the typical scene where the subjects closest to the flash are too harshly illuminated, colours generally look altered, the background is dark, and the photos look crappy overall. There were a few instances, however, where using the flash outdoors in normal lighting as ‘fill flash’ actually improved the result a bit, by slightly lightening the shadows and providing more details in areas that would have turned out darker.

By the way, I was rather impressed by the QuickTake’s reaction time between shots when using the flash. I was accustomed to my Nikon Coolpixes which generally need 1-2 seconds.

Conclusion

Shooting with the QuickTake 100 is fun, all in all. And once the workflow with the Mac is set up, things start getting less painful. At the moment, I’m using the PowerBook 5300 to download and manage the photos. I convert them to JPEG files in Graphic Converter, then I send them over Ethernet to the Titanium PowerBook G4, and from there I upload to Dropbox the ones worth keeping. I could mount on the PowerBook 5300’s Desktop the Dropbox folder of the TiBook and upload the photos right away, to save one step of the process, but often I’d like to take a better look at the pictures on the bigger screen of the TiBook before sending them to the cloud.

Of course, given the photographic capabilities of today’s cameras and devices, using a QuickTake is just something a vintage Mac enthusiast does to show what was like taking photos with a consumer digital camera 20 years ago, and little else. Still, I’ve noticed how the photos taken with the QuickTake all tend to exhibit a kind of watercolour-like patina I find rather charming, and I think it could be used creatively, as if it were some sort of artistic filter. It’s a pity this camera isn’t more powerful, because it’s really well-designed and a joy to handle and carry around.

Actual work on vintage Macs is possible

Stephen Hackett, linking to this article by Andrew Cunningham at Ars Technica, comments:

Andrew Cunningham has learned what I did back in 2008: while OS 9 is fun to play with, it’s terrible for getting actual work done.

Well, that’s debatable. And it really depends on what we mean by ‘actual work.’

I’m probably in an advantageous position, since my ‘actual work’ mainly revolves around text and writing. For that, I can be rather productive even on a PowerBook 5300 (a 117 MHz machine with 64 MB of RAM) with Mac OS 8.1, as you can read in the second part of my article, In defence of the PowerBook 5300.

I’m quite experienced when it comes to vintage Macs and optimising them to make the most of them. The Ars Technica piece by Cunningham left a bitter taste in my mouth, and as I voiced on Twitter and App.net, I believe the author (perhaps due to inexperience and impatience with vintage hardware and software) hasn’t painted a completely fair picture of how these machines and systems can actually perform.

Cunningham writes:

And connecting the PowerBook to my router required a trip to the TCP/IP Control Panel to get things working—the OS didn’t just detect an active network interface and grab an IP address as it does now.

I’d like to point out that this behaviour isn’t the standard, as far as I know. I have a few PowerPC Macs that can boot either in Mac OS X or Mac OS 9, and a Mac OS 9-only machine, a clamshell iBook G3/300 with 288 MB of RAM. Whenever I connect the iBook to my router via Ethernet, I’m automatically connected to the Internet, with no need to manually configure anything. The same happens with my PowerBook 5300 on Mac OS 8.1 — it usually auto-connects when I plug in the Ethernet cable. (Sometimes I admittedly have to check the TCP/IP control panel.)

Mac OS 9 feels much faster on the 800MHz G4 than does OS X 10.4 or 10.5, and when the system is working smoothly things open and close pretty much instantaneously. That is, unless you get a pop-up message that momentarily freezes the OS, or you have an odd, possibly memory-related crash that requires a restart.

I’m sorry if that has been Cunningham’s experience, but again, he makes it sound like something that happens so often, one would think Mac OS 9 is a completely unreliable system. It’s not, at least not in my experience. Granted, if all you’ve known is Mac OS X and expect to open as many apps in a Mac OS 9 system, you won’t enjoy the same degree of general stability. That’s because Mac OS X and Mac OS 9 manage memory differently.

With regard to Cunningham’s poor email experience on Mac OS 9, I can relate. In part. Four years ago I carried out an informal investigation, where I installed as many decent classic Mac email clients as I could find and tried to configure a Gmail account in all of them. You can find a detailed account of that experiment in my article Classic email clients vs Gmail, but in short, I found that the only email clients playing nice with Gmail were Classilla Mail in Classilla 9.x, the Netscape Mail module in Netscape 7.0.2, while the two best clients capable of full Gmail support (at least at the time, in 2010) were Microsoft Outlook 5.02 and PowerMail 4.2.1.

As for publishing articles and blog posts online using WordPress, my workaround has always been posting by email, which WordPress supports. This allowed me to post articles even using my PowerBook 5300 with Mac OS 8.1 and Mailsmith 1.1.8.

Cunningham:

[…] it goes without saying that syncing files between Mac OS 9 and any other system just isn’t going to happen (I mostly use Dropbox, but the service you use doesn’t make a difference). Even using a network share isn’t possible — Mac OS 9 doesn’t support Windows’ SMB protocol, and its version of the AFP protocol is too old to interface with my Mac Mini server running Mavericks. I was only able to do some file transfers using FTP, yet another unencrypted and insecure protocol.

And that’s why I use a Titanium PowerBook G4 running Mac OS X Tiger as a ‘server’ when I need to sync files with Dropbox. Since Dropbox (bless those guys) still supports PowerPC Macs running a version of Mac OS X as old as Tiger, I connect the OS 9 iBook to the TiBook and mount the Dropbox folder in the iBook’s desktop. The experience is seamless enough.

After trying to work in Mac OS 9, Cunningham installs Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard on his test machine, a Titanium PowerBook G4 at 800 MHz. Note that Leopard has a minimum system requirement of a G4 processor running at 867 MHz. While it’s certainly possible (as Cunningham did) to circumvent this limitation and install Leopard on a Mac with a slower processor — I had managed to install it on a 500 MHz machine — you cannot expect optimum performance.

In fact, speaking of TenFourFox — the best and most up-to-date browser for G3/G4/G5 PowerPC Macs — Cunningham writes:

In any case, TenFourFox does a respectable job of rendering pages properly, and I’m sure it runs much better on newer 1GHz-and-up aluminum PowerBooks and iMacs than it does on this old titanium G4.

It does. On my 1 GHz 12-inch PowerBook G4 and 1.33 GHz 17-inch PowerBook G4 it runs very well. But it also runs fine on my 400 MHz and 500 MHz Titanium PowerBooks.

One thing I’ll say about both OS X 10.4 and 10.5 on this hardware is that it’s laggy no matter what you’re doing.

It’s a strange assessment, that doesn’t tally with my experience at all. I have Mac OS X 10.4.11 installed on these machines:

  • A 400 MHz Titanium PowerBook G4 with 1 GB of RAM
  • A 500 MHz Titanium PowerBook G4 with 512 MB of RAM
  • A 450 MHz Power Mac G4 Cube with 1.5 GB of RAM
  • A 466 MHz clamshell iBook G3 FireWire with 576 MB of RAM

and Tiger isn’t laggy on any of them, especially the Cube, where the Finder is actually more responsive than on my MacBook Pro with 8 GB of RAM, running Mac OS X 10.9.5. As for Leopard being laggy on a Mac that doesn’t meet Leopard’s minimum system requirements, well, I’m not that surprised.

Stuff you take for granted on a modern, multi-core computer with an SSD and lots of RAM is totally different on a system this old. Having dozens of browser tabs open at once, playing some music or maybe a video in the background, syncing Dropbox files, even watching animated GIFs consumes precious CPU cycles that an 800MHz G4 doesn’t have to spare. Exceeding the computer’s once-impressive-but-now-paltry 1GB of RAM, something you’ll do without even thinking if you fire up TenFourFox, prompts virtual memory swapping that grinds things to a halt.

There’s nothing technically wrong with what Cunningham is saying here, but “grinding things to a halt” is a bit of an exaggeration. I’m writing this on my 17-inch 1.33 GHz PowerBook G4 with 1.5 GB of RAM running Mac OS X 10.5.8, so it’s a more capable Mac than the TiBook he used, but still, here’s a list of the applications I have currently opened:

  • MarsEdit 2.4.4
  • Sparrow (yes, version 1.2.3 was a Universal Binary)
  • The latest version of TenFourFox, with 7 tabs open
  • The Spotify Mac client (version 0.6.6.10, still working on PowerPC Macs)
  • NetNewsWire 3.2.15, with three tabs open in its built-in browser
  • An instance of Fluid (again, I held on to its last PowerPC-compatible version) running TweetDeck (the Web interface) inside of it
  • Mac OS X’s Dictionary app

The PowerBook is quite stable and doesn’t feel laggy or sluggish to me.

I ascribe Cunningham’s evaluation to his fairly limited time with the test machine, which probably wasn’t perfectly optimised to provide the best experience under Mac OS 9 and Mac OS X 10.5. I insist, you can’t expect Leopard to be very smooth on an 800 MHz Mac when it requires at least 867 MHz. You can see here that such minimum requirement has more to do with the overall performance and user experience rather than something strictly hardware-related.

Back to the initial question — Is it possible to do actual work under Mac OS 9 today? — my answer is a cautious ‘yes.’ It always depends on what you actually do for a living, of course. If you work with audio/video editing tools, for example, you can find professional software. Same goes for image editing or 3D rendering. The big difference is that you’ll have to work with vintage hardware which can do the job but not as efficiently as a modern Mac with current software.

Another thing to consider is that you’ll have to invest some time to properly optimise your vintage Mac. There’s a lot of Mac OS 9 software out there, and sometimes you have to try different applications in the same category to find the best software for what you’re trying to accomplish (like what I did with email clients). I agree, it can become a tiring and bewildering exercise, especially if you never used anything older than Mac OS X.

On one thing I very much agree with Cunningham: the most problematic aspect of using Mac OS 9 today is related to Web browsing and Internet security. Classilla is the most modern browser you can find for Mac OS 9 and the most secure, but it’s all in relative terms. All other browsers are just too old to keep up with modern websites and technologies. If you’re trying to load a certain website properly, all I can suggest is to download different browsers and try them until you find the one that best renders it. Internet Explorer 5.x, Netscape, old versions of Opera, iCab, are all worth keeping around (iCab 3.0.5, the last version supporting Mac OS 9.x, isn’t that bad for example), but it certainly is tedious work and doesn’t make for a smooth browsing experience. Classilla at least tends to favour mobile versions of popular, complex websites, to offer a bit of usability at the very least — the last time I tried, I was able to tweet using Twitter’s mobile Web interface from inside Classilla.

But security? Just forget about it. I mean, I’m not talking about viruses (practically nonexistent for the classic Mac OS), but secure transmission of data. In a nutshell, I wouldn’t use a Web browser under Mac OS 9 to transmit sensitive information (financial data, passwords protecting sensitive accounts, etc.).

When we move up the ladder a bit, however, and I’m talking Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger and 10.5 Leopard, then I can safely say that actual work can be done, and the experience is much less painful than under Mac OS 9. Again, it’s a matter of being patient at the beginning, and take some time to hunt down the necessary software, but I’m still using three G4 PowerBooks and my G4 Cube as secondary machines and I’m pretty satisfied with them, especially the 17-inch PowerBook G4, which is a little powerhouse despite being a Mac that’s almost 11 years old. It is, among other things, my secondary photo archive & editing machine (it runs Aperture 2 decently), my CD/DVD burning machine and sometimes my old-PowerPC-games machine (its ATI Mobility Radeon graphics card with 64 MB of memory can still perform quite well with games produced when this machine was new, games like Quake or Unreal Tournament, for example). And of course I use it for Web browsing, email, RSS feeds, writing.

Of course, if your exploration of vintage Macs and older Mac OS and OS X versions is just something you do in the spur of the moment, and is not meant to last more than just a few days, your experience as a result is going to look pretty much similar to Cunningham’s. I hope this contribution of mine will help paint a more balanced picture of what it means to use vintage Mac hardware and software today — on a regular basis.

 


I’m always trying to find and report great apps that are still available for PowerPC G3/G4/G5 Macs. So far, I’ve written 3 articles listing a few of them:

I think they’re a good enough starting point to assemble a decent software arsenal if you have a nice Mac running Tiger or Leopard in particular.