Viv buys a PowerBook G4 in 2018 and it goes okay
a stream of consciousness
Last updated: 2/28/2018

Towards the end of January 2018, I picked up an old PowerBook G4 (PowerBook5,6) from a computer repair shop near me. I was interested in playing around with the old hardware and revisiting some classic Mac software I used in my youth (especially HyperCard).

Running Classic Mac Software
It turned out that this PowerBook was one of the later models which doesn’t actually support booting OS9 natively, so I had to use OSX 10.4 (Tiger). 10.4 is the last version to support Classic mode, which is a really interesting emulation layer which nearly seamlessly allows you to run classic applications within OSX. It takes over the top menu bar entirely and basically feels the same as running native OSX applications. It ends up looking like this:


(OSX finder shown in the background for effect)

Productivity software tends to perform well, but games are somewhat disappointing with graphical glitches.

Trying to run OS9 on this machine is something which I was suprised to find an active community around. macos9lives.com has an entire forum dedicated to tricking OS9 into running on unsupported G4s.
I made some decent progress but hit some significant showstoppers:
1. I couldn’t get OS9 to boot unless sound was disabled. Enabling sound would cause a hang (and bomb mouse cursor) during boot. This could be worked around by disabling the audio device from Open Firmware.
2. I can’t get DVI-out to work in OS9, so I can’t stream using my capture card :(
3. To run OS9 off of the hard drive, I need to completely wipe it and repartition with the appropriate OS9 drivers. I worked around this by booting from USB but it’s kinda slow.

For now I’ve given up on running OS9 natively on the PowerBook, at least for the next while.

Using a PowerBook G4 & OSX 10.4 in 2018?
There are some things I really enjoy about using such an old machine, and some things that are a pain in the butt.
Web browsing is extremely painful, with my main options being TenFourFox, which is painfully slow (even with NoScript!) and Classilla (which doesn’t support anything newer than TLS 1.0, so many sites will outright refuse to connect.) If you want to just look at static websites, it works fine.



To work around the painful browsing I use a VNC client (Chicken of the VNC, haha) to connect to one of my Linux machines which runs a headless session that I then use for more intense browsing and messaging. It works well enough, and the client even supports transparent SSH tunneling which is a must for a protocol like VNC.



There’s a huge amount of classic Mac and early OSX abandonware available on sites such as macintoshrepository.org.
Many old versions of applications are still capable enough for normal workloads such as Photoshop 7.0 & AppleWorks 6 (which I’m actually using to write this!)

The hardware is surprisingly pleasant to use. The screen’s resolution is pretty limited, with 1280x854 at ~15 inches but it’s not really a problem. The keyboard has much more travel than many recent laptop keyboards, especially the newer butterfly style on the 2015 & 2016 MacBooks. The trackpad is pretty mediocre in that it’s small and not especially good at two-finger scrolling, and the single button is weird, but compared to PCs of the same era it’s still quite a bit better.
The number of available ports, however, is really nice to see. There are only two USB 2.0 ports but then also ethernet, firewire 400 & 800, a modem (!), DVI, and s-video (?!)
Having a CD/DVD burner again is novel, too. The experience of burning a disc and writing on it poorly with a Sharpie instantly brought me back to 10 years prior, no doubt in part due to the Sharpie fumes & the squeak it makes as it comes in contact with the disc.

The battery that the PowerBook came with was nearly dead, only holding 10 minutes of charge. However it was trivial to buy another battery online and swap it in, because removable batteries. Now I can get 2-4 hours of use.

The wifi is... not very good, but being an AirPort Extreme it at least supports WPA2. I ordered a small USB adapter which I will be trying. It was difficult to find an 802.11ac adapter which still releases 10.4 PPC drivers, but I think I found one (and will update this space if it works out :) )

One thing that is a delight about using this machine is in finding ways that it’s still very capable. Virtual PC is surprisingly capable of running Full Tilt! - Space Cadet pinball at full speed!



and sometimes, very strange things happen, like when I tried to play Civilization 3 with Quartz font rendering enabled:



Finding Software

Getting newer software to run on this machine is tricky. Finding PPC versions usually means having to dig through old versions (hopefully they’re archived somewhere!) until you find one that’s compatible, or installing with TigerBrew. Compiling anything on this machine using TigerBrew takes forever but at least it’s an option. I wanted git, vim, zsh, and python 3, which were all available. It’s not the fastest but it’s nice being able to use those.

I’ve never used early versions of OSX before
I don’t actually have any nostalgia for OSX 10.4 -- most of my childhood Mac experience was with the Classic OS in elementary and middle school, or with Sierra on a 2016 MacBook Pro I have at work. However I do have a lot of fondness for the software from the early-mid 2000’s (much of which exists on Mac as well as Windows) and it’s pretty nice to fully immerse myself in a world of computing before web apps, mobile, and The Cloud rose to prominence. As a software engineer and a person who’s followed tech trends for a long time, it’s refreshing to take a step back and use something that’s not the “latest and greatest” particularly at a time where more of my data lives on computers outside of my control.

I’ll be updating this document as I continue to use this machine (or maybe give up altogether? idk). Get in touch with me if you found any of this interesting!

P.S. I made this sweet(?) badge for stuff I write on this machine: