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PowerBook 5,3 (The Special Project)

Posted in Blog, Computers, and History

Back in early 2004 I moved from my home / unicorn sanctuary in Avon Colorado back to Fredericksburg Virginia for a potential teaching gig. This move was fairly spur of the moment and ultimately entailed getting rid of pretty much everything I owned that wouldn’t fit into a couple of suitcases. This included my fairly bleeding-edge PC that I’d built, but part of the deal with accepting the position was getting a new laptop to replace the PC.

Now, I’ve always been fairly agnostic when it comes to computers — I’ll use anything really. But having gotten my start in the early 80’s on machines with a lot of … let’s say idiosyncrasies … I’ve always been into the underdog systems like Amiga, Apple, DEC Alpha, HP PA-RISC, etc. I’m also an official old-school pointy-hat Unix wizard, so I tend to prefer Unix-like systems whenever I get an option.

So that all said, the laptop I requested was a brand new hot off the press 17″ Apple Powerbook G4. At the time in early 2004, the 1.33Ghz model was the tippy-top of the Apple line – $3200 of brushed aluminum and PowerPC architecture — and that’s what I was bribed with. The day I picked it up from CompUSA, I also picked up another gig of ram for it. That 1 gig stick was about $250.

I pretty much lived off of that laptop until shortly after I started at my current place of employment. I had to sell it to finance a PC being as all of the work I was doing at work was Windows-based and I needed a comparable system… And PC gaming was a big deal at a place that tested PC games for some weird reason…

But, I’ve always missed that laptop; it’s still the best laptop ever made in my not-so-humble opinion:

  • It’s from back when thermal performance was more important than being thin. So it’s huge, heavy, and built like a tank.
  • It has a screen that’s large enough you can actually see things from a few feet away.
  • It has every kind of port you could ever want built-in, versus today’s penchant for two generic ports and a bag full of dongles.
  • There’s an actual CD/DVD burner in it!
  • It has an amazing keyboard with actual keyboard sized keys and keyboard-like travel.
  • And it runs OS X, which is really BSD Unix with a candy-coated interface.

All that said, over the years I’ve on-again, off-again thought about acquiring another of these laptops just to have one again. But I had some criteria to meet if I was to purchase one just for “old time’s sake”… It needed to be a 17″ 1.33Ghz model in absolutely mint condition — preferably still in the original box — and not cost a thousand dollars. I wanted to be able to pretend that I was the first owner, but I also know the G4 is just a curious footnote in computer history and really isn’t useful for much these days — so it’s not worth anything outside of sentimental value.

Well, all of my criteria was finally met a few weeks ago, and yesterday a virtually new 1.33Ghz 17” G4 arrived.

About an acre of aluminum with an apple logo right in the middle.

A couple of rub marks around the bezel, but otherwise in pristine condition.

Usually the first question is “How big is that thing!?” Well, each palm-rest is the size of a CD case for a size comparison.

This is a ‘low miles’ PowerBook5,3 which has an 80G IDE HD and 1GB of ram. And while that’s nicely stock for this machine — I can do better.

I ordered 2 gigs of ram for the machine, which is the max it will hold and should be here later today. I also decided to add an SSD to it.

SSDs for PATA (IDE) systems were around in 2003, but were prohibitively expensive ($1000+ for about 60GB) — so I never put one in the laptop. But here we are in the future, so I was able to secure a 120GB mSATA drive and a 2.5″ mSATA to IDE adapter for about a hundred bucks.

Now to install it…

About 10,000 screws later and welcome to the internals of a G4 PowerBook. The mSATA and adapter are on top.

It’s nice to see the inside of the laptop is just as pristine as the outside. There was some evidence of use like a little bit of lint around the fans, which I took care of while I was in there, but otherwise nice and clean. Even the kapton tape Apple used to hold everything in place was still sticky and holding everything in place.

After about two hours of hardware and software install, here we are:

The laptop still needs its memory upgrade (this evening some time) and a new battery — which will happen as soon as I find one for under a hundred bucks. But otherwise, is actually really usable.

Safari works (mostly) and iTunes works (mostly), so I’ll restore one of my backups to the machine some time this weekend and play around with antique photoshop. 🙂