Mac Musings

Death and Rebirth of a Power Mac G4

Dan Knight - 2011.07.28 - Tip Jar

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There's a price to pay for using low-end Macs: Sometimes unexpected things happen, and despite your best laid plans, you're out of luck.

Blackout

Last Thursday afternoon, the power went out in our neighborhood for 30-40 minutes, and all three of my production Macs immediately shut down. That shouldn't have happened, as each one is attached to a UPS that should at the very least give me a few minutes to do a safe shut down.

Lesson: I need new UPSes or new batteries for the existing ones. Two of the three are ancient APC Back-UPS 200; the newest one is a Tripp Lite (model number on the back where I can't read it).

Death of a Power Mac

When I rebooted my computers, the 2007 2.0 GHz Core 2 Duo Mac mini (the oldest one that will support OS X Lion, which I am in no hurry to try) came up just fine. So did the 2001 Digital Audio Power Mac G4 (upgraded with dual 1.6 GHz processors), which runs OS X 10.5 Leopard primarily so I can use Teleport with my other two production Macs. Teleport lets two or more Macs share one mouse and one keyboard, but the app doesn't bridge the gap between OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard on the Mac mini and 10.4 Tiger on my 2002 dual 1.0 GHz Mirrored Drive Doors Power Mac G4.

I'm still using Classic Mode daily, exclusively for Claris Home Page, a webpage editor from 1997 that I haven't yet found a suitable free or cheap replacement for - although I must say that BlueGriffon looks promising. I have used BlueGriffon to write some articles (including the Mac mini and MacBook Air value equation , to edit some, and to update some price trackers, and it may finally allow me to leave Home Page behind.

Anyhow, after the power outage, the MDD would not power up. No light on the power button. No fans spinning up in the power supply. No LED on the logic board. Dead in the water. I tried zapping the PRAM, hitting the CUDA reset switch, removing and reseating RAM. No luck.

I have tried to keep a spare Mac handy for just such an eventuality for quite a few years now. In the Tiger era, I had a 1999 Blue & White Power Mac G3, a 2004 1.25 GHz eMac (with two 1.0 GHz CPUs, the MDD Power Mac is much more powerful), and a 2001 400 MHz Titanium PowerBook G4, until it was dropped. Later on I acquired the Digital Audio so I could run Leopard when one of my favorite apps, NetNewsWire, dropped support for Tiger, and a 2000 dual 500 MHz Mystic Power Mac acted as the network server.

When I bought the 2007 Mac mini earlier this year, I retired the Mystic, reserving it as my spare "just in case one of my other Power Macs crashes" computer.

Big Hard Drive Issues

What I didn't reckon with was the frustration I'd run into getting the two 400 GB Deskstar drives from the MDD up and running with either the Digital Audio or the Mystic. If you've read How Big a Hard Drive Can I Put in My iMac, eMac, Power Mac, PowerBook, or iBook?, you're probably aware that those models don't support drives over 128 GB in size on the internal drive bus.

Aware of that, I have acquired a nice collection of driveless NewerTech miniStack enclosures over the years, the older versions that support IDE/ATA hard drives. These drive cases have the same footprint as a Mac mini, both USB 2.0 and FireWire hubs, and a nice heat sink on the bottom. That's important, as I prefer to buy 7200 rpm hard drives, which are very responsive but tend to get hot.

No matter what I did, I kept running into problems with the 400 GB Deskstars in the miniStacks. I would run Disk Utility or DiskWarrior, seemingly fix the corruption problems with the drive's four partitions, only to have them come back time and again. I tried fixing them from the Power Mac running Tiger and Leopard. I tried fixing them from the Mini running Leopard and Snow Leopard. Always the same thing - eventually the drive would no longer mount.

Since NewerTech sold the miniStack with drives as large as 500 GB, I didn't anticipate any problems with my 400 GB Deskstars, but it now appears that there are significant issues with this drive mechanism that made it impossible for me to work from them.

And I couldn't put the drives in the older Power Macs, as they would only recognize the first 128 GB of space.

Lesson: Don't take compatibility for granted.

eMac to the Rescue

Then I remembered the 2004 1.25 GHz eMac, which hasn't seen much use since I got the MDD. This was the first eMac with USB 2.0 and the first to support "big" hard drives. What if I put the Deskstar in the eMac, put it in FireWire Target Disk Mode, and let the Power Mac access it as a FireWire drive? That should work!

Unfortunately, it didn't. The Power Mac saw the drive installed in the eMac, but it saw it with corrupt partitions and could not fix them. Same exact problem I'd been having with the miniStack. It's my understanding that with FireWire, drive capacity doesn't matter, but for some reason, despite the eMac supporting big drives, this wasn't working.

Lesson: FireWire Target Disk Mode seems to be limited by the maximum drive size supported by the Mac that isn't running in Target Disk Mode.

Since I had the drive in the eMac anyhow (I took the lazy route and swapped it for the SuperDrive, because eMacs are a bear to take apart and reassemble if you need to get to the hard drive bay), I booted from its original internal hard drive - and the Deskstar mounted without incident! I was then able to run Disk Utility and DiskWarrior, boot the eMac from the Deskstar, and then use SuperDuper to clone the Tiger partition to another drive just to play it safe.

Lesson: Don't forget about a newer Mac just because you haven't used it for some time.

Partitions Lost

Through all of this, I lost the Mac OS 9.2.2 boot partition on the primary Deskstar. Fortunately I use SuperDuper to clone my partitions on a somewhat regular basis, so I was able to copy that back from the second Deskstar. (I also lost the Leopard partition on the backup Deskstar, but again SuperDuper made it easy to clone a new backup.)

I also decided that to avoid this trouble in the future, I would clone my Tiger and Classic partitions to an 80 GB drive that I could transplant to one of my older Power Macs in a pinch. This is a 7200 rpm Deskstar, so it's going to be just as responsive as the higher capacity drive. And it will give me a lot more peace of mind after spending day after day troubleshooting my unexpected problems.

Lesson: Those old, pulled hard drives may come in handy someday.

Back to the MDD

On a lark, I decided to see if the MDD would power up Tuesday afternoon. After three days (Thursday through Saturday) of not doing powering up, I didn't expect anything, but I was grateful to see the power button glow white, hear the cooling fans whir, and see the red LED on the logic board glow. I've shared my experience with some other LEM columnists, and sometime things like this happen after a few days unplugged. Odd, but nice. (I've also noted that my MDD no longer has a startup problem. For years, I've had to unplug the computer after I shut it down before it would start up again. When I started it up this morning, no problem.)

One by one I installed hard drives. First the backup 400 GB Deskstar, since the primary 400 was still in the eMac. With that tested, the 80 GB Deskstar was next, followed by cloning OS X 10.4 Tiger to one partition and OS 9.2.2 to another. And then putting the primary 400 back.

In the end, I used recent backups of my Tiger and Classic partitions and cloned them both to the primary 400 and the newly installed 80 GB drive, which will become my new primary drive. The Leopard partitions on both 400 GB drives were unusable, so I wiped one partition, cloned a fresh copy of Leopard from another drive, and used Migration Assistant to import everything from the Tiger partition. It's not exactly what I had on my old Leopard partition, but then I don't use Leopard for production on the MDD.

Lesson: Don't mess with your backup drive. I could have saved a lot of time, effort, and frustration if I hadn't tried to use it with the older Power Macs.

Two Macs Instead of Three

I'm still down to two production Macs - the MDD and the Mac mini. And that's kind of frustrating, as I use Mail in Snow Leopard for email but need to switch to Leopard so I can use the same mouse and keyboard with both Macs. Worse yet, Leopard is on an external 5400 rpm USB drive, so startup takes a while and it's not nearly as responsive as Snow Leopard, which is on an external 7200 rpm drive. But for now, it works.

Project for the next day or so will be getting the Digital Audio back in place as the Leopard machine between the Tiger and Snow Leopard Macs. This would actually be a perfect task for a G4 iMac or a Mac mini, but I'm using what I have.

I feel a lot better about my setup. I've used Disk Utility, DiskWarrior, and SuperDuper so many times over the past several days that I can't even begin to count. Cloning drives is a long, slow process, but it does result in matching drives. Time Machine is a fine backup app for recovering previous versions of files or deleted files, but to just get up and running again, I prefer a drive cloning app like SuperDuper. If not for the incompatibilities with my older Macs and my external enclosures, I could have been up and running within an hour.

Of course, the best solution is probably cloning plus Time Machine, but my MDD is running Tiger, and it doesn't support Time Machine. (I could boot it into Leopard, let Time Machine run, and then reboot Tiger, but that seems like a lot of work.)

Planning for the Future

This could happen again, and I need to be prepared for it.

Lesson: I need to pick up another dual-processor Power Mac G4, one that supports big drives.

Options include 2001 dual 800 MHz Quicksilver, 2002 dual 1 GHz Quicksilver, any 2002 MDD (they are all dual-processor configurations), or a 2003 1.25 GHz or 1.42 GHz FireWire 800, the only generation of G4 Power Macs incapable of booting Mac OS 9 natively. The Quicksilver models "only" support 1.5 GB of RAM, while the newer G4 Power Macs support 2.0 GB - and that half-gigabyte really does a difference if you use Classic Mode and have a bunch of apps running all the time, as I usually do.

I've been in touch with a local used Mac dealer who has quite a selection of dual processor Quicksilvers ranging from $50 to $100. Unless I can find a killer deal on a Mirrored Drive Doors, that's probably what I'm going to get.

I don't know how much longer I'll continue using a G4 and Tiger for production work, but until I can afford more system memory (about $50 for 3 GB) and a faster, higher capacity hard drive (the cool running WD Caviar Black, most likely 500 GB, which sells for about $85) in my Mac mini, I'll be using the Power Mac. With 1 GB of RAM and less than half that available for apps, I can barely run three apps at once, and I really want to run Mail with SpamSieve, NetNewsWire, Text Soap, TextWrangler, and a browser, usually Camino. When it becomes a real production machine, I'll also be running Photoshop Elements 3.0 (old, but it does what I need) and BlueGriffon.

Using Two (or More) Macs

I have to say that using two or three Macs linked together with Teleport has been a great experience. One mouse and keyboard to rule them all makes it much more practical to work with multiple Macs. Drag and drop between machines is also nice, although I recently made the move to Dropbox , which lets me sync files between my MDD running Tiger and my Mac mini, whether running Leopard or Snow Leopard. If I had a notebook with Tiger, I could easily use Dropbox on it and work from anywhere. Dropbox is a really great service that iCloud is not going to displace.

Even when I get away from using Tiger for production work, I'm confident I'll continue to work with at least two production machines. I just love having two huge monitors (20" and 22" ADC Cinema Displays picked up secondhand) and being able to have each computer run its own apps. This would also make it easy to give OS X 10.7 Lion a try, assuming Teleport will work with it (version 1.0.2 mostly works, and version 1.1 is in beta).

Thanks to Dropshare, I'm very intrigued with the idea of getting an inexpensive G4 PowerBook or iBook that can run Tiger decently. My old 400 MHz TiBook did, but it was parted out after a drop shattered its case 4-1/2 years ago. A 15" Titanium or Aluminum with maximum RAM, a Combo drive, 802.11g WiFi, and a 1280 x 854 display would be perfect. Even a Pismo or Lombard (with a 1024 x 768 display) could do the job adequately, as could an iBook. But that's a matter for the future, after I've upgraded the Mac mini and have some extra money.

The best part about using more than one Mac is that I haven't been completely down. I've been able to use my Digital Audio Power Mac (with Leopard) and Mac mini (with Snow Leopard) to do a lot of things other than work on Low End Mac - things like email, adding "around the Web" links, and keeping up on Facebook, although nowadays I'm far more likely to use my iPhone for that.

Except for the issue of "big" hard drives, the problems I experienced were unrelated to using older Macs. Whether you're getting by with a G3 or running an i5 or i7 Mac, it's always important to have a backup - and it can be very important to have a backup computer as well.

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Dan Knight has been using Macs since 1986, sold Macs for several years, supported them for many more years, and has been publishing Low End Mac since April 1997. If you find Dan's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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