Apple, Tech, and Gaming

Unicorns of Pismo Lore: 1 GHz G3 and 900 MHz G4 Upgrades

- 2012.04.16 - Tip Jar

The unicorn is a mythical creature that doesn't quite seem to exist outside the realms of fantasy, yet the ancients were convinced of its existence based on third-hand reports. Unicorn upgrades are those that either never made it out of the prototype stage or had a very brief, low, single production run.

The Pismo PowerBook is now a 12-year-old machine and has seen better days in terms of usefulness. iPads with Bluetooth keyboards and other mobile devices have greatly exceeded it from a "consumption" standpoint and can provide a similar experience, but they are still not as versatile from a creative/multitasking standpoint.

Pismo vs. iPad with keyboard
The iPad can essentially double as a full featured notebook, albeit using touchscreen
input vs. the standard trackpad and clicker button found on notebooks like the Pismo.

But what if you could greatly increase the power of the Pismo from its ancient 400 MHz or 500 MHz G3? What if there was some kind of voodoo magic that would allow it to be powerful enough to handle some of today's tasks and even boot into OS X 10.5 Leopard without much difficulty?

Something like that once existed, but it never got into the hands of consumers. There was a 900 MHz G4 Pismo upgrade prototype from PowerLogix, but it never hit the production line.

Yes, you read that correctly - a 900 MHz G4 Pismo (not the more well known 900 MHz G3 upgrade). I discovered this about four years ago in the Apple forums with a poster pointing to a real auction that was active with pictures of the card. Too bad I didn't do screen grabs of the auction, as they would have been very interesting for archive purposes.

At any rate, a 900 MHz G4 Pismo would seemingly have no issue booting into and installing Leopard. No unsupported install would be necessary. It would be screaming fast, but maybe too hot and would still not avoid the bottleneck of the limited 8 MB of VRAM with no Quartz Extreme/Core Image support that limits the Pismo for today's Web.

It's a shame that PowerLogix never put this into production, since the G4 is fundamentally not much different than the G3 aside from AltiVec. If they would have, FastMac and/or Wegener would likely have been selling them even today in place of the 550 MHz G4 upgrade currently sold.

Speaking of the 900 MHz G3 processor, which is much better known than the folklore of the 900 MHz G4 upgrade prototype I described, I would like to refresh the minds of those who may not remember that a 1 GHz G3 was once sold for the Pismo as well, and it is likely one of the rarest commercially sold upgrades ever made for a Mac, since it was so quickly pulled from the market. Charles Moore, a fellow Low End Mac Pismo aficionado, once wrote an article about the 1 GHz G3 Pismo upgrade and compared it to the more commonly available 550 MHz G4.

The one thing that perplexes me is that the 1 GHz G3, which was quickly halted, had a full 1 MB L2 cache like the stock 400 and 500 MHz G3 processors (and G4 upgrades), while the 900 MHz G3 upgrades had a smaller 512 KB cache. It leads me to believe that although the 1 GHz G3 may have had a couple of stability issues, it was probably much faster than the 900 MHz upgrade thanks to its increased cache size.

If only the Pismo could have had an upgradeable GPU like so many Windows laptops do, rather than it being soldered in place. We could very well have had Pismos with 900 MHz G4 upgrades still doing many tasks on the Web with overall performance similar to that of a late Titanium PowerBook.

In the case of the 1 GHz G3 upgrade, performance would have been significantly better than the 14" 900 MHz iBook G3, and likely still less problematic despite the claimed flaws of the upgrade that halted its production. At the original retail of $1,499, the 900 MHz iBook would have had some interesting competition from an upgraded Pismo. Besides the simple fact that the 1 GHz G3 was 100 MHz faster than the iBook G3, the 1 GHz G3 upgrade (offered at $399 before being quickly pulled) would have had many other compelling reasons to justify the upgrade vs. a new model purchase.

While the 900 MHz iBook G3 can also boot into OS 9, the Pismo has many more connectivity advantages, such as CardBus, an open expansion bay, and more I/O ports. In addition, upgrades to critical components are able to be completed with great simplicity by even a novice tinkerer. Thus, upgrading a Pismo with a fast processor would have been very justifiable at the time - unless you needed the much better Radeon 7500 graphics in the 900 MHz iBook for gaming or other purposes.

The 1 GHz upgrade, as mentioned, also had the full 1 MB L2 cache, while the iBook had the 512 KB cache found on the 900 MHz G3 upgrade. This extra boost the 1 GHz G3 upgrade provided would surely have made the 1 GHz upgrade the ultimate for OS 9 operation in most cases, but alas - at least we still have the 550 MHz G4 upgrade today, which is much more practical for OS X operation.

This may have been one of the rare occasions where a stock 400 MHz Pismo picked up on the used market with a fast upgrade would have been a much better value proposition than a brand new model (guessing that a used Pismo could have been had for about $1,000 in early to mid 2003). It's too bad that as times have changed, upgrades have all but gone by the wayside (except for memory, storage, and optical drives) on portables. At the same time, it makes you appreciate the Pismo even more for what it had going for it at one point and is why it can still be useful today (albeit for lighter work), more than 12 years after its release.

One final interesting fact about the last 12" and 14" iBook G3s, which were released in early 2003 (and were the last G3 Macs ever produced by Apple): This was occurring during a time when the G4 was being phased out of desktops in favor of the G5. It's hard to believe that the Apple "consumer" notebook market was once more than a full generation behind its desktop counterpart at one point.

So there you have it - the "unicorns" of Pismo upgrades. I guarantee if you ever find one of these ultra rare upgrades for sale in an auction, it will likely go for well over $500 (maybe even exceed $1,000) just for the sheer scarcity and collector's value. I haven't even seen the 900 MHz G3 or 500/550 MHz G4 upgrades on auction for quite a long time, so it leads me to believe that the 550 MHz G4 upgrades from FastMac and Wegener will be your only way to squeeze a bit more life out of your Pismo until they run out of inventory, so get them while they last (but always be on the lookout for those rare "unicorns")! LEM

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Dan Bashur lives in central Ohio with his wife and children. He uses various PowerPC G3 and G4 Macs running Tiger and Leopard. Besides finding new uses for Macs and other tech, Dan enjoys writing (fantasy novel series in the works), is an avid gamer, and a member of Sony's Gamer Advisor Panel. You can read more of Dan Bashur's work on, where he contributes regular articles about the PSP, classic gaming, and ways you can use Sony gaming hardware with your Mac.

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