Mac Musings

How to Survive While Your Mac Is Gone for Repair

Daniel Knight - 2003.04.18

On January 31, 2001, I bought the first PowerBook G4 to reach my local Apple dealer. I also bought AppleCare, which I consider a good idea for anyone buying a new 'Book. After all, almost any repair will cost more than the AppleCare policy (currently US$349 on the PowerBook G4, US$249 on the iBook).

The keyboard alone sells for $165, and mine needs to be replaced. The space bar gave out on mine, and my Apple dealer has a replacement en route. Of course, that's nothing compared with the horrible luck my wife has had with her 600 MHz 14" iBook; she's on her third or fourth keyboard, and some of the printed letters are wearing off the current keyboard.

While AppleCare doesn't cover damage to your computer, it does cover the keyboard wearing out or keys popping off, the hard drive failing (over the past year or so, most hard drive makers have gone to a one year warranty on their mechanisms, providing yet another argument in favor of AppleCare), or screen problems.

screen shot

The problem with AppleCare on 'Books is screen problems - which is exactly what I've been dealing with since I brought my TiBook home. There's a dark section in the bottom center, which I suspect is caused by the backlight. My dealer tells me that they can't fix it; only Apple can perform the repair.

The US$650 screen is covered by AppleCare, but even if Apple offered the kind of service PowerBookResQ does with overnight shipping each way and no more than 24 hours at the service center, that means a minimum of three days without my PowerBook.

Nice as AppleCare is, I really need this computer to run my business. I can't afford to be without it for three days to a week while Apple fixes a defect that's been present since the beginning.

What To Do?

That brings me to the subject of this article: What kind of backup hardware should a laptop owner have?

And I'll answer it with our stock Low End Mac answer: It depends.

We'll start by looking at my situation. I have a 400 MHz PowerBook G4 with 512 MB of RAM, a 20 GB internal drive (which also needs to be replaced, but that's a third-party replacement), and I work under OS X.

The SuperMac

Mac OS X is the glitch. I have a reliable old SuperMac S900 with a 333 MHz G3 upgrade and a 19" monitor, so I'd have close to the same speed and a bit more screen space. Problem is, the SuperMac isn't supported under OS X. Fortunately it is supported by XPostFacto, the greatest hack for installing an unsupported Mac OS since Born Again let us install Mac OS 8.1 on 68030-based hardware.

SuperMac drawbacks:

And to top it all off, my third oldest son is using it to run Omegapets (with my second oldest son) until he can afford to have the hinges repaired or replaced on his WallStreet (see Dealing with the PowerBook G3 Series Display Hinge Failure Defect for more on that issue).

I could pick up a 4.5 GB SCSI drive from MacResQ for $16 plus shipping (wow!) and 16 MB DIMMs for $5 each plus shipping (see ramseeker) or 256 meggers for $26 plus shipping from Other World Computing. This could give me the drive space and memory I need to get by for about $60. I could borrow USB and FireWire cards from other machines.

I have an external FireWire drive. I could use Carbon Copy Cloner to move everything to it, and I will need to do that when I have the 20 GB TravelStar drive replaced. But I don't have another computer that can boot into OS X from an external FireWire drive.

Because I depend on Mail for a portion of my work, I have no choice but to stick with OS X at this point. (This was one reason I waited to start using Mail until I was sure I could live with OS X every day. Jaguar made that possible, and I've been an OS X user since January 2003.)

The Beige G3

I could use the beige G3/333 (upgraded from 266 MHz) that my youngest son uses. It's already running Jaguar. The 288 MB of RAM would get me by for the short term. The biggest drawback I can see is not being able to boot from a FireWire drive, which might make it more difficult to move everything back to the TiBook later on.

The beige G3 has a big, fast hard drive as well as USB. I could drop in a FireWire card. But there's a problem.

I need a screen no smaller than the 1152 x 768 display I have on my TiBook. That might seem large to some of you, but for someone constantly switching between programs, running multiple browsers, and spoiled by 1280 x 1024 monitors in the past, it's the least space I can work with. (This is precisely whey the TiBook was my first PowerBook - it was the first to provide the amount of screen space I need to work efficiently. And I'd love to upgrade to one of the newer 1280 x 854 models.)

Unfortunately, the beige G3 doesn't support any resolution higher than 1024 x 768 on the 17" Apple monitor connected to it, so I'd need to look into a very sharp 17" display or a very affordable 19" one.

CPU power isn't a big issue. I suspect I could live comfortably with a 333 MHz G3 for a week while Apple replaces my TiBook's screen or repairs the backlight. Still, I'd be depriving my son of the computer he uses for home schooling - and that's not a good idea at all.

The Blue & White G3

My needs point to a blue & white Power Mac G3 as the least computer that can replace my 400 MHz PowerBook G4 in a pinch. The blue & white has FireWire and USB ports as well as video comparable to what's inside my TiBook. Online prices start at US$250 plus shipping for a 300 MHz 256/6/CD-ROM setup (cheaper from some dealers than from some eBay sellers!). Memory is dirt cheap - I could add 256 MB for US$35 shipped according to ramseeker.

The small drive isn't a problem, since I'd be using an external drive in a FireWire enclosure. The next expense would be a 17" or 19" monitor, which is the smallest that works well at 1152 x 854. Figure $150 for a 17" or $200 for a decent 19" Viewsonic - and pick it up locally to avoid shipping fees.

All told, it would cost at least US$450 to have a backup system to replace my TiBook so it can go in for service.

Although I have some lower cost options based on hardware currently in the home, picking up a b&w G3 looks like a much better alternative than taking over a computer used for home schooling or another one used to build an online business around a virtual pet site. (Omegapets served 1.5 million pages in the month it was online and may already be the #2 virtual pet site on the Web.)

It's a low-end solution, and with my even lower end budget, I'll probably check with some local sources to see if I might be able to find such a setup for even less. And there's always the possibility of selling it when I get my TiBook back.

What About eMac?

The eMac supports up to 1280 x 960 on a 17" display, but I haven't taken a close look at one yet. I have seen prices in the US$650-750 range, although that varies a bit from week to week. If the display is crisp enough, would it be worth an extra $200-300 vs. a b&w G3 setup with a nice 17" or cheap 19" display?

That's hard to say. I could definitely get by with the entry level eMac, since I have an external CD-ROM burner and don't need a modem, although not having a modem could make it harder to resell down the road.

I think the biggest drawback of an eMac would be getting spoiled. I'm comfortable with my 400 MHz G4 TiBook; spending a week at 700 MHz with Quartz Extreme and a fast external FireWire hard drive would make it hard to go back to the TiBook. I'd want to do something foolish like overclock it, which would kill the remainder of my AppleCare coverage. (Then again, once the keyboard and screen are replaced, that might not be such a bad thing. 500-550 MHz would be a nice improvement....)

Other Options?

I'm looking into renting a TiBook from Platypus and Best PC Rentals. Based on the few prices I've seen online, I don't expect this to be a reasonable alternative to buying a b&w G3, using it for a week, and then selling it.

I can't think of any other options, but maybe if someone near Grand Rapids, MI, has a spare Mac available short term....


Your needs are probably different from mine, but if you have a laptop that can't be fixed locally, you should probably give some thought to what you'd do if it needed to go in for service for several days or a week. If you depend on your 'Book to get your work done, give some serious thought to a hardware backup plan.