Mac Musings

WallStreet Series II: A Dozen Years Later

Daniel Knight - 2010.09.01 -

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Twelve years ago, Apple introduced the second generation WallStreet (a.k.a. PDQ) PowerBook G3, which incorporated lessons learned from the first generation. In many ways, this was the most flexible PowerBook ever.

The Orignal WallStreet

WallStreet PowerBook G3The original WallStreet, introduced in May 1998, introduced a new PowerBook design with swoopy curves, two large battery/drive bays, two PC Card expansion slots, a great keyboard (one of the best ever on a PowerBook), and a few too many options. You could order the 1997 WallStreet in 233 MHz, 250 MHz, or 292 MHz speeds and with a 12.1" 800 x 600, 13.3" 1024 x 768, or 14.1" 1024 x 768 display.

As I said, a few too many options. Besides which, the 13.3" display had more than its fair share of teething problems due to the way the cable was routed to the screen. This is the one screen you want to avoid when buying a used WallStreet.

Likewise, the 233 MHz model had no Level 2 (L2) cache whatsoever, so it benchmarked at about half the level of the 250 MHz model. Again, this one is best avoided unless you plan on replacing the cacheless CPU.

Finally, the 250 MHz and 292 MHz models used a faster 83 MHz system bus, while the entry-level 233 MHz model used 66 MHz. The faster models tended to be a bit less stable because of the faster bus.

PowerBook G3 Series II

Apple simplified things with Series II: Every model used the same 14.1" display and the same 66 MHz system bus. Best of all, the new entry level 233 MHz model included a 512 KB L2 cache and benchmarked 70% faster than its predecessor. The 266 MHz and 300 MHz models had an even larger L2 cache - 1 MB.

Otherwise, the two generations were almost identical. They weighed 7.8 lb. with one battery and could run for up to six hours with a pair of fresh, fully charged batteries. With one battery installed, the second device bay could hold a floppy, CD-ROM, DVD-ROM, Zip, or third-party hard drive. As I said, lots of flexibility.

This was the last PowerBook with two PC Card slots. When Apple introduced the slimmer, lighter, faster Lombard PowerBook G3 in 1999, it reduced the number of PC Card slots to one. (On the plus side, Lombard was the first PowerBook with built-in USB.)

Thanks to a CPU daughter card design, swapping in a faster G3 processor or a G4 was fairly straightforward, and WallStreet is said to be one of the most accessible models when it comes up installing upgrades.

Personal Experience

I remember setting up WallStreets for users when I worked as the IT guy at Baker Publishing. This was one very impressive machine, but I hadn't really touched one since I left there in January 2001.

Up until May 2009, that is, when a friend gave me his dad's old 266 MHz WallStreet PowerBook, complete with a second (never used!) battery, the floppy drive module, and a 20x CD-ROM module. It had the stock 64 MB of RAM, and I could tell from the date stamps on its files that it had been sitting unused for years.

The original battery barely held any charge at all, but the other battery took a full charge and has worked dependably ever since. Pretty impressive for something now 12 years old!

The first thing to do was upgrade system memory. Fortunately I have several pulls from my late 400 MHz PowerBook G4, and the PC100 memory works just fine with a 66 MHz bus. With a 128 MB module and a 256 MB one, I have 384 MB of RAM - twice the "officially supported" 192 MB promised by Apple when it announced the machine. It is possible to run WallStreet with 512 MB, but I've gone this far without spending money.

The original 8 GB hard drive was slow, and it was easily replaced with the 20 GB 5400 rpm Travelstar drive I bought when I outgrew the 10 GB drive that came with my TiBook. Due to issues regarding the first 8 GB of space, I partitioned the hard drive three ways. The first partition is 6.64 GB and contains Mac OS X 10.2 Jaguar, applications, and Mac OS 9.2.2 (primarily for Classic Mode). I have 3.8 GB free in the first partition. The second is 400 MB and has another Mac OS 9.2.2 installation, this one mostly so I have a bootable emergency partition if the first partition has problems. The third partition, used for working files, is 11.6 GB.

Rumor has it that you can run OS X 10.3 Panther on WallStreet using XPostFacto, but I've had no luck there. That's a shame, as Panther runs much more smoothly than Jaguar. (OS X 10.4 Tiger may be possible as well, but there's no practical way to install it without a DVD drive, since I don't have the CD-ROM version of the installer.)

A Few Issues

This vintage PowerBook isn't without a few issues. I don't have a wireless card that work reliably with either Mac OS 9 or X, so it's ethernet or no network. The little writing I've done on it - and it has a fine keyboard - is with TextEdit, a basic word processor that Apple includes with OS X. I have installed a few old browsers: Internet Explorer 5.2 (the last OS X version), Camino 1.0.6 (the last version for OS X 10.2), and Opera 9.64. And then there's Safari 1.0.3, the last version to work with Jaguar.

If I let my WallStreet go to sleep, I can't wake it from battery power, nor can I boot it without using the AC adapter. Maybe this is due to higher power draw from the faster hard drive.

Looking Ahead

I am tempted to look into getting a fast, cheap 8 GB Compact Flash card, which I could use as a boot drive with a PC Card adapter or with an Addonics CF Hard Drive Adapter (see Silence Is Golden: Running Your Existing Notebook Using Flash Memory). With prices starting at $22 for a 133x card with Ultra DMA support (required for the card to be bootable), I could ditch the hard drive completely, making this WallStreet lighter and probably increasing battery life. It could conceivably solve the wake from sleep and boot from battery problems as well.*

Of the few old PowerBooks I have (a couple 1400s, a graphite 366 MHz iBook, and this WallStreet), this is my favorite. I think that has more to do with the fact that it can run OS X (the 1400 can't) and that is has a 1024 x 768 display (the 1400 and clamshell iBook have an 800 x 600 display, which feels constricting in OS X.)

With two PC Card adapters (which I already have), the Addonics adapter, and three Compact Flash cards, I could have a lot of options. One would have Jaguar and OS 9. I could try to get Panther working on another. And maybe I'd even find a way to give Tiger a try.

This is never going to be a production machine, but it could be a very useful writing machine and field computer. And maybe with Panther or Tiger, I could get it working reliably with WiFi.

"I've received an email from John Muir, whose Operation FlashBook: Running Tiger from Flash on a PowerBook G4 received a lot of interest three years ago. He says, "I understand your desire to make a silent, handy, PowerBook using CompactFlash. Been there and done that....

"Unfortunately, there's a world of difference between the Classic Mac OS and OS X when it comes down to this idea. My experiment with flash-hosted Tiger eventually came a cropper as the flash card broke down through overuse. I'd been quite gentle in my day to day computing, but Mac OS X's virtual memory system wore the card behind the scenes. I was running with a reasonable amount of physical RAM, but OS X has a full virtual memory system - unlike Classic - and eventually overwhelmed the consumer grade flash.

"My habit as a laptop user is to keep my system running for days or weeks at a time, sleeping between sessions; a habit reinforced by the startup performance problems I experienced with my specific card from the get go. This would have meant a lot of load on virtual memory, even with my few apps and relatively large amount of free space. To see what I mean, hit Shift-Cmd-G in the Finder on your Mac just now and head to /var/vm/, which is where OS X keeps its swap files. If you've been up more than a few hours, there's often quite a lot in there, not least with tight physical memory.

"In essence, you get what you pay for with flash memory. Digital camera flash cards are designed for mild use compared with more expensive - but battle hardened - Solid State Drives. A costly SSD is a hard sell for even a G4 PowerBook, let alone a WallStreet, but a flash card hosted OS X may not be practical either.

"In my article, written some time before I had to give up with my experiment, I noted the performance issues and data corruption I was finding, and I blamed them on my specific card. Once Tiger became untenable, I pulled the adapter and put it back in the AMD K6-II laptop where I'd tested it and popped back the older 1 GB card. Alas, even it went on to show signs of degredation - with DOS-based Windows of all things - and that card was from a better make. This led me to doubt the practicality of any more experiments in CompactFlash, at least with systems backed by virtual memory.

"Now if I had a PowerBook 1400 or a G3, I would try it out with Mac OS 8 or 9; even then with the Classic Mac OS's meagre version of virtual memory turned off. There are great writing machines to be made of such computers, I'm sure. But if you're looking for more internet compatibility than Classilla, then I doubt CompactFlash is the way to go."

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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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