Saturday, March 7, 2009

Sorry for not posting sooner, but I'm afraid I'm suffering from an embarrassment of riches; there's just SO much to talk about I couldn't settle on something. So, to kick things off, I'll talk a bit about a new project machine I'm experimenting with, the Poiwerbook 3400c.

Released in Feb. 1997 it was the fastest notebook computer then available and brought a host of new innovations to the table. Leaving NUBUS board architecture behind, it used Intel's new PCI design and was the first Powerboard to be Cardbus compliant (though this seems to have been unintentional). Coming in three speeds (180, 200, and 240 MHz CPUs), it sported a nice 12" active matrix screen and 4 speakers (and while hardly a Dolby Stereo experience, the sound is fairly impressive for a notebook). It used a proprietary RAM module (similar to the 190/5300 series, but not cross compatible) that could boost the 3400c to a mind boggling (for 1997) 144mgs of physical RAM! Sadly, it's time as the most awesome laptop on Earth was shortlived as Motorola's 750 G3 CPU hit the market, and Apple waited no time (or real thought) in cramming it into the 3400c case, creating the equally shortlived 3500c "Kanga" (more on that another time).

All right, enough histrionics, down to brass tacks. The 3400 is a PB 5300 on steroids. Bigger and beefier in every sense of the word, it's a lot what of what the 5300 should have been with in the first place. Sharing a hot swappable drive bay (and some case plastics) with it's predecessor, this gives you a great head start on tricking this beast out. To my knowledge, here's everything available for the 190/5300/3400 drive bay;

VST Power Adaptor
VST ZIP 100 drive
VST Hard Drive Module
VST 230mg Magneto Optical drive
PC Card holder
Floppy Drive Module
12X CD Drive
20X CD Drive

The VST Power Adaptor was originally for the Powerbook 5300 (who's native plug was VERY prone to breaking) and in the 3400 is a good travel option if you're not inclined to haul around the 45 watt Power Brick and cord. The Hard Drive Modules usually came with a 1 or 2 gig drive installed, but could be opened (with some effort) and upgraded with any standard IDE/ATA laptop hard drive. Of the things listed, the Magneto Optical drive is the rarest, and it took me 8 years to finally track one down. Very old school as storage media goes, but useful.

Getting into a 3400 to do some upgrades is likewise commendably painless, though you'll need a Torx 8 screw driver for the task. Remove AC power and the battery, flip the 3400 face down. Remove the 3 long screws in the bottom, releasing the keyboard. Rightside up again, you now have access to the RAM module, or you can gentle pry up the trackpd unit to access the hard drive carriage. Three more silver screws hold the drive in place, and when removed you can lift out the carraige, being mindful of the ribbon cable connecting the drive to the motherboard. Now you can change out the hard drive if you like.

I've always been fond of the 3400c, it being my first "real" powerbook that I could get stuff done on, being pretty close to the Mac desktops of the day. Not quite as easy to tote as the 5300 series, it nonetheless still has some fight left in it. You'll be limited to nothing higher than OS 9.1, but that's not the worst thing in the world. If you're looking to pick one up, obviously you'll want to shoot for the highest CPU speed, and as much RAM as possible, RAM DOUBLER likewise being a good idea (though if you have 144mgs of physical RAM, RD will only take you to 240mgs). The 3400c's intelligent batteries are a BIG step up from the 5300 series and I've had amazing luck find good batteries. Being Cardbus complient ( see --> for details) you have options for USB and WiFi cards (I've had pretty good luck with both).

My current experiment involves getting a Compact Flash to ATA interface card, and replacing my hard drive with an 8gig CF card. So far, so good. OS 9.1 loads noticeably quicker and of course quieter, so I'm hopeful for the future. I'm specifically setting this up with Photoshop 4, Flash 5, Bryce 3D 4, Pagemaker 6.5, and Streamline 4. I'll keep you posted!

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Hard Decisions About Software

Aside from actually acquiring a RetroBook is what you run on it, and I'm not even talking about Apps. The books operating system is the foundation on which your work environment will be built. These days, Mac OS' break down into three categories; OS 7~9.2 (now know as "Classic OS"), OS 10.2~10.4, and Linux. These will spread over the four broad categories of APPLE notebooks; 68K machines (PB 100~190, and the 500 series), PowerPC machines (5300, 1400, 3400 and 3500 "Kanga"), G3 Powerbooks (Built To Order series, Lombard and Pismo), and the iBooks (Clamshell and Dual USB types). For the 68K machines, you're relegated to OS 7~7.6.1, tho OS 8 has a backward reach capability for older hardware, but is a resource hog on these books, and it all comes down to how much physical RAM you have to work with. OS 8 was really that transitional operating system as Apple began to introduce the PowerPC architecture machines, but OS 8.5 would finally leave the 68K machine in the rear view mirror. All the PPC notebooks work well with OS 7.6.1, and has much to recommend it, especially how (comparatively) thrifty it is with system resources. For a PB 5300 or 1400, I'd go with OS 8.6, as this is the earliest OS that supports WiFi drivers, but a PB 3400/3500 is better suited to OS 9.1. All the G3 Powerbooks will support OS 9.2, which is the absolute best of the Classic OS family, being both feature filled and rock solid. But as we wander into OS X territory, you need to keep a few things in mind if you're hunting the big cats. The first G3 Powerbooks (the Built To Order, or Wallstreet books) have what's known as "Old World ROM's" and require special rules for running OS X. First off, even if you intend to load a dual boot OS system, the partition that will contain OS X MUST be in the first 8 gigs of the hard drive (actually, it's best to set up a partition no bigger that 7.45 gigs for the kitty). Wallstreets can natively take up to OS 10.2 Jaguar, but using software like XPost Facto you can install OS 10.3 Panther (OS 10.4 Tiger is out of the running as the Wallstreets lack the onboard VRAM to support Tiger well). The third generation Powerbook G3 (Lombard), can run up to OS 10.3, but again, XPost Facto can get Tiger running on it, which actually runs pretty good on it. But something to bare in mind with the Big Cats; APPLE's specs for them are on the low end. In my experience, whatever they tell you is recommended system for an OS, double it. While OS 10.4 Tiger on paper only needs 256mgs RAM, you only get really good performance with 512mgs installed. As for the iBooks, clamshells can take up to OS 10.3 and it's a match made in heaven. Dual USB iBooks (or "IceBooks") can take OS 10.4 Tiger, and should (RAM permitting). Then of course, there's Linux...

There's whole websites devoted to installing Linux on PPC notebooks, but for our purposes, there's just one word; UBUNTU. A very popular and well supported distribution, Ubuntu runs pretty well on Lombards, Pismos, and the iBooks, but WiFi is problematic under Ubuntu, so keep that in mind. Given that OS 10 is already a flavor of UNIX (BSD), Linux on a New World ROM machine is something of a lifestyle choise, but still worth considering. You can install Linux on Old World ROM machines... but that's a WHOLE posting in and of itself.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Love For Sale

I guess the best place to start would be to cover a few points in buying a used RetroBook, assuming that you don't already have one. No matter where you get one, the rules are the same; get smart about your subject. Whether being given a freebie or buying off of eBay, do your research. LowEnd Mac and EveryMac.Com have detailed profiles of all models and a quick Google search will turn up White Papers, critiques, articles or owners reports. Since the vast majority of RetroBook sales are on eBay, I'll concentrate of that first.

01. Magic Box No Work!!
While you can duke it out with other buyers on an auction for a Powerbook Pismo in mint condition, if you're feeling especially ballsie, you might look at getting a notebook looking for a little TLC. Laptops put up as Parts/Repair are a real crapshoot, but once again let knowledge be your ally. Research can reveal powerbooks that have an iffy history (APPLE's Duel USB G3 iBooks spring readily to mind), or just how easy repairs or mods might be. The Powerbook 5300 series was plagud with problems of one sort or another, but time has weeded out the weak, and if you see a 5300 on eBay, chances are pretty good it's a survivor (coupled with the fact that the 190/5300/3400 series are surprisingly easy to repair). The idea (from my POV) is to try and get the most bang for the buck without going over $100.00, which might entail buying several of a model and Franken-Booking a good working one from the group.

02. Mystery Date!
Are you ready... for your Mystery Date? Here's where PC user/vendors become your addled, unwitting allies. More often than not, you'll run across APPLE notebooks in the PC Laptop category, corperate hand me downs, which Finnigen J. PC-Seller would just as soon not fool with. They don't know Macs and are not inclined to learn anything about them, so often they just toss them up untested (No AC Adapter the usual reason) and with a low starting bid. Again, no guarentees, but might be worth a roll of the dice. Here's a tip; often you'll see auctions for a Powerbook G3 Pismo that "Just Stopped Working". A common sight and quite possibly the easiest repair possible. Being untested, you'll more often than not get an incredible bounty with this (Airport Card, Maxxed RAM, HUGE hard drive, etc.). If you get one (or have this problem yourself), here's what you do; unlatch the clips at the top of the keyboard and gently lift it out of the way. Looking on the left, you'll see a braided wire plugged into the board; this is the PRAM battery connection. With the Pismo plugged in, CAREFULLY wiggle the plug loose and unplug it from the board. Wait a moment, then CAREFULLY replug it in, and hit the power button. 99 times out of a hundred, you'll hear those sweet, sweet start up chimes. Only the Pismo suffers from this, but knowing it is your ticket to possibly getting a GREAT Powerbook CHEAP!

03.$1200.00 Word Processer
As I've said before, your choise of RetroBook should be based on what you actually plan to with it, and remember that it needn't be more thano do you need. Any of the pre-G3 Powerbooks are fine for word pressessing or business apps, a clamshell iBook is still a great mobile workhorse for lite apps and web surfing, and just about everything after the Powerbook 180 was Wifi capable. Think about what you need, then give a quick look over the various stats of the RetroBooks to see what might fit your needs. You can pick up a Powerbook BTO G3 Wallstreet for about $20.00, which still has a ton of working potential. Max the RAM out, get a USB 2 PC Card, and a fresh load of OS 10.3 (via XPost Facto), and you're ready to rock. A Powerbook 3400c makes an excellent first computer for the kids, or setting up (with a Wifi connection) to enjoy streaming audio. If mobility is crucial, better to go with an iBook 366, as I've had the best luck getting those which still have good battery life. In short, a notebook need not be all things; setting up task specific laptops is a great alternative to another full desktop setup in the house.

A few years back, I was knocking around on the Powerbook newsgroups when a new guy posted some basic questions about getting into retro Macs. Evidently, he had a shot at a pretty good deal on a Powerbook 5300ce from an estate sale, but he asked, "Is this a good notebook? What can I do with it?". Amongst the responses was one bit sage who I think summed it up nicely; he said, "It'll do everything today that it could do when it was new out of the box.". A simple answer, but it really got me thinking. Old technology doesn't change, it's how we use it that changes, and if you're interested in hobbying with an old notebook, it's less a matter of what you CAN do with it, as it is what you WILL do with it. Yeah, you're not going to be hitting YouTube on a Powerbook 180, but you can desktop publish, word processing, do gif animations, keep business records, and write the great American Novel. Old powerbooks make great starter computers for the kids, or a second family machine, letting you get a little work done as the girls run amuck in Second Life on the main computer in the house. It's also convenient to have a computer that can be easily picked up and tucked away, there's no need to dedicate desk space to a big setup, and given that MOST of the Pre-G4 Apple notebooks are WiFi capable, you have even more options! Coming up, I'll tell you as much as I can about the hows and whys of RetroBooking. Enjoy!