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While prepping for upcoming hardware changeovers due to operating system switches and of course good old fashioned stuff wearing out, I found my way to several great sources for the details of older apple computers. This led to an interesting walk down memory lane, although in the end I did not find it possible to create a parallel narrative for the non-apple system or non-macosx system machines before those I have today. The main cause of the disparity is that those other machines have typically not belonged to me and run some version of microsoft windows. I can reconstruct a great deal without revealing any details about previous or present employers, but because these machines were all desktops until the most recent ones I have worked with, their story is one of the increasing horror show of microsoft software. It is a horror show that too many of us know too well, and that I honestly believe to be a terrible missed opportunity for what could have become a far better, less cynical system. But, it is difficult to overcome the origins of a corporation's business model, and things get all the worse as the perverse incentives of corporations become more pronounced, as can be seen just as clearly in the case of apple. So with that acknowledged, there is a second cause to the disparity, that I have stuck to laptops due to space constraints combined with demands for ease of mobility. The alternative small format desktop computers are still quite new, such as the (in)famous Mac Mini, which made its first appearance for sale in 2005. Regardless of operating system, small format desktop computers can be too underpowered for any graphics or otherwise data-heavy task, and can have problems with heat management. However, they are widely available now and for most daily work conditions are more than adequate once equipped with a suitable external monitor, keyboard, and mouse. That is, as long as being strictly tied to a desk is not a problem.

UPDATE 2023-01-01 - Brian Lunduke has a recent post on his substack, Apple has changed... and not in a good way that provides a more specific overview of apple's changed corporate attitude to repairability, customizability, and so on.

But now, it's time for a brief stroll down memory lane in four apple laptops spanning the corporation's near-death experience in the mid to late 1990s to the now bitterly missed relative glory days of MacBook Pros with ports and easy to change batteries, hard drives, and RAM upgrade slots.

1. PowerBook 150

Photograph of an examplar Powerbook 150 by Dana Sibera circa august 2006, via wikimedia commons under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license. Photograph of an examplar Powerbook 150 by Dana Sibera circa august 2006, via wikimedia commons under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license.
Photograph of an examplar Powerbook 150 by Dana Sibera circa august 2006, via wikimedia commons under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license.

I must confess to having no idea about the interest, praise, or blame set upon this laptop when selecting it just over a year after its release in july 1994. According to the apple-history website, these machines "caused a stir." For my part, all I wanted was a far better thing than an electric typewriter that sounded like a train bearing down on anybody who turned it on, and not a box that ran MS-DOS. This made me fairly easy to please beyond those two low bars. So it was a surprise to learn that this was quite an affordable and groundbreaking machine in its own way, despite it having only serial and SCSI ports and what I refer to ironically as a "four purple screen" that was really only three.The hard drive started at 240 MB, but I am sure my unit had a higher capacity drive than that, although not a maxed out 500 MB one. The PowerBook 150 was nearly 6 centimetres thick and 28 by 23 centimetres across, so compared to today's machines insanely thick when closed. It was heavy, 2.6 kilograms and it was not trivial cost wise to bump it up from 4 MB of onboard RAM to 36 MB with an optional RAM card. Yes, megabytes, not gigabytes. Yet it was also compact, and was among the first laptops to place the pointer assembly in front of the keyboard and the keyboard closest to the screen. The trackball was fun to use, and to this day I prefer its form factor to a touch pad. These were hardwearing machines, mine ran well even with a software program emulating a floating point unit and the maximum operating system, 7.6.1, for over five years. Towards the end of that period the added RAM card developed a fault and needed to be replaced – the reason I know the old sound of the "grocery chimes of death" indicating a hardware failure. It had a floppy drive and actually quite good sound card and speaker for what it was. But the laptop itself did have a terrible design weakness, and that was the bus cable from the motherboard to the screen. Hair raising to work around when installing RAM, and prone to damage whenever the machine was serviced, a careless or luckless technician could end up seriously extending the time required for a different repair.

UPDATE 2023-01-27 - The wonderful AEK of bitsavers has a scan of a two-page marketing brochure for the PowerBook 150. As it happens I never saw one of these brochures at the time of purchasing one. The office software suite ClarisWorks, a powerful and remarkably resource efficient collection of programs suffered a cruel death at the hands of apple once it switched to MacOS X. ClarisWorks was truly done wrong by the development process.

Now I cannot say how long a PowerBook 150 could last under my typical work conditions of the late 1990s to early 2000s, because my landlord in 1999 stole it along with every other piece of gear attached to it just over a week before I moved out. Since I was not in arrears for rent, had been a reasonable tenant (which even the landlord conceded), and was moving out at the end of my lease as agreed, this was utterly extraordinary behaviour. It turned out the landlord suffered from a growing gambling addiction, and had been gradually pawning any likely electronic item they originally owned to feed the beast. How bitter it must have been for the landlord to discover in one of the hardest ways that a computer becomes borderline valueless as soon as a person opens its box after purchasing it from a store. Worse yet, the PowerBook 150 was no longer produced or sold by apple after october 1995 and had been thoroughly outstripped by newer apple laptops for features. I don't have any sympathy for the landlord on that score, but do hope they were able to get genuine help for their gambling addiction.

One of the other things I learned from this bad experience was that many operating systems in "consumer grade" computers had bespoke backup software. And I really mean "bespoke." The PowerBook 150 had its own backup software, and its cousin PowerBooks each had their own. So it was on digging my latest backups out of storage thinking at least my projects were restorable, without access to a copy of the software that generated the storage files, or "tomes," no restoration was possible. Therefore I had in effect five boxes of useless high capacity floppy discs. After that I knew whatever happened, my back up approach in future would always include making a simple, uncompressed copy to something able to hold my data in one or two discs. By the early 2000s, that was already CDs.

2. Clamshell G3 iBook

Photograph of a G3 clamshell iBook by Carlos Vidal circa september 2005, lightly modified by wikimedia contributor GRmwnr via wikimedia commons under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. Photograph of a G3 clamshell iBook by Carlos Vidal circa september 2005, lightly modified by wikimedia contributor GRmwnr via wikimedia commons under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.
Photograph of a G3 clamshell iBook by Carlos Vidal circa september 2005, lightly modified by wikimedia contributor GRmwnr via wikimedia commons under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

While the G3 iBook was not really what I wanted to replace my much missed PowerBook 150, to my mind it can't be denied that it was an interesting machine. The form factor polarized opinions right away because of the built in handle. Plus, it wasn't aggressively ugly, dark grey, or black. I agree wholeheartedly with the people annoyed because it was underpowered and was actually heavier than a mid 1990s era PowerBook. But, as apple-history confirms, besides these features it had a colour screen by default, built in wifi and ethernet, and in the machine I picked up, a CD-ROM drive. My unit dated to late 2001, and so if I could have afforded it, the motherboard RAM bump to 64 MB was an option. I couldn't afford the bump, having suffered serious financial setbacks related to the theft of my previous machine, so settled for 32 GB and a 3 GB hard drive. It was much slimmer than the PowerBook 150, with a footprint closer though still bigger than today's 13 inch MacBook Air. According to the specifications G3 iBooks could run MacOSX 10.3.9 if they had enough processor and RAM, and it looks like that is probably what the G3 iBook in the photograph is running, but my machine could run no more than system 8.6. While it had even better sound and video quality, and it saw enough use to wear out multiple keys and generally make an external usb keyboard a good idea, by the time I passed it on to a new owner, it was clearly incapable of coping with wifi or ethernet access to the internet or even an intranet due to processing demands as much as lack of security updates. Nevertheless, it was completely adequate for modest document and art design purposes, and could handle some arcade-style games.

Generally the iBooks are hardwearing little machines, and introduced the strobing indicator light for when the machine was asleep rather than off, a nice touch. I never considered purchasing a hockey puck mouse for a moment after briefly trying one out at the store, where even the clerk warned me right away, "You're gonna hate it." Why anybody at apple thought a round mouse made any damn sense, I don't know. Perhaps somebody who worked there at the time is still feeling relieved nobody implemented a wireless version. While the desire to round out the laptop a bit actually makes sense, not to make it conform to some condescending notion of "friendly" but to ease case damage problems exacerbated by sharp corners, the "roundness" theme went too far, and not just for that external mouse. They also had an awful external power adapter, a round spindle with the transformer in it and arranged to wind the narrower section of cord around plus a segment with the wall plug on it. (I want to say this second part was permanently attached, but genuinely can't remember or confirm based on the archival photographs currently available.) It is commonly referred to as a "yo-yo style power adapter." The cord storage method exacerbated the weak design of the plug itself, which soon pulled apart. Luckily by the time this could no longer be repaired by judicious rewiring and electric taping, belkin had a sensibly priced compatible power adapter to replace it for sale. When I passed the G3 iBook on circa 2004, the new power adapter was going strong and I had managed to do some modest refurbishing of the built in keyboard so a person could get on without an external unit if they needed to. It still surprises me even though it probably shouldn't that this model was available new for only a year.

3. G4 Aluminum PowerBook

Photograph of G4 aluminum PowerBook courtesy of ifixit.com, accessed november 2022. Photograph of G4 aluminum PowerBook courtesy of ifixit.com, accessed november 2022.
Photograph of G4 aluminum PowerBook courtesy of ifixit.com, accessed november 2022.

The G4 PowerBook was an experience, being the my first mac running macOSX, as it came pre-installed with the version codenamed Tiger. This was an unexpected blessing, based on the forum commentaries about the frustrations of running its predecessor, Panther. It was also the last PowerPC mac of my experience, and so kept some of the physical features so emblematic of those machines, being first of all, rather thick and heavy, though it was only 2 kilograms, almost a full kilo lighter than its predecessor. It definitely had bluetooth and a judicious number of ports, plus a R/W optical drive and a 40 GB hard drive. I don't remember adding RAM to it, and it maxed out at 1 256 MB according to apple-history, which certainly contributed to many of its quirks. The 12 inch PowerBook G4s were discontinued after barely eight months, and I managed to get one of the last ones available with a nice discount. I probably had far more fun than strictly sensible trying out old UNIX tricks and seeing if some of the ways of triggering a kernel panic I had stumbled on would cause trouble. At least two of them did before applying fresh updates and patches, which was okay because these were stress tests deliberately applied before I loaded my data from CD backups. Thinking back, my only real complaint about this computer was the keyboard. Visually outstanding, but gooey feeling to type with, and the thickness of the laptop itself actually made extended typing sessions quite uncomfortable. The thin rubber gasket complemented the rubber feet on the edges of the screen, all consistent with trying to keep a little space between the keys and the screen when the laptop was closed. Yet the gasket also made typing even less comfortable in a weird sort of way. In any case, I concluded that the next laptop would have to wait longer so that whatever I purchased would have a larger screen. The pending transition to intel processors made me unsure whether the next laptop would be a mac laptop, and I was starting to seriously research BSD and GNU/linux.

By late 2006, I was living in an unfortunate prairie suburb and considering how best to get out of it again when one of the not exactly common yet not extraordinary major thunderstorms rolled into town. This one was quite impressive, leaning towards extreme rain and severe horizontal gusts rather than hail, and it slammed down the ambient temperature nearly 15 degrees celsius from a starting point in the high 30s to low 40s. Hence, before the storm started, most of the windows were open with adjustments to try for a cross breeze. As the storm began, those of us sweltering just a few minutes before got to work remanaging the windows. Unbeknownst to me, my laptop had been left beside a wide open window instead of its usual place, probably to temporarily make space to move some other gear to open the window, as the laptop wasn't closed. This accident meant that when I got to the window, the rain was pouring in, the keyboard already overflowing with water, even as the laptop continued peaceably strobing in sleep mode. Horrified, step one, shut the window. Step two, make sure the external power adapter was actually unplugged and not wet itself. Step three, hurry the laptop to the nearest sink to dump it upside down to drain as much as possible before whipping out the battery. Those steps done, all I could do was wait until the machine was thoroughly dry and hope for the best. Remarkably, the machine started up sensibly, passing all hardware tests, and additional tests of the external power adapter revealed it had made it through as well. The only oddity was, now if the laptop was asleep and someone turned on the bathroom light down the hall, it woke up. Clearly there was a minor short in there, and it turned out this was not wholly the laptop's fault, so to speak. There was still some damp inside the case, so it needed more drying time. But the bigger issue was the landlord's somewhat sheepish acknowledgement that the house, built after the second world war, had been affected by copper shortages at the time. As a result, it was wired with aluminum instead of copper, and this meant it had some quirks and they were preparing to rewire it to modernized code with copper. They hoped I had insurance.

Oh yes, I moved out not long after that. That enforced a longer period of drying out for the G4 PowerBook, and it chugged along well for another three years. The catch mechanism between the two halves of the machine became finicky, a minor issue though irritating, and apple soon abandoned it altogether in its laptops. In terms of operating system, it ran Leopard, also known as macOSX 10.5.8 reasonably well and was the first laptop I used with an external monitor and extended desktop. But by late 2008, I had finished a number of major personal milestones, saved my pennies, and done a great deal more research about operating systems, repairability and so on. For my purposes it was still not time to switch to GNU/linux or FreeBSD, but it was time for a new machine as my actual technical work was now outstripping the G4. With another round of backups and preparation to format my current machine preparatory to handing it on to a new owner, I had some decisions to make about software and hardware. There were no more PowerPC machines I would be able to keep running, and GNU/linux was not quite mature enough for my purposes as support for laptop architectures was technically available, but annoying to manage. Desktops were sailing along wonderfully, I think because they did not present the same driver nightmares laptops did. Increased hardware standardization has many software and mass production benefits.

4. Unibody Late 2008 MacBook Pro 15"

Photograph of 15 inch Unibody Late 2008 MacBook Pro courtesy of ifixit.com, accessed november 2022. Photograph of 15 inch Unibody Late 2008 MacBook Pro courtesy of ifixit.com, accessed november 2022.
Photograph of 15 inch Unibody Late 2008 MacBook Pro courtesy of ifixit.com, accessed november 2022.

Here is the one and only machine I managed to pick up when it was the newest, fanciest thing around, and it was pretty impressive for the time. Its late 2008 intel core 2 duo hardware was novel indeed, and the nvidia graphics processor even impressed my friends who are more seriously into video games than I have ever been. This time around I made sure it was possible to replace the battery and the hard drive, and that I could add RAM without muss or fuss. The number of ports was and is still brilliant, and my only serious complaint is about the asinine decision on apple's part to make one of them a mini-PCI slot. Swappable mini-PCI cards never really took off, not because of their size I think, but because of their usual release mechanism. This is poorly placed such that it is too easy to unseat the card if it is something like an SD reader. My minor complaint is the shiny screen, which needs a privacy cover if when working late or watching a movie on it a person would rather see the actual contents of the screen, not their reflection. The aluminum case is sturdy, and all told the laptop is just under 2.5 centimetres thick when closed. At 2.5 kilograms it is heavier, but this time there is a sensible trade off in a larger screen, speakers, and a solid backlit keyboard with pleasant key travel. apple-history's notes remind me that the clickable glass trackpad was a new design, including a shift to in effect just one big button and improved software support for tap-to-click. I should also note that it also has one of the best external power adapter designs combined with the magsafe connector in any laptop of my experience. A subtle and profoundly important design decision, since abandoned, affects the adapter external extension cable.

Photograph of a circa 2008 era external extension cord for an apple laptop power adapter. It does not just extend the reach of the power adapter, in north america it also adds the third grounding pin so useful for safety and for keeping the plug from being knocked loose. Photograph of a circa 2008 era external extension cord for an apple laptop power adapter. It does not just extend the reach of the power adapter, in north america it also adds the third grounding pin so useful for safety and for keeping the plug from being knocked loose.
Photograph of a circa 2008 era external extension cord for an apple laptop power adapter. It does not just extend the reach of the power adapter, in north america it also adds the third grounding pin so useful for safety and for keeping the plug from being knocked loose.

The photograph of an example extension cord shows the detail quite nicely, and I have added an oval around it. It would be quite reasonable to wonder what the big deal is about the collar around the cord where it enters the adapter unit. The collar is roughly 2 centimeters long, and has a series of regularly spaced indentations in it. The net effect is brilliant. The newer equivalent accompanying the MacBook Air of my experience is barely a centimetre long, smooth, and thinner. It is already broken, pulling apart, and without recent care and repairs would soon mimic the behaviour of the similar-designed broken cable in the "yo-yo style" adapter that originally came with my G3 iBook. For my MacBook Pro, I am still using the original adapter extension cable. It's dirty grey all over now, but that collar is still intact and doing its job. On one hand, this is a small thing. On the other, it is huge. A broken external adapter cable collar will inevitably become a problem even if just to be on the safe side the two prong adapter is always ready in a briefcase pocket.

By all accounts, my experience of the longevity and sturdiness of this line of apple laptops is representative, so much so that the more recent crash in apple hardware quality stands out all the more. Able to run macOSX up to 10.10, the late 2008 MacBook Pros can only run one external monitor, but I haven't run into a size of external monitor my machine can't cope with yet. That acknowledged, its original bluetooth and wifi hardware are inadequate to current security needs on the road. Over the working life of the my unit, it has outlasted one superdrive and two batteries. So far its original hard drive is still in good working order although of course I have a replacement ready and a rigorous backup procedure. A technician would probably tsk at the various scratches and the now completely rubbed away text applied to the underside of the external chassis. Meanwhile, just a few days ago I happened on a usb-pluggable sound card now sold to anyone with a laptop lacking headphone and audio output jacks so they can have them at least temporarily. The current mania for making laptops skinnier and skinnier, and therefore inevitably more fragile and less capable floors me. While I have a successor GNU/linux laptop taking over duties from this final apple laptop, as long as the MacBook Pro is able to handle audio-video capture and processing, it will keep a monopoly on the job. The GNU/linux laptop may be able to give it a run for its money once I have managed to correct its pulseaudio profile.

To begin with, perhaps unwisely, this was also the machine I used to test GNU/linux distributions. Thanks to good fortune at work I was able to add a MacBook Air to do this sort of testing with instead, but until then I was adventuring with GNU/linux dual booting on the MacBook Pro. Overall, this is not effective on a machine with an HDD instead of an SD drive. I also had the alarming experience of having to research in a hurry what key to hold down during start up when the graphics driver got stuck on a blank screen. Most distributions resolved the hiccup very quickly, but in ubuntu it remained necessary to hold down the F6 key for several versions. Such workarounds are not typical of the MacBook Air so far. Still, it was the contrast in hardware capacity and quality between the early "air" and the contemporary "pro" laptop lines that forced me to conclude I could not seriously continue investing in apple hardware. The "air" line was and is rightfully infamous for introducing the anti-repair, anti-upgrade philosophy of the new apple corporation beyond the iDevice line.

So there it is, a thoroughly idiosyncratic trip through almost thirty years of apple laptops. In many ways apple was ahead of the curve in striving to develop a consumer laptop in the first place, but has since failed to find a sensible balance between trying to impose vendor lock in and building solid, versatile hardware. Even if I never run macOSX again, apple laptops would still be in the running for consideration if they still had the quality of hardware including power adapters and sensible collection of ports and audio jacks as way back in 2008. While my MacBook Pro was certainly not cheap when I bought it, it has paid for itself multiple times over and lasted long enough to thoroughly amortize my initial investment, including RAM upgrade, superdrive and battery replacements. It does not have obnoxious features that could be used to try to prevent me from loading a different operating system such as GNU/linux or FreeBSD, partly because apple was busy taking some microsoft money and therefore couldn't make it impossible to dual boot with windows. These are the sort of qualities that to my mind respectfully encourage sticking with a given corporation's products by choice. But, they are also qualities inconsistent with chasing illusory infinite profits based on infinite waste on a finite planet.

Copyright © C. Osborne 2024
Last Modified: Monday, January 01, 2024 01:25:59