Keeping the G4 alive – A practical case study on modern use of Apple PowerPC hardware

By James Plant

In this latest segment of the digital age, the domestic computer market is dominated by the x86 processor architecture and its derivatives. Until the mid-2000s, Apple had been a major exception to this rule, placing only PowerPC processors at the core of their computers, and as a direct result, at the core of their software strategy. When the decision was made to switch to x86 with the rest of the industry, Apple transitioned their software strategy to the new architecture, slowly dropping official support for PowerPC. With OS X 10.6 marking the official end of the PowerPC era, can the architecture still hold relevance in an x86 world? Let’s find out.

The eMac was designed as a budget alternative to the ‘lamp’ style iMac G4.

First of all, let me speak from experience. Alongside a primary Linux-powered machine which I use for daily activities, I run a 1.25GHz eMac as a media center and my main field computer remains an 800MHz iBook G4. Both were purchased second-hand, the eMac in 2008 for £125, and the iBook G4 in 2011 for £60 noninclusive of minor upgrades. Both of these machines run OS X 10.4 and see daily use. I shall begin with the iBook, and for comparison I will use a EEE PC 1005PE bought late last year.

Unfortunately, the differing architectures and operating systems between the compared machines presents me with a significant roadblock in a comparison: To my knowledge, there is no benchmarking software common to both PowerPC OS X and Fedora Linux, making it impossible to gather benchmark scores with any meaning. In lieu of such a figure, I will list the specifications of each machine;

EEE PC 1005 PE

iBook G4

CPU

1.66GHz Intel Atom N450

800MHz IBM G4

Memory

1GB DDR2

640MB DDR

Storage

250GB

40GB

Screen size

10.1” 16:9

12” 4:3

Battery life

10 hours expected

6 hours per battery expected*

* I own more than one iBook battery

Unsurprisingly, given that it is a much more modern computer, the EEE PC out-performs the iBook on paper. In practice, however, the difference is not so clear-cut.

On a 802.11G WiFi connection with good signal strength, both machines load the landing page of this very site in the region of ten seconds, and both show signs of slowdown when the multitasking load begins to stack up. Booting time is similarly matched, at about one minute from power button to login prompt. It should be noted that the EEE PC is running Fedora Linux for these tests, and not the stock Windows 7 Starter.

Software support for the EEE PC is the usual Linux fare, but to my surprise the standard Linux fare also frequently extends to OS X in the form of PowerPC or Universal binaries, with many open-source projects still supporting the architecture. This surprising fact is the best bet for PowerPC in remaining relevant in the modern world, as almost all off-the-shelf Mac software this long after the Intel transition no longer supports the previous architecture. Even some closed-source software – For example, I am a Spotify subscriber – retains active development for PowerPC*.

The iBook G4 was the last of Apple’s PowerPC consumer notebooks

Moving on from the portable to the desktop, the eMac performs admirably as a media center, running Spotify – a subscription music streaming service – and playing DVDs. Web browsing is infrequent, as I use my aforementioned primary machine for such activities, although it should be noted that the extra megahertz in the 1.25GHz processor make it fast enough for most Flash objects and even Youtube. A comparison with my 2.8GHz quad-core primary machine would be completely unfair.

Both of my G4 powered machines are restricted by their PowerPC lineage, as in they cannot run the latest versions of OS X and off-the-shelf software is out of the question. While the computers are definitely past their prime, they are by no means obsolete. For most of the activities a user would want to do on the machine, the world of open-source provides an appropriate tool, often with a PowerPC package. Unless you have highly specific needs as a computer user, these older computers make excellent sidekicks to their more modern brethren, especially considering they can be picked up for petty cash online and in used hardware stores.

And while completely unconnected to their PowerPC hearts, it’ll look a damn sight nicer on your desk than a wintel rotbox.™

* This was true at time of writing, but as of October 2011 Spotify are soon to be dropping updates for the PowerPC platform, although I believe a legacy version of the player – as well as several unofficial players – will still be available.

[James Plant is a blogger from a folded corner of the UK near Liverpool. He mainly sticks to infographics, but occasionally likes to blog like a human being.]

Got an opinion? Tell us in the comments!

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

eMac image courtesy Tyler9xp on Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-2.0)

iBook G4 image courtesy Akira Kamikura on Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-2.0)

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6 comments on “Keeping the G4 alive – A practical case study on modern use of Apple PowerPC hardware

  1. There is always the option to install (at least) Ubuntu 10.04 on PowerPC hardware. I did this to a iMac G3 400DV early last year. It would boot into Gnome, but would be more or less unusable. I replaced gnome with openbox, and using mocp as my mp3 player and firefox 3.6.xx as my browser it made a terrific little mp3 player. I set the CRT to turn off after 25 seconds, to save power and tube-life. OTOH it could not, even using CLI mplayer, handle any video format. Sadly I had to leave it when we moved interstate, but I do still have it stashed at my mums house…

    • Interesting story and thanks for responding! Using Linux is an option I haven’t personally explored, but would have warranted mention in the article. It’s a good choice for, as you say in your example, a G3 machine that doesn’t have the horsepower to run a later release of OS X. As a Linux user myself, this is certainly something I would try if I were to get hold of a G3 Mac.

  2. Thanks for this real-world article! Nice to know I’m not the only one using legacy hardware successfully.

    I use a 2003 “Northern Lights” eMac (1 GHz G4, 1 GB RAM, 10.5.8 Leopard installed) as my main computer (typically Internet—no YouTube!—Spotify and OpenOffice), and it works almost more-than-reasonably well for most of my needs. With Spotify, I just keep a legacy DMG file on hand so I can reinstall if the ever try to force upgrade me into obsolescence!

    I’m a journalism student at a university, so I occasionally do some graphic design work on the side. This machine can run Adobe CS3 InDesign and PhotoShop simultaneously with very few problems! My only issue is that USB 2.0 was not introduced until the year after, and most of my data is external due to the smallish hard drive.

    As mentioned, I use a previous version of OpenOffice, which is much less resource-intensive than MS Office. For a web browser, I use TenFourFox 4, a port of the latest Firefox to PPC. If you need Flash or other plugins, you have to use TFF 4, rather than the latest, as they dropped plugins in 5+. It’s actually quite fast, as the builds are tweaked for each processor line; however, it does have a memory leak problem with some sites like Facebook.

    My classmates kind of make fun of me, but then I laugh when their 4-year-old Windows laptops start dying on them (seen it with at least to friends of mine!).

  3. I’ve recently gotten a G5 quad, and it’s presently running Leopard with all the updates. Pathetically enough, there seems to be no software available to drive Apple’s latest aluminium keyboard on it! So, while the keyboard does work, the media keys are wrong, so no volume control and the like! Add to this that if I want an up-to-date Firefox, I’m stuck with Tenfourfox, and I’m considering my other options. They seem to be rather few. FreeBSD tried to install but had to shut down due to overheating. I guess the installer was fan-agnostic? Weird. Fedora 16 has proven pretty useless, and what does that leave me? Seems to be Debian, Gentoo and hopefully the next release of MorphOS, a modern Amiga-compatible OS which presently (at version 2.7) supports a few G4 Mac models, including the Mini. I intend to try and keep this thing humming along with modern operating system software, but I don’t know what to expect going forward. This hardware should not be abandoned! It’s got plenty of capability.

    • I don’t normally do this, but..

      I accept your comment then on an unrelated note search for something about ramen noodles. I read a ramen site for half an hour, come back, then realise it was your site I was on. Eerie.

      Good blog though.

      Thanks for commenting!

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