Reliving the past

I’ve just taken a trip down Memory Lane. It’s not at all like I remember it.

They say the past is another country. If you remember my saga about the ancient AppleTalk printer a while ago, you will recall the machine used to be partnered with an elderly Apple laptop, running an obsolete operating system. The sole reason for this was the proprietary Apple networking protocol, and my odd refusal not to purchase an ethernet-enabled printer in the first place all those years ago.

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The laptop in question is a PowerBook G3 Series, one of the first of the original curvy and rather sexy laptops that Apple created just after Steve Jobs returned as CEO. Further investigation into the machine’s provenance leads me to believe it may be one of the first Wallstreet models available, which dates it to around May 1998. It also appears to be the baby of the range, cheekily dubbed “Mainstreet” by the pundits! Geekily, this means it doesn’t have the L2 cache which its more expensive brethren had, which meant it was a bit of a slowcoach all told. 

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The official specs, therefore, look like this: 233MHz PowerPC G3 CPU, no L2 cache, 13.3in TFT screen, 6GB internal hard drive, 128MB RAM in two 64MB modules, running Mac OS 9.2.2 – the last of the “classic” operating systems before OS X muscled in. The ’Book can have two batteries installed in the module bays either side, but only one of the batteries I acquired with the machine holds any charge, and that for about a minute! There is a CD-ROM (20x no less!) in the right bay, and I have a floppy disk drive module. There is a double PCI card slot, so in theory at least, it could be enhanced with USB and FireWire connectivity if I desired. It has a modem, as well as the then regulation AppleTalk socket, and a high-density SCSI socket. Finally, a VGA monitor output rounds off the equipment.

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For something approaching its 13th birthday, it stands up pretty well. Okay, the screen is pretty dim by modern standards, the keyboard horribly clattery, and the hard drive is noisy and sounds very fragile indeed. Since the machine was only ever intended to act as a bridge between my wired network and the printer, I only bothered with the barest essentials of software beyond the standard OS installation. There’s a copy of AppleWorks on there, a freebie copy of Corel WordPerfect 3.5 Pro, and a copy of Microsoft Word 5 — probably the best version of that long-lived word processor that ever existed. (Interestingly, the full copy of Word 5 weighs in at a staggering 895Kb on disk. Yes, under a megabyte. The decade-old copy of Word X I also own comes out at over 13MB, and I really don’t think it was an improvement.)

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So, how does the old warhorse perform? If you want my honest opinion, I’m rather like Marvin the Paranoid Android from the Hitchhiker’s Guide series. When asked what he thought about humanoid brains, the robot with a brain the size of a planet opined he couldn’t imagine how anything could live in anything that small. It would definitely be hard to survive with 6GB of hard drive in this digital photo, high-def video and MP3 collection world. If all I wanted was a clackety typewriter, and wasn’t overly fussed if I knocked it off a table, then it would be fine. Of course, there’s the added complication of how to get any text files off the PowerBook and into the 21st century, but let’s not get sidetracked by small details!

The other thing of note is just how heavy the critter is. Did Apple road warriors really lug this machine about with them in the real world? It weighs about as much as my car, and it is supposedly lighter and slimmer than the PowerBook model it replaced. I can’t see where the weight comes from, unless the motherboard or frame is made of some base metal. With the G4 PowerBook and the MacBook Pro, you can easily pick the machine up with one hand. I daren’t risk it with the black behemoth, without having a hand spare to take the weight before it slips to the ground! I’d not want to spend any time with the thing on my lap, if I’m honest.

The old tech hard drive is abominably noisy. It whines and squeaks, and sounds like a dying animal when it spins down or back up again. It does feel very fragile, especially when compared to the battleship construction of its host machine. From experience, though, I know it’s dead easy to replace it should the need arise.

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The keyboard is clunky, yet all the keys are where my fingers expected them to be. This, in my opinion, is one of the things Apple has always got right, and it’s nice to know they haven’t really changed the pitch of the numerous keyboards that have come and gone since 1998. 

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The TFT screen is very dim. At first I thought it was purely down to being cold, but it didn’t get better after an hour of running. It also displayed a distinct yellow tinge, rather like a nicotine stained window in an old pub. With the machine sitting in front of my current machine, the newer screen is much, much brighter.

I’m led to understand the Wallstreet was capable of running OS X. While the idea of installing OS X 10.3 — the latest version it should be capable of supporting — would be interesting, I don’t actually think I’ll bother. The hard drive isn’t big enough, realistically, and I’d like a good deal more RAM installed to make it even a viable proposition. I also own the replacement G3 PowerBook model, the bronze keyboard 400MHz machine, and that only just copes with Panther installed, so I don’t know how well the Wallstreet would cope.

In conclusion, while it’s lovely a teenaged laptop Mac is still reasonably usable, it isn’t usable in any real world sense any more. The modern world has moved on apace since the late 1990s, and while it’s true you can still connect to the internet, the experience is not one that could be said to be enjoyable in any meaningful way. When compared to modern kit, it’s painfully slow, but when it was new it was one of the fastest and best-equipped laptops money could buy. We just expect more from our kit these days, I suppose. The past really is a different country.

As an interesting saunter down Memory Lane it’s been fun, but as a usable machine in today’s online world, I’m afraid the PowerBook G3 “Wallstreet” is a very much a museum piece.

 

Related posts: Hello, Old Friend; Farewell, Old Friend.

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