Is It Time to Wave PowerPC Good-bye?

2010: The Year PowerPC Macs Became Total Paperweights – That’s just one line from OSS Waves PPC Goodbye as Old Macs Turn Paperweights, a column by Fernando Cassia published on TechEye last September. His advice: “If you have an old PowerPC based Mac, the time to move is now, as software developers are dropping support of the platform left and right….”

Although PowerPC is alive an well in gaming consoles (Xbox 360, Wii, and PlayStation 3 for example), Apple discontinued the last viable PowerPC alternatives to Windows PCs in 2006 when it made the switch to Intel x86 CPUs. 2011 marks the fifth anniversary of that switch, and Cassia is of the mind that it’s time for “the church of Apple worshippers” to abandon their old, slow, “but surely perfectly functioning and beautiful” pre-2006 Macs.

His reasoning: Less and less software is being developed for the platform.

My question is, Why should we abandon perfectly good hardware running perfectly good operating systems and doing practical work with perfectly good – albeit perhaps less than current – software?

Fewer PowerPC Software Developers

Okay, so Google has never released Chrome for PowerPC. Mozilla and Ubuntu no longer have official PowerPC ports, although there are fully functional community builds. Opera will no longer support PPC starting with version 11 of its browser. And now game developers Blizzard and Basilisk Games have announced an end to PowerPC support.

Granted, Apple stopped PowerPC hardware development in late 2005, phased out Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard, the last version to support PPC Macs, with the release of OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard, the first Intel-only version of OS X, in August 2009, and only supports Intel Macs with its own iLife 11 suite and the Mac App Store.

But that doesn’t mean our older PowerPC Macs are any less useful than they were when they were introduced in 2005, 2002, 1998, or even 1994, the year the first PPC models came to market.

More Useful, Not Less Useful

One core tenet of the Low End Mac value philosophy is that over time every Mac becomes more useful than it was when it was released. We’re not just talking about hardware upgrades, although more memory, faster and higher capacity hard drives, better video cards, and add-in cards to support newer protocols (USB, FireWire, SATA, WiFi, and Bluetooth among them) do make them more useful going forward.

Mostly we’re talking about software. Newer versions of the Mac OS have always added features that old versions didn’t have, whether we’re talking about MultiFinder in System 6, the more efficient HFS+ file system in Mac OS 8.1, the disruptive switch to a modern OS – Mac OS X – that came in 2003 when “Classic Booting” was discontinued, or the utility of Time Machine introduced with OS X 10.5.

The Mac OS has consistently offered more useful features and more power than previous versions, and during the OS X era, each new version has tended to run more efficiently than the one that preceded it.

Some Examples

My First G4 Power Mac

Mirror Drive Door Power Mac G4My dual 1 GHz Power Mac G4 was introduced in mid-2002 booting Mac OS 9.2 and OS X 10.2 Jaguar. It left the factory with 256 MB of memory, an 80 GB hard drive, and a Combo (CD-RW/DVD) drive. Today it has 2 GB of memory, two 400 GB 7200 rpm hard drive, a USB 2.0 card, a 16x SuperDrive, and runs Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger very comfortably. It runs Safari 4, Firefox 3.6, the TenFourFox PowerPC build of FireFox 4, Camino 2 (my default browser), Opera 10.6, and OmniWeb 5.10 – except for Safari and Firefox, these are all current versions.

I also use TextWrangler 2.3 (which I prefer over 3.0), AppleWorks 6.2.9, TextSoap 4.5.2 (it does everything I need it to, so I never paid $20 to upgrade to version 5), Cyberduck 3.2.1 (newer versions require Leopard), KompoZer 0.7.10 (I don’t like what version 0.8 does to HTML), Name Munger 1.73, Photoshop Elements 3 (2004), and SuperDuper 2.6.2 regularly. I also have Microsoft Office 2004 (which I rarely use) installed. I also run Claris Home Page 3.0 in Classic Mode, which is what has kept me running OS X 10.4 for so long.

This was my primary machine until late 2009, when my favorite RSS reader, NetNewsWire, discontinued using its own servers. To sync with Google Reader, I had to use version 3.2 or newer, which requires OS X 10.5 or later. That meant switching to Leopard and abandoning Claris Home Page and Classic Mode, which had served me so well for so many years, or setting up a second Mac.

My Fastest G4 Power Mac

Original Power Mac G4I opted for a second Mac. Through reader donations and some very good deals, I acquired a 533 MHz Digital Audio Power Mac G4, a lot of memory, and a 1.8 GHz dual processor upgrade that I was never able to run reliably beyond the 1.6 GHz mark. It has a 512 KB level 2 cache vs. 256 MB plus a 1 GB level 3 cache in the dual 1 GHz machine, so it’s not as fast as you might expect – but still 20-30% faster. The DA has 1.25 GB of memory installed, a USB 2.0 card, and was recently upgraded to the same Radeon 9000 Pro video card in the MDD.

I’m running OS X 10.5 Leopard very comfortably on this early 2001 Mac, which is my primary research machine thanks to NetNewsWire, which I use to track over 30 Mac and tech websites. This is also the machine I use for iTunes 10 and iPhoto 08. My browser collection is identical, except that I have Safari 5 on this Mac. I use Bean 2.4.3, a free Word-compatible word processing app, to open Word files. (I still use AppleWorks for my own word processing and spreadsheet needs). I have NeoOffice and Microsoft Office 2004 installed, but I only use them when I have to. This Mac runs TextWrangler 3, which is fine for the limited use I make of it here. (I store the master files for Low End Mac on the Tiger machine, and TextWrangler 2.3 is a much better tool for global searches.)

I do most of my research, my Photoshop work, and my price tracker work on this machine – and most of my writing, HTML editing, and other LEM-related work on the Tiger Mac.

The Power Macs are tied together with Teleport (freeware), which allows me to control the Tiger machine from the keyboard and mouse on the Leopard Mac.

My Newest Mac

eMacWhile I was going through my divorce and doing “birds nest” parenting (okay in the short term, but not a practical long-term solution in my experience), I didn’t want to have to haul an eMac back and forth between the family home and my apartment. My solution was to buy two eMacs and use an external hard drive to sync everything between the two when I changed places. I ended up with two 1.25 GHz eMacs, both of which ended up having hardware problems. In the end, I combined the working parts into a single working machine.

The 2004 eMac has both Tiger and Leopard installed, a 16x SuperDrive, and 1 GB of RAM. It was a great machine with a decent 1280 x 960 display that I only retired because a friend at church offered me an irresistible deal on his dual 1 GHz Power Mac G4. Its Radeon 9200 graphics is a step up from what my Power Macs have, and the eMac mostly just sits there as a backup machine in case one of my Power Macs fails.

The Point of All This

I can’t run Snow Leopard or Google’s Chrome browser or the Mac App Store on any of these Macs, but that doesn’t mean they’re in the least bit obsolete. They do what I need them to do, and they do it very well for the most part. I can do everything I need to do on them except review apps that require an Intel Mac.

I’m not going to wave good-bye to these reliable old workhorses. My plan is to continue using Tiger, Classic Mode, and Claris Home Page until something better comes along. And my plan is to pick up my first Intel Mac sometime this year, probably a 20″ Late 2006 Core 2 Duo white iMac, which will give me Intel power, the ability to run Snow Leopard, and the same 1680 x 1050 resolution as my 20″ Apple Cinema Display (a Craigslist steal).

My plan is to set up the iMac with Tiger, Leopard, and Snow Leopard partitions – the same kind of thing I’ve done with my eMacs and Power Macs over the years, except that they can’t run Snow Leopard. This will allow me to boot into older versions of OS X if I ever need to. It also means I have a bootable partition for running diagnostics on other bootable partitions.

Except for NetNewsWire, Tiger has served me well for years and will continue to do so. Except for the lack of Classic Mode, Leopard does everything I need. Between my two PowerPC production Macs, I am productive and efficient. The only reason I have for wanting an Intel Mac is so I can experience the same thing many of you are – two-thirds of site visitors using Macs are running Snow Leopard, with Leopard on Intel hardware in second place at 13.2%. Over 80% of those visiting LEM on Macs are using Intel Macs.

PowerPC Macs will continue to be as useful years from now as they are today, although the Web will change and we will increasingly be left behind by new developments. That won’t change the simple fact that G3, G4, and G5 Macs running OS X 10.4 and 10.5 are useful today and will be useful well past the end of 2011 – even if no new software is ever written for them.

Just look at the Windows world, where the majority of users are not yet running Windows 7. Between them, 50% more Windows users are running XP or Vista than Windows 7, based on our site analytics. Over 45% of Windows users are still running XP, which is the equivalent to running Tiger on PowerPC hardware, and they’re not waving good-bye to what works for them.

Newer is better, no doubt about it. Dual-core goodness, state of the art CPUs, ever more powerful graphics engines, and the most recent version of everything have their advantages, but that doesn’t mean the old technology needs to be relegated to the trash heap or storage locker. It can remain useful.

And until we’ve been exposed to the newer, the better, the faster, we can remain content with what’s familiar. I don’t anticipate saying good-bye to my PowerPC Macs for a long, long time. [In March 2016, I’m still using one – a 2.3 GHz Power Mac G5 Dual from 2005. The G4 Power Macs have been retired.]

Random Thoughts

My one-year-old grandson is crawling into my home office, where he’s fascinated by the iBooks and PowerBooks on the floor – a 366 MHz graphite Clamshell iBook, a 266 MHz WallStreet PowerBook G3, and a 133 MHz PowerBook 1400cs. They’re great old ‘Books, but I have no practical way to get Tiger installed on the iBook to replace OS X 10.3 Panther, have been unsuccessful moving from OS X 10.2 Jaguar to Panther on the WallStreet, and need to find the time to combine the best of two PowerBook 1400s (especially RAM) into a single machine.

Frankly, given the choice, I prefer not to use Jaguar or Panther. I’m probably too used to Tiger. If only I had Tiger on CDs and an AirPort Card, I could really put that iBook to use.

I will want to set up an old G3 iMac when Iain is old enough to be interested in computers. A wireless mouse and keyboard will be a plus there, and as long as the iMac has FireWire, I can use FireWire Target Disk Mode to clone Tiger from one of my other Macs.

Someday I’d love to get a 20″ 2.1 GHz iMac G5, the model with built-in iSight. It could become my new Tiger machine, sitting next to the 20″ Core 2 Duo iMac I hope to acquire this year. From the front, they’d look the same. Very cool. It would probably save a lot of energy consumption compared to these wonderful old Power Macs that keep my office so comfortably warm in the winter.

I picked up a dual 1.25 GHz card for my MDD Power Mac a few months back. That should make it roughly as powerful as the dual 1.6 GHz Digital Audio. Just need to find the right heat sink – the one on my 1 GHz card isn’t compatible. Another someday project.

Keywords: #powerpc

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