Fossil WallStreet PowerBook G3 Still Useful after 10 Years
- 2008.05.05 - Tip Jar
This column is supposed to be about fossils. Digital fossils.
The machine on which I am typing is one such fossil by any objective definition. It feels weird to refer to it as such, however.
When it debuted, the PowerBook G3 "WallStreet" was anything but a fossil. It was a racehorse of a laptop: a big, serious machine with a big, serious screen and a big, serious keyboard. Mine is a 250 MHz model with a 14" display sporting as much viewable turf as the 17" CRT hooked up to my primary desktop at the time.
Only the littlest of touches remind one that this is no longer cutting edge computing. There are no USB ports, for instance. That's probably the most noticeable piece of evidence: no built-in way to connect a flash drive, USB mouse, or iPod.
The iPod - that brings up another glaring difference. While the WallStreet G3, backed up with over a quarter gigabyte of RAM, will stumble along in OS X, it is so fast and smooth in Mac OS 9.2 that it seems a shame to hobble it with the newer, bulkier OS. So much for iTunes and docks and so forth.
On the other hand, OS 9's classic interface is as comfortable as an old shoe. Lord knows there's an absolute ton of software out there for it. With an 802.11 PC Card, AirPort is hardly missed; my Farallon card lets me surf the Web as easily as the internal AirPort card in my iBook.
And the keyboard - oh, the keyboard! No modern Apple 'Book has a keyboard to match it. (Note: I finished writing the rough draft of this column and, reluctant to part with the keyboard, went on to write another 1,500 words for my book project....)
There are prices to pay for this, of course. The big, long-stroke keyboard and roomy screen mean the WallStreet is a hoss of a laptop. Produced before Slim was In, the WallStreet is a burden for most laps; not just big, but heavy, too. By modern standards, it's really more of a portable than a true laptop. It was targeted as a desktop replacement for people who needed serious computing power on the go. (And people who had access to a table or desk while on the go at that, because the heat from this beast will barbecue your lap in short order should you set it there for too long.)
When you're on the go, however, the WallStreet still gets respect. Mac fans at the coffee bar will see it and nod at you; they recognize a machine still much loved among the cognoscenti. People with Wintel books will ogle it out of the corners of their eyes.
Its bold styling marked the PowerBook's return to the haute couture days of the Blackbirds after several years of wandering in the plebian-looking charcoal gray wilderness of PowerPC 'Books. The swoopy case, with its neoprene-textured panels and organic curves, is so different from the run-of-the-mill notebook: businesslike, still modern in appearance, maybe even faintly menacing. The person using a computer that looks like this is obviously writing another New York Times bestseller, leveraging a corporate buyout, or hacking into a Russian aerospace company's mainframes in a Hollywood thriller.
Worries include the display on 13" models, which suffered from wonky ribbon cable connections, and especially the hinges on all WallStreets. That heavy lid with its big screen comes at a price, and it is best to open and close your WallStreet gently, paying careful attention to support it evenly on both sides so that the torque of its own weight doesn't damage anything. Replacement batteries on these pre-Lombard/Pismo G3s are priced like imported sin as well, so it's important to practice good charging behavior.
So, is it still useful? There's no doubt that it is; it's an outstanding writer's tool with a fantastic keyboard, and the batteries have more life than a Led Zeppelin album if you ditch the optical drive in the extra bay and double up on the juice. It's no portable media-editing suite, but it's just fine for surfing the 'net, playing older games, or doing scutwork in MS Office. With the availability of PC Card WiFi, files are easily transferred to more serious production machines as well without having to resort to sneakernet.
WallStreets can sometimes be snagged quite cheaply on eBay, but anyone who watches the selling prices on no-reserve auctions or notes the prices that these old 'Books fetch from commercial resellers can tell that they're still held in quite high esteem. [Editor's note: See Low End Mac's Best PowerBook G3 Deals for current pricing.]
There's no denying it has its drawbacks and no use pretending that it's not a fossil, but as anyone who's ever gotten careless with a petrified shark's tooth knows, fossils can still do what they were designed to do years and years ago.
Archaeological Notes: This column was written in Microsoft Word 98 on a 250 MHz WallStreet with 288 MB of RAM running Mac OS 9.2.2. It was sent as an .rtf attachment through Gmail using a Farallon WiFi card to my G4 "Sawtooth", where final editing was done in TextEdit before being emailed to Low End Mac. There is was massaged in TextSoap, pasted into Claris Home Page, then styled, proofread, edited, and uploaded in Classic Mode on a Mirror Drive Door G4.
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