'Book Value

State of the Fleet: 2009 Has Been an Eventful Year

Charles Moore - 2009.12.22 - Tip Jar

Taking a year-end look back, it's been an eventful 12 months with our family fleet of Mac laptops.

Death of Two iBooks

2009 didn't get off to an especially auspicious start with the failure of two iBooks. The heretofore faithful and reliable six-year-old 700 MHz G3 unit, which spent its first three years as my production workhorse and was then used by my wife for from the summer of 2007 into 2009, suddenly expired. It just shut down spontaneously one day and refused to revive despite concerted efforts to bring it back to life. I expect a massive motherboard coronary, but that's just a deductive guess.

My daughter's late 2004 G4 iBook died a somewhat slower death, having been increasingly erratic and unstable for more than two years. It had been her last college computer, had traipsed around Europe in a backpack, and then spent two years in Japan where its owner taught ESL, finally failing in England during a grad school stint at Cambridge University. She replaced it with a white 2.1 GHz polycarbonate MacBook, which she likes and which so far has proved reliable - and much faster than the old iBook.

Pismo PowerBook
9-year-old Pismo keeps going & going!

Ongoing Pismo Reliability

When the G3 iBook died, my wife took over one of my old G4 hotrod Pismos, which she liked better than the iBook and which is about as dependable as an anvil. I don't think she restarted it more than two or three times through the year.

As for me, after three years of solid and uneventful service from my 17" PowerBook G4, I figured it was time to finally join the Intel Revolution, so in March I replaced the big AlBook with a Late 2008 Unibody MacBook. In 20/20 hindsight, I wish I'd waited another four months and got a 13" MacBook Pro, but no point in nursing remorse over that.

Loving the Unibody MacBook

Unibody MacBook
Apple's prettiest laptop ever.

Aside from the abiding annoyance and frustration over its FireWire-lesness, the MacBook, purchased as an Apple Certified Refurbished unit, has proved to be everything I had hoped it would be and more. It's gratifyingly fast, hasn't given a moment's trouble, and is drop dead gorgeous to look at - IMHO the prettiest laptop Apple has ever built and by far the most gracefully proportioned of all the unibodies. I don't mind the glossy display at all, and while it's been an adjustment going from the PowerBook's 17" 1440 x 900 resolution screen to the iBook's 13.3" 1280 x 800 display, I've managed quite handily - and OS X Spaces in Mac OS X 10.5 "Leopard" helps a lot when you have multiple projects on the go on a smallish-screen machine.

Speaking of Leopard, I'm still using OS X 10.5.8, and have procrastinated about upgrading to OS X 10.6 "Snow Leopard", not having yet discerned any compelling reason to do so. A project for the new year perhaps, and at least the early days bugs are getting worked out of OS X 10.6 by now.

Memory Matters

In the late summer, I upgraded the MacBook's RAM with a 4 GB kit from Other World Computing, and I wish I'd done that sooner. Running with the standard 2 GB wasn't really giving me much to complain about, but it's a whole lot nicer with 4 GB, which pretty well eliminate any concern about how many applications are open at a time. Performance with MacSpeech Dictate has also been enhanced by the extra RAM, although a couple of version upgrades to the application are also probably contributing to that.

One thing about the MacBook, as opposed to its MacBook Pro successor, is that it has an easily removable swappable battery, which I prefer, remaining unconvinced about built-in batteries. It also has separate audio I/O ports, which is significant for users like myself who like to keep both a microphone and a set of earphones plugged in simultaneously.

In its workstation mode, I keep three USB hubs connected to the MacBook (two of them in tandem), which helps work around the machines port poverty (it has only two USB ports), but it sure would be great to have FireWire.

My main backup drive has a quad interface, and those three unusable ports (eSATA, FireWire 400, and FireWire 800) - all significantly faster than USB 2.0 - mock me a bit and are a constant reminder of how boneheaded Apple's evident determination to drop FireWire is.

The B Team

17 inch PowerBook G4
17" PowerBook remains a workhorse.

Over on the B Team, even though the semiretired 17" PowerBook was still in fine fettle, I continued to rely on the delightful Pismo as my utility and road workhorse, logging an average of about 3 to 4 hours on it every day. In November, I handed off the underused 17" to my wife, who is delighted with it, and now that we finally have broadband access, she's using the Internet a lot more than she had been, taking full advantage of that lovely big screen.

Consequently, I have the second Pismo back, and this month it got upgraded yet again with a full gigabyte of RAM and a real Apple AirPort Card instead of the Buffalo CardBus WiFi card I had been using. The transformation is nothing short of remarkable. Performance had been respectable with OS X 10.4.11 "Tiger" and 576 MB of RAM, but now it just flies, particularly with Web browsers. I only wish Google Chrome supported PowerPC. However, Opera 10 does a fine job, supplemented by old Netscape Navigator 9 and Safari 4. With the superb keyboard and better-than-average trackpad, not to mention the Pismo's general tactile friendliness, I am delighted with the shot of elixir de lapin the RAM and wireless upgrades have given it.

If I've learned anything this year, it's that RAM is the last thing you want to economize on.

Looking Forward

Looking ahead, I'm anticipating that 2010 will be much more of a stand-pat year, barring unforeseen circumstances (which you can never rule out). I expect I'll still be using the MacBook and the two Pismos a year from now, and if things unfold as I project, my next major system upgrade will come in early 2012. But we'll have to see.

Low End Mac will be taking an editorial break until after New Year's, so I'll take this opportunity to wish all my readers a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! See you in 2010.

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Charles Moore has been a freelance journalist since 1987 and began writing for Mac websites in May 1998. His The Road Warrior column was a regular feature on MacOpinion, he is news editor at Applelinks.com and a columnist at MacPrices.net. If you find his articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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