'Book Value

Handing Off My 17" PowerBook G4

Charles Moore - 2009.11.30 - Tip Jar

Over the Thanksgiving weekend, which I observed as a semi-holiday (even though we Canadians celebrated Thanksgiving way back on October 12), I graduated my wife from the old G4-upgraded Pismo PowerBook that she's been using for the past 10 months - since our erstwhile G3 iBook died - to my former production Mac, the 1.33 GHz 17" PowerBook G4.

Helen is absolutely delighted with the big PowerBook, which means, among other things, that she can finally access our broadband service. I've been on broadband for nearly 3 months now, but because her Pismo had no AirPort Card, she's been still stuck in the slow lane with dial-up. The extra speed of the broadband connection and the big old PowerBook itself, which is no slouch and quite a contrast with the Pismo's more modest 550 MHz G4 CPU, not to mention its feeble 8 MB of video RAM, is a welcome revelation, and she's already enjoying the online world a lot more.

"It makes everything so much easier," was her comment today. She's also busied herself customizing the machine's settings configuration to suit her tastes, finding a desktop picture to her liking in the "Plants" pane of the Desktop & Screen Saver System Preference. In fact "Peony," the picture she chose (below), is so fetching that I've switched to it on the Unibody MacBook, having not previously taken notice of it.

Peony desktop image
Apple's Peony desktop image.

I had planned to get a WiFi PC Card adapter or an AirPort Card for her, but then we ran into the problem with both of the Pismos having difficulty connecting to the signal from the Belkin wireless router I was using, so it seemed prudent to wait and see if that could be resolved before spending any more money on Pismo hardware.

Happily, that issue now has been resolved by substituting a Linksys router for the troublesome Belkin, so my number two machine, a Pismo, is working reliably again on wireless with its Buffalo WiFi PC card, and I no longer need the 17-incher as a backup backup machine.

There were other reasons for making the switch as well. As I've mentioned here many times previously, I really hate the trackpad in the 17" PowerBook G4, but my wife uses her computer almost exclusively as a desktop substitute machine with an external keyboard and mouse, so that's not a major issue for her.

Glad to Have the Pismo Back

As for me, I'm very happy to get the old Pismo back. It's been around here since October 2001, and I'm kind of attached to it. I'm anticipating using Pismos as my "B-team" utility computers for several years yet, partly because I just really like the way they feel - and for another reason I'm about to elaborate on at some length below.

home made isolation enclosureAnother deciding factor in making the swap is that even though it was built in 2004 and had three years pretty intensive service as my number one production machine, the big PowerBook has never entirely "gassed off". As longtime readers may be aware, I'm afflicted with really severe Multiple Chemical Sensitivities, and my computers are usually relegated to running inside an isolation case (right) that's externally force-vented to the outdoors for at least two years from the time they're new before I can share close proximity airspace with them without becoming ill from the chemical fumes they give off - mostly from the internal circuit boards.

This, coincidentally or not, has been an issue for me since Apple shifted laptop production from Mountain View, California and Cork, Ireland to Taiwan in 1998. I never had any problem with chemical reactions to my 1996 PowerBook 5300, which was purchased new, or the Irish-built original series WallStreet demonstrator I had for several months in 1998, but it's been the case with every subsequent Apple laptop I've owned beginning with the second generation Taiwanese built ("PDQ") WallStreet that I bought in January 1999. (I've theorized that the resin formula used to make the circuit boards might be different with the Far Eastern built units, but that's just a deductive guess. The Irish and Taiwanese made WallStreets certainly smelled different.)

I first wrote about this issue for Low End Mac in PowerBooks, Ergonomics, and Environmental Illness way back in 1999, and more recently in Computer Chemical Emissions Worse than Ever in the Macintel Era on MacOpinion.

Time Cures Some Ills

It took two-and-a-half years for that WallStreet to gas off to a degree that it didn't make me ill if I used it without wearing a charcoal respirator, which was strong incentive to design and build the isolation case systems I've been using off and on with my laptops on ever since. My first Pismo, purchased used in October 2001, spent its first two years here in isolation, and the G3 iBook that replaced it operated in isolation mode for its first 2-1/2 years in my office. Happily, both machines, like the WallStreet, eventually did gas off and stop emitting chemical odors - at least to a degree that I was able to use them as laptops are intended to be used, without need of wearing a gas mask.

However, that tipping point has never been reached with the 17" PowerBook, and while there were some indications that I was tolerating it better back in the summer and early fall, since I put it back into service during the wireless router reception problem, I found I was becoming increasingly sensitive to it. According to my wife, who isn't environmentally ill but has a powerful sense of smell, the old 17" PowerBook still emits a quite noticeable odor of phenolic plastics even when it's cold - and more intensely when it's running.

Personally, I've never been able to actually smell it myself. Thanks to two decades of chronic sinus trouble, my olfactory sense is not up to much, so I end up fairly frequently suffering reactions to the presence of environmental chemicals I can't actually detect the presence of using my sense of smell. If computer odors were the only problem I would count myself very fortunate.

Anyway, last week, after a session of working on the 17" machine gave me the worst reaction I've had in several years, I finally decided it was time to throw in the towel. I'm skeptical that the big AlBook will ever gas off to a degree that I can use it as a proper laptop. My loss; my wife's gain.

A Better Future?

I'm keeping my fingers crossed that it won't be the same with my current 13" MacBook, which Apple says is a better environmental citizen in terms of materials used internally - and hopefully chemical emissions. That remains to be seen - the jury is still out. If past history is a guide, that will take longer to determine. I definitely reacted to the MacBook when it was new last winter, and it's been mostly banished to the isolation chamber so far, but here's hoping....

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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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