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Charles Moore's Pismo Has a Near Death Experience

Charles Moore - 2010.10.05 - Tip Jar

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I found myself unexpectedly back in G3 space last week. I haven't used a G3 Mac for production work (or, for that matter, much of anything) since I bought a 17" 1.33 GHz PowerBook G4 back in February 2006.

However, for the past several months, my oldest Pismo PowerBook (actually it's the youngest of the three that I have in terms of date of manufacture, but it has the most hours on it by a wide margin) had begun sporadically manifesting the dreaded black screen on wake from sleep syndrome almost always associated with waking by clicking a mouse button rather than hitting the spacebar. When this happened, my only recourse was to shut down the PowerBook by holding down the power key and then restarting. Inconvenient and annoying, but it's been are enough not to be a major issue.

Near Death of a Pismo

However, it happened again last Thursday, and that time my restart workaround didn't work. The screen remained resolutely black, and the startup chime was replaced by an alarming sound - something like a cross between a car crash and stiff paper being crumpled. I hadn't heard that sound in years, but I vaguely remembered it from the old days as signifying a hardware failure issue.

Repeated attempts to start the Pismo failed until I removed the battery, unpluged the AC power adapter, pressed the reset button, and waited a few minutes. A subsequent restart lit the screen, but the next sleep/wakeup cycle resulted again in the crashing sound and a stubbornly black screen. Had the old Pismo finally died?

The Pismo's reset button is on the back
The Pismo's reset button is on the back.

I switched to my remaining working Pismo - the one I usually use as my road machine - for my Thursday morning online session. No real hardship. That one is in nice condition and has the best keyboard among the three units (although all three are excellent).

Bringing Pismo Back to Life

However, I decided to try some component substitution before giving up on the old machine and achieved provisional success on my first try. I popped out the processor daughtercard with its 550 MHz Motorola 7410 G4 CPU and 1 GB of RAM, rummaged around, and found a 500 MHz G3 daughtercard with 768 MB of RAM installed. It would've been a simple matter to just substitute one of the 512 MB RAM sticks from the old daughtercard for the 256 MB stick on the G3 card, but I wanted to stay with known good components.

Happily, the Pismo started right up, and it has continued to do so up to this writing (but see below). I'm going to give it several more days to prove itself, but the initial inference was that it appeared to have developed a defect in either the G4 processor or one of the RAM modules.

You Really Want a G4

Meanwhile, I'm experiencing a refresher on why I've been an enthusiastic advocate of Pismo G4 processor upgrades. The old 500 MHz G3 is usable running Mac OS X 10.4.11, but only marginally. Browser performance is the most significant stumbling block. Opera 10.62, Sea Monkey 2.0.7, and iCab 4.8 are all depressingly sluggish with the G3's anemic power. None of them is exactly a speedster even with the 550 MHz G4 and a gigabyte of RAM, but the contrast in performance is dramatic, inclining me to suspect that they still have a fair bit of AltiVec optimization in their PowerPC versions.

I'm figuring it's mainly the slower processor, because the other Pismo running with just 640 MB of RAM has been satisfactorily lively using these same browsers (within reasonable expectations). On the other hand, Finder response is surprisingly good, even though the PPC Tiger Finder is said to be AltiVec optimized.

I have a couple more G4-upgraded Pismo processor daughtercards in the parts bin and just enough 512 MB RAM sticks to restore both machines to the most power possible in a Pismo, but I'll bide my time until I'm reasonably certain that the black screen issue actually is resolved. Sunday evening I managed to drop the mouse a couple of inches while moving the sleeping rig, and ominously I got the black screen phenomenon again, requiring a forced shut down. The machine booted right up again with no drama and the screen lit normally, but there's something still amiss, I guess. Probably time to start looking for a deal on another Pismo.

In any event, it's definitely been an interesting exercise using a G3 again for production work, albeit not one I want to persevere with for any protracted length of time.

To be continued. LEM

Update, Monday, October 4, 11:30 a.m.: Woke up the old Pismo this morning and commenced my morning session. Receive a phone call that lasted long enough for the laptop to put itself to sleep, and since then it has refused to light the display. I can hear it booting normally, and it shuts down obediently with pressing the power key and then hitting Return, but no joy, so a serious hardware issue that isn't the processor or RAM is indicated.

Switched back to the other Pismo, having bumped it to a full GB of RAM. It's delightfully lively after three days in G3 land.

Now in the hunt for a good Pismo.

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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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