The Mobile Mac

Improving the 12" PowerBook with a Faster Hard Drive, More RAM, and a Better SuperDrive

- 2006.06.16 - Tip Jar

Adding new luster to the old PowerBook.

In my last article, I shared the reasons I want an Intel-powered Apple laptop - and why I don't yet own one. This time I'd like to go over how I made myself happy again with my existing PowerPC-based portables, adding new capabilities and increasing performance for a lot less money than that new IntelBook would cost. I'll go over the modifications I made to my 12" and 15" PowerBooks, the costs and benefits, and what remains to be done.

I mentioned gaming as something that I want to do on my small laptop, and this remains a real challenge. My 12" PowerBook is the fastest model Apple ever released in that size, running at 1.5 GHz. While there is a 1.67 GHz upgrade available from Daystar for the 12" PowerBook, but and extra 170 MHz just isn't worth the $440 cost of the upgrade, even if it does give me the minimum specs to play Quake4.

That doesn't mean that the machine can't be made faster, and if I were still the owner of an older 1 GHz 12", I'd probably go for it (a 67% speed boost is a much better value).

A Fast Hard Drive

While the processor on my 12" isn't worth speeding-up, the hard drive certainly is. Last year Apple upgraded from their usual 4200 RPM laptop drives to faster 5400 RPM drives, and this made a significant performance improvement. Two-years-ago, I had upgraded the 40 GB 4200 RPM drive in the 1 GHz 12" PowerBook I had at the time to an 80 GB 5400 RPM drive - exactly the one that came with my current PowerBooks.

The faster drive made a big difference in performance. The computer booted up significantly faster, applications launched quicker, and any disk-intensive function seemed to just fly.

With that logic, I had a 100 GB 7200 RPM Hitachi TravelStar hard drive installed in my 12" PowerBook, and just like with the previous upgrade, the performance gains were real and noticeable. I haven't tested battery life yet, but after two hours I've still got a 54% charge, which is about the same as I saw with the 5400 RPM drive, so I'm guessing any penalty will be in the 4-5 minute range rather than 40-50.

More Memory

The other boost that I gave my 12" PowerBook was a RAM injection. PowerBooks like mine came with 512 MB of RAM, sufficient for most users on the applications that a small laptop is used for. I bumped mine all the way to 1.25 GB, the maximum, and while it isn't any faster for one or two applications or booting up, there's no performance hit to leaving multiple applications open.

No, I still can't crank up the detail in Doom3, which is actually playable with everything at minimum, but I can play it with my two email clients also running, providing me with notifications when email arrives.

I've played games while doing large downloads and suffered no performance hit, something not possible before the upgrade. As a side benefit, the 80 GB 5400 RPM drive went into a $50 USB 2.0/FireWire enclosure to give me a large and fast backup solution.

My 12" PowerBook is faster and more capable than it was before. With my iSight camera in a small pouch on my bag and a short 12" FireWire cable (not as convenient as the built-in iSight on the MacBook), it's still a very convenient and capable mobile video-chat platform.

A Better SuperDrive

I did one other upgrade that gives no performance benefit, but it adds a long-desired feature - I swapped the built-in SuperDrive for a different model. Apple's PowerBooks and MacBooks use Matsushita (Panasonic) optical drives in most applications, and, sadly, these drives are impossible to flash firmware on.

Now if these drives did everything they are advertised to do, this wouldn't be an issue, but the fact is that most Matsushita SuperDrives, though rated at 8x, only burn at 2x unless you have either Apple's DVD-R media or get very, very lucky on third party media. The drive in the 12" model also lacks the ability to burn dual-layer disks.

Finally, while this is possibly illegal and definitely voided my warranty, I wanted a drive that I could remove the RPC-2 firmware and replace with RPC-1 firmware, meaning a region-free drive.

I'll go into the how-to of making a flashable drive region-free and software alternatives in another article, but for now suffice it to say that my 12" PowerBook not only burns all media at full 8x speed (including dual-layer), but that it's now region free and can switch between region 1 and region 3 movies without limitation. Since watching movies is my other in-flight activity, this is huge plus for me.

The flashable drive, for those interested, is the Pioneer DVR-K05, which in addition to its speed and format versatility compared to the stock Matsushita UJ-845E that came with the PowerBook, is also quieter and smoother in operation. In all, a very nice piece of hardware.

One final recommendation: Don't open up and install these pieces into the 12" PowerBook yourself, as it's a very tough job to get everything lined up properly on reassembly. I paid a local authorized Apple shop to do the install, and they charge a flat $90 to open and reassemble aluminum PowerBooks.

If you're doing an internal upgrade, it makes sense to wait until you're ready to do all of them at once. It cost the same $90 to install the faster hard drive and the Pioneer DVD burner as it would for either drive alone. LEM

Andrew J Fishkin, Esq, is a laptop using attorney in Los Angeles, CA.

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