Mac Daniel's Advice

How Good a Value Is a Used PowerBook G3 WallStreet?

Dan Knight - 2003.03.18

This week we're looking at each of these G3 PowerBooks in turn. As with all Macs, each has strengths and weaknesses. To simplify things, we'll typically use the street names Kanga, WallStreet, Lombard, and Pismo for these 'Books.

For a quick overview of the four lines, see our Guide to G3 PowerBooks.

WallStreet

The original PowerBook G3 (Kanga) was something of a stopgap. Six months after it was release, Apple unveiled a family of laptops, the PowerBook G3 Series. These models used a whole new motherboard designed around a 66 or 83 MHz bus, vs. 50 MHz on Kanga, and supported two batteries for well over 5 hours of untethered power in the field.

Commonly known as the WallStreet models, the G3 Series was available in three CPU speeds: 233, 250, and 292 MHz. The two faster models has a 512 KB level 2 cache; the 233 MHz one didn't, which reduced performance, earned it a Road Apple rating, and led to it being called MainStreet (as opposed to WallStreet) for its pedestrian performance.

There were also three different display options: 12.1" 800 x 600, 13.3" 1024 x 768, and 14.1" 1024 x 768. There were some real problems with the ribbon cable between the 13.3" screen and the computer's base, so this one is probably best avoided on the used market.

By default the entry-level model came with a 2 GB hard drive, which is slow and small by modern standards. The midlevel model doubled that, but that 4 GB drive is also slow and undersized today. At the top, the 292 MHz WallStreet had a 6 GB drive, which is also slow but just might be large enough to hold onto.

Series II

Three months after introducing WallStreet, Apple updated the line. They dropped the 13.3" screen completely, eliminated the 83 MHz bus, and made the 14.1" display standard on all but a special edition of the 233 MHz model.

Speeds were simplified to 233, 266, and 300 MHz, and this time the low-cost model had a level 2 cache, making it much more efficient than the MainStreet "Road Apple" version it replaced.

Where the floppy drive had been standard with Series I, it became optional with Series II.

The 12" WallStreet 233 sells for around US$300 on eBay these days, the 14" for around $350 and the 266 MHz for around $400. This varies with the configuration and condition of the machine.

Upgrades

All versions of WallStreet can support 512 MB of RAM, which is a huge step up from the 160 MB ceiling of the Kanga. The G3 Series has two memory slots, and with 128 MB modules selling for as little as $19 and 256 MB as cheap as $46, there's no reason in the world not to have at least 160 MB (32 MB stock plus a 128 MB upgrade) in one of these today.

Today's 5400 rpm hard drives, especially the ones with 2 MB and 8 MB caches, can seemingly double hard drive performance. I put 20 GB in my PowerBook G4 last year for about $100, and prices are even better today. If you can afford it, skip right past the 4200 rpm drives to the faster ones.

Got plenty of memory and a fast hard drive - and it's still not enough speed? Consider a processor upgrade. Sonnet's Crescendo/WS comes in 500 MHz G3 and G4 versions that include a 1 MB level 2 cache. Price is $300 for the G3, $400 for the G4.

PowerLogix makes the BlueChip upgrade, which also offers a 500 MHz G4 with a 1 MB L2 cache for $400.

Mac OS X

The stock WallStreet is a competent performer under the classic Mac OS, but OS X is far more demanding. WallStreet's two biggest drawbacks are ancient video technology with minimal hardware acceleration under X and the need to partition any drive larger than 8 GB before you can install and boot from OS X.

If you want to use OS X on a WallStreet, you want no less than 192 MB of memory - and more is always better. Give OS X lots of breathing room for best performance. At today's prices, a pair of 128 MB modules for $38 plus shipping should be affordable, and if you can swing $92 plus postage for two 256 MB modules, even better. OS X loves lots of free memory.

Regardless of what Apple says, you need a hard drive no smaller than 4 GB, and that's really pushing it once you have some applications installed and need to run the 10.3 updater that's bound to show up someday. At a minimum, I'd say a 10 GB hard drive with a first partition of 8 GB or less for OS X and the remaining space for the classic Mac OS, your favorite utilities, etc. And ante up for a 5400 rpm drive if possible - because virtual memory is always active in OS X, you don't want the hard drive slowing you down.

Unless you've already done most of the other upgrades, it hardly makes economic sense to drop a $300-400 CPU upgrade into a computer worth $300-400 on the used market. But if you've got the RAM and faster, larger hard drive, then it might make sense to look at the fast 500 MHz G3 and G4 upgrades.

Failings

There have been sporadic field reports of WallStreet death under Mac OS X. Whether that's due to old age as they approach five years of use or OS X putting additional stress on the machines remains unknown. Here are some field reports:

I don't know how widespread the problem is, but it seems much less common than the well documented hinge problem. You can learn a lot more about it by searching for wallstreet and hinge on Google. And here's a nice tutorial on how to fix the problem if you see it.

Conclusion

WallStreet is the oldest PowerBook that supports OS X, but the outdated video chips and 8 MB partition issue make it less than ideal as an OS X machine. It's a competent machine, don't get me wrong, just underpowered.

For the classic Mac OS, if you don't mind the 7-8 pound weight, it's got a lot going for it. If you're willing to travel without a floppy, CD-ROM, or DVD drive installed, you can get 5-7 hours of life with a pair of fresh batteries. Avoid the Road Apple cacheless 233 MHz version and you'll have a very nice classic Mac OS computer, either as a field machine or even as a primary computer.

WallStreet is very upgradable, much more so than Kanga, making it a pretty good buy either as it comes for $300-400 or as something that can grow with you for a couple of years as you have the finances for more upgrades.

As with the beige Power Mac G3, WallStreet is a transitional model. Although both support OS X, antiquated video and the boot partition issue make both good choices - but not as good as the models that replaced them. Both are very good buys, especially at today's prices, but not quite best buys if you plan on using OS X.

Of course, it's also a matter of what your budget can handle. With a good solid design and plenty of upgrade potential, as long as you're aware of a few limitations before you buy, I think you can find real happiness with a nice used WallStreet. I know my third oldest son has, and my wife loved hers (until it met the insides of a can if Diet Coke), especially if you stick with the classic Mac OS.

Let's call WallStreet a very good buy with the classic Mac OS, but less so with OS X.

Tomorrow we'll look at Lombard and determine whether it's a better value. LEM

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