Pimp My Pismo, a ride into G4 territoryPosted: March 9, 2013
It’s no secret that I hold a special regard for the G3 Powerbook 2000 edition, otherwise known by its codename “Pismo.”
I’ve owned several laptops over the years, some have been passed on for others to use, while I’ve kept hold of some that hold a certain sentimental quality. It’s silly perhaps to hold such emotions for what is essentially a tool, but we humans do it all the time with inanimate objects, be it cars, boats, buildings or computers. Just as a petrol head will drool over their pride and joy, as a tech head, I share the same emotional attachment to the computers I’ve grown up around or simply collected out of admiration for its design or construction, the Pismo is such a computer. I was never able to afford one from new, but that did not stop me from admiring it. Compared to my clunky P3 450mhz Advent laptop, the sleek lines of the Pismo where something straight out of a Science fiction movie.
When I finally was able to own one, the Pismo was already 8 years old, which in computer terms is an eternity. VGA has been and gone, DVD has gone from top dog, to battling against BluRay. A lot of things happen in 10 years, so how on earth can a device so old, still be of any use today? Well it all depends on your perspective and what you expect to get from your device. Know the restrictions of the tool your using and don’t get angry when it doesn’t do something beyond that. In 2008, my stock Pismo had 512mb ram, a G3 400mhz CPU and Airport (wifi), which back in 2000 was a pretty desirable setup and capable of tackling most things thrown at it. In 2008 it was less then ideal, but through rose tinted glasses I used the laptop, ignoring its short commings. One of the reasons was the keyboard, typing on one of these machines is a dream. I find the layout one of the easiest I have ever encountered on a portable device. Even my new HP DV9 laptop with its full size keyboard and num pad, does not compare to the ergonomic feel the Pismo keyboard has to offer. Sadly, even this did not stop the eventual move to a faster platform.
So my Pismo was lent out to a friend, then after a year, it found its way back to me, eventually ending up down the side of my bed. That was until last year, when I began writing this blog. One afternoon while laid on my bed resting, I looked down the side, bored and trying to find something to do, I saw the Pismo. I had all but forgotten about it being down there. Lifting it out and setting it on my lap, I plugged in the charger and tried firing it up. With a reassuring BONG, the laptop fired up and soon I was in OS X10.3. I spent the remainder of that evening typing out an article for my blog with a smile on my face, feeling like I had been reunited with an old friend. I was even pleased when I found that even while a little clunky, I was able to upload my blog to WordPress using the Pismo. This led me to rethink my views of the Pismo and how useful it was to keep around. Would Youtube and Facebook be out of the question? Actually, yes and no. Both will run on a G3 400mhz processor, all be it slowly. So what about upgrading the CPU? Back in its heyday, the Pismo had several CPU upgrades available and not just those offered by Apple. Daystar, a third party company known for manufacturing Apple accessories, had developed G4 500/550mhz “XLR8” accelerator cards for the G3 Powerbook.
A quick look on line revealed these cards where now out of production and very scarce to find on auction sites such as Ebay. What about buying a Pismo with a faster CPU such as a G3 500Mhz? The chances where certainly higher than landing an accelerator by Daystar, and also probably cheaper.
A few days of searching online left me with several possible candidates. One of them a Year 2000 Powerbook, which did not look anything special until you looked at the description, which mentioned “G4 Powerbook”. This is where paying attention and reading really does pay off, children. At first glance the listing looked to be for a non-working Powerbook listed for 99p. Closer inspection of the actually photo and description hinted at another story. That the laptop had possibly been upgraded with a Daystar G4 daughter card of which there are two. More evidence that this might be true was from the “XLR8” badge, attached just under the screen of the laptop. So I decided to take a gamble and go for it. If it turned out to be a broke G3 Pismo, at least I would have some spares. In the end I paid £20 for this Pismo, someone else had obviously spotted what I had.
Eventually the laptop arrived in the post and I eagerly unpacked it. The Pismo was in remarkably good condition, the only damage being just behind the mouse button, possibly the thinnest part of the upper case, which had a crack running up the centre. Popping off the keyboard, I was relieved to see the shield covering the daughter card was present and firmly screwed in place. Removing the panel, I couldn’t help a smile. In front of me was none other then Daystars crème de la crème G4 550mhz daughter card with 1mb cache, this card used to retail for as much as $399 back when it was on sale.
I gently removed it from the laptop with all the slowness of the Roadrunner eluding Wile E. Coyote. Once I had it installed in old faithful, I pressed the power button. Eep nothing! Quickly taking the card out, giving it a clean and reseating. I tried once more…BONG!! Ok now I really was smiling. I’d not only upgraded from a stock G3 400, but, with the existing ram on this new card combined with my own, I had enough SDRAM to make 1Gb of ram. OS X booted with surprising speed, a quick check of “About the Mac” revealed I had indeed a G4 550Mhz CPU installed. To quote a famous Mechanoid, my smug mode was most certainly engaged!
With the added memory and extra speed, the Pismo runs fantasticly. In addition I recently discovered the TenFourFox browser, aimed at old Beige PPC and G3/4 Apple computers. While Apple might say these computers are now obsolete, there is a day hard demographic of users who would say other wise. The TenFourFox browser is optimised to run specifically on older systems and visibly out performs Firefox and Safari, which up until not so long back, were the only options available.
So if you still own an old Apple computer, what ever you do don’t bin it! Donate it to someone in need a good machine. A PPC running system 9 or a G3/4 system still has it’s uses for word processing, desktop publishing, retrieving email and light surfing. Heck you can watch DVD’s on some of them without a problem.
As for the Daystar G4 550, I cannot speak for what it must have been like using one back in 2004-5 when they where new to the scene. Using one now in 2013, I think is just common sense. The speed benefits make the laptop very useable and able to handle web pages better then with the stock G3 400mhz CPU. Daystar really did do a good job on this product, it’s just a pity it was so damned expensive in its heyday. Given the problems Apple were having with Motorola at the time, who were stuck at the 500mhz barrier, struggling to get G4 chips to run stable at 500 /550mhz speeds. It’s no wonder those few chips that where stable, where sold at a premium.