PowerPC in 2015

Intro

Hi everyone, it’s been a while since my last post. I figured I’d talk about a project I’m currently working on, which is my attempt to make a PowerPC-based Power Mac work well in the year 2015. The specific model in question is a PowerMac G4 FW800 (Dual 1.42GHz; PowerMac3,6), and it is my main desktop. This desktop was released in 2002 with some amazing specs – dual 1.42GHz PowerPC G4 processors, 512MB DDR RAM, a Radeon 9000 Pro, a 120GB 7200RPM IDE hard disk, and a HUGE display – 23″ Apple Cinema Display that runs at 1920×1200.

Background

The Internals

I picked up this Mac about two years ago, for $75. It came with two hard drives, a USB 2.0 card, and 2GB DDR RAM. The problem with the system was that the original owner said it wouldn’t turn on sometimes, but it worked perfectly otherwise. After some investigation, I found that the power supply was failing, and that it would cost approximately $60 for a used one, or $80 for a repair service to install new capacitors into it. I picked the latter as it would ensure the longevity of the device. I later bought the original 23″ cinema display for $100 with shipping, and I love it. The display resolution is 1920×1200, and the viewing angles are very good for its time. One thing that I’m sure of is that it looks better than my brand new Acer monitor!

My Complaints

In it’s current state, the Mac just works. It boots up quickly, but actual usage is pretty slow; my SATA I hard drive (with PCI card) only gets about 25 MiB/s transfer speed, The Sims 2 can only run at about 20 FPS on the lowest graphics, the RAM and USB 2.0 card cause kernel panics, and my SATA I card is not exactly the best.

Realistic Expectations

To anyone reading this, don’t expect this to turn it into a supercomputer. The goal of this guide is to simply allow older software to run much better on our system, as well as make the web more open to us. The PowerMac G4 is a rugged machine, and it has outlived virtually any other computer I’ve worked with. None of the info in this post will make it into a modern PC; it will still be slow compared to the average desktop of today. The purpose of this guide is not to make it into a supercomputer, it is to make it into a daily driver again. If you came here looking to turn your G4 into a 2015 gaming rig, look elsewhere.

Upgrade Plan

Hard drives & SATA II

The system has 4 64-bit PCI lanes, which will accept PCI-X cards. Because of this, I plan on purchasing a PCI-X SATA II card and installing a Seagate 1TB SSHD. Solid state drives are not a worthwhile investment for these systems, as the SATA II interface over PCI 64 bit will not allow you to reach the maximum speed of the solid state drives; furthermore, Mac OS X Leopard and under do not support TRIM, so your solid state drive performance will not be optimal, and may degrade with time. Another option would be IDE-based RAID, although this will cause the aerodynamics of the system to degrade, as the large ribbon cables disrupt airflow.

Graphics

ADC Cable

Graphics upgrades on this are going to be an astronomical undertaking. There are many options, but very few will perform much better than what comes with the system. Many G5 cards actually will work on the G4 with some slight tweaking. The G4 AGP slot supports ADC, which means that 24v power is supplied to the card via a proprietary mechanism on pins 3 and 11. This causes a problem because AGP 8x cards use pins 3 and 11 for other purposes. In order to use a AGP 8x card in our Power Mac G4, which is an AGP 4x system, one must tape over pins 3 and 11 on the new graphics card. This can be done by applying clear tape around pins 3 and 11, then cutting away the tape with a utility knife. A good guide on how to do this can be found here. After this is done, the card can be installed and the system should boot up. If the card being installed has an ADC port, it will no longer work as the G5 systems provide ADC power differently. If an ADC port is needed, an adapter will be needed. These adapters are fairly pricy (see Amazon). As I use a monitor that uses ADC, I’m going to need to buy one of these to use my monitor; but until then, I’ll just use a Dell VGA monitor I had laying around. The card I will be purchasing is the GeForce 7800 GS, Apple OEM. I suggest against buying a flashed card, as they may have been flashed incorrectly or may not be compatible with your system. After the card is installed and your system has booted, you can enjoy smoother video playback in higher definition, as well as more advanced game play and significantly better application performance.

RAM

The Power Mac G4 FW800 supports up to 2GB of PC2700 RAM. The system accepts PC3200 RAM, but it will be running slower than the RAM supports. Given that I can find two sticks of PC3200 DDR RAM for only $8.99, I’ll purchase that to replace my failing 4x512MB PC2700 DDR DIMMs.

Software

The PowerPC G4 processor is a very powerful chip for its time. It easily outperforms any Intel processor at the same price point when compared side by side, and it can still perform many tasks, provided software takes full advantage of the processor. Unfortunately, the G4 was left behind, and software either does not exist, or is not written to take advantage of the G4’s AltiVec instructions. An example of this is H.264 – the processor can easily play HD video, but the codecs do not support it. If you watch an uncompressed video, it will render without issue. Many modern codecs use the power of the graphics card, but the G4 does not offhand rendering tasks to the GPU. No known workaround is present.

Below, I will list software that I have found works very well for performing the listed tasks.

  • Web Browsing
    • Leopard Webkit
      • Leopard Webkit updates the version of Webkit installed in Safari and Mac OS X 10.5 (Leopard). This will allow modern sites to render quickly correctly in the browser, and implement modern security fixes. I suggest installing Leopard Webkit for web browsing.
    • TenFourFox
      • PowerPC optimized build of Firefox 10+ for Mac OS X 10.4 and up. I find TenFourFox to be very slow compared to Leopard Webkit, but your mileage may vary.
  • Office
    • LibreOffice 4.0
      • LibreOffice 4.0 is the last release to support PowerPC. Although the release is slightly out of date, it works very well as a modern Office suite.
    • iLife ’09
      • The entire iLife ’09 suite works fairly well on the Power Mac G4. iMovie is not supported on the G4 processor, although it can be installed with workarounds. Make sure your graphics card supports Core Image to ensure best performance.
    • Leopard Webkit + Microsoft Office Online
      • Microsoft Office Online and OneDrive work very well under Leopard Webkit. Users of lower end G4 chips may encounter performance issues.
    • Leopard Webkit + Google Drive
      • Google Drive and all related cloud apps work very well under Leopard Webkit. Users of lower end G4 chips may encounter performance issues.
  • Editing Suites
    • I use the Adobe CS4 Design Premium suite on my Mac, and it works slowly. After I upgrade my system, the performance should be much better. Make sure your graphics card supports Core Image to ensure best performance. If anyone has a suggestion to add to this list, do let me know!
  • Utilities
    • OnyX
      • I highly recommend anyone that uses their Mac frequently to have OnyX installed. It’s a very useful free utility to keep your Mac clean!
    • iTerm (10.4+) / iTerm 2 (10.5+)
      • I suggest using iTerm or iTerm 2 as a terminal replacement for those who find themselves in a terminal frequently. I’m a Linux system administrator, so I frequently have to use a terminal. iTerm makes using the terminal on Mac OS X much more friendly and convenient.

If anyone has other software suggestions, please do let me know!

Conclusion

Hopefully this is a useful guide for anyone who is using or wants to use a PowerPC system in 2015. For those lucky G5 users out there, your system is already smoking! The software section should be very useful for you. For the PowerMac G4 users, the hardware section should be very useful. This Mac is old and outdated, and probably not worth the value of the hardware, but these upgrades can put quite a bit of life into your system. I would much rather upgrade my system than replace it, as I have quite a bit of software and time put into the Mac currently. Hopefully this was a useful reference for anyone who happened across this.

P.S. Expect more to come once I upgrade it – there will be photos, links, prices, and likely a full upgrade guide. Cheers!

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