Sent From My $10 Mac

Pondering the lessons on user experience to be gained from using a 14-year-old Mac Mini as a daily driver. Can it be done, honestly?

Today in Tedium: Last week, I sent a piece extolling the joys of the Hackintosh, a concept that is very much a response to the demise of “the good old days” of Apple. But as I was working out the details on that piece, I had a not-so-secret hobby that was taking up quite a bit of my time. I was trying to figure out if I could revive a Genuine Apple Product™ that had seen better days. My acquisition of this product was a total impulse buy: After reading up on the Mac Mini G4 and remembering that it was the first computer I ever owned that I had not purchased refurbished or used (though not my first Mac), I decided to relive those days by buying a new one. I gave myself some parameters, however: It had to be as cheap as possible, and if it was broken, I had to fix it. After some research and some careful bidding on eBay, I bought a damaged one—for $10, plus shipping. And I got it to work. And now, I’m telling you all about my experience in today’s Tedium. — Ernie @ Tedium

Today’s GIF is the video of the Mac OS X intro, as was used in version 10.5, Leopard. Full disclosure: Where possible, tonight’s episode was produced using the machine I bought on eBay. Yes, including the GIF.

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$70

The amount I paid, all in, for my project, which included shipping costs and some more parts, including a power adapter that is proprietary to the Mac Mini prior to its 2010 redesign. I’ll go into the parts in a second, but I should make it clear that, for the average person, this is completely impractical. You can do nearly everything that an old school Mac Mini is good for by using an inexpensive Chromebook. Even a Raspberry Pi is likely more functional in many ways than a Mac Mini, thanks in no small part to the fact that its software and hardware is supported, unlike in the case of a beat-up Mac Mini. If you do something like this, it’s because you like the Mac and want to appreciate the company at its iPod-selling heights.

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The Mac Mini, as it appeared at my doorstep.

Everything I needed to do to bring this Mac Mini back to life

Let me preface this by saying: I got really lucky with this purchase.

Things could have been a lot worse. There were no guarantees the thing would even power on, let alone work well enough that I could actually work for longer than five minutes.

But it took a little bit to get going, either way. The reason was the hard drive, which had been somehow damaged in a way that rendered the old disk useless. After I got the power cable ($14, shipped) and plugged the thing in, I heard some very loud clicking noises that made me worry for the state of the drive itself. Even after booting into the installer on my USB drive (more on that below) I still had to figure out how to get the operating system on a drive.

As a stopgap solution, I wanted to install Mac OS X on an external hard drive—but that’s not something that was supported at the time with USB. So, I was stuck with Plan B. And Plan B was kind an interesting byproduct of the current state of storage.

If I was using a machine that was based on DOS or Amiga, perhaps I would have gone with something based on CompactFlash, which is directly based on the same IDE and ATA standards of many hard drives. But Mac OS X is an operating system that requires a whole lot of virtual memory, which requires something that can handle a lot of files moving around at all times, like a hard drive—or what I ultimately chose, a solid state drive.

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The SSD; the IDE adapter that holds it into place, its enclosure, and the hard drive it replaced.

One problem: The solid state drive didn’t become popular until the Integrated Drive Electronics (IDE) drive, which this machine currently uses, was on its way out. And while IDE-based SSDs exist, they’re expensive. So my solution was to buy an adapter that converted an M.2 SSD into an IDE drive. Five years ago, this might have been cost-prohibitive. But with the prices of SSD drives finally bottoming out in the last year, however, it was simply the best, least expensive option. Between the adapter and the SSD, I paid a grand total of $40 for a drive that was both larger and faster than the one I was taking out. (But neither are a speed demon, and that’s due to the pokey system bus.)

Other factors made the device a little bit cheaper. As I was opening this thing up using a putty knife (really, that’s what you needed to use on these machines back in the day), I noticed that some kind soul upgraded the RAM to its maximum 1 gigabyte—twice the amount that was listed on eBay, and something that saved me from having to do an upgrade myself. And because nothing else was broken other than the hard drive—everything, from the speaker to the combo drive up front, worked like a charm—I was ultimately able to salvage this “for parts” machine by purchasing a single part, an adapter for the part, an adapter for a monitor, and a power cord. Not bad for a risky buy.

Finding old Mac software was a mixture of easy and difficult. Sites like Macintosh Repository helped me fill out the parts of my install that were important and even essential. But even software that was designed for this thing would not work because of the requirement of having an online connection. As a result, recreating the experience of running a Mac in 2005, however, would be impossible—due to no fault of the machine itself.

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Even Apple’s home page doesn’t load correctly on the PowerPC variant of Safari.

Five interesting quirks about working with the Mac Mini G4

  1. We take “live,” or bootable, USB drives for granted these days, but in 2005, booting into a USB drive on a Mac was really complicated—to the point where I might have been better off burning a CD, even though I haven’t done anything like that in nearly a decade. (Good luck finding one of those around.) The process is a bit involved, though, requiring me to launch into a command-line “Open Firmware” interface and type in a series of commands to boot into the device. Once I got the right boot command implemented, though, it was smooth sailing.
  2. I own a Magic Trackpad 2, and while the device actually worked on PowerPC, it was only treated as a standard one-button mouse. (Remember, at the time of the Mac Mini’s release, the company only sold a mouse with one button, though the operating system itself supported devices with multiple buttons.) I was able to work around this to some degree through the use of “hot corners,” keyboard commands, and by hitting the control key to right click—the latter being something I admittedly still do now from time to time. The one thing that was missing that I absolutely hated being without was the ability to scroll. That was a pain. (One part of my rig that did not require a lot of extra workarounds was the keyboard, which was detected correctly right away.)
  3. One happy surprise came in the form of Apple’s use of the Digital Video Interface video standard. While somewhat uncommon during its period in the sun and later replaced with MiniDisplayPort on many of Apple’s own machines, the thing that makes this port fairly useful in the modern day is that the standard is roughly compatible with the modern HDMI standard—which means that if you find an adapter (fairly cheap on Amazon), you can use it with modern televisions and monitors without losing a beat, at a full 1920x1080 resolution. It looks good and not at all a step down!
  4. If you load up Safari, no matter the version, and just try to open up a webpage, the odds are extremely good that the page will not work—and if it does, the page will be very broken. The reason for this is very fundamental: Because the browser is based a technology stack that dates to 2005 or 2006, it will not support 2019 security standards. That means one of the first things you’ll have to do is find a browser that will support things such as https, or find hacky ways to update the security certificates on apps that rely on WebKit to render—which, by the time of 10.5, was many of them.
  5. YouTube is basically the white whale of the PowerPC. It is the one service that is completely, utterly non-optimized for this format, the one that gives people the most trouble, and (conversely) the one that people want to work the most. The solutions that will make it work effectively change frequently, with the best ones being external apps that load the videos in a Quicktime-compatible format.
0219_error

Yeah, you’re not getting technical support on this machine.

So, could you really use this machine to be productive?

This is the complicated part. I think that when this device was first sold in early 2005, it was a great machine in terms of what it could do, and if you were to look at it from a pure interface perspective, you would find it not much unlike what you would get from a modern-day Mac interface. No dark mode, but nothing preventing you from getting work done.

Switching between windows is about as fast as you would expect from a modern Mac, even if the startup process is a little slower and there are some signs of stress.

But the real problem is that, even if this was a reasonably good machine for 2005, an era when switchers were rampant, web technology has totally left it behind, making using it for its original purpose an exercise in frustration. It’s hard to get used to, but I think, after a bit of tweaking on my end, I finally found a comfort zone with surfing the web on this machine. I largely avoided YouTube and ignored most social media minus Twitter, which seemed to work OK. Nonetheless, this was one of the hardest parts about working on this machine.

I had to spend a lot of time looking at web browsers to figure out something I could live with. TenFourFox, a PowerPC port of Firefox, based on its older Gecko engine, certainly does the job, but it’s probably a better fit for something like a G5, which comes with more horsepower and can support a higher amount of ram than the modest little box on my desk. Its existence is heartening, though. (Side note for long-time readers: You might remember its developer, Cameron Kaiser, from a 2017 edition of Tedium; he’s also known for helping maintain the modern Gophersphere.)

The best bet in my personal case was something called Leopard-Webkit, which effectively is a version of Safari brought up to relatively recent web standards. It is not perfect, and I’ve never really been a fan of Safari in the first place, but it is clearly functional. It is somewhat slow—and breaks on modern webapps like Facebook, YouTube, and Gmail—but it is faster than the alternative and works just fine for Google searching.

So using this thing like a Chromebook is totally out of the question. On the plus side, creature comforts that come with using a modern-day Mac are well-represented. It’s strange to think about now, but many popular apps that are widely used in the modern day—most famously Dropbox and Evernote, but also popular utilities such as Alfred and 1Password—were a part of the Mac ecosystem from their beginnings. And tools that I use on a daily basis, such as the word-manipulation utility TextSoap, have robust PowerPC versions that work not unlike their modern peers. It’s bizarre to think about, but the Mac ecosystem has influenced a lot about the way we use computers, in part because of all these software tools that can be used to this day on a G4 Mac Mini.

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Me Photoshopping screenshots of some of the apps I used on this thing.

And thinking to more sophisticated application use cases, the most recent version of the Adobe Creative Suite that is allowed on this platform was surprisingly useful. While Photoshop clearly didn’t support the level of stuff that its descendents did, it legitimately worked well and was a polished experience. Nothing was lost but a few years on that one. (I’m sure I would feel differently if I was a video editor.)

That said, some trends that started out on the Mac post-date the PowerPC. For example, the dedicated Markdown editor, which became something of an editing phenomenon thanks to Mac programs such as Mou, iA Writer, and Bear, really didn’t pick up until around 2011 and 2012, years after one of the biggest advocates of the Mac, John Gruber, invented Markdown and released some of its earliest iterations before other developers ran with it. Markdown is supported on many early text editors with deep ties to the Mac ecosystem, such as TextMate and BBEdit, though these tools are generally meant for coding and not traditionally as useful for simply writing.

I use Markdown for everything—it’s my muscle memory at this point. I needed a good Markdown editor that I could use with keyboard shortcuts. (SimpleMarkPPC, a purpose-built markdown editor for PPC, is a good start, but no shortcuts, so it’s out.) Word or even TextEdit would not suffice unless I found a good third-party tool that allowed me to invent my own shortcuts.

After much looking around, I did find a solution that seemed to make sense, even if it was a little odd due to some early-version framing. A few years ago, The Soulmen, the developers of the popular text editor Ulysses, had a version of its popular software up on its website that supported Leopard and PowerPC. It was taken down with a redesign (it always is), but I was able to find the direct download link via a search on the Internet Archive.

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Evidence that I wrote tonight’s issue on an extremely old version of Ulysses.

These days, Ulysses (a piece of software I receive access to as part of my subscription to the excellent SetApp) is a pretty solid, very flexible editor that is generally built around Markdown. The early version of the tool, however, was closer in mission to the popular screenwriting tool Scrivener, and as a result, was not actually built with Markdown in mind. In fact, it used nonstandard markup. But on the plus side, it was very easy to change it to something that resembled Markdown. So that’s what I did—I turned it into a Markdown editor.

And while it is not perfect, it’s very usable, especially in its full-screen “console” mode that is reminiscent of more modern day minimalist text editors. There are more hoops to go through, but it feels like the kind of editor I regularly use. I’m not saying that, if you buy a $10 Mac Mini, you should follow my path to writing—most people will probably be happier using something like OpenOffice or even an old version of Word.

Either way, if you’re mostly writing and doing some light photo editing, this is not a bad machine for either of those things.

58

The amount of time, in minutes, it took me to move a 2.3-gigabyte file over a WiFi network from two machines—a modern laptop running MacOS and the Mac Mini G4—that were sitting directly next to one another. For sake of comparison, I sent the same file over Bluetooth on what were, again, two computers sitting directly next to one another, and it was actually much slower, only transferring at around 75k per second—meaning that it would take roughly 9 hours to send the file. (I eventually turned it off.)

Something about using this feels very fragile, and not because of the machine itself, the operating system, or even the interface. It feels fragile because of the internet.

The internet has so aggressively taken over our lives that we can’t imagine a computing experience without it. And when it’s no longer there on a platform that didn’t really work properly without it, it becomes impossible to use in many ways. One has the feeling that even older operating systems won’t feel this broken in retrospect, because their experiences are otherwise separate from the internet and work without it being at the center of the experience.

But the web browser became a vital part of our digital existence more than two decades ago, and at the time this machine was released, it was pretty much what people did with computers, for good and bad. It’s hard to relive this time properly because there’s no way to turn back the internet and no incentive for companies to do anything to maintain support for platforms that they deem not to be worth it.

Sometime last fall, the popular music service Spotify, as far as I can tell, apparently stopped working on the PowerPC versions of Mac OS X, despite working for well over a decade in that interface. I tried it myself; the servers seem to not want to talk to it anymore. This is despite the fact that, unlike most things that might get used on a PowerPC-based Mac, there is incentive to ensure that it works—because if it stops working, it may directly cost Spotify business. They don’t even have to do anything but ensure the servers keep talking with the client. Same deal, before that, with Dropbox. At some point, someone made the decision that it cost more money to simply let the servers communicate with old machines than to let those machines keep doing their jobs.

But, let’s be honest. It’s a harbinger. Eventually, the entire machine’s key functionality will fall into this decay. Some of it already did long ago. For example, the Leopard interface promotes MobileMe, a predecessor to the widely used iCloud that did not see much in the way of uptake and was taken offline nearly seven years ago. No PowerPC machine has ever officially supported iCloud; Snow Leopard, the first version of OS X that only supported Intel, was the first version to get it.

Even the web browser experience itself is being held up by volunteers who have enthusiasm for this software and this project. If, one day, they lose it, so too will the community.

Linux is an option, of course—a number of the open source operating system’s flavors, most notably Ubuntu, support the PowerPC platform, which has seen wide use in a number of other places, most famously the Xbox 360 and Nintendo Wii. Maybe I’ll do that at some point. But honestly, I was just hoping to relive my own past a little bit—in the form of a computer that was once the machine I found necessary to get through my day.

But thanks to the internet’s drumbeat, I can’t do that.

The Mac Mini G4 is not a sign of our past. It is a sign of our future—a future that will not allow the past to survive on its own terms.

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Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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