Vintage Mac Web Sites
Low End Mac
Mac-based email lists
Other World Computing - a great source for RAM and other upgrades for vintage Macs
Wegener Media - A source for Mac laptop parts
PowerBook Medic - A source for parts and info pertaining to PowerBook repair
In The Beginning
I have owned no fewer than six Mac laptops. From the older B&W bricks to the G3 models, the experience has been similar: no major physical issues, but many nagging problems within. Starting with my first one, a PowerBook 180: I had a great battery with it, as well as a nice power brick, it soon stopped working unless both were plugged in. Apparently, the internal power board went wonky. I eventually tossed the unit.
Two Jokes Along The Way
The next PowerBook I acquired was only a semi-serious effort at getting a portable Mac: a PowerBook 5300c. The PowerBook 5300 series had quite a checkered history: before they were released, Apple was forced to switch from a then-new lithium ion battery pack to an older style Nickel Metal Hydride pack due to the tendency for Sony's Li-Ion cells to burst into flames even then. In addition, after release, the plastic parts tended to flake off bits of plastic (derisively nicknamed "PowerBook Droppings"), eventually needing replacement. The series was detrimental to Apple's reputation as a computer maker. I managed to install an Ethernet PCMCIA card in it in order to be able to surf the 'net 1993-style, but other than that, it's broken trackpad button caused it to be shelved. Not too long after that, I acquired a PowerBook 165. Being older than the 180, it wasn't nearly as useful as hoped, and required a hacked-together power brick in order to work, so it too has been shelved.
Now We're Getting Somewhere: The iBook G3
Several months after experimenting with the 5300c and 165, a friend of mine gave me an iBook G3. It had seen hard use: the rubber molding along the front was peeling, the keyboard was missing a key, and the DVD-ROM drive had been busted long ago (no longer latched in place to read discs, and the bezel had been broken off). However, it has an Airport card, and runs OS X 10.3, so it's somewhat useful on it's own accord. However, the broken DVD-ROM drive has prevented it from being used much as a portable computer.
Close, But No Cigar: The Lombard
A year after getting the iBook G3, while prowling around the MIT swapfest, I spotted a nice bronze keyboard PowerBook G3 (known as a "Lombard" model). It lacks Firewire, but has USB ports, so is able to natively run OS X 10.3, which it had installed. However, where there should be an optical drive, a VST Zip drive was installed. I tried finding an optical drive for it around the swapfest, but had no luck getting any of the drives I found to work properly. This made it nearly useless for most purposes, so I shelved it, waiting for when I could find a working drive for it.
That's More Like It: The Pismo
Several months passed, without being able to find a working drive. Then, at yet another MIT swapfest, I found the next best thing: a better PowerBook G3. Known as a "Pismo", it came equipped with Firewire ports (making it able to run OS X 10.4 natively), a 400MHz processor, 576MB RAM, a 20GB hard drive, an Airport card, and (finally!) a working DVD-ROM drive. The screen had a crease in it, which turned into a dead spot in the bottom right corner after being flexed a bit. This was solved by replacing the screen with an undamaged one, but unfortunately, it still had an issue...
Trouble In Paradise
One of the first things I discovered about it was that it had a tendency to freeze (first noticed when, after closing the screen for the first time, the unit went into a coma rather than sleep mode as normal). According to the kernel panic logs, it had been occurring for numerous months, each time occurring due to a processor fault. It would sometimes occur as a standard "Please restart your computer" OS X graphic, though it mostly just hung at a completely frozen screen image (it once even dropped into the underlying text-based Unix layer from within the graphical OS X interface!). Thinking it had something to do with overheating, I ran it while sitting on a piece of wood; while it seemed to run better, it still froze up from time to time (often accompanied with a distorted-sounding chime during the following boot-up attempt, which often took a number of attempts in order to be successful). Occasionally, normal boot-up was replaced by a series of beeps. Knowing that the processor/RAM daughterboard had a tendency to cause malfunctions unless the board was fully seated into it's socket on the logic board, I attempted to reseat it (as well as the RAM sticks socketed on both sides of it) numerous times, with no success. Things got progressively worse, with it even freezing solid while running a test of it's memory banks, while sitting completely still upon the aforementioned wooden board. Eventually, after yet another attempt at reseating the daughterboard, I got what I'd feared all along: a boot-up where the hard drive whirred, but there was absolutely no sign of the standard Mac boot-up chime. Something had gone seriously wrong, and I had no idea what the exact cause could be.
A Desperate Act
At this point, I was extremely frustrated: either the processor/RAM daughterboard, or the main logic board, was the culprit. Either way, the unit required drastic measures (not to mention money) in order to be brought back to life. I didn't want to to buy one part just to find out that the other part was bad. After consulting several Mac experts (including the person from whom I'd bought the replacement screen), I decided that my best bet would be to replace the processor/RAM daughterboard, which fortunately, are fairly cheap on eBay (as with other PowerBook G3 parts). I purchased a known-working 400MHz processor board (500MHz processors seem to be rare on eBay for some reason), carefully installed it in place of the old board and heatsink, applied power, and *BONG!* Success! I had brought the unit back from the dead, and then some. It became much more reliable than before.
One Last Problem...
However, the unit had one more surprise in store for me. Not 12 hours after resurrecting it with the "new" processor/RAM daughterboard, I decided to use Disk Utility to see if anything had gone awry with the main hard drive during the many kernel panics that it had endured. The permissions repair hadn't uncovered anything major, but the check of the main disk was another story, entirely! The error shown was "keys out of order." I had heard of the error before, a major one having to do with the disk's catalog. I attempted to run the fsck (file system consistency check) command from within the text-based single user mode available with OS X, but it was unable to solve the problem. I also tried running Disk Utility after booting from an OS X 10.4 disc, but got no results from that, either. After I did that, the computer flat refused to boot anymore: running fsck during it's normal boot-up sequence, finding the key issue, being able to do nothing about it, and then shutting off. Since it's major enough to prevent normal boot-up, I find it hard to believe that it occurred within the 12 hours between installing the processor (after which it'd booted up with no issues) and running the tests, but no matter. I was at a crossroads once again: either pay $99 for a program called DiskWarrior which had a possible (but not definite) chance of solving the keys issue, and formatting the HD altogether. Since there was nothing crucial on the drive, I went ahead and went with the latter route. Formatting the drive brought it back from being greyed out within Disk Utility, and after reinstalling OS X 10.4, it booted without problems once again.
Conclusion (I hope)
All in all, my portable Mac journey has been one fraught with issues, but a valuable learning experience nevertheless. Plus, most of the units I've dealt with have been solid overall, being quite durable, and (somewhat) easy repair. For all it's problems, the Pismo has proved to be an outstanding piece of equipment, and much easier to work on than I'd expect a laptop to be. Plus, when working, it has oodles of potential to be the best laptop I've ever owned. By today's standards, it's long obsolete, but is able to run a modern operating system, and do many things that modern laptops can do. I hope to be using this machine long into the future, at least, as long as it doesn't have too many more problems (knock on wood).
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