...and a fossil comes to life.

I'm typing this paragraph in MS Word 5.1 on a Mac Color Classic as part of an experiment. If all goes well, this fairly unskilled Mac user is going to use her opposable thumbs, her wits, and a set of AppleTalk dongles to transfer the file to a PowerBook 2400c. Wish me luck...

And now we’re on a PowerBook 2400c running System 8.6, typing in Word:2001. I simply hooked the dongles to the respective machines, powered up the ancient ‘030 Color Classic running System 7.5.3, opened Chooser on the PowerPC 2400, turned on AppleTalk, and BAM! There was the Color Classic’s hard disk, all ready to be browsed. Now to re-save it with new edits as a .rtf file, open Internet Explorer, and use gmail to mail it to myself as an extension via the PowerBook’s Farallon WiFi card…

Abracadabra! Now we're on the desktop of a G4 Sawtooth running OS 10.2.8, using TextEdit to view the .rtf file that was begun on a fifteen year old Color Classic that doesn't even have enough hard disk space to install the operating system that is currently being used to manipulate the file. Even better, the whole process of transferring the file was done by a user who had never used AppleTalk until... oh... thirty minutes ago or so, and who had time to eat dinner during the whole process (A nice tossed salad with a delicious Wasabi Dijon dressing) and even clean up the dinner dishes.

No muss. No fuss. A file handed across three machines with completely different generations of operating systems and CPUs, with less drama than it takes to dub a DVD. Now to cut and paste into Blogger's edit window...


Digging in the fossil beds...

A care package from New Hampshire arrived the other day. Among other goodies, it contained a couple of AppleTalk dongles.

I'm thinking about dredging up one of my older all-in-one Macs, perhaps the Color Classic or the 20th Anniversary, and seeing how difficult it is to move a file between one of them and a newer machine without cheating and using my SCSI CD burner...


Mac 4 cheap.

Reader Casey writes
Hey Tam,

I read your other blogs, and just saw this one. How easy(and cheap) is it to convert from Win to Mac? I currently use XP on a box cobbled together from hand me down parts from friends who have money for "upgrades" .

I've been thinking about experimenting with Macs, something portable/laptopish, but don't want to invest a lot of money for something I may not go any further with.

Any recommendations(and expected prices) for something that would help give me a feel for Macs without breaking the bank? I have no problem with used or refurbished equipment.
...and I thought it rated a post of its own in response. I know he asked specifically about portables, but I'll touch on desktops, too, as we're in a fairly propitious time for scoring good deals on those.

For both desktops and laptops, Macs newest OS release ("Leopard", or 10.5) has effectively orphaned a slew of machines that have been in use for years. Although individual Mac fans will perform heroic work-arounds and hacks to let them install Leopard on systems on which it was never intended to run, the used market is currently seeing a slew of late G3 and early G4 machines being dumped for a song. I have seen older iMacs sold by the flat (six or seven computers) on eBay for less than you would pay for even a minimal new computer.

As far as notebooks go, the clamshell (or "toilet seat") iBooks are bottoming out in the depreciation curve. Even late models are bringing less than $200 for the most part. Some of these later iBooks have DVD players and FireWire ports. I still use one as my main notebook; it has built-in WiFi and makes a great traveling computer.

For all-in-one desktops, iMacs are getting stupid cheap. As the last schools using them are forced to upgrade, they can be snagged for next to nothing from resellers. Mine is an early slot-loading model with DVD and a 400MHz G3 and came with a (mismatched) keyboard and mouse for a bit under $100.

The biggest effect lately has been that all the early Power Mac G4 towers that have been used as servers and production machines lo these many years are having their hard drive pulled or wiped and being shipped off to resellers. I've got a G4/500 tower here with half a gig of RAM and DVD drive and a Zip drive and the works; I won it for seventy-four dollars and some-odd cents, shipping included. It had a wiped 27GB hard disk and came with nothing but a power cord. That's okay, though, because it hooked right up to my existing monitor and USB keyboard and mouse. All I had to do was disconnect my Pentium 4 box and plug the Mac right into the exact same cables. It didn't even need a driver installed to make use of the eleventy-jillion key Logitech keyboard.

So, yes, if you want to get into just playing around with Macs to see if you like them, now's a good time to score an old one cheap. Just don't plan on doing a lot of gaming with it, unless you like older games.


The experiment has started...

Maybe it marks me as getting old, but it feels really weird to call a G4 tower a "fossil". I'm just sayin'.

And as far as "computing on the cheap" goes, I'm pretty happy with picking up a G4/500 with half a gig of RAM, a Combo Drive, and a Zip drive for just under $75, shipping included...


Things I need to find...

...to make me happy.

I mean real, attainable things, not "peace in the Middle East" or "a pony".

1) My G3 WallStreet needs a PRAM battery. And a battery battery. This is just a matter of remembering I need a battery at the same time as having some walking-around money.

2) I need to install OS X on my iMac so that my USB wireless dongle will work headache-free. And I need to install OS X on my new G4 so that it will work, because it shipped with nothing but zeroes on the hard drive, and they function better when you sprinkle a few ones in there, too.

3) No more computer toys until I get a flat panel monitor. This old Mitsubishi CRT has been in use for some five or six years straight and is starting to give an occasional disturbing flicker. This flicker is what we in the hobby refer to as a "hint", and what laypeople refer to as a "bad omen".


Feeling experimental.

I spent the afternoon yesterday typing away on my iBook on the front porch, amazed at how easily this "obsolete" machine handled my day-to-day tasks. That's when I got the idea for the experiment...

I know that diehard Mac fans who believe that the Wintel universe is some arid wasteland of malware and crashes are going to find this hard to believe, but my P4 XP box has been running for about five years straight now, only getting rebooted about once every month or so whether it needs it or not. No problems with virii or strings of inexplicable crashes. But it has got to be tired; it just has to be. Plus, it's nothing but a box full of game-shaped distraction at this point.

So as soon as I get this G4 tower up and running, it's going up on the desk to be my main desktop for a while. Call it 30 days. I'll also power down this old Mitsubishi 17" CRT and free up some desk real estate by borrowing a 14" flat panel from my roomie. I'll set up my iMac DV SE slot loader as well. Thirty days of doing everything I need to do on computers on eight year old Macs, the most expensive of which could be picked up for right around $100 on eBay. It'll be fun. I hope.



I don't often wax fangirl-ish about computer hardware...

All my PC's, from that first XT to the newest P4, have borne the mark of the inveterate tinkerer: The cases were held shut not with the factory Phillips head screws, but rather with large knurled aluminum or plastic thumbscrews. I've swapped out or installed enough expansion cards to consider myself a fairly dab hand at the process.

I just installed an AirPort card in my G4 "Sawtooth". Wow! Lift one latch and the whole side of the case, motherboard and all, swings down and displays the machine's guts. In pops the card, raise the side and latch it again and hey, presto! All done. This thing is just all ate up with clever industrial design touches, from the one-latch case opening to the built-in carry handles. I'm liking this a lot.


Stepping off the technology train.

My first real PC was an XT I bought back in 1990. I was able to use my beau's 386DX for a bit, and so I didn't buy my next one until 1994, a 486DX/66. It was followed by a Pentium 133 in '96, a PII 233 in '98, and an 800MHz Celeron in 2000. In early 2003, I walked into a retailer and bought the baddest machine they had in stock, a 2.4GHz P4, and the best sound and video cards I could get.

Five years later, with the machine running pretty much the whole time except for the occasional reboot, that machine is still in use as my primary computer. I also still have that Celeron box, although it may be time for a new power supply, as the fan on that one is starting to sound like a mating cow.

I don't game like I used to. There's not many games out there that have just compelled me to run out and buy them, and even if I did decide to play computer games again, I have two long-neck beer cases crammed full of jewel cases for games I already know I like. That's probably sixty to eighty pounds of CD's.

I'll probably bump the RAM on this machine up to a full gig from its current 512Mb, and maybe toss in another hard drive at some point, but I suspect that until there's a quantum leap out there that just forces me to upgrade, I'll be running this XP box for years to come. After all, that Celeron is still running 98SE, and I never get the burning urge to upgrade it when I turn it on...


PowerBook notes and other stuff.

Found my 500-series AC adapter.

First I tried bringing up the 520. All the bootup sounds were normal, from the chime to the reassuring chugging from the hard drive, but the very obviously active matrix screen went to multicolored snow and then to a sheet of yellow with a couple of blue stripes. This was odd behavior from a passive matrix grayscale screen, at least to my way of thinking. I'm pretty sure that the little tab at the top of the screen bezel wasn't labeled "PowerPC" when it came from the factory, either. I set it aside to crack the case open and solve the mystery another day.

Next was the 520c. It wheezed to life and ran okay, although the screen took a bit to "warm up" (an artifact I also noticed on the old 1400cs.) Ugh. Passive matrix. With the time I spent on the 2400c the other day having spoiled me rotten, I just can't handle the vapor trails left by the mouse pointer on a passive matrix screen anymore. I powered it down and set it aside.

Finally was the 540c. Schweet. Crisp, clear, active matrix display, with every pixel present and accounted for and ready to work. And... Oh! The keyboard! Folks will go on and on about the keyboard on the WallStreet or the 1400 like it's the second coming of the IBM Model M, but I'm here to tell you that in my opinion neither machine has a better keyboard than the Blackbird. Light resistance, a noticeable "tak!" as the key bottoms, ample palmrests... Two very enthusiastic thumbs (and eight other happy fingers) up. It's running System 7.5.3 and has ClarisWorks and Nisus Writer already loaded. I'll be doing some experimenting with getting files off of it for uploading here in the next day or two.

Incidentally, I also accidentally won an auction for a G4-500 tower the other day. I didn't mean to. I felt sure I'd get outbid at the last minute... Thank goodness my monthly stipend check will be in the mailbox this afternoon. The upside, however, is that I can set it on the desk in here in place of VFTP Command Central and use it for blog-work and general surfing.


Hmmm... Both good and bad, I guess.

Regarding the Mac Powerbook 2400c:

Pros: The bitty 800x600 screen and the computer it's attached to is so tiny and cute that I let out a little involuntary "Squee!" every time it does something computerlike. It's a new enough 'Book that it auto-sleeps when closed. The keyboard is a mite cramped, but has a decent feel to it. It's so small and light that it's easy to scrunch up all nice and comfy with some pillows in the corner of the futon and balance it in my lap; you hardly notice the weight of it. I've read many a coffee table book that weighed as much or more. Oh, and it's a lot more sure-footed on the web than I remember it being. The little 180MHz PowerPC runs Explorer 5.1 under System 8 just fine, and...

Cons: Whoops. Yeah, the web... Just what I'm trying to get away from. On the other hand, unlike my iBook, no surgery is required to make this one 'net-incapable; all I have to do is pop out the PC card, et voila! No more webz to distract me. Did I mention the keyboard is cramped? Also, no Page Up/Page Down/Home/End keys, which I constantly use for navigation.

Overall: If only the keyboard was a wee bit bigger and had navigation keys other than the cursor keys. Among laptops, so few are truly laptops. This one gets a B- for my needs, docked only for the interface.

Archival vs. Ephemeral.

As anyone who has tried to hunt down old software on cassette tapes or 5.25" floppies knows, magnetic storage media is far from archival. As it happens, if you got into the CD-ROM game early enough, you may be finding out that some CDs are even less archival than others.

Isn't it ironic that in the digital age is still looking for new media storage as archival as good ink on acid-free paper? (Of course, writing out Microsoft Office in binary would take a sheet of paper or two. It'd be a bear to type back in manually when you wanted to restore from archives, too.)



I'm easily distracted.

There. I've admitted it. Gotten it out in the open.

I recently had a genius idea for boosting my writing productivity. I would park accessible extension cords or A/C power supplies for one of my older Mac laptops in a couple of strategic locations (one that could be reached either from the dining room table or the futon in the living room, and one near the bed,) and drag out an older 'Book to use as naught but a writing tool.

My stated excuse for this was exactly what I admitted above: An older Mac would keep me from being distracted by the intarw3b and this would help my productivity. No more being interrupted by a research check at Wikipedia that turns into a two-hour Wikiwander. No more stopping what I'm doing every forty-five minutes for a quick ego check at Sitemeter or Technorati. But that wasn't the whole truth.

If all I wanted was a distraction-free environment, I'd pay five dollars plus twenty bucks shipping on eBay for one of the early Pentium laptops out there that have miraculously escaped the landfill. A bare-bones Win98 installation, delete Solitaire, make sure that it had no wireless card in it, and down the road I'd go. Except that zero distractions was only a part of the equation.

See, I'm not typing business letters here, or entering data into spreadsheets, or whatever; I'm trying to create something, something enjoyable for other people to read, out of whole cloth (or a woolly-headed hangover, whichever.) I know that there are gifted writers out there who can compose beautiful essays with crayon on a napkin in the crowd at a hockey game; Zen masters who can contemplate koans in the middle of a busy lunchtime crowd in Tokyo's Ginza district while being mugged. I'm not one of them. I need that pretty gravel trap where somebody's raked everything into serene spirals and curlicues. I do my best writing on a Mac.

I briefly considered an Alphasmart Neo, recommended highly by much better writers than I, but it doesn't really fit my own peculiar needs. Yes, the infinite battery life means you can take it anywhere and write when you feel like it, but I usually Sit Down To Write. There's a clear demarcation between "This is me writing" and "This is me futzing around and doing normal stuff". The instant boot-up is neat for those who are hit by a thunderbolt of inspiration and need to get it on the screen fast, but I chew stuff in my head for hours, days, or even weeks. That recent anal bleaching comedy bit? I bounced that off the heads of dinner companions almost two weeks before hitting the "publish post" button.

Lastly, this stuff is written on the fly. When it's Time to Write, I sit down at the keyboard and bang out the bit in question live in Blogger's "Create Post" window. It gives me 14 lines of text to play with and I write from first draft and then annoy RSS readers by editing from the finished product. If it's a five paragraph post, I do a lot of scrolling. If I'm writing something for the books, I need even more than fourteen lines, because I'm constantly going back over what I just wrote, so the Alphasmart is out for me, and a word processing program is in.

That word processing program, however, needs to be on something that doesn't annoy the pee out of me. Older Wintel laptops, for the most part, look like a flat black lunchbox on which someone has dumped a tray of Scrabble tiles. We're back to that non-meditative mugging in the Ginza. Mac laptops, on the other hand, don't annoy me by constantly waving "look how ugly I am!" signs in my peripheral vision. I could care less about the rest of the thing, the whole 'Pentium vs. Power PC' and "Win98 vs. OS 7/8/9" nonsense; once you're inside the word-processing program itself, who cares what OS you're using or what CPU is under the hood? You type. Words appear on the screen. Everybody's happy.

Luckily I have several old Mac laptops to choose from, and I've been piddling with them and chatting with Marko on the phone and emailing folks geekier than I to help make up my mind. What I have to choose from, I've divided into three rough categories: Regular old notebook-type notebooks, Mini notebooks, and "Newer" notebooks. Here's the breakdown thus far:

Of the Regular Old Notebook-Type Notebooks, I have three "Blackbird" type machines. The 520, 520c, and 540c are out because they use different A/C power supplies from my other machines, and I don't have any. The 540c has a nice keyboard and an active-matrix LCD. It has PCMCIA slots and I have a PCMCIA WiFi card, but the antique 040 processor and OS mean I won't be tempted to do much web-surfing on it.

I also have two slightly less antique machines in the same category, a 190 and a 1400cs. While both are blessed with adequate keyboards, they also both suffer from a similar problem: dual-scan LCD displays. These bug the heck out of me because if you're not looking at them at exactly the right angle they wash out to nothing, and the mouse pointer leaves trails like you haven't seen since your last Grateful Dead concert. Not as big a deal when parked on a firm, flat table in a well-lit Starbucks, but a dealbreaker for me when perched on my lap curled up in the corner of the futon.

Of the Mini notebooks, there are the two Duos, a 270c and a 280c. Teeny and light and easy to balance on a lap, their total absence of built-in media drives or PCMCIA slots means that I couldn't get distracted even if I wanted to. The 280c is the nicer of the two machines, but the keyboard isn't as positive as I like. I frequently find myself missing keystrokes when typing fast by not bottoming out the key completely, but that could probably be improved with practice.

The nicest of the minis is a 2400c. A pretty little machine with a swoopy case that's all gentle arcs and curved corners, it has a crisp active-matrix display and is a joy to use, except for one thing: It's hard to get much keyboard into a laptop with a footprint slightly smaller than an 8.5x11" sheet of paper. Again, I don't know how much of that is me not being used to the 7/8ths-scale keyboard and how much of it is the nature of the beast.

The "Newer" G3 'books pose a quandary. The iBook SE is an extremely competent machine for being eight years old. It has been my loyal road warrior since fall of '01 and quite a few posts on my blog have come from its keyboard. It's comfortable to type on and has a good screen. And built-in WiFi. How much discipline do I have with teh intarw3bz just a click away? The other is the Wall Street, which has the biggest screen of any of my laptops as well as what is widely considered to be one of the best keyboards for writing of any laptop ever. Of course, this means it's a hoss, both big in size and weighing in at 7.5 pounds (only two pounds less than a Garand, and how'd you like to have one of those on your lap all afternoon?)

So, I've pulled out the 540c, 280c, 1400c, iBook, and Wall Street and I'm going to put them through their paces this week. Anyone with any serious experience using these as writing tools is welcome to chime in the comments section. I figure that even if the whole thing's a bust, I should at least have something to submit to Low End Mac.


Me? I'm normal...

The next time I'm browsing eBay for games for my TurboGrafx-16 or apps on 800k floppies for my Mac SE, I can rest assured that I am flat frickin' normal when compared to a guy with not one, but two Crays in his barn.