I was drawn to the Mac for many years before I finally got my own. This post talks a bit about how I got into the platform.

I’d poked about on display models in computer stores, and was blown away by the way they looked, both hardware and software. In the PC world, Windows XP was the pinnacle of operating system design, but the contrast between that and Mac OS X was stark. The Mac looked so much more inviting — as usual Steve Jobs put it best when he unveiled this new interface, named Aqua:

“We call that new user interface Aqua, because it’s liquid. One of the design goals was when you saw it, you wanted to lick it.”

Steve Jobs, Mac OS X Introduction, Macworld 2000

In the introduction Steve demoed things we take for granted in computers today. Even simple things, like being able to drag a window around and see the contents smoothly move with it, were difficult back then. Windows couldn’t do that, opting instead to just draw an outline of where the window would end up.

There was just so much more personality. I think one of the adverts that best exemplified the Mac’s personality was this one from 2002, for the iMac G4, one of my favourite Apple adverts:

I wanted one immediately. It remains my favourite Mac design to this day. It’s unique, fun, quirky and friendly. The all-in-one design also meant it was more compact than the dull beige/cream boxes that the majority of the industry was building.

The display is one of the most ergonomic Apple has ever made. It could swing 180° left to right, 90° back to front, and tilt 35°, giving you a lot of flexibility.

eMac

Sadly, being a student at the time, I couldn’t afford this new iMac, but around the same time, Apple released the eMac. It featured a design reminiscent of the first-generation iMac G3, but with the familiar white plastic finish of the era, and sporting a large 17" flat CRT display.

Weighing 23kg and lacking a carrying handle like the iMac, it wasn’t meant to be portable, but it was aimed at the education market, with lower prices to match. I decided to get one.

This was a time before the Apple Store existed, but I found one at a nearby Apple reseller (about an hour’s drive away), picked one up with a student discount and never looked back. Initially I “dipped my feet”, using the Mac as a secondary computer to my Windows PC. Eventually I found myself doing more and more things on it, so I decided to bite the bullet and migrate over.

I think it took me two weeks or so to get used to the Mac as my main computer. Mostly it was minor differences, like keyboard shortcuts, for which you develop a “muscle memory” that took a while to adapt to. Eventually I got used to it and never looked back!

I remember loving finding little bits of “fit and finish” that made things easier in the OS. An example was realising the little icon next to a filename in the titlebar was actually a proxy to the real file. You could easily drag that into other apps to do something else with the file without needing to hunt through the filesystem for it. If you had an “open file” dialog showing in an app, you could also drag a file into it to select it. Little things like that I really appreciated.

I ended up replacing the eMac with an iBook G4 as I needed the portability at University, but years later I still looked back fondly on the iMac G4.

Earlier this year I saw one on eBay in pretty good condition so I decided to finally get one!

Cleaning the iMac G4

Although the eBay purchase lacked the original box, it did come with the original keyboard, mouse and Harman Kardon speakers. The iMac itself was in great condition, with hardly any yellowing of the plastics, and only needed a slight clean with alcohol, and some polishing of the chrome display arm.

The speakers are mostly transparent acrylic spheres, with the speaker cone exposed on the front. Some of the rubber and plastic of the speaker cone had yellowed, so needed a bit of cleaning with alcohol, which was quite effective. I think to fully restore these I’d need to maybe look at the Retrobrite process, but they look pretty good for now.

The mouse also needed some light cleaning with alcohol, especially the cable which was a bit dirty.

Now we come to the keyboard. Compared to its modern counterpart, the Apple keyboard of this era is enormous. Sitting on your desk, the farthest edge sits 4cm high and curves down to the closest edge at 2cm high. For comparison, the tallest point on the modern keyboard is 1.8cm, sloping down to a mere 0.8cm.

The entire keyboard is mounted on a curved white plastic base, which sits within a flat transparent plastic tray, so that the keys appear to ‘float’. Sadly this transparent base means that every crumb from every sandwich eaten in the vicinity of the keyboard through its life, was also on display for all to see. It was pretty gross.

Thankfully, these keyboards are fairly easy to disassemble, with three Torx T5 screws underneath, and a few Phillips-head screws inside. Undoing those allows you to get into the case, and fully clean everything inside.

What’s more, the key caps easily pop off without damaging anything, so you can properly clean underneath them. Some of the wider or taller keys have little metal clips that help stabilise them, but these can be slid out carefully when popping the key. I then washed each key in the sink, using washing up liquid, and allowed them to air dry overnight.

Repairs

As I said earlier, this Mac was in pretty good condition, however I did notice one thing wrong after booting it: the clock would not remember the correct date and time. This problem usually occurs on older Macs when the PRAM battery has failed. PRAM or “Parameter RAM” is a type of memory used to save system settings when the computer is unplugged, including display settings, speaker volume, startup volume and of course the system clock.

When this battery fails, the PRAM is effectively reset when the computer is not powered. Unfortunately, given how long these batteries last, they aren’t designed to be easy to access. This makes it painful when they do need replacing.

I won’t repeat the exact steps here, but I can recommend iFixit’s iMac G4 guide. They also have the original service manual should you need to do something else like replace the hard drive.

Separating the base from the dome was very difficult. Even without the screws holding it in place, it just didn’t want to budge, and I was afraid to apply too much pressure in case I broke something off. Eventually, carefully prising the two pieces apart, I was able to get enough leverage to separate them.

The dome of the iMac G4 is absolutely packed, there’s not a single bit of wasted space, it’s pretty incredible. The dome houses a full size hard drive and full size SuperDrive, stacked on top of each other. I would say that the ultimate size of the dome was determined by the size of those components; the dome is as small as it could possibly be to allow those components to fit.

The logic board sits in the bottom piece, with a non user-upgradeable full size RAM stick. Given there’s a user-upgradeable half size on the outside of the base (under a chrome panel), I’m not sure why they opted for the larger one internally, especially with space a premium.

Noticeably, there is no cooling on the CPU itself, but there are heat pipes which connect to the dome’s chassis, and transfer heat to the top of the dome where a cooling fan sits, atop the disk drives. This means that any time you open the iMac, you need to clean these contacts and re-apply thermal paste to prevent it overheating.

I used the following:

Re-assembly was also a bit tricky, as the heat pipes had moved slightly, and so I couldn’t properly re-insert the screws. I had to insert the screws with the case still open, so I could guide them through properly.

Overall, making repairs to this machine is a pain.

Software

The machine originally shipped with Mac OS X 10.2 “Jaguar”, but the model I have can run up to 10.5 “Leopard”, and luckily enough I still had my original Leopard install disc. I opted to wipe the machine and go through the install process, which took me back to my first job in tech support.

During the first boot, Macs of that era would show an introduction video and then take you through initial setup. I’d actually forgotten they used to do this, so it was quite nostalgic to see Leopard’s again.

I still had the installers and license keys for all the old Mac software I’d bought over the years, and was happy to see they all worked with no issues. For example, loading up my trusty text editors SubEthaEdit 2 or TextWrangler took me back in time to 2002, where I was using them to edit PHP websites.

One other thing that is immediately noticeable is how “quiet” the OS is. It has no notifications bar. No iMessage integration. Nothing to disturb you. It feels like it’s actually doing very little in the background, and that’s because it is! It’s actually a pleasant difference, and one that I wasn’t expecting. Notification fatigue is real.

I wanted to write this blog post using the iMac, so I needed one more thing, namely Git so I could clone the blog repository, and make commits to it directly from the iMac. Usually I’d install Homebrew and then Git, but this being an unsupported architecture I had to use a different approach.

Luckily there is a fork of Homebrew called Tigerbrew which maintains support for PowerPC Macs running 10.4 “Tiger” or 10.5 “Leopard”. You need the Command Line Tools which I had on my original discs too.

So to install Git:

ruby -e "$(curl -fsSkL raw.github.com/mistydemeo/tigerbrew/go/install)"
brew install git

I was then able to generate an SSH key locally (which took 10-15 minutes, a stark difference), clone the repository and open it in TextWrangler (which handles Markdown better than SubEthaEdit).

Image showing this blog post being written on the iMac G4 itself, using TextWrangler software.
Writing this blog post on the iMac G4 itself, using TextWrangler.

There are a lot of resources for old PowerPC Mac software out there, being maintained by people who are passionate about these older systems, such as Macintosh Garden.

The Internet

This model has an AirPort card, which allows the computer to connect to the Internet wirelessly. It’s huge, the same size as a PC Card, and it slots into the bottom of the computer.

I was able to connect to my home wifi, and remarkably, Mac OS X told me there were Software Updates available. I wasn’t expecting Apple’s servers to even be listening for update requests from an 18 year old computer, let alone providing some.

How useable is this computer on the Internet today though? To be honest, it’s mixed. Safari 5 is bundled with Leopard, but sadly this browser is far too old to work with most websites. Since TLS 1.0/1.1 was deprecated most sites have moved on to TLS 1.2 for encryption, which leaves Safari 5 out in the cold.

Thankfully, the helpful folk over at TenFourFox are actively maintaining a fork of the open source Firefox browser, modified to work on Macs with PowerPC G3, G4 or G5 chips!

Image showing this blog being viewed in the TenFourFox browser on the iMac G4 itself.
Viewing this blog from the iMac G4 over Wi-Fi, thanks to TenFourFox.

Once you have that installed you can actually get pretty far on the World Wide Web. Sites (like this blog) that aren’t loaded with heavy JavaScript trackers run really well, but other sites were quite slow.

Some sites such as YouTube were essentially unuseable. This isn’t too surprising considering the age of the iMac and the resolution of modern YouTube videos. But I was surprised how much mileage I could get out of such an old computer.

Verdict

Well, this turned into a bit of a longer post than I thought, but there was a lot to cover. It was quite a trip down memory lane going through the installation and setup, and revisiting this older era of computing that helped me get my career in IT started.

I’ve seen others documenting attempts to retrofit the iMac G4 with a more modern Mac, for example fitting a Mac Mini inside the dome. Perhaps one day I’ll give something like that a try, but it would be a shame to break an otherwise functioning bit of computing history.

I have to say overall I still think this is a brilliant little computer, and I suspect I will always have a soft spot for it’s unique design.

iMac G4 computer, with keyboard, mouse and speakers.