The return of the 12-inch PowerBook G4

Tech Life

My 12-inch PowerBook G4

The PowerBook G4 12″

Let me get this out of my system right now: the 12-inch PowerBook G4 is possibly the best laptop Apple has made. Don’t get me wrong, I love my current 15-inch unibody MacBook Pro: I appreciate the build quality, the design, the performance, the screen estate, and everything. But this piece is about what was my former main machine, which stayed with me through thick and thin from January 2004 to July 2009, and which has returned as my second machine after a forced hiatus due to hard drive failure.

Tech specs

This is the second-generation, DVI model with a PowerPC G4 at 1 GHz processor. RAM is maxed out at 1.25 GB. Screen resolution is 1024×768 and the graphic card is a 32 MB Nvidia GeForce FX Go5200. It has a combo optical drive (DVD-R/CD-RW), and it’s currently at its third hard drive. The original 4200rpm 40 GB was replaced in August 2004 with a 5400rpm 40 GB hard drive, and just a few days ago — thanks to Nicola’s generosity — I upgraded to a 5400rpm 80 GB hard drive. Yes, the second hard drive lasted from August 2004 to August 2009, which is not bad at all, considering modern hard drives’ life expectancy.

Personal history

After my blueberry iMac G3 died a miserable death in spring 2003, my main machine at that time became the clamshell iBook G3/466 SE FireWire (graphite). It was a great performer, and it had its advantages over the iMac: a faster processor (466 MHz against the iMac’s 350), more RAM (320 MB against the iMac’s 256), a DVD drive (I already got rid of my television set, so the iBook was the only option to watch movies), a FireWire port (the iMac only had USB ports), a bigger hard drive (10 GB against the iMac’s 6.4 GB) and of course it was a sturdy, portable Mac. But I had to endure a small screen real estate (the iBook’s native resolution is 800×600), and sometimes, with many applications and windows open, the environment felt really cramped.

So I started saving money, aiming for the then-new 15-inch Titanium PowerBook G4, and the even better 15-inch Aluminium model. But I couldn’t save enough to buy one when it was finally time to upgrade, so I opted for the smaller brother. At the time it really felt like a fallback choice, but I soon came to appreciate the little 12-inch buddy. Performance-wise was more than enough for me and it didn’t feel much slower than the 15-inch model I had been testing in the store. What finally won me was its compactness. I could carry it everywhere with a small backpack. I could comfortably work while commuting in impossibly crowded trains. Soon I felt I made the right choice.

The 12-inch PowerBook G4 rewarded me by being a trusty, resilient companion. It suffered a couple of potentially dangerous liquid spills, but luckily nothing was damaged both times. It worked 24/7 during a very hot summer, with its fan constantly on, but never skipped a beat. It survived the bumps and the on-the-road trips during my relocation. It never gave me a problem, either with the software, or with the hardware (apart from the hard drive).

Then, when another round of unibody MacBook Pros came out in July 2009, I decided it was time for a change. I wanted to upgrade to a faster machine and with an Intel architecture. A part of what I do requires that I stay up-to-date with technology, and when it was confirmed that Snow Leopard would be for Intel Macs only, I felt that it was time for a personal transition. Of course, I didn’t want to abandon the PowerBook entirely — it would make for a great second machine.

The purchase of my 15-inch, 2.66 GHz MacBook Pro, came under serendipitous circumstances. Not two weeks after using the newer Mac, the PowerBook G4’s hard drive started to fail: soon after booting, it would overheat and start making an awful noise that sounded like loose metal balls inside the PowerBook’s case. I managed to back up a few data that had remained there, and was forced to decommission the PowerBook until I could find a replacement.

The return

I can’t thank Nicola enough for sending me that drive. It had been a fruitless hunt up to his intervention. A few days ago I operated the hard drive transplant and proceeded to reconfigure the PowerBook from scratch. So I made a fresh installation of Mac OS X 10.5, went through the long process of downloading and installing all the system software updates, and then the fun started.

Pen and paper in hand, I began writing a list of selected pieces of software, trying to keep that list to the essentials. I want this PowerBook to start a second life as a lightweight machine for writing, browsing the Web, and handling email. I also want to store a subset of my vast photo archive on it, and when I find a new battery I’d like to take the PowerBook with me on the occasional photo stroll, so I can dump the contents of my camera on it and do some light retouching on the fly.

So, while on my MacBook Pro I keep all kinds of redundancy (a dozen Web browsers, at least 8 text-handling applications, various programs for photo/image editing, and so on and so forth), the ‘software restoration’ process on the PowerBook so far has been strict, aiming to provide a minimal set of tools for all the intended activities:

  • Browser: Safari is more than adequate. I only added Stainless for the multi-processing architecture, allowing for parallel sessions (which — quoting the website — allow you to log into a site using different credentials in separate tabs at the same time). And because there’s no Google Chrome for PowerPC Macs.
  • Email: Although Apple Mail would have been enough, I chose to install Mailsmith because the interface is less in my way and is better suited for small displays, and because I wanted to have a Mac where I could try the 2.3 pre-release version. To simplify things, I set up a single Gmail account that receives mail forwarded by my three most important accounts, so that I always know what’s going on when I’m on the move.
  • Text handling: Pages, TextEdit and TextWrangler answer all my needs. For reading PDF documents, Preview is a fine tool. I’ve added Skim mostly because I’m more accustomed to its interface and features. For quick, synchronised notes, needless to say: Notational Velocity.
  • Photo handling: Graphic Converter is quite a complete package for what I expect to do on the PowerBook.
  • Music: Well, iTunes comes with Mac OS X, but I don’t plan to grow a music library. Spotify gives me enough music when I need it, and I save a lot of hard disk space…
  • Video: Movist, absolutely, for everything that QuickTime can’t handle, or can’t handle that gracefully.
  • RSS feeds: NetNewsWire.
  • Fonts: In my Dropbox, I keep a sort of “Fonts common set” folder where I place a handpicked, constantly updated list of fonts I want to have on all Macs. So, after installing Mac OS X and Dropbox on the PowerBook, I just copied the contents of that shared folder in [username]/Library/Fonts. To handle fonts, I installed FontExplorer X free (download available at the MacUpdate page for FontExplorer X Pro).
  • Other tools I can’t work without: Dropbox, TextExpander and, yes, ClickToFlash.


And that’s about it. As you can see, I managed to set up a Microsoft-less, Adobe-less environment.

The PowerBook restoration process is not over, anyway. I need to find a decent battery, because the original is more than dead and holds no charge. Then I’d also like to find a new AC adapter. The original adapter works, but the cable is bent right before the jack that plugs in the PowerBook and I’m not comfortable moving it too much. But for now the PowerBook is back in service, and that’s what matters.

The Author

Writer. Translator. Mac consultant. Enthusiast photographer. • If you like what I write, please consider supporting my writing by purchasing my short stories, Minigrooves or by making a donation. Thank you!


  1. @Juri: thanks for the link … I’ll evaluate if it’s the case to get a brand new one for my 15″ PowerBook too …

  2. Giovanni says

    Prima di scrivere questo commento avevo il dubbio di doverlo fare in inglese… non è così buono…
    Avrei bisogno di un consiglio del “tecnico”. Ho un PB G4 12″ 1,5Ghz (l’ultimo) ha un problema con il lettore/masterizzatore di DVD e un PB G4 15″ 1,67Ghz il penultimo che ha vari problemi tra cui il fatidico banco RAM e qualche botta di troppo. Pensi che sia possibile trapiantare il lettore di DVD dal grande al piccolo? Cercando sul sito Apple ho trovato che i due modelli sono trattati insieme per alcune caratteristiche.

    • For English speakersGiovanni is asking if he can put the good optical drive of an otherwise malfunctioning 15-inch PowerBook G4/1.67GHz into his 12-inch PowerBook G4/1.5GHz which has a faulty optical drive. I believe the two SuperDrives are identical and that they can be swapped.

      For the transplant I suggest following the excellent guides at iFixit, starting from here.

      Also, iFixit sells Mac parts, and looking at their page for the Aluminium 15-inch PowerBook G4, you can find three SuperDrive models. Going to their respective pages, there’s clearly written that This product works in All G4 Aluminum PowerBooks. So that should confirm that the swap is possible.

      Hope this helps!

  3. Thanks, great article! what would you expect to pay second had for one of these now, and also can you refer me to what the maximum size HDD upgrade would be ? and what from factor & style of HDD do I need to buy if I can upgrade. THanks a million

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