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Penny-Pinching PowerBook

by Michael J. Norton

Like most companies, my company's IT department's doctrine is that all mobile users holster a Windows notebook. I have no real disdain toward using Windows; I would just rather have an Apple PowerBook. For some reason, every time I use Windows, including for game-playing leisure, I always feel like I'm at work. It's something about the interface. I just can't relax behind the Windows-driven keyboard.

Something is different about the Apple operating system. I find myself more at ease working with Apple operating systems, whether it be Classic or Mac OS X. To let my creative juices flow, so to speak, I use my Apple G4 desktop. The only downside to my G4 desktop is that it is not exactly as portable as my company-provided Windows notebook.

Sure, I'd love to own a PowerBook G4. It's just that I am about $1,500 shy of accomplishing this goal. One option is to put off my writing projects for the summer and mow 300 lawns at five bucks a pop. Factoring in my full-time job, I do have weekends available. Assuming I have two 12-hour days of sunlight, I could mow 48 lawns a weekend. Allowing for other expenses, such as gas for the mower and such, in about 7-9 weekends I would attain my financial goal.

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Opting to mow 300 lawns made about as much sense as moving my G4 desktop from room to room as if it were a mobile device. Sure, the aironet wireless allows me to roam around the house. It's shuttling the 19-inch monitor that gets to be a drag.

A Better Plan

Once I had the realization that my G4 desktop wasn't really portable and that my bank account was insufficient in funds, I had to come up with a new plan.

"Hey, wait a minute! I just need a word processor." Suddenly, the Grinch had an evil plan. "What about an old PowerBook? All those models were supported with Microsoft Word. Eureka!"

I cracked my knuckles and went to work, scouring eBay auctions for PowerBook units. Following the auction paths down to the bowels of the eBay auctions, in the area listed as Apple->Laptops->PowerBook->other, there you will locate laptops on a pauper's budget. I fought my overwhelming tightwad urges to immediately place a bid.

The Early Apple PowerBook duo dock series 230, 270 and 280s were practically being given away. The price range was $9.99 - $25, depending on the luck of the moon. The catch to this was, the batteries in older laptops require replacing and the prices of new batteries can be in the $70-price range. You'll notice most auctions mention that the batteries are no good. Not to mention pram batteries usually required replacing. Already the price tag of the cheap duo was approaching $100. This price tag momentarily halted my penny-pinching PowerBook program.

Scrapbin Scavenging

The benefit of working for a large electronics hardware company is its accumulation of hardware refuse. All the labs have a bin marked electronic scrap, which from time to time fills up with broken monitors, old PC systems, broken test hardware, and the pure gold -- Apple hardware.

Seems like us devoted Apple hardware users circled these bins like vultures. On one such occasion, the company had a sweep to rid itself of old hardware. Bins were placed by the elevator to conveniently allow employees to "bring out your dead hardware." Some Apple hardware was placed into these bins to await impending doom. However, due to some of us more humane users, we retrieved the components that appeared functional. In our shady cubical deals, I bartered for a possibly dead Apple 280c PowerBook and its bulky Duo Dock. The device would not boot at all.

First assumption I made was that the batteries were shot. I made an appeal to the internal Macintosh users mailing list. Basically, a bunch of Apple diehards who maintained a presence even though the IT department ousted Apple hardware about 5 years ago.

Being diehard users, we all keep Apple parts. We no longer know what these parts go to or if we'll ever use them again. But nevertheless, we keep these parts. I knew I wasn't the only one and if you're reading this, you probably have old Apple parts, too! So I made my plea on the internal Macintosh mailing list for other users to unite for the cause and rummage their parts for Duo Dock components. Sure enough, people did have parts! Most email replies were, "Yeah, I think I still have one of those, let me check."

Heart Transplant

As the parts started to come in, I still had one problem to solve. The Apple 280c PowerBook wouldn't boot. Apple computers are like old Chevy 350 motors, chances are you can pull the motor and rebuild it. In this case, based on input from other users on the internal mailing list, I needed to replace the PRAM battery. Once more I returned to the bowels of eBay to search auctions for old Apple PowerBook components. There I located a PRAM battery for my 280c. The battery I purchased from the auction was from It set me back a whole $20. For this small price tag, I re-initiated the penny-pinching PowerBook program and clicked the Buy Now link on the auction.

I eagerly awaited the battery's arrival. For this was the moment of truth. If the 280c didn't boot with the new PRAM battery, then the penny-pinching PowerBook budget would now be minus $20 and no working hardware.

The operation itself was straight forward. I am not a certified Apple technician, but I did stay at a Holiday Inn. This was enough for my own efforts. The replacement of the PRAM was easy. It required about 10 minutes from the time I removed the back case screws to the time I was putting the keyboard back in place and finishing up the case closing. Here was the only real snag of the operation. The case was difficult to wrestle back together. The front of the case just didn't seem to want to seat correctly. I glanced down at the notes. The docs mentioned this may be an issue. Of course it's the last sentence of the document. So I spent another 10 grueling minutes trying to get the case to finally seat properly.

Live My Creation, Live!!

Now the moment of truth was at hand. I hooked up the AC adapter, that was graciously donated from another user's parts bin. I pressed the power button and anxiously anticipated the healthy Mac beep. I closed my eyes and crossed my fingers. After the third forceful strike of the power button the familiar happy Mac chime rang. The PowerBook was alive!

A Small Oversight

The joy of bringing the 280c to life was short lived. I had focused so much effort in figuring out how to make it boot I managed to overlook one other small problem. The Duo Dock had a floppy drive. Argh! One of my G4's has a zip drive. But none of them have a floppy drive. Well, as luck would have it, in my parts bin, I had an old external ZIP drive for an Apple Power Mac 7500, which I no longer own.

Well, at least I could transfer the data off my 280c onto the G4. But how realistic was this? I now would have to maintain another piece of hardware, the Duo Dock with a monitor and keyboard, just to transfer files. This made as much sense as using my G4 as a portable. What I needed to do was lose the Duo Dock entirely, and having Ethernet wouldn't be that bad either. OK, now I reassessed my requirements. My little word processor required scsi ports and network access.

Once more I returned to eBay and searched the catacombs of old PowerBook hardware. I located a vintage Newer Technology SCSI Microdock in an auction by Again I was set back by about $20. Still I didn't have Ethernet access, but at least I had access to scsi devices without the hassle of the clunky Duo Dock. I could at least hook up the ZIP drive. Which wasn't that big a hassle for me. I still desired to have Ethernet on my 280c. This would require another Newer Technology micro dock, which sported just about all the connections one could desire. These docks ran about $50 on eBay, circa June 2003. This is what I needed!

I slowly scanned through all the eBay postings looking for parts I would need. What I noticed is that if I were to spend $50-$100 on this 280c, I could easily spend that money on an Apple 1400 PowerBook, which had everything I needed. So it was a turning point in my penny-pinching PowerBook project. Do I go for an Apple 1400 and abandon the 280c, or just do without the Ethernet all together?

A Fork in the Road

Well, I thought about it until my thinker was sore. It made sense for the penny-pinching PowerBook to have Ethernet connectivity. It also made more financial sense to purchase the Apple 1400 PowerBook over the Newer Tech Ultra Dock with all the bells and whistles. The Apple 280c Duo has a 68LC040, 66MHz processor, 24M of memory and 350M hard disk. The Apple 1400 is a PowerPC, 166 MHz processor, 24M of memory and 1.3G hard disk. Plus, I would have a CD-ROM and Ethernet. Both units were limited in memory to 64M of memory. This put a limitation in the operating systems I could run. On the Apple 1400 I would most likely be able to run classic OS 9. In all practical sense, the Apple 1400 became a more suitable candidate for the penny-pinching PowerBook project. I searched the Internet as well as eBay for a PowerBook 1400. I located the device I would use on a forum posting at For $110, Walter Gehricke, a used Apple reseller in Florida, put together a package for me that had everything I needed for my now over-glorified word processor. Which is now capable of Internet surfing.

Feeling the Need for Speed

One of the eye catchers for a PowerBook 1400 on eBay auctions is "G3 upgradeable". Cool! So I started searching the Internet and eBay for G3 upgrades. Sonnet Crescendo offers a 466Mhz G3 upgrade for the Apple 1400. At first this sounded enticing, but as we'll see, it isn't a very wise decision. First of all, this project is all about penny pinching -- the 466Mhz upgrade is in the range of $269-$309, circa July 2003, depending on where you shop. Now when I scoured the catacombs of eBay, I saw PowerBook G3 Wallstreet systems in this price range. The G3 Wallstreet will probably run OS X and Darwin, a better penny-pinching deal. However, this is over the penny-pinching PowerBook project budget as is the G3 upgrade for the 1400. Furthermore, the 1400 can only handle up to 64M of memory. What good would a G3 upgrade do me if I can't run Darwin and OS X? As you can see, my project requirements expanded with thoughts of possibly running Darwin or LinuxPPC on my penny-pinching system. The 1400 is not supported by Darwin or LinuxPPC, but I do still have mkLinux in my software pile. Ahhh!

Jewels of the Junk Pile

Let's face it, we Apple diehards just have a hard time letting go of old Apple components -- and software. I have old classic software in the original boxes. As I mentioned, I still have the mkLinux software, and I also have classic Code Warrior, Microsoft Office, and the coveted Connectix Virtual Game System. Unfortunately, my Connectix VGS requires a G3 and will not work on the 1400's PowerPC. How's that for a penny-pinching PowerBook? Did I mention I want this system for word processing?

Writing the Great American Novel

Well, now that I put together a system for writing it's time to pursue the bigger ambition, writing the great American novel. The reasoning behind the penny-pinching PowerBook project was to put together a notebook computer for creative writing. I know this project took on a life of its own. But now I have an inexpensive PowerBook to log my stories in when I travel. In the event that I lose the PowerBook, I only have to mow lawns for a couple of weekends to replace it. Well, I have some ideas I need to write down. So I bid you farewell. Go out and build your own penny-pinching PowerBook. There are a million and one uses for old PowerBooks. I am going to give my son the original 280c penny-pinching PowerBook for his school work. Gotta start the boy off right in computing.

Michael J. Norton is a software engineer at Cisco Systems.

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