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Aging PowerBook Upgrade by a Linux/OS X Geek

by Philip Hollenback

Editor's note: Many Mac users railed against chromatic's recent article, Switching Back to Desktop Linux. When Philip Hollenback, a Linux fan himself, needed to upgrade his aging PB 667 from Panther to Tiger, he used an approach that kept costs down and value high, while preserving his Linux/OS X frame of mind. Here's how he did it.

I've been using a PowerBook as my primary system for about two years, and I've found the experience very enjoyable. As a longtime Linux user, I'm continually impressed with the power and ease of use of Mac OS X. I get the best of both worlds: my familiar Linux command-line tools and a beautiful GUI environment.

However, the previous version of Mac OS 10.3 (Panther) was showing its age on my laptop. It had been clear for several months that it was time to upgrade my system. There were many interesting features in Mac OS 10.4 (Tiger), such as Spotlight and Automator, that I wanted to try out. Plus, the writing was on the wall: clearly Apple would stop providing anything but critical updates for 10.3 at some point in the near future.

Thus I decided to take the plunge and upgrade my PowerBook (an older 667DVI model) to Tiger. However, there were two problems:

  1. Over the past several years, I have experimented with lots of different applications on my machine. As a result, it was cluttered with extra files and settings. Basically everything was a mess--I had no idea what I actually used and what was just extra cruft. Plus, I had only a vague idea how I had arrived at my current selection of system preferences and other configuration selections.

  2. My existing hard drive was 30GB, and I had only about 2GB free (thanks to my large music collection). Thus any upgrade would likely run out of room.

Given these issues, I decided a clean install was my best bet. I needed more disk space, leaving all the garbage behind. After a little research I had a solution: I would do a fresh install of Tiger on an external drive, and then swap that drive with the existing hard drive in my PowerBook. This would allow me to selectively copy data from my old drive to the new drive. When I was done, my old drive could serve as a external backup.

Hardware Selection

The first order of business was to find a way to connect an external hard drive to my laptop. Since my Powerbook is an older model, the only effective way to do this was with Firewire (IEEE 1394). I could use a USB drive, but this Mac only supports USB1.1, which would result in very low data-transfer speeds (12Mbit/s vs. 400Mbit/s for Firewire).

A little more web searching turned up a number of hard drive enclosures from various vendors. For maximum flexibility, I decided to purchase one that supported both USB2.0 and Firewire, in case I wanted to use it with a newer system later. Since both the new and old drives were 2.5-inch drives, I needed a 2.5-inch enclosure. I selected the model USHDEC-2.5 from USModular. Any similar enclosure would most likely work fine. One benefit of these 2.5-inch enclosures is that they are all bus-powered, i.e., they take power from the host computer instead of requiring a separate power supply. The cost for this enclosure (including shipping) was just $42.

With my enclosure selected, I then needed a new hard drive. My Powerbook contained a 30GB drive, so doubling that to 60GB seemed a reasonable upgrade. I selected a Hitachi Travelstar 60GB drive for $100; again, any drive from one of the big hard drive manufacturers would probably work fine. The only issue you might run into is a drive that is too tall. Any modern drive should be short enough (under 12.5mm), but some older drives may be taller.

Hardware Installation

I now had all the hardware I needed, so it was time to get out the screwdrivers. My plan was as follows:

  1. Install the new drive in the external enclosure and connect it to the system.
  2. Do a fresh install of Tiger (Mac OS 10.4) on the new drive.
  3. Customize that install and copy files from the old drive (still inside the Powerbook) as necessary.
  4. Once satisfied that the new drive was ready to go, install it in the Powerbook and put the old drive in the enclosure (swap drives between enclosure and laptop).

I'll skip numbers one and two because they aren't terribly difficult. Warning: before continuing, think carefully about whether you actually want to open up your PowerBook and replace the hard drive. One way that Apple makes PowerBooks look so darn cool is by cramming everything into the smallest space possible. This means that when you take apart a Powerbook, it's very easy to do things such as accidentally disconnecting unrelated wires and breaking tiny connectors. I've disassembled lots of laptops over the years, and I find PowerBooks to be the most demanding of careful attention.

Also, of course, since this is a PowerBook, you need a #8 Torx driver to open the case. A tip: if you find yourself wanting to remove a Torx screw that is smaller than a #8, it probably means you are trying to remove the wrong screw. Apple uses #8 Torx screws for the ones you need to remove, such as the case cover, and #6 Torx screws for things you probably shouldn't remove, such as display hinges.

OS Installation and Disk Swap

The actual OS X 10.4 install isn't terribly interesting because it's so easy. One thing you should do is select the option to install Apple's X11 at the same time. You can always do this later, but if you are going to be installing anything that requires X11 (for example, The Gimp or OpenOffice), then you might as well install it now. Also, I selected the new drive as the target during the install process--the whole point of doing the install this way is to leave the existing hard drive untouched. The installer will detect the old drive and offer to import your user data to the new system. Don't do this: you want a clean install! Instead, following my plan for a clean install, I manually copied files later (as detailed below).

Once I had Tiger installed on the new drive, I had a laptop that could boot either the old OS (OSX 10.3.9) from the internal drive or the new OS (OSX 10.4) from the external drive. This is a good time to swap the drives between the laptop and the enclosure. Technically, you could run the system indefinitely off the external drive. However, this would be a bit awkward in practice. Firewire cables don't have a locking connection, and I found it quite easy to accidentally disconnect the drive when I moved my laptop. This would result in a complete system lockup if the system was running off the external drive.

Other than that problem, the external drive functioned well. I could choose to boot from either drive through the Startup Disk System Preference as needed.

At this point I had the new drive installed in the system and the old drive in the external enclosure, so my hardware work was complete. However, although I could boot a virgin copy of Tiger on the new drive, all my software and customizations were still on the old disk. Now it was time to start customizing the new OS install on the new disk.

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