On a Fluke: A Cute Little iMac (G4 PowerPC)

I wrote this article to begin chronicling my experience in taking a Mac computer I knew almost nothing about from an inoperable state to a working unit. I found a lot of helpful websites and information along the way which I thought may be helpful to others. In the process, I learned a whole lot more about Mac computers than I knew before, which was not only very interesting, but very helpful in understanding the Mac already owned – an iMac 24″acquired in November 2009 without the usual research I usually undertake to understand what I’m buying (a long story). So, I picked up more than a few new tricks that I’ve put to use. Finally, I also found a couple of information gaps for people attempting such a project, and I hope what I learned may save someone else the time and aggravation I encountered.

Ok, so it’s not really a baby iMac. That’s just what I call it. It’s actually an iMac G4 PowerPC, sometimes called “the flower pot” or “the lamp”. Compared to my Intel iMac with 24″ screen, the G4 with 17″ screen, looks like a baby. A late 2009 UPS delivery of the 24″ iMac brought the first non-Windows computer into our home.

The following spring, I took no small amount of pleasure in surprising my daughter on her 17th birthday with a drive to a local computer store to pick up her “new” 20″ Intel iMac.

We still have several Windows computers around here and, prior to acquiring the “baby” iMac G4, we’d only dealt with Intel Macs. And the foray into the world of the Mac PowerPCs happened very much on a fluke.

Having had some good luck at the State of Nebraska surplus auction a couple of years back, when the notice appeared in the newspaper for a sale last May, we decided to check the offerings. My husband occasionally satisfies his natural hunter’s instinct through auctions. A successful “kill” is defined as follows: an item needed or wanted by someone in our family is acquired at an almost absurdly low price. Prior “trophies” acquired at the State surplus auction two years before included a much needed desk for my office for $5 (very sturdy, solid wood and some would say, handsome in a retro-sort-of-way). Since the family’s wish list (the prey) had recently grown to include office organizers, bookshelves, and computer miscellany, my husband geared up for his next expedition by taking us all to the pre-auction viewing, so we could supply him with a list.

In addition to staking out a comfortable office chair for my 13 year old, several boxes of metal office organizers for my daughter, a couple of solid wooden bookshelves, and a couple of flat panel monitors to replace titanic-sized CRTs, I noted two 8′ tables full of adorable little Apple computers – about which I knew nothing.

When I prepared the next day’s “target” list for my husband, I included in my list “WHITE APPLE COMPUTER” with the notation “NO MORE THAN $40!”. Why I settled on a $40 ceiling was simply due to that being an outer limit on what I’d waste should the the unit never work. And that’s atypically high amount – $10 to $20 is usually it for me. But – it was adorable and I thought it would look really cute in my kitchen. And it was an Apple. I realize for a lot of women its shoes and jewelry – in that department I never lose my head. But I was not completely over the moon – I had determined there probably was no operating system, perhaps not even a hard drive, and that I’d likely have to upgrade some of its parts.  If I could have that adorable little computer in my kitchen for $100 or less in reasonable working order, I’d be a happy camper.

When my husband came home, he’d made quite a haul. Having spent little more than $200, he’d gotten everything everyone had put on the list with the exception of perennially-elusive bookends (surprisingly hard to find second-hand). Included among the many items was one of those cute white computers with two cute little round things with cords sort of round around the metal arm, which turned out to be speakers.

The total paid for the little iMac with speakers = $25.  Whether or not that sum would ultimately turn out to be qualify as an “absurdly low price” remained to be seen.

I enlisted my 13 year old’s help in doing a preliminary investigation of the unit. Was there ANY information on it anywhere that would tell me anything about it? Turns out, the original specifications are embossed on the bottom of the base:

700 Mhz, 128mb RAM, 40gb HD

From there, a little Googling turned up a fantastically helpful and bookmark-worthy website, EveryMac.com:

The website really seems to live up to its name; they really do have every mac from what I could tell. Just check out the iMac page; the list runs from the May 6, 1998 G3/233 Bondi and runs through “Core i3″ 3.1 21.5-Inch (Late 2011) model. And it’s not just that there is a list of all the models, there’s a whole lot more. The standard specifications are easy to obtain right from the full listing with the toggle arrows on the left hand side, as shown in the snap, below, which features the basic specs for the “cute little Apple” that had found it’s way onto my kitchen counter one Saturday afternoon:

Every Mac's Listings - Example of drop down list featuring iMac G4/700 (Flat Panel)


Of course the information about my newly acquired iMac listed in brief using the drop down arrow already told me more about the system than I knew three minutes’ prior. The completeness of the lists and the detailed information they contain make the site worth bookmarking.

I referred to the complete specs listing several times during the process of transforming that “cute little Apple” into a functioning iMac G4 PowerPC with wireless internet. Of course, since I was already on the site, I wanted to see what I could see about the two Intel iMacs which had already been residents in our house.  It seems to me there is more information about them on EveryMac.com than the “About this Mac” page on my system. Maybe it’s just the format of the listing. Either way, it’s just plain helpful.

For the G4, there were a number of things that I really needed to know in order to get it working, and to determine, first of all, whether $25 was wasted or was an investment in a cute kitchen computer I’d envisioned or if it would be a funky, high-tech flowerpot-style picture frame doubling as a hefty paperweight?

Thanks to the EveryMac listing, I found out a number of important things right away. First of all, I confirmed that it is indeed a PowerPC and not an Intel Mac. I already vaguely realized this on my own, since I’d already learned that Intel Macs were first made available in 2006 and the “flower pot” models at the auction were likely older than that. The critical question for me was whether or not I’d be able to install an operating system on the machine that was remotely useful for my desired uses.

The most important thing included in the introductory text was that my particular G4 had originally shipped with the first version of Mac OS X.

EveryMac Introduction to Complete Specifications for the iMac G4/700

This seemed promising. As a bonus, this particular iMac could have “Classic” installed. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that operating system, but, If I’d ever have the inclination, at least taking a peak at the pre-Mac OS X system would be possible. I’ve read snippets here and there that there are some very well-liked programs for the earlier systems that won’t run on the Intel machines.

So, if the machine came standard with Mac OS X, my next question was, what were the machine’s outer-limit, but truly functioning capabilities? And what would maximum require? The Every Mac complete specs told me that as well. The system could be upgraded to the final version of Mac OS X Tiger, which was 10.4.11. Being relatively new to Macs – having started with Snow Leopard- all that really meant to me was that Tiger must be a cat – or few ago.

Of course any experienced Mac user reading this just fell on the floor laughing at my ignorance. Sorry, Mac geeks, but when acquiring a Mac at Snow Leopard level – especially the way I did, purchased by others to provide equipment for a project in a 48 hour decision turn around – and you’ve been on Windows since 3.11, your understanding of Apple’s cat nomenclature is necessarily nonexistent.

I’d seen Jaguar, Panther, and Tiger a number of times, in addition of course, to Leopard and Snow Leopard. All I knew for sure is that one of my friends had a 2008 Macbook Pro which had slipped with Leopard and  my 24″ iMac had shipped with Snow Leopard. That Leopard to Snow Leopard progression made obvious sense. Beyond that, I’m not enough of a feline or Apple expert to discern the logic in the OS X progression. I had to do a little detective work to nail down whether Tiger was older than Jaguar or vice versa, etc.

I found the Wikipedia article on Mac OS X included a chart of each version, complete with dates. The article helped me to solidify the naming and numbering convention for the Mac operating systems. The Roman numeral “X” is for the overall number in the version number, the second number is for the particular version or upgrade, which is where the different cat names comes in, and the updates to a particular version are noted by a third number.

So, the G4 iMac came with 10.1.2; that’s “10″ for Mac OS X, the “1″ for Cheetah, and the “2″ for the second update to Cheetah. EveryMac.com’s information notes that the G4 is capable of running 10.4.11, the “4″ is for Tiger, and “11″ is the eleventh and final upgrade to Tiger.

The next question I needed to answer was: Would a 700mhz PowerPC function reasonably, with a few upgrades, with the last updated version of Tiger – 10.4.11? I’ll answer that question in my next installment.

Meanwhile, as I noted at the outset, the rather spontaneous decision to acquire a cute little iMac from a surplus auction has taught me a lot about Macs in general. Primarily that I’ve still got a lot of learning to do. Learning about the “cat nomenclature” and versions makes clear that my knowledge still lags behind the current technology a great deal. My Intel iMac – shipped with that Snow Leopard operating system – presently 10.6.8 {Mac OS X (10) Snow Leopard (6), 8th update}, is now out of date. The newest Mac OS – Lion (10.7) – had already been released when I acquired the G4 iMac. And I see now that yet another version, Mountain Lion (10.8) is currently scheduled for release this fall. Considering that it still seems I learn new things about my Mac on a weekly basis, I wonder if I am even too ignorant to decide about an operating system upgrade. Regardless of when I do upgrade, at least the cost is not an issue. Lion is only $29.99, as was, reportedly, Snow Leopard. I am definitely ignorant about a lot of things as compared to my understanding of Windows systems, but I’m not so ignorant that I don’t know that the cost of upgrading the Mac is significantly lower than for the cost of Windows; the upgrade versions are not recommended. Current cost (on Amazon.com) of Windows Vista: $99, Windows 7: $99 – $189.

I admit, I’ve got a lot of learning to do about Macs, but besides knowing that the difference in upgrade costs is advantageous, I also know it is just one of many reasons why the learning is worthwhile.

To be continued…

5 thoughts on “On a Fluke: A Cute Little iMac (G4 PowerPC)”

  1. During early April 2012 I installed Debian Wheezy on a PowerPC eMac. Debian is a Gnu/Linux distribution. Wheezy is the current “testing” version; not cutting edge but not the boring stable version either.

    The computer had 512MB RAM which was sufficient for ordinary tasks but as I intend to use it as an in-house staging server for web applications, I added 1GB – $35 or so, if I remember correctly. Easy upgrade: required a Phillips #2 screwdriver.

    It took me a couple of tries to get the installation done correctly, complicated because I had to boot from a USB stick instead of a CD and I’d never done that before.

    I’ve brought an aging but otherwise useful computer back into service with an up-to-date suite of Free-as-in-Freedom software. When it comes to eye candy, the KDE Plasma kit is among the flashiest and glitzy desktops available. I like looking at it although I seldom need to utilize the desktop (it’s a server; mostly it sits in the corner and quietly does its work).

    All in all, I like how it’s all turned out. Getting the appropriate boot software on the memory stick was indeed a challenge but once past that hurdle it’s been falling-off-a-log easy to install, upgrade and configure software. Amongst the Ubuntu fanboys Debian has lately gained an ill-deserved reputation as being more difficult to live with. I disagree with that; as you say, learning is worthwhile and Debian is very learnable.

    1. You definitely ventured into totally unchartered territory here, for me. I must say, I have mentally toyed with the idea of playing around with Linux. I have perfectly operable hardware sitting around that I do hate to get rid of and have wondered – could I do something useful with it with a Linux install?

      If you happened to notice the sidebar, where I’d mentioned a big #FAIL on a Dell Dimension fix I decided to just give up on, I found it so hard to give up precisely because that tower and another of similar age – a 2003 Media Center from Gateway – constitute the first hardware failures I’d ever confronted. My first three computers were either traded in or given away. One of them was actually returned to me – still operating, last year. And that makes 4 functional PC towers sitting.

      Regarding the little iMac, obviously, I need to decide how it is going to be used because it isn’t being used in the way I thought it might.

      You say you are using your eMac as a server. Can you elaborate? If the little iMac could serve up stuff from other computers in our house and another operating system would enable to play video, say from those other systems, then it would be useful.

      I do think the 10.4 (Tiger) is a little beyond the 700mhz ability, even with the 1GB upgrade. And there are the security issues down the line as you mentioned.

      I will say that I am behind the curve on the USB stick installs. We are USB stick / drive challenged generally, I’ve realized.

      But, I’d ask, your efforts to install that way and your reported challenge – did it have anything to do with the master boot record doing funky things or did the install happen on an “unexpected drive”? It never would have occurred to me to wonder and maybe it is purely a Windows glitch, but a earlier this year, in doing a reformat / reinstall of Windows XP on one of my son’s computers, I’d left the USB network adapter plugged in (didn’t give it another thought), and when Windows XP was initializing, it decided that plugged in piece of hardware was an actual drive (like a hard drive) and re-ordered / re-lettered ALL of the drives on the system. It was a total mess – there wasn’t even a boot.ini file available. I had to start from scratch when I discovered this – I’d reinstalled all but one driver.

      I do enjoy the learning, although I will say, I’ve had less time for it than I used to. And the iMac was a fluke, as I noted. I wonder – IS it worth learning a third operating system? I say a third, but that’s a bit limited. I have no plans to move on from Windows XP to Vista / 7 or 8 – we’re slowly moving to Macs as we upgrade. I don’t know, maybe Linux is a learnable 2nd for the old stuff?

  2. The H sez:

    Mozilla has moved to block the Java plugin in Firefox running on versions 10.5 and earlier of Mac OS X, as these versions of Apple’s operating system will not be getting an update to the installed Java on their systems.

    This is not the only security issue facing an un-updated operating system.

    1. Hey Matt,
      Thanks for stopping by this site. I really appreciate the information and I’m going to check it out – I definitely have my concerns about the longevity of the system and you’re quite right to point it out.

      I definitely need to go on to the next in the series on this – it’ll have to be after the primary election! LOL! – because I haven’t done that yet. But it has not been picture perfect, for sure.

  3. No time to delve into this Mac changeover, but I’m glad you are bloggin info becuz I probably will do this eventually. My wife and daughters all runs MACs, It just makes sense to learn it! Randy

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