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Article: I’m Still Here: Revisiting the G5

by on July 11, 2011

If computers are trucks, then this is the biggest, meanest, most powerful vintage truck out there…

I had an interesting impulse purchase the other day—a Power Mac G5. My workplace was selling them for dirt-cheap because they were upgrading to Adobe Creative Suite 5, which, does not support any PowerPC Mac. Needless to say, I couldn’t pass it up, and have been slowly learning about what’s still compatible with the last of the Power Macs. Also slightly funny—I owned the first Power Mac tower, the 8100, and I also now own the last. This computer was fitted with the dual-2.7GHz G5 processors, 1GB RAM, 250GB hard drive, a 16X DVD+R DL/DVD±RW/CD-RW “SuperDrive”, and an ATI Radeon 9650 (AGP 8X Pro/256MB) video card. Needless to say, five years ago, this thing didn’t mess around.

The Power Mac G5 continues a long line of Apple products that were pure power in their days—often big, bulky, and still well-designed, my particular model sold for about $3600 when new, much cheaper than the $8500 Quadra 900 or the $10,000 Mac IIfx, some of my favorites of the workhorse vintage Macs.

Power Mac G5

Wired and Tired

The first step involved getting these machines running a recent operating system. The hard drives were cleared and the original Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger system was loaded when I got it, so I decided to opt for Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard. I had an unused copy lying around, and it ran pretty well on both my first-generation Mac mini and my dad’s Power Mac G4 (MDD). Additionally, it had the cleaner interface more like Snow Leopard and can run most modern software that isn’t Intel-specific.

Unfortunately, this particular machine did not have the optional AirPort Extreme or Bluetooth cards installed—I did get an AirPort antenna with it, but the Bluetooth one was lost years ago (or never came with it?) Digging through my parts bin, I found an AirPort Extreme card and Bluetooth module from some other 2005-era Mac and installed them. AirPort worked flawlessly, but without the antenna, Bluetooth was a no-go. The Power Mac G5 is a Faraday cage, after all. Looking online, the antennas are quite expensive—if you can find them. A USB Bluetooth module would have run about $15-$30, but I was hoping I could find another solution. A friend suggested I give a paperclip a try, since they used these as makeshift AirPort antennas to replace stolen ones in a media editing lab. Sure enough, it worked—not the most elegant, but who’s looking around the back of one of these, anyway? Maybe I could replace it with the SIM-ejector tool from an iPhone 3G down the road for an all-Apple arrangement.

My Bluetooth Antenna

The install was really fast for an erase-and-install. I don’t recall Leopard installing from scratch in about 20-25 minutes, but maybe I’m overly optimistic. After Leopard, and a few software updates later, I was running the last operating system (and patches) that Apple thinks this machine should run. iWork ’09 and iLife ’09 installed without a hitch, but are obviously incompatible with the libraries and data created by the most modern versions, which is what my MacBook Pro is running. I did get Safari 5 and iTunes 10.3.1 loaded, so the browsing and media experiences were pretty close to my MacBook Pro.

The computer was a bit sluggish, so I decided that I should get some more RAM. Visiting my longtime geek-parts site,, I saw that RAM for this was going to be about $50 for 2GB (bringing it up to 3GB, since I have to install in pairs). I decided to check out Best Buy for grins since I was doing some grocery shopping and saw that they had the RAM for a similar price…or so I thought. I bought 2 1GB sticks and headed home.

Loss of Memory and a Hot Head

Of course it seemed too good to be true—I picked up DDR2 RAM (204-pin) and the G5 uses DDR RAM (184-pin), so I returned it, saw that they were charging $50 per GB and placed my order with Newegg. Still, with 1GB of RAM (1/4 of what I’m using on my MacBook Pro), the G5 seems to still be pretty speedy.

The fans kick in quite often, but I know that’s the nature of the G5. Apple never broke the 3GHz barrier with these machines, and instead added processors (and later cores) to try to compensate when PCs were running at over 3GHz. The G5 processors also ran incredibly hot, so the G5 featured nine lower-RPM fans to keep things cool. This was Apple’s trick to make it quieter—more fans, running slower = about the noise of a few faster fans, but better circulation. My model was also outfitted with a liquid cooling system, much like a car (in fact then-GM’s Delphi made the first batch of these, later replaced with a more reliable Panasonic version).

Liquid Cooling System

In some ways, the G5 demonstrates the futility of the “Megahertz Myth” that Apple had been touting for years. Its successor, the Mac Pro ran cooler and faster and is still hovering at just slightly faster. Heck, even my MacBook Pro was benchmarked faster and runs about 300MHz slower.

Flash in the Pan

I hate Adobe Flash as much as the next person, but sometimes you still need it. I use ClickToFlash to only use it when I need it. In its infinite wisdom, Adobe decided that 10.1 will be the last version of Flash to run on PowerPC-based Macs. It’s not much to write home about, especially on most G4 machines, but I thought I’d give it a try. Visiting Hulu, I was greeted with a you-need-to-update-Flash dialogue box that was within the Flash player. I decided to play along, and it decided to download 10.3, which obviously wouldn’t work. Annoyed it couldn’t detect what system I was running, I had to dig through the Adobe software archives to find 10.1. After getting it installed, online video seems to work pretty well, even if the computer starts to sound like a jet plane.

Playing Nicely

I find it funny since I always gravitate towards a desktop Mac being my do-everything powerhouse computer and a laptop good for on-the-go. Since getting the MacBook Pro (replacing a Mac mini G4/iBook G3 combo), and a subsequent iPad, I have found that my laptop gets its use for everything that is either too impractical or impossible on the iPad. With the G5, I have a computer that feels about the same speed for most basic tasks, has more storage, and doesn’t seem to run as hot as the crowded laptop components in the MacBook Pro, but it’s not exactly more powerful, and within the next few weeks, it will be even more outdated on the software front.

This leads me to the question of how to use both machines. Right now, I plan on using the G5 for any sort of web browsing and multimedia tasks (mostly SchwarzTech Radio), but I can also do some quick edits of the site and whip up some graphics.

I also backed up my iTunes Library so I can have a redundant copy of my music and not worry about keeping other computers awake to use it. I’ve started playing with rsync and Automator and arRsync to keep the two libraries matching up. Maybe iTunes Match will still support the G5 in the fall, but I’m not holding my breath.

Lessons Learned

Although the computer came with the 2005-era white keyboard and mouse (not the Pro models), I couldn’t use that for long periods of time, so I moved my wired aluminum keyboard and Magic Mouse to the G5 (it does not have support for inertial scrolling, which now feels weird). I wanted to use the Magic Trackpad I picked up discounted with it, but it requires 10.6.something. Therefore, the MacBook Pro will use the wireless aluminum keyboard (which was supposed to go with my iPad, but never gets used) and Magic Trackpad. Should be fun with Lion.

I actually picked up another for my dad, which will be a bit of an upgrade for his light email and web browsing. Currently he has a Power Mac G4 (MDD) that was released around the time of the first G5s. It’s got 1.5GB RAM, a few hard drives we’ve added over the years, and a USB 2.0 card. It’s a good computer, but struggles with some things and a G5 with two processors running at about twice the speed each will be a good update. It’s been trouble-free since it was new, and we’re still brainstorming what to do with it (probably an iTunes server/backup computer). With his iPod touch, Apple TV, and PowerBook G4, he has a pretty capable, albeit vintage, stable of Apple products.

The Power Mac G5 is pretty obsolete, if you ask Apple, Adobe, Microsoft, and many other software developers, but with the right combination of software and expectations, still holds up quite well even today.

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