Should I buy a used 12" G4 Powerbook as a stopgap machine?
June 9, 2008 3:33 PM   Subscribe

Macfilter: Thinking of buying a 12" G4 Powerbook, is this irrational thinking?

I need a new laptop, quite badly. However, it really is for nothing more than sitting at our local haunt, in the living room with my girlfriend while she watches TV or friends houses that have Wi-Fi etc and browsing the internet, showing them photographs or things I'm working on.

I was kind of hoping that today Steve Jobs was also going to announce the much talked about but never appearing line of aluminium Macbooks which I had every intention of buying the cheapest model. But since I still feel they are around the corner, I don't want to buy the current plastic Macbook if in a month or two it's going to be out of date - especially since I can't bare to think I might spend £700 ($1400) on something that's just used for the internet. So is it irrational to buy something like a 2006 G4 just because it's cheap at £250 ($500) just as a stopgap. I'd only buy the top spec model, 1.5 G4 PowerPC - and I realise that it's totally redundant technology but it's only to use for the next year or so.

Could I even run Leopard on it? What kind of drawbacks would it bring other than things being optimised for Intel chips now? Are there any users that can testify it's merits or it's weaknesses?

I have no intention of going back to a Windows based machine so that debate doesn't even come into it. The other two machines I use for Graphic Design are also Macs.
posted by stackhaus23 to Computers & Internet (24 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
You'll be absolutely fine with a G4 powerbook. Until the screen died, my G3 iBook was still doing regular duty as my main machine.. Sure, it could be a bear to do any video/image editing, but otherwise it was fine. I would guess that you'll run in to very little intel-only issues so far, too.. but that will change over time.

I think your biggest issue in the long run might be convincing yourself to spend the money on a new machine later, as the G4 will do everything you want.. except perhaps the work stuff you mentioned.
posted by mbatch at 3:42 PM on June 9, 2008

Leopard runs more-or-less fine on my 12" G4 from '04. With the memory maxed out, there aren't any performance issues, especially with simple web browsing. Flash is a little draggy on Safari and Firefox, but it's not a dealbreaker. There are two major problems I've run into since installing Leopard: Photoshop 7 doesn't work with it and there's a bug in the Apple DVD player that crashes the system. Some sort of video card incompatibility. Mplayer and VLC work fine, though.
posted by mr_roboto at 3:43 PM on June 9, 2008

I use a 1.2gHz G4 iBook with 768 MB RAM (typing on it right now) and I have no meaningful problems with it. I run Panther though. The hard drive is a bit small -- I'm constantly working on that last gig -- but it keeps me deleting unnecessary crap so it's not the worst thing in the world. I've had it for 3.5 years and never needed service. I'm sure it would be fine for you.
posted by loiseau at 3:47 PM on June 9, 2008

I'm running a first-gen bottom-of-the-line 1.25 GHz PPC Mini with 1 GB of RAM and Leopard as my primary PC. I haven't noticed any trouble aside from a little choppiness in Flash videos. Surfing and e-mail are perfect, VLC is smooth on anything I throw at it, Photoshop, Virtual PC, Garageband, all fine. I haven't run into any Intel-only software yet. I expect to squeeze another year or two out of this box, so I'm sure your 1.5 would more than suit your needs - I would suggest going to at least 768 MB of RAM, though, and I wouldn't expect much battery life.
posted by pocams at 4:02 PM on June 9, 2008

Sorry, I should have said that I wouldn't expect much battery life simply because of the laptop's age, not because of Leopard or any of the performance factors.
posted by pocams at 4:03 PM on June 9, 2008

My 1.5 Ghz 12" G4 PowerBook runs Leopard beautifully. I've got the RAM maxed at 1.25 GB, and I did have to replace the battery after the original's life dwindled to just 15 minutes or so.

The latest iMovie can't be installed on it, let alone run (if you have the new iLife you can download the previous version of iMovie instead); the current Garage Band is pretty sluggish. I've had no problems with any other software. ITunes, iPhoto, and Photoshop Elements 6, as well as less resource-intensive software like browsers and Mail, all run fine.

It's rumored that the upcoming Snow Leopard Mac OS X release will be Intel-only, if that matters to you.
posted by magicbus at 4:23 PM on June 9, 2008

It's unwise to make a purchase today based on your speculation of what Apple might come out with in a year or so. Also bear in mind that 12" G4s are slightly inflated in value, because they're the last 12" laptop Apple made; for some people that makes a difference.

You can run Leopard on a fast-ish G4 (got it running on a Mini here at home). It's fine.

If you want to buy something cheap and light that's basically just an Internet station, also consider a Linux-based Eee or Wind (I'm not going to suggest you install OS X on an Eee, but it has been done).
posted by adamrice at 4:27 PM on June 9, 2008

I say no. My mom has a G4 12" and it is dog slow. I had a PB 17" 1.5ghz and I wince everytime i think about how slow OS X was back then. The Intels simply blow them out of the water. I will never touch a PPC mac again.

10.6, coming out next year will not support the G4's.

Find a used Macbook, I'm sure you can find some for around $600-700.
posted by wongcorgi at 4:30 PM on June 9, 2008

I'd skip out on the G4 Powerbooks. They run hot and slow. You will have a miserable experience. Consider looking for a used or refurbed MacBook, instead.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 4:35 PM on June 9, 2008

It really depends on your needs. For what you describe, a g4 powerbook would work beautifully. I've been using a 5 year old iBook g4 for everything up to and including video & audio editing (albiet a little limited for these purposes). Just make sure you don't have any dead pixels and check into the various recalls and make sure the box you get isn't in those batches.

Well, my 5 year old iBook runs like a champ when compared to my newish work PC. I bet an intel would be snappy fast though...
posted by emptyinside at 4:40 PM on June 9, 2008

As long as you aren't buying the laptop expecting it to work as well as a brand-new Macbook, I think you'll be alright. I've done something similar.. bought a machine that I told myself would be for just basic web browsing and e-mail, but eventually I wanted it to do more. I got upset and sold the thing and bought something for a few more bucks that did everything I wanted.
posted by pete0r at 5:27 PM on June 9, 2008

I'm commenting using my primary machine: a 12" 867MHz G4 Powerbook with 1.12 GB of RAM, running 10.5.3. It's fine. Flash is, as has been mentioned above, not the best, but otherwise it's been a champ. I've dropped it several times and, while somewhat dented, it just keeps on keeping on, and is used hours and hours a day. If you really just want to surf a bit, play some tunes, etc. then it's completely solid for that, even at 867 Mhz. I'm sure the faster ones would be more pleasing to you.

New batteries go for about $100, last I bought one. I got a free one once, though, because there was a recall... you should check, if you go ahead and buy the 12", to see if its battery happens to qualify for a replacement from Apple.

Leopard is, as I said, fine. No translucent menu bar for me, due to lack of horsepower, but that's OK. Just be sure to max out the RAM. You don't want to be running it at 512 or 640 or whatever came stock in the model you buy. This will probably entail purchasing a single 1 GB stick for $60ish.
posted by mumkin at 5:30 PM on June 9, 2008

The Apple UK refurb store has 2.1GHz Macbooks for £599. So really, you're talking a £349 ($700) difference between the Powerbook G4 and the Macbook.

That £349 buys you several important things:
1) A full year's warranty.
2) A fresh battery. Unless you have a fresh battery in your Powerbook, you'll likely only get a c couple of hours of runtime, whereas you'll get 4-5 out of a new Macbook.
3) A processor that is many times faster. You'll have trouble with video on the Powerbook -- flash video and HD resolutions will cause problems. The Macbook will do just about whatever you throw at it.
4) The hard drive is likely to be twice as large and will be new. It's also easily upgradable. The Powerbook's hard drive is difficult to replace, and who knows how long it'll last beyond its original 2.5 years of service.
5) A screen that's not only higher resolution (1280x800) but also much brighter. The 1024x768 on the Powerbook 12" is usable, but browsing's a much better experience on the Macbook.
6) The RAM in the Macbook can be upgraded to 4GB, many times that of the Powerbook.

The Macbook will be a much, much better experience. If the £349 isn't the end of the world, it's a much better deal.
posted by eschatfische at 5:51 PM on June 9, 2008

12" pb here, 1 GHz, 768 MB RAM. 10.4.11. I surf, I email, I watch youtube videos, I use InDesign, a little Photoshop. It might be slower than a Macbook, but it's not so slow that I have to go do something else while it loads a program or does something in PhotoShop or INDD. It does not run particularly hot. It's...four years old, approximately. I bought it used. I have replaced the battery and upgraded the hard drive. It does everything I need it to do. It's a champ.

I haven't upgraded to Leopard because I'm lazy; I'm cheap; I just haven't felt the need, based on how I use this laptop.
posted by rtha at 5:53 PM on June 9, 2008

I just bought a 15" 1Ghz Titanium G4, stuck a gig of RAM in it from Data Memory Systems (, and put Leopard in. Love it. It's perfect for what I need it for: IM, Word, Excel, and Internets (videos are a bit choppy if I don't let them buffer, but that means waiting for a minute. No big.)
posted by beaucoupkevin at 6:24 PM on June 9, 2008

If you have limited needs and have never used a MacBook (or MBP) you'll be fine with a 12in G4 -- though I'd be looking for a cheap max-RAMmed iBook at something closer to £200. If you have, you'll just be pining for some of that sweet Intel juice. I used a friend's MacBook for about 15 minutes; as soon as I can justify pay for the upgrade, I'll be retiring my iBook.

That alu MacBook may never come. And whatever you buy new won't be as cool as the next model.
posted by holgate at 7:57 PM on June 9, 2008

Oh, mine (the 867MHz) only has USB1 ports by the way. Not sure when Apple introduced USB2 to the 12" line, but you might want to pay attention to that if you're likely to want to use any peripherals that need the speed.
posted by mumkin at 7:57 PM on June 9, 2008

I retired my 1.25ghz 12" G4 last Christmas when I upgraded to a shiny new MBP. Even though the speed is nice, I really miss the compact form factor. I upgraded it because it was starting to feel sluggish doing crazy development work -- compiling from source, running the Eclipse IDE, editing huge graphics in Photoshop. If all you're doing is surfing, chatting and wordprocessing, you'll be more than happy with a G4. I'd maxed out the RAM in mine (1.25gb), but otherwise it was all stock. I still got ~2hrs per charge battery life, but I took very good care of the battery.
posted by Alterscape at 8:14 PM on June 9, 2008

I have had mine for 40 months now, and I've only recently been itching to get a new one. It works fine with leopard and the size is perfect. It does run hot sometimes though.
posted by senseigmg at 9:50 PM on June 9, 2008

Leopard will run on a G4, but not a G3. While you never know, the word on the street is that 10.6 probably will be Intel-only. You could probably get another 2 or 3 years from a 12" G4 PB with maxed out RAM; I agree that video is likely to be a problem. Youtube stresses my dual 1GHz G4 Powermac desktop to the point of making the fan come on and eating all of one processor and most of another.
posted by ikkyu2 at 11:52 PM on June 9, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks for all your replies. The majority seem to think I'll get along ok with it, especially on a temporary level. I currently have a G5 Dual Processor PowerMac with 5gb RAM and a 1.83 Intel Dual Core Mac Mini with 2gb RAM so if I need anything that requires a little muscle I've got a fallback.

The video thing is a little annoying as that's probably something I'd use it for a lot on the train and didn't think about although, most people say they are fine in VLC etc

Thanks again! I think I still need to think it over.
posted by stackhaus23 at 12:28 AM on June 10, 2008

Keep in mind you could also buy a Macbook now and the resale value in a few months would hold pretty well to turn around and sell it and buy the newer ones when they inevitably come out. Even if you lost £150 on the deal it would be cheaper than spending £250 on a used laptop with likely poor performance. Usually if you follow MacRumors,9 to 5 Mac, and other rumor sites you can get a good heads up when Apple is preparing an announcement, which could help you decide when to sell your new Macbook. If you can swing the initial cost this is the route I would go.
posted by genial at 4:31 AM on June 10, 2008

I don't know if this helps or not, but I worked at an Apple Store last year when I was in college and whenever someone would bring in a 12" PowerBook G4 *ALL* the employees would jump all over it. If, for some reason, the owner was looking to buy a new laptop there was at least one person there ready to offer to buy the G4. Everyone thought it was just a great little machine.
posted by joshwebb at 7:03 AM on June 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

I will sadly confirm the rumours that the iBook runs hot... during the dog days of summer I have to will myself to shut it down because it can singlehandedly heat the room beyond what I can stand.
posted by loiseau at 8:02 AM on June 10, 2008

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