When things break down

Early last week I started to have problems with my G5. While it always had a slight tendency to get stuck in “gray screen” (early open firmware) it now started to get stuck in “black screen” (no HD bootup). First day it happened once before work, at the same time it started to get random system freezes. Then I had to restart three times after work (and more freezes). Next day it took some 1o tried before work and after work it didn’t react anymore. It was dead and the “usual suspects” like resetting PRAM and switching HDD to a Mac did absolutely nothing.

Two years after buying it (almost to the day) my G5 finally kicked the bucket.

No worries. I have a spare G5 for this situation (a Powermac 7.3 at 2.3 Ghz; not water cooled). I got it out of storage after a few days, inserted the SSD from the broken one and it worked. If your hardware is broken you can ask to change keyfile from the broken machine to a new one for free, which is what I did. After some 20 minutes it arrived and I was all set.

Then it suddenly frooze. And after that it refused to boot the SSD. And the old Mac HDD that I had just tested before inserting the SSD refused to boot too. And just like the old G5 I tried the usual suspects before having to come to the conclusion that this machine had broken down as well. I had only used it for 40 minutes. Talk about bad luck!

After that, I did not feel like pushing my luck. Though I think the culprit is the SSD disk (for reasons I will explain below) I just don’t want any more “heartache” for a while. So I went to Ebay and found a store that’s specializing in refurbishing old hardware which sold a Mac Mini G4 at 1.5 GHz and 64 MB VRAM (the so called “silent upgrade” edition, the best of the PPC Mac Minis) for about 100 euros. So I bought it and it arrived from Germany after a few days.

Though it’s not as powerful as a G5, it does make a lot of sense “downgrading” to it anyway.

First, it’s one of the best supported MorphOS machines out there, and it supports Warp3D thanks to the fact that it uses a Radeon 9200 graphics card. This means that some legacy Amiga software (i.e. games) can run on it, unlike the later and more powerful graphics card where MorphOS Team dropped that support.

Second, a G5 is overkill for MorphOS. Because a G5 is 64 bit, multicore and have lots of memory MacOS flies on it about as fast as MorphOS. This is because MorphOS is 32 bit, can only use one core and at most 1.5 GB RAM. It simply can not use the full spectrum of the hardware like MacOS. It’s still fast, but not that much faster. A Mac Mini G4 on the other hand only have one core and can only use a maximum of one GB RAM. Even a fresh installation of MacOS runs painfully slow, while MorphOS not only flies, it flies faster even than on a G5. MorphOS can use every bit of the machine and thus really gives this old hardware new life.

Third, a G5 is a power hog and runs really hot. This is because of a design “flaw” from IBM who desperately tried to add more power to the PPC processor in order to please Apple (it didn’t). Even if you don’t mind the power bill it will still be noisy, running the fans at full speed every time you do something that requires the CPU to work for its money. Then I havn’t mentioned the size and weight of the thing. It’s huge! A Mac Mini on the other hand is small and run less hot (meaning less noise) and is thus less in the way at home and also a lot more portable.

The downside of course is: less power (no more 1080p movies, “only” 720p, or Cherry Darling games at best quality), less RAM and less ability to switch hardware (the Mac Mini are not meant to be opened up). So it is still a step down in a sense. But it will be interesting to see how much you can actually push this system.

I’m not saying that using my G5 was a mistake. I had a lot of fun with it, and it’s still a great system to run MorphOS on. I am just looking for a new perspective because of my misfortune. If you want to try out a G5 I say go for it!

When I ordered the Mac Mini it would ship with 80 GB HDD, which is not that much nowadays. However, since I have several computers that share a lot of stuff like pictures, movies, mp3:s and such I got the idea of buying a 2.5″ 1 TB external USB HDD. They are not expensive (mine cost about 70 euros) and does not require an external power supply. Note that these do not work with a Powerbook due to it’s very weak USB ports (which is why I havn’t turned my Powerbook into my new desktop). I did have to use third party software under Windows to format it to FAT32, the only truly universal disk file system that can handle larger HDD:s, though. Windows (7) does not give you this format option by default. So now I keep my interchangable files in that HDD and mostly just programs in the internal HDD, which is not nearly as much as 80 GB.

One of the good things about MorphOS is that it’s very simple to backup and restore: simply copy all files to a HDD, and then copy them back into the new system. It doesn’t even have to be on the same hardware, but if you copy from and to different hardware you will have to change some settings so they are correct afterwards.

However, before my hardware malfunction I did not have a fresh backup. So my SSD had a whole lot of new files I wanted to save. To do that I bought a rather cheap SATA disk USB dock. It can use both 2.5″ and 3.5″ disks which is what I needed (and cost about 12 euros). So I inserted the SSD in that and connected it to my Ibook (which has good USB ports unlike the Powerbook). At first I though it wasn’t working until I noticed it did something interesting.

It merged the Ibooks system: and work: partition with the external SSD disk ones. I have no idea how that works, but it seemed that everything that wasn’t included in the Ibook was added by the USB disk. When I copied over everything from the disk to the backup external HDD drive it kept the settings from the Ibook, but with some newer games I didn’t copy to it and a lot of downloaded files from work:downloads. So I was able to save everything this way (save for a few settings I needed to redo).

However, when copying I had problems with the SSD freezing every now and then which required a reboot. This reminds me of the freezing I experienced before my G5:s started to break down. This led me to the conclusion that the SSD somehow must have broken something in the machine, like the HDD controller. I have read that SSD:s, especially those that are a few years old now are not too reliable. I did imagine mine breaking down one day, but not taking the whole computer with it. Let alone two of them! I might be wrong there of course since there is no good way of testing this hypothesis but I still want to warn people out there that this might be the couse of my problems.

Right now I’m typing this blog on my Mac Mini in my way too messy workspace (which is why there are no pictures in this blog post today, sorry). I wanted to write about this earlier but work and our baby has kept me busy with not MorphOS related stuff. It might be a while before I post something again, but like I said, I do look forward to see what this little piggy can do at the market :)