PowerBook rot

Back in 2003 I wrote an essay on the dreaded syndrome of Windows rot. As fate would have it, I am still using that same machine, and it’s been quite stable since then. In a year or so, we’ll start hearing opinions about the relative rot-resistance of Vista versus XPSP2. But meanwhile, I’m plagued by a different syndrome: PowerBook rot.

Both of my PowerBooks are afflicted. About six months ago, my 2001-era Titanium G4 began to suffer sporadic WiFi signal loss along with the kinds of narcolepsy and spontaneous shutdowns that many new Intel Macs have exhibited. I’ve tried all the obvious things, including reseating the Airport card and resetting the NVRAM and PMU, but to no avail. The WiFi is negotiable, I could try a different card or just use the machine at home on a wired LAN, but if I can’t fix the worsening narcolepsy and shutdowns it’s all over. Something’s gone funky on the motherboard, I guess, and this machine’s too old and beat up to justify replacing it.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, my 2005-era G4 caught the spontaneous shutdown bug. I wondered if it might be protesting my new job, but when I noticed half my RAM was missing, I diagnosed lower memory slot failure. So now that machine is away having its motherboard replaced, a procedure that appears to be suspiciously routine for my local Apple store.

It’s always dangerous to extrapolate from anecdotal experience, and there’s never good data on this kind of thing, but I must say that while researching these problems I’ve seen a lot of bitching about PowerBooks. Is it just me, or are these things not built to last?

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34 thoughts on “PowerBook rot

  1. I have a ti G4 powerbook 1Ghz and its been fine, only problem is the fans are getting noisy coz theyre dusty

  2. I have the same computer as the above poster. Mine’s perfect, expect for a missing key I popped off in the dark during Hurricane Katrina. I can tell it’s aging though– hope it last a year or two more…

  3. I haven’t had one last for more than two years and the last six months is generally plagued with various annoyances. I ride these things pretty hard, though. I also despise the little pock marks that develop in the area under my palms.

    On a semi-related note, my 85W MagSafe power adapter ($80 retail) just melted due to, I believe, running Parallels. Pictures here:


    I think I remember reading something about Cory Doctorow buying the latest and greatest in the {Power,Mac}Book line once a year due to how hard he is on the machine. There’s almost a cultural of acceptance, which is just kind of bizarre.

    I can’t complain too loudly – I’ve been through three of them now and am just barely starting to consider Ubuntu as an alternative. I expect to own at least one more expensive piece of Apple hardware.

  4. A suspicious post for a new Microsoft employee. They must have hired him for a reason. Just saying keep doing what you are doing, just let us pay you instead didn’t make much sense to me. Of course I am not questioning the truthfulness of the report, just the selection and anecdotal value. By switching to Microsoft, Jon created for himself half a billion opportunity for conflict of interest, and he should just abstain from any topic in which Microsoft has an interest. That would probably require a change to gardening as the main topic for this blog. Sorry Jon, you had a great blog but your independence now is out of question. That is, that you can have any.

  5. Same situation here. Got a reconditioned G4 about a year ago, and it fried its motherboard about a month ago. The local Apple store was very quick to realize it was the motherboard — they obviously see lots of it every day. These things are not well-built, which is very disappointing given how much they cost.

  6. My PB G4 667MHz went crazy ever since I upgraded the hard drive. I did it on my own and there was some issue with the “pinched cable” which caused the machine to not boot up. It lasted for over 4 years. On the other hand the iBook G4 800MHz has been sturdier although I have not tinkered with the hard disk for this one. I use an external firewire drive. In my experience the iBook’s are a lot tougher than the Powerbook’s.

  7. Questioning the independence of Jon Udell is a foolish line to take. Just because he asks a question of other Mac users does not mean that his new position “made him do it.”

    My evidence is also anecdotal, as I have observed other Mac users who have complained of motherboard repairs to their PowerBooks. I think Mike’s comment is correct: for the premium that one spends on these machines, it is remarkable to see such a low quality build.

    Personally, I don’t own a Mac, as I have found the price premium to be a bit much for performance I can get elsewhere.

  8. Is it just me, or are these thin

    The backlight started to go out on my G4 perhaps six months ago. It just would not come back on (sometimes) after the machine went to sleep. Then the backlight just flat-out stopped working. But it happened because a) I am hard on my laptops and b) the dog knocked it onto the floor.

    I scored another another G4 from a co-worker who had moved up to a MacBook Pro and it is a) in much better shape than my G4 and b) still a reliable laptop. I have of course moved up to a MacBook Pro of my own so the G4 just does not get much use, now.

    I’d say it depends on how it’s used.

  9. Hey Jon, got some super positive feedback on your Power School podcast…and, just got a Mac for my kid…wanna do a longitudinal study?

  10. 2 more tiny data points… I had similar vintage Powerbooks in my last job – as of April 2006 when I left they had not exhibited such meltdowns.I’m not recalling if there was a small battery on the logic board, but in older macs when those failed, very weird things happened.

    I’ve been laptop only since the late 1990s, now primarily on a MAcBookPro… My vintage still in-use personal laptops are two old iBooks – a 2000 one that went with me across New Zealand/Australia, now running OSX with 384 Mb RAM and airport card still working great; another 2003 one that has been very solid with the exception of a replaced CD drive.

    Now, about the 2004 Compaq Persario supposedly running XP on its 3rd battery and needs a yank of a USB wireless gizmo on every reboot and dies when put to sleep…

    Of course like others, I tend to extrapolate my own experiences across a wide swath, would be curious how such anecdotes can be aggregated to something more global?

  11. See – this is the beauty of blogging and online discussion forums (used to be news groups) combined with good search technology. Before your complaint would have probably gone into the black hole of Apple support and nobody would have known if there was a trend afoot. But now your post is acting as a focal point for the information. It provides power to end users that wasn’t there before. It can also provide power to companies who learn how to harness it for good.

  12. I’ve had what I consider more than my fair share of Apple problems over the last couple of years, including one of those discolored MacBooks and a PowerBook G4 with a dead ram slot and a screen hinge problem.While Steve Jobs might occasionally drive a product to perfection, the MacBook is not one of them. If Apple wants to continue to get premium prices for both their hardware and software, they are going to have to show customers more than just marketing hype. I know that Apple can deliver the absolutely best products on earth when they put their mind (Steve’s) to it, but you have to wonder where the company’s focus is when your customers create sites like “Another Crashbook”.

    That’s from http://viewfromthemountain.typepad.com/applepeels/2006/11/wheres_the_inno.html – the blog of a former Apple salesman, whose latest post touches on the dodgy behaviour by VPs. He’s a lifelong fan of Apple, but can also clearly see where the problems lie.

  13. You have to be aware that people like me will cynically think you watering down your old complaints about MS together with instead complaining about Apple is connected to MS being your new employer. It may even be affecting your views without you realising. Either way, I’m dropping udell from my RSS feeds to avoid being annoyed in the future. Farewell.

  14. I have a 15″ 1.5GHz PowerBook that shows the narcoleptic behaviour (I have dubbed it S3 or Sudden Sleep Syndrome). In my case I have narrowed it down to the temp sensor underneath the trackpad which suddenly spikes causing the system to send a sleep signal. Apple won’t acknowledge this issue and the only recourse is sending it in for a full replacement of the top case. And that won’t really fix it because it can happen again!

  15. I had a lower memory slot issue on my mid-2005 G4 PowerBook as well (although mine happened right out of the gate). Took a while to diagnose, since I wasn’t missing RAM, I was just crashing apps and the box if I was running a lot of programs or doing large downloads. Took it to my local Apple repair shop where they, too, seemed awfully familiar with the problem.

    Next issue for me looks like it will be the touchpad going out….

  16. Well I have a 12″ PowerBook bought way back in 2003 and it’s pretty beat up now: scratched, dented and pock marked. It takes quite a beating and is in use all the time (the joys of having the 12″ size). It hasn’t shown any really bad signs of rot expect for running hotter and louder but I chalk that up to what Martin said, fans are probably pretty dusty. Though there does seem to be some occasional issues with waking from/going to sleep. The only thing that seems to be showing up is massive OS rot – after lots of upgrades, I need to do a clean install next version. I have to say the 12″ PowerBooks were built like little tanks and are quite sturdy little buggers.

  17. I am a refuge from the black hole of Apple customer support.
    Thank you for sending a search party. I have stories to tell.

    My MB has been replaced once and the new replacement MB also
    has the problem… but Apple refuses to support me again unless
    I re-purchase my 2GB of RAM from Apple for $600. That feels
    like extortion.

    Th consumer awareness of this problem of the defective RAM slot
    (in Powerbook G4 models spanning several years) is growing not

    I suspect a manufacturing defect causes one of several different
    manifestations of the problems as described here:

    Apple may be changing the contents of this document but verifying is
    not easy with the “wayback machine” due to their strict robots.txt
    policies that disallow the contents of the forums to be archived.

    The acknowledgement from Apple is somewhat misleading in that Apple
    would have you believe the problem is limited to a small batch of
    computers within a specific range of serial numbers. This is patently
    false. I recommend checking your Powerbook.

    In reality, any of you could have a defective motherboard in any laptop
    enclosure (independent of that enclosure’s serial number). The serial
    numbers are on the enclosure not the motherboards.

    For example, if you had a motherboard replacement in the lifetime of
    your Powerbook G4, then you could have been given a MB with the defect.
    This happened to me.

    If you purchased a refurb, you could have the problem and not be within
    the “officially defective” serial numbers. This also happened to me.

    I recommend going to the System Profiler and see if you have the same
    amount of memory that you originally purchased (i.e. the amount that
    you *think* you have). Note, that from one boot to the next, the
    capacity could vary depending on environmental factors. So one day you
    have 2GB and the next day you only have 1GB, or even 1.5GB is possible.

    See this site for a petition: http://lowermemoryslot.editkid.com/

    I found a couple of sites that “the affected” may find useful:


    I read somewhere that Wolf Popper has been involved in consumer
    protection from Apple’s desire to ignore real problems:


    Hopefully, you do not have the problem… Its a real pain.


  18. None of these things are built to last. In my small experience the the IBM and the Apple seemed better built than some others I have handled.

    Apple, with good reason, knows exactly what the failure rate of it’s hardware is and has built this into the price structure. It’d be worse for you if it wasn’t routine. Look on the bright side – there is an Apple store to take it to.

  19. A Powerbook from 2001 that is approaching the end of its useful life? Wow. That’s long, you’re lucky. A 2004 PB that needs some hardware servicing (hey, just replacing the mother board is how all the repairs are done these days, it seems. Of course it’s routine). What’s unusual?

    I’ve had three Powerbooks starting with the 100, and a couple of desktops; all needed servicing and repairs. It’s a pain. But is this any different for other portable users? I doubt it. At work I’ve used a series of portables from a well known brand, running XP. They last a year (my most recent 8 months), then they go for reconditioning. They get max. three years, then they are junked. I have a new one awaiting me next week when I return to work. For a change, this time it’s an Apple…

    Moreover, your post will only draw a series of complaints and a list of people with an axe to grind over their hardware woes and perceived poor quality of (in this case, Apple) support. Given the context of your new job, I find the juxtaposition rather naïve, to say the least. I agree with a couple of others here and although the “unsubscribe” button is too extreme a response just yet, will screen carefully forthcoming posts – which is a pity because up until now I’ve considered your writing to be at the cutting edge.

  20. This happened to me this year.
    I had a 14″ iBook G4 with Firewire problems. Took it in, Firewire was fixed, but they broke the CD drive. Took it in, CD got fixed, but they broke the Ethernet. After the third time they gave up and replaced it with a Macbook.

    I think they’re starting to run out of (good) PowerPC replacement parts, such as logic boards. I believe that’s what they replaced each time. I think it’s getting to be time to bite the bullet and go Intel; Apple’s ability and motivation to maintain PowerPC equipment is only going to get worse.

  21. It’s not just you. I can’t tell you how many Apple dispatch boxes I have lying around…

  22. > Is it just me, or are these things not built to last?

    Boy. You tell me, paid Microsoft Evangelist.

  23. “Boy. You tell me, paid Microsoft Evangelist.”

    You know what’s funny? For years I’ve used a PC desktop and a Mac laptop. Now I’ve got a couple of PC laptops too — a Vaio and an HP — and neither feels as solid as my aluminum G4 does. I haven’t yet bought an Intel Mac and done the OS X / Parallels / Vista dance, but I intend to.

    Why don’t PC laptop makers figure out that rounded corners and solid construction really matter?

  24. Jeez, what do YOU gys do to your poor computers? I have a 1Ghz Powerbook that has been on pretty much 24/7 since I got it in July 2003, and it still works great! I use it every day both at home and at work (where I use a Mac to edit video with Avid Media Composer). My TiBook,which I haul back and forth from the office daily, looks almost brand new, except for the pitted paint in the palm area… a minor blemish for a comp that has paid for itself 1000 fold. I use it for surfing, mail, Photoshop, music, Radio DJing, web design, dvd burning, free telephony, music creation, video editing and Azureus is running in the background most of the time. Yes they cost more, but when I add up all the stuff I do and the time I save not having to EVER reinstall a system or worry about virii, the cost is a bargain. The only thing I’ve evre had to do was replace the hard drive, and that was an easy $160 do it yourself fix. I wish more people had the great experience I have had using Mac’s (since 1987)–no one would use any other computer… My only wish is that I could put the guts of a new MacPro into this Titanium shell!

  25. My 15″ powerbook G4 also has narcolepsy.
    I got mine in august 05.

    I too confirmed that it’s my trackpad sensor that causes it. I looked it up in my system log.

    Since some powerbook G4 owners dont have this problem, I think It has something to do with your G4 purchase date.

    I’ve never had this problem until yesterday(why noW!!!! ) so If you have a powerbook G4 purchased in august 05 and if it still works fine, dont use it more than 3 hours a day.

    I spent 2000 dollars for nothing. I wouldnt buy this laptop if I knew it would last no longer than 2 years. I mean I’ve used my vaio laptop much much more than my powerbook(I bought my powerbook just because of its design)but it still works fine.
    So if you say laptops are not meant to last longer than 2 yrs, please stop being ignorant.

  26. My 15″ powerbook had narcoleptic it was my trackpad sensor that causes it but i’ve solved this problem only need to delete this
    Empty Trash
    and reboot that’s all.
    remember all have a small price to pay if you do this the ambient light sensor will be disable that means the keyboard won’t light anymore
    i can live with that the question is if you can live with that?

  27. My PowerBook G4 (1st quarter 2004) also suffers from “the spontaneous shutdown bug” since a few days. Let me try to find out what’s causing it.

  28. I tried the fix outlined in post number 28, but it killed my keyboard. Being unable to type is a big price to pay. I had to put the extensions back in the folder and keep on going.

  29. I have a G4 PowerBook 1.33. It also has the broken lower slot problem. Its too bad that this can go undetected for months and months, until you test the range of your RAM and the computer can’t manage it with only half its memory available.

  30. Well – without wishing to tempt fate… I have a 2001 titanium powerbook G4 still going strong apart from a chip on one of the keys. I hammer it; I love it; but am thinking of retiring it from my main work load to give it a rest. It is a thing of great beauty.

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