I had been shopping for one for a couple of months. The fastest PowerBook made that could boot Mac OS 9 without any modifications or hacks. I never saw one locally. And most of the examples on eBay had some flaw that I was unwilling to live with. Computers this old have generally been sold or passed down, and notebooks are particularly prone to rough handling by second hand owners.

There was of course the one that got away. A perfect example with everything intact, including the box and receipt, listed for $250 on eBay. In retrospect I should have jumped. I made a best offer that was rejected only to see the PowerBook sold at full price while I hesitated. So the search went on.

PowerBooks with broken hinges. PowerBooks with damaged screens. PowerBooks covered in bumper stickers. PowerBooks that were clearly not the model the eBayers thought they were. And PowerBooks that looked like their last job was at Blendtec.

What does a man have to do to get a 12 year old computer any way?

And there it was, listed on eBay by a recycling center. No AC adapter, a nearly dead original battery, a dead Superdrive, and only 512MB of RAM. But otherwise in good physical condition, save a few scratches and scruffs, for a mere $50 and cheap shipping.

I was like a kid waiting for Christmas before that PowerBook arrived.

First Impressions

With the exception of the first Mac Portable Apple has generally been a step ahead of PC notebook manufacturers. The first PowerBook trio offered great screens, quality trackballs, and a keyboard forward design that would become standard in the world of notebooks. The Duos had docks that turned ultra light notebooks into full fledged desktop Macs with extra RAM, additional drives, and NuBus cards. Later on Apple would shave weight, explore new materials, and evolve their designs to the industry leading MacBooks we have today.

Unpacking the TiBook I could immediately appreciate both the quality of the design and the improvements Apple has made since then. The Titanium case feels very sturdy, much more so than plastic PC notebooks, but still not as solid as today’s unibody aluminum MacBooks. It’s thin and light as far as notebooks of the time period go, but heavy compared to Apple’s latest. The latching mechanism is cool if a bit delicate compared to the magnets used today. The keyboard is great. But the trackpad…the trackpad leaves a lot to be desired. Every tap click is a ‘thunk’ and this is perhaps my one major disappointment in this model. It feels like a step back from the trackpad in a PowerBook PDQ, and pales in comparison to Apple’s best-of-class track pads today.

Track pad aside, this would have been the notebook to have in 2002.

As for my specific TiBook, the only real disappointment is that the screen has a line of light scruffs across the middle. Not too distracting. But you just cringe when you realize someone stored something between the screen and keyboard, and whatever it was had a surface rough enough to scruff the screen. What are people thinking when they do stuff like this? It’s just annoying enough that I might take on the task of replacing the screen with another one off eBay.

I can’t complain for $50. RAM is cheap, a new Superdrive is cheap, and the only thing that scares me about the screen is the possible work involved replacing it should I decide to.

Initial Upgrades

I didn’t order RAM when I ordered the TiBook (should have), but I did have a spare 64GB KingSpec PATA SSD on hand. At one point I tried putting this in my PowerBook PDQ, but that PowerBook wasn’t happy with it for some strange reason.

That’s OK because the TiBook loves it. I prepared the drive on another Mac with Mac OS X Tiger and the Mac OS 9.2.2 System Folder that the TiBook requires, and then installed it.

Mac OS Classic Never Felt So Good

Having spent a lot of time recently restoring and playing with older classic Macs I wasn’t prepared for what a TiBook on a SSD would feel like. With some caveats this machine feels as snappy and fast running Mac OS 9 as my MacBook Pro feels running Mac OS X.

Sometimes faster. Office 2001 launches instantly where the latest and greatest takes 3-4s on a MBP. The apps themselves also feel snappier in use. (Come on Microsoft! I realize later software has more features. But given the vast difference in hardware your latest version really shouldn’t lose this race.)

To Adobe’s credit their latest version of Photoshop on a MBP launches a bit faster than Photoshop 7 on the TiBook. And of course image processing is something that’s going to exercise the CPU hard, meaning a 1 GHz G4 has no chance in a race against a Core i7. Still, Photoshop 7 is very responsive, and editing an image on the TiBook isn’t terrible unless you try working with larger files.

The web? Classilla, which was a disappointment to me on the older 60x Power Macs and even the PowerBook PDQ, runs very well on the TiBook. So does TenFourFox when booting Mac OS X. To be clear, rendering web pages is another area where the shear CPU and memory speed of a modern computer means the TiBook has no shot at winning. By comparison to a Core 2 Duo or higher the web is sluggish. But not painfully so like on the PDQ. Flash apps aside, you could actually spend the day web browsing on a TiBook and TenFourFox.

Heck, a student on a tight budget could do real work on this machine.

Part of this is no doubt thanks to the SSD. I didn’t spend much time using the TiBook with the HDD. But from what I did see the SSD made a large difference in performance despite the limitations of the IDE interface. Suffice it to say I never experienced speed like this back when Mac OS 9 was current. My fastest OS 9 machines back in the day were the Power Mac G3 and a 333 MHz Blue iMac. When I moved to a G4 I moved to OS X and never looked back until now.

Those Caveats

So when does the TiBook not feel fast and responsive like a modern computer?

I’ve already mentioned the obvious case: when the task at hand really exercises modern hardware. The smaller apps and lighter OS mean that the G4+SSD can feel as fast as a modern computer for lightweight stuff. But it’s really not and that shows with heavy processing.

The other caveat is that there is a single processor in the TiBook, and Mac OS 9 has cooperative multitasking. So there are hiccups and pauses of the kind which have been nearly eliminated with multiple cores and preemptive multitasking. You can be humming along and get a watch cursor for a few seconds for no apparent reason other than some programmer in the past did not yield enough time back to the OS. You almost never see this on a modern Mac, even when running Windows in a virtual machine at the same time. On a modern Mac a single program may give you the beach ball, but everything else remains very responsive.

Should You Buy One?

If you’re interested in running Mac OS 9 and old Macintosh applications then the 867 MHz and 1 GHz G4 TiBooks are two of the computers I recommend. Max out their RAM, drop in a SSD, and you will be hard pressed to find a faster way to run OS 9 apart from emulation. SheepShaver is good but has its own challenges and compatibility issues.

Another option would be a G4 tower. A dual G4 Power Macintosh scores higher on GeekBench but only because the score includes both processors. Very few classic applications can take advantage of more than one processor or core. The PowerBooks are a lot smaller, lighter, and quieter. Nothing against the G4 towers if you have the space and want one, but for most people playing around with old apps I think a PowerBook is just more convenient. Plus it can serve double duty as a second gaming machine or web browser on a trip. Granted that may seem silly at a time when every kid has a tablet, but in the TiBook’s defense it has a real keyboard.

Is a SSD Worth It?

If you’re going to spend any significant time on a classic Mac I think the G4 Macs are at the level where a SSD is worth it.

I would probably recommend an OWC Legacy Pro SSD over a KingSpec. They are over provisioned and the SandForce controller is better at wear leveling and maintaining write speeds over time. But as you can tell from my review the KingSpec SSDs are not bad at all, and they’re a lot cheaper. I can certainly recommend them as well.

Keep in mind that all SSDs will eventually lose their data if powered off for a long enough period of time. That period of time will vary based on the drive model and storage conditions. For this reason I backup and archive all of my SSDs to external HDDs.