Trees and Robots

by Jacopo Scazzosi

Trying to breathe new life into an iMac G5

I’ve been asked to keep some stuff for a friend who’s moving into a new house, including an old Apple iMac G5 that is destined to end up in the bin.

Produced from 2004 to 2006, the iMac G5 is the final iMac to use a PowerPC processor. The PowerPC architecture has since become niche in the desktop market, although it still retains significant popularity in the embedded and high-performance markets.

Due to Apple’s transition to Intel processors in 2006, the most recent release of Mac OS that maintains compatiblity with the iMac G5 is 2007’s Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard. Indeed, this is what my friend’s machine is running.

Although fundamentally outdated, I can’t help but feel a little uneasy about discarding a perfectly working and relatively modern computer. The iMac G5’s LCD panel, for example, is excellent and vastly superior to many of today’s low-budget screens, at least to my eyes. Moreover, as clearly shown by what MorphOS can achieve on even older Mac Mini G4 models (including playing 720p HTML5 video!), the hardware of the iMac G5 is definitely capable of supporting basic daily usage.

However, I’ve had little luck in my attempts to breathe new life into this machine. The main reason is the lack of a modern browser to explore the web of today, which is vastly more complex and computationally expensive than that of 2005. My initial goal was to get the iMac to stream HTML5 video, which I find to be a good general indicator of a machine’s compatibility with modern times. So far I’ve tried what follows, without success.

TenFourFox

TenFourFox is a distribution of Mozilla’s Firefox browser compatible with Mac OS X 10.4 and 10.5 and optimized for the G3, G4 and G5 processor families.

Downloading it and running it is quick and easy, no more complicated than installing Firefox on a modern Mac OS computer. Everything seems to work, although speed is quite often an issue. YouTube video, even at 360p, is stuttery to the point of being unwatchable.

Lubuntu

Lubuntu is a lightweight Linux distribution based on the more famous Ubuntu. It is one of a dwindling number of Linux distributions that still releases images and maintains packages for the PowerPC architecture.

Booting Lubuntu from the live .ISO image was simply a matter of dding the image onto a USB stick, launching the Open Firmware bootloader (by pressing CMD+OPT+o+f during the iMac’s boot sequence) and entering command boot usb1/disk@1:2,\\yaboot.

Once booted, Lubuntu appears reasonably fast. However, navigating to YouTube using Firefox resulted in the browser crashing irreparably, having to be terminated using xkill or any other variant of kill -SIGKILL.

MorphOS

MorphOS is a proprietary operative system for the Amiga and other PowerPC-based personal computers. MorphOS 2.4 added support for Apple’s Mac Mini G4 in 2009 while MorphOS 3.2 added support for Apple’s PowerMac G5 in 2013. MorphOS’ OWB browser, although last updated in 2014 and seemingly discontinued, is based on the ubiquitous WebKit rendering engine and seems to support many of the features of today’s web.

Unfortunately, I could not get MorphOS to boot. I tried booting into it using both a CD and a USB stick as per the official guides but none of these worked. The former resulted in a black screen that left me wondering whether I had stumbled into a boot issue or merely a graphical one. The latter resulted in the boot error unrecognised Client Program format, for which I was unable to find a solution.

Conclusion

I am sure that each of these three alternatives could do with spending more time tweaking and tuning the small details. I am satisfied with the amount of hours I have put on this weekend project, however, and I do not plan on putting more on it. I am a little saddened that the pace and direction of technological change make reviving such a recent machine (in human scale) so counter economical. I wonder where we are heading. How many perfectly functional machines are we throwing away? How much needless waste are we producing?