26 Apr 2021

Dunk’s World: I want my, I want my Mac G3

by Duncan Fry

(to the tune of Money for Nothing, by Dire Straits)

I had to go down to my local computer technician’s shop the other day to get my home computer checked out. It had been running erratically, and while I could have probably sat down and spent a few hours running tests, cleaning and tweaking it myself, it’s much easier to give it to someone who knows exactly what they’re doing and can get it right first time.

He’s only just around the corner from work, charges a fair price, very knowledgeable, and always does a good job. Plus, as the old saying goes, ‘Why keep a dog and bark yourself?’ Speaking of dogs, too, he’s also a fellow Whippet owner and is quite happy for me to bring Charlie the Wonder Whippet with me, and lets him roam around the shop looking after other customers and seeing if they’ve got a pie in their pocket that might need some servicing!


But I digress. Despite being a longtime PC user, I’ve always liked the look of the old Mac G3 series computers. They always struck me as a classic piece of industrial design, so my personal machine is the outer shell of a Bondi Blue one, with the internals of a fairly up-to-date Intel i9 PC inside.
Unlike my mechanic, who always greets me when I come in with car trouble saying “What’s wrong with this piece of tish now?” Mr PC Fixit cheerfully asks “Ah, Mr Fry – trouble with the FrankenMac? Is it time to buy a real one now?” Both of them will be thoroughly investigating the credit limit on my card anyway, so I suppose the end result is the same!

He whisked it out the back and gave it to one of the ‘worker drones from sector 7’, (Thank you, Smithers) who plugged it up and set a diagnostic test running, while the dog and I perused the contents of the bargain area of the shop. This was an area over in the corner with a haphazard stack of old PCs, iMacs and Mac desktop machines piled up. PowerMac G3, G4, G5 (the latter a computer so heavy that it should have come with a lifetime voucher for a team of Olympic weightlifters). I remembered looking around to buy one of those for daughter Fifi Trixiebelle when she started her graphic design degree at uni. One of the online ads selling one said ‘Can’t deliver it but I have access to a fork lift if you need to move it!’ A MacBook was a lot better investment for Fifi’s back if nothing else!

But back to the shop. I can never resist poking around in a pile of old stuff though. “What’s wrong with all these?” I asked, pointing to half a dozen G3 and G4s like mine. And like mine, all but one had cracked and broken handles. All except a pale grey G4, with an unmarked body and handles in perfect condition.

“Too old,’ he replied, “too slow, can’t install current programs or update the operating systems; no-one wants them. They’re obsolete now. Do you want one? You could build yourself a newer FrankenMac” “How much?,” I asked. “I really only want the handles.”
“You can have it for nothing – just take it. I’ll just take the hard drive out and then you can take it now. Hold on,” and he dropped the side lid, put his hand inside, went ‘click-click’ with his fingers, and came out with a hard drive in his hand. “See you tomorrow for your blue one – come in about 10 o’clock.”

When I got the G4 back to work, I opened it up and had a good look inside. When I gutted the inside of my original G3, it was pretty neatly put together, but this one was built like a watch inside, and a true paradigm shift in computer manufacturing. I’ve put together a lot of PCs in my computer life, but nothing like this. Everything just fitted together as if it been designed as a single piece. An enormous amount of thought had gone into keeping electrical noise from getting either in or out of it, and stopping physical noise – fans, hard drives, CD ROMs, etc. from getting out as well.

The little tunnel that carried the air away from the CPU heatsink was made of a soft plastic, (not hard like the one inside my PC, which only served to amplify any noise) and coated with a soft velvety fur so it wouldn’t pick up any internal ambient noise either. The little speaker on the front of the G4 which handled system sounds also had a rear sealed chamber behind it, increasing the midrange efficiency, and also shielding the internal circuitry from picking up any electrical noise spraying out from the speaker magnet.
The amount of care put into noise suppression was truly obsessive. The groove all the way around the computer, where the steel fold-down lid touched the steel of the chassis had a long foam strip carefully glued into it. And not just ordinary rubber foam – this had woven steel thread embedded in the foam, so it electrically earthed as well as acoustically.

Why was I so interested in this piece of ‘old modern’ chunk of industrial design and engineering? After all, I’m not a Mac person; I’m not keen on their operating system, they are a very controlling company, and their stuff is/was very expensive. This G4 was a top-of-the-line model and probably cost the best part of five grand, planned obsolescence thrown in for free!
But all this state-of-the-art knowledge and expertise was being thrown away after 20 years, which is a long lifetime for anything digital.

When did you last throw away a piece of analog pro audio equipment? Judging by the endless stream of ‘classic’ audio equipment up for auction on eBay, no one does. You sell it to someone else when you don’t need it any more, it becomes their ‘new’ piece of equipment, then they on-sell it and the cycle continues.

Other people just hang on to what they’ve got and keep using and fixing it when it stops. We have customers at ARX whose children’s bands are using the sound systems their parents bought thirty years ago! No-one throws any of it away. And why would you? With care, a little TLC and the occasional re-cone, it can sound just as good for another thirty years.

Sadly digital equipment doesn’t have that type of product life. Once a new model comes out, the previous one is just so much landfill within six to 12 months. Unless you want to pay the price of a new car, memory chips for older digital delays and reverbs might just as well be made of that well-known compound ‘unobtainium’.

But you can always buy (or make) a new loop of tape for your old Space Echo!


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