classic mac os,  restoration

Apple Power Macintosh G4 Quicksilver Retrospective and Restoration

Apple Power Macintosh G4 Quicksilver

During July 2001’s MacWorld Expo, then Apple CEO Steve Jobs unveiled the next entrant into the fruit company’s line of professional desktop computers: the Power Mac G4 “Quicksilver”.

The 2001 Power Mac G4 came in three configurations using the PowerPC G4 processor: 733 MHz ($1,699), 867 MHz ($2,499), and a high-end dual 800 MHz configuration ($3,499).

Steve Jobs introduces the all-new Power Macintosh G4 Quicksilver in July 2001 at MacWorld Expo. Source: Pinterest

In the Apple press release for the Quicksilver, Jobs remarked that:

“These are the fastest Macs ever, with 867 MHz and dual 800 MHz PowerPC G4 processors,” said Steve Jobs, Apple’s CEO. “With the 867 MHz processor and our revolutionary SuperDrive together in a system costing just $2,499, more users can now afford to create professional quality DVDs.”

As an IT pro, working on the Power Mac G4 tower was really nice. You knew going in that you would be able to make quick work of installing more RAM, expansion cards, or disk drives. Lift the release latch on the right side of the Mac, and you had access to all of the major components of the system. Other Macs, including the IIci, a favorite of mine, and Power Macintosh 7600, made it easy to get inside and work on, but the G4 towers were my favorite to maintain because it was so easy to get at internals.

All of the Power Mac G4 towers kept the same exact shape and size. On the outside, the first generation mid-1999 Power Mac G4 featured darker graphite front and rear panels with lighter grey side, top, and bottom panels – borrowing a similar color scheme from the gumdrop iMac G3 special edition computers from that same time period. For 2001’s G4 Quicksilver tower, the front and rear panels were also grey, but they were a darker grey than the other panels keeping the same two-tone aesthetic as the 1999 model. The third, and final generation of G4 towers, was 2002’s Power Mac G4 Mirrored Drive Doors. As the name implies, the front panel of the 2002 G4 received a makeover, shifting the built-in speaker to the top of the chassis, sliding the new mirrored drive bay doors to the middle to make room for the four new air intake openings near the front bottom foot.

The grey color pallet of the G4 series towers were a marked departure from the playful color schemes of the compact gumdrop iMac G3 series and 1999’s blue and white Power Mac G3 tower. The use of color would be part of Apple’s strategy to delineate personal computing appliances, like the all-in-one iMac, from the more expensive professional series of modular tower computers. This dark color scheme philosophy would carry on to the current day with Apple’s Pro products being available in muted colors including Graphite, Grey, Space Grey, Jet Black, Midnight Green, and Pacific Blue. Blue, Purple, Green, White, Yellow, Rose Gold, Coral, (PRODUCT)RED, and Silver would all be reserved for consumer products.

In June of 2003, Apple released a spec bumped version of the Power Mac G4 Mirrored Drive Doors tower. The time of the Power Macintosh G4 line of computers was coming to a close. The 2003 G4 tower would be the last Mac capable of running Classic MacOS for business customers who needed extra time transitioning their workflows to Mac OS X. That same month, Apple introduced the all-new aluminum Power Mac G5 featuring the straight lines and flat sides that would come to dominate product designs for years to come.

Fittingly, the Power Mac G4 would be the last Mac I would use professionally on a day-to-day basis.

In March 2020 the COVID-19 pandemic started closing down the northeast section of the United States. With the lockdown in place, I started looking around for something to work on. Way in the back of my junk closet, I remembered that there was a G4 Quicksilver that I had rescued from the dumpster that I never got around to repairing. Making my old Power Mac run again became my lockdown project.

Easy access to the insides of the G3 and later desktop Power Macintosh computers was a tentpole feature. I have years of experience supporting and upgrading Macs from this era. Surely, I could get inside my G4 and replace the components that were bad, right?

When I plugged in the G4 and tried to turn it on, the computer would not boot. The fan inside the power supply would start to spin, the power button LED would come on and stay on. Inside the computer, a small red LED light lit up telling me that the system board was getting power. I figured I would start the repair with the easy fixes first. The obvious fixes of using a different power cord and different wall outlets didn’t work. Reseating RAM and PCI cards came next. Still, the result was exactly the same. Power would come on, but the Mac would not boot.

Newly manufactured 3.6V suitable PRAM battery replacement.

Searching Internet support forms and old Power Mac G4 service documents suggested that the PRAM battery likely needed to be replaced. This Mac was certainly old enough to need a new battery. Compatible PRAM batteries for my Power Mac are still available online from specialty Apple parts resellers and on Amazon. The first replacement battery came, and I swapped it in. For good measure, I plugged in the power cable and let the Mac sit for 30 minutes. And, again, the Mac still would not power up and boot. Attempts to reset the PRAM on the Mac as well as performing a system board reset by pressing the CUDA switch, as suggested on the iFixit forums, didn’t work either.

Power Mac G4’s CUDA Switch

An Apple discussion board thread listed the same tests that I did. An astute reader commented that the replacement PRAM battery wasn’t tested before installing it. And that was true, I hadn’t tested my replacement battery. I didn’t have the knowledge or tools to test it. Further, I had no idea how long my replacement battery had been sitting on a shelf. I found a second compatible battery on Amazon from a vendor who was selling new batteries. I bought a two pack. The batteries came and still the same result. I crossed PRAM batteries off my list.

Next, I turned my attention to the power supply. I started to think that it was possible that one or more internal power supply components had failed. With no electrical engineering training at all, I started looking for sources of replacement power supplies. There are several people who sell rebuild services on the Internet. You purchase a repair service, ship them your power supply, and they will replace the internals to get it working again, and ship it back to you. I wasn’t 100% convinced that the power supply would be the root cause of my power issues, so I found a parts reseller that claimed that they sold working replacement parts.

Getting access to the inside of G4 is easy as long as you want to access the system board. The hard drive bays aren’t too hard to get to either. Getting to the SuperDrive and the power supply are a bit more difficult.

The upper drive chassis is right up against the power supply.

It took some elbow grease, but I was finally able to remove the upper drive chassis and disconnect the power and data cables. It was a tight fit! As I was disconnecting the cables, I was reminded that I was not the first person to work inside this particular Mac. There was a tear in the SuperDrive cable pull tab. Not a great sign.

The SuperDrive pull tab has been torn. Someone’s been in here before.

I was eventually able to get the original power supply pulled out, but not before nicking one of the wires on the cutout that divides the upper and lower sections of the Mac chassis. There was no going back now, I was committed to making my replacement power supply work. Before installing the new power supply, I put some blue painters’ tape on the inside of the chassis to protect the wires from another nick while threading in the cable bundle.

With the drive chassis removed, the power supply can be accessed.
Blue tape helps keep from nicking the cables on the replacement power supply.
A replacement Power Mac G4 power supply.
Power Mac G4 waiting to have the new power supply installed.
The new power supply, blue tape included, finally installed and ready.

With the replacement power supply and upper drive chassis installed, I was ready to hear the Power Mac G4 start up chime. After all that, the Mac still refused to boot, but this time, the result was different. Previously, after pressing the power button, the LED light would stay lit, the fan would run, and the system board’s red LED would come on. Now, those things would only happen while I was holding the power button down. The minute I pulled my finger away, everything would stop working.

More researching on the Internet and I found a MacRumors discussion forum thread that discussed my exact problem. Naturally, I was disheartened to think that I had another bad power supply on my hands. Reading further into the thread, commenters suggested that it could be any number of failed parts. With nothing but time on my hands in the coming months, I would set out on a journey to buy many replacement parts, including a replacement system board, a replacement processor board, and the power button control board that hides behind the face plate. I started a systematic parts swap of the components, including removing individual component parts like the SuperDrive, the hard disk, modem, RAM, and PCI cards. I figured that once the system was stripped down to the power supply, speaker, and PRAM battery, that I would at least get a sad Mac icon or a screeching tires and broken glass sound effect. Nothing worked.

A replacement button and power LED control board that goes behind the front plate.

I also went to the effort to scrubbing both system boards down and soaking them in 70% isopropyl alcohol. After their bath, both boards looked great, but the Mac was still refusing the boot up.

Eventually, the repair effort got pushed to the back burner. I wasn’t able to isolate the cause of the power up issue and I started to think that I was fighting against two failed components, such as a bad power supply and a bad PowerPC CPU processor card. Spring rolled into summer and summer into fall. The Power Mac G4 could be seen out of the corner of my eye, taunting me, while working at my desk.

In January, after the holidays had passed and things started to settle down into a pandemic normal, I found an eBay auction for an as-is Power Mac G4 Quicksilver just like mine. It was being auctioned off as part of an estate sale. The previous owner or owner’s family had removed the disk drive and RAM from the machine. It was being sold as untested. If I could win the auction at a reasonable price the shipping wasn’t going to be too expensive. I won the auction, and about a week later, my second Quicksilver arrived.

Yes, there is another ‘as-is’ G4 in the box. No, seriously.

As it turned out, this second Quicksilver was free from whatever was ailing my original G4. The second Quicksilver powered up, but, without a disk drive, couldn’t boot. Encouraged, I took stock of the components that I had between the two Macs. One was booting but had some body damage. The other, wouldn’t boot and was cosmetically in better shape. I was able to collect three 512MB RAM modules for a maximum RAM size of 1.5GB. I removed the VGA AGP card from the booting G4 and installed the DVI AGP card from the original Mac. I also transplanted a Belkin USB 2.0 card from the original.

An Adaptec 2930U for Mac SCSI card has been installed to read my old SCSI disks.

I had some old Seagate SCSI disks that I had used in a white box Windows 2000 PC that I built. Wanting to see what was on them, I purchased an Adaptec 2930U Mac card, and a new internal SCSI cable. I installed the SCSI controller and drives.

The OWC SATA SSD to IDE upgrade kit installed and ready for Mac OS 9 and Mac OS X.

Finally, the rebuild was coming along nicely. I pulled out a set of Power Mac G4 Quicksilver discs, which included both a Mac OS 9.2 disc and Mac OS X factory install disc set. I used the Mac OS X install disc to boot off of the SuperDrive. I discovered that previous owner of the original G4 had never wiped the disk drive. I used the Mac OS X installer disc to securely wipe the drive. I didn’t want to know anything about what might have been on that hard disk. I purchased an OWC SATA SSD to IDE conversion kit that included a new SATA SSD and accessory adapter board that is SATA on one side and IDE on the other. I booted the Mac up using the Mac OS 9.2 disc, formatted the drive, and installed the OS. Once Mac OS 9 was installed, I pulled out the Mac OS X installer disc and installed Mac OS X 10.2 Jaguar. Then 10.3 Panther. And finally, 10.4 Tiger – the latest version of Mac OS X that a PowerPC G4 Quicksilver can run. I was pretty surprised at how quickly an SSD equipped Quicksilver could boot up. Back in their hay day, the boot time was a constant complaint about these machines. My recollection was that my work G4 took forever and day to get booted up and ready for work. Clearly the IDE chain and disk drives originally used in the G4 at the time where a bottleneck.

Testing the reassembled Power Mac G4 with the factory restore DVDs.

With the Power Mac reassembled and buttoned up, I pressed the power button and braced for more disappointment. I was surprised to finally, after many months of work, hear the Power Mac G4 startup chime! I was up well after midnight that day getting my working Quicksilver reassembled, the hardware tuned, and software installed. It was a good thing that I was working from home the next day, as I needed to take a nap a lunchtime.

Classic Mac OS 9.2 and Mac OS X 10.2 Jaguar install discs.

The Power Macintosh G4 Quicksilver restoration project ended up taking much longer and costing much more than I was expecting at the outset. In the end, I am glad that I was able to see the project through. I have been learning about and exploring other vintage Apple hardware from the Newton MessagePad and eMate product lines. The dual-booting Quicksilver is an excellent bridge computer that runs Classic Mac OS and Mac OS X allowing me to work with modern .iso and disk image files .dmg and run Mac OS 9 compatible applications in the ’emulated’ Classic environment at the same time.

This restoration was anything but simple. At least it was a fun project in the end.

Over the last few months, the Quicksilver has been the computer I have been using to tinker with Apple’s Newton Connection Utilities, the software that is used to manage and synchronize data with a Newton MessagePad or eMate 300. And while my friends and family may not understand my obsession with computer technology that is over 20 years old, it is fun to rediscover, upgrade, and enhance yesteryear’s technology.