This Old Workhorse

Like most other gadget freaks, I always want the latest and greatest. I can’t go near a Future Shop without venturing inside with a drool cup duct-taped to my chin. I dream of all the things I could get –one day– when I have far too much money and have those business needs which somehow validate purchasing plasma screens wider than my apartment’s living room, wireless speaker systems capable of generating more noise than the eruption of Krakatoa, pens that do everything but write, and strange hunks of plastic that serve as an all-in-one cell phone, barometer, airplane landing signal, holographic chess projector, egg timer, and remote control for next-generation iPods yet-undreamt-of. Like other forms of lust, this too can lead to blindness.

Lately, my dear old faithful Linux SGI box is staggering on its last legs, and so my thoughts turn to how I might replace it. Since portability is key to a lifestyle like mine, a laptop makes perfect sense. But ah, which one?

In my last place of employment, I requisitioned a shiny new Sony Vaio laptop with a Pentium 4 2.66GHz processor. Part of the day was spent in Windows XP Pro, part of it in Debian Linux. Let’s say that the machine was not without its problems. At times, especially in Windows, doing more than one thing at a time seemed to make it incredibly sluggish. (When burning a CD or DVD, you had to be careful not to run another program in the background or touch any keys –even the screen brightness– lest you make a coaster.) Because of the “shared memory” video card, it wasn’t even possible to play a 3D game like Neverwinter Nights while on the road: the OpenGL was software-only. And then there was the failing power brick. When I called Sony tech support, I was pushed to a flustered Indian woman who knew no other English than what was in a flow chart: after nearly an hour’s wait on the line, a 10-minute conversation (me: “Look, I’m a techie… I know that this power supply has a loose connection inside, and I can’t open it!”; her: “Please check that the plug is in the wall socket, and you have pressed the laptop ‘on’ button”), and her request to “Please hold while I look into escalating your issue”… I was promptly dropped. It wouldn’t have been so bad, but this happened a second, third and fourth time as well, albeit with different call centre personnel who had even less of a mastery of English.

Confession: I used to be an Mac bigot. Occasionally working with designers who felt confident and smug about how their pricey machines were far superior to my beloved PCs, I learned to make fun of these hippie freaks who barely knew anything about their machines, who clinged to overly-simple interfaces, and who resisted the urge to join the rest of humanity. I stayed as far away from Macs as possible, which was actually quite easy in this redneck Windows area of the world.

Powerbook 2000 PismoFive years ago, I joined a school in Nova Scotia that would only provide me with a Mac laptop, specifically a Powerbook 2000 Pismo. This oddly-shaped little black laptop came with Mac OS 9.1, and O! did I hate it. I could barely change anything, the interface was far too simple for my liking, there was no right-click button, and there was very little complexity under the hood (I had grown quite used to Linux). When the UNIX-based OS X was released, however, it was an entirely different story: it was powerful enough that I could start to enjoy it. How could you not like something that lets you use Photoshop one minute, and then jump into a terminal to edit bash scripts with vi and tweak its Apache the next?

Five years later, I still have the Pismo.

Now, five years for a laptop is a looooooong time. Usually, an older machine has been dropped, has begun to experience major hardware malfunctions, and is so woefully underpowered that it is practically useless with modern applications. In contrast, this Pismo is still running exceedingly well, to my complete surprise, and each new generation of OS X seems to make it faster. Its specifications: 256 MB RAM (eek!), G3 400MHz processor, 8 MB ATI 3D video card, DVD drive, Firewire, 10 GB hard drive, AirPort wireless, Mac OS X 10.3 Panther. Strangely enough, it’s quite zippy and responsive. I can have several large applications going at once (including Adobe programs, Firefox and a word processor), and it seems to be able to handle the load very well. In fact, I’d even venture to claim that it’s almost as fast as the P4 2.66 Vaio for regular day-to-day work. True, the poor thing is starting to show its age: the fan comes on and sounds a little whiney, DivX movie files stutter ever now and then, the DVD drive occasionally has to work a little harder to read some CD-ROMs, and the power brick (er… “yo-yo”) is held together with electrical tape and tender care, but all this just gives the little beast more personality. I can see why people adore their Pismos: there are plenty of user comments on sites like LowEndMac that sound off about their wonderful little “workhorses” in such endearing tones that they often verge on love letters. The resale value is also extremely high for such an old machine.

While I will –no doubt– eventually succumb to the technophilia evoked by the beautiful new Powerbooks, I’ve decided that I’m sticking with the Pismo for now. I’ll pump up the RAM, slot in a new hard drive, refresh the electrical tape, and maybe even get a G4 upgrade. The new Powerbook can wait: I already have a good machine, one that feels a little more like a companion than a cold hunk of silicon, metal and plastic.