Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Rescuing a Mac Mini G4

Today's project is getting a Mac Mini G4 working again. The hard drive was apparently going bad, and while I was at it, I dismantled it as thoroughly as I could in order to clean out dust. I even washed out the fan (don't try this at home, or if you do, make sure to use very hot water and let it dry for a week before attempting to power it up).

I've had this thing for at least five years, I think, and I got it used on eBay, so it's not like it hasn't had a good run. Finding 2.5-inch IDE drives can a little tricky these days, but Newegg had a 5400 RPM 2.5" Western Digital Scorpio Blue 160 GiB for $64.99, which seemed reasonable. It's a little noisier than the original 80 GiB Seagate drive was, but I'm hoping it will settle down after a while.

Mac Mini systems are basically laptops, as far as the components they are built with and the way they are assembled, but they are a little more rugged than laptops, because they aren't usually banged around quite so much and don't have parts like screen hinges that are prone to breakage. They are put together with some of that same yellow Kapton (Polyimide) tape as laptops, so in order to reassemble the original correctly I ordered some. You can get it on Amazon from Techni-Tool -- search for "Kapton Tape." Check your desired width. Black electrical tape probably would have worked, but it is really gummy and the adhesive melts under heat, and collects a lot of dust.

Mac Mini cases are a little fiddly to disassemble and reassemble; you're supposed to use a putty knife with the edges sanded down slightly, but if you're not that concerned about scratching or gouging a bit, and I'm not at this point, given the age of this computer, you can use a flat-bladed screwdriver. I found very effective instructions here.

They are a little fiddly to work on, but despite this I really, really like Mac Mini systems. They aren't the fastest available, but they are extremely quiet. Quiet is very important to me, especially since I use computers for recording. They are also low-power; Apple calls the most recent version "the world's most energy efficient desktop computer." I don't know if that's literally true when compared to some of these very low-end tiny form-factor PCs, but at under 14 watts idle it's certainly plausible.

Anyway, I ran into one hiccup, which was that the original G4 Mac Mini install disc would not instal MacOS X on the new drive. Running Disk Utility from the install disc and formatting the disk would not help; no matter what I did, the installer said it could not install MacOS X on the selected volume.

Fortunately, it turns out that this is just a bug. It had nothing to do with the type of boot record or partition map; that version of Disk Utility doesn't let you choose GUID anyway. I just had to reboot and let the installer take another look at the driver.

The version of MacOS X that gets installed by the original install disk is 10.3.7. There are then a ton of software updates to install -- then a reboot -- then another ton of software updates to install.

Apparently my Leopard install DVD is no longer readable either on this system's drive, or on my Mac Pro's drive. I can't see any visible damage. We've had a severe problem with white humidifier dust in this apartment -- during the winter, we have to run humidifiers constantly. The particulates from these wound up clogging up basically every optical drive in the house, including our DVD player. That I was able to take apart and clean out, but I'm not too keen on having to also replace the DVD drive in the Mac Mini and Mac Pro; they have both scarcely been used. Sigh!

After that I will attempt to bring it up to Leopard, and then after _that_ I need to see if I can get some files (not the whole system, just documents) off of the time machine backup. If that works I will have a separate little box I can use specifically for scanning, which was the goal all along -- before I started having hard drive problems. I'm just grateful that I don't need to buy a whole new machine -- at least not today. I just bought a ThinkPad and built a Xeon-based server for my home office and I'm a little tapped out at this point!

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