Old iMacs never die, they just go slower

I recently moved to a new home – half the size of the one I was leaving. In a big home, you have lots of storage, a basement, an attic, a large garage, rooms you never use, and you tend to keep stuff. Lots of old stuff. Like old computers.

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The iMac G4 fully deployed with keyboard, mouse and loudspeakers. Source: unknown (probably a scan of an Apple catalog)

But when you move, you can’t leave anything behind. You check all the hidden corners of your home, and you find your old iMac. Second generation, officially known as the iMac G4 700 MHz. And often nicknamed Sunflower, because of its very original shape.

I had bought it in 2002. My first Mac. My first Apple widget.

I decided to give it a test run. In the spirit of “a new life for old gear”. But if 40 year cameras can still produce nice pictures (provided you can find film for them, of course), computers half their age are hardly usable.

The machine did age very well. It had been solidly built, with good quality components. It boots, and makes all the right sounds and moves. You log-in, and find a desktop which is not really different from what you see on a modern Mac (this machine is running OS X 10.5 Leopard – the last OS X version to run over PowerPC processors). Your spirits are high. You’ve been reunited with an old friend.

On paper, the specs of an old iMac – a 700 MHz 32 bit processor, 512 MB RAM, WiFi, Firewire – are not totally ridiculous if you compare them with a recent entry level machine. A modern Macbook has a 64 bit dual core processor, generally running at 1.3 GHz, with the ability to burst at 3 GHz. It does not look like a huge difference. Admittedly, a modern laptop also has much more RAM (8 GB) and more storage (256 GB SSD as opposed to a 40 GB spinning drive). But in the real life, it results in a huge gap in speed.

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Technical specs of the iMac G4 700 MHz (from the package)

The iMac is incredibly slow at performing tasks as simple as ripping a music CD. And the worst is not the speed, it’s the inability to do anything really useful with the machine because the hardware and OS X Leopard can’t cope with modern security protocols:

  • you can’t connect to a wireless LAN, because the iMac and OS X Leopard support at best WPA (original version) and not WPA2 which is the standard today.
  • you can’t browse any modern Internet site, because the browser does not support the recent encryption layers of https, and every site worth its salt defaults to https now.
  • you can’t access any of the on-line services requiring a fat client (the Apple Music store from iTunes, for instance) because nobody’s accepting connections from such an old thing (probably another TLS vs SSL issue)
  • Software from 2009 still works (things like Photoshop Elements 2 or Microsoft Word   2008) but obviously recent versions of popular software are written for Intel Macs, and don’t run over Power PC processors (not even software as basic as a browser).
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iMac G4 – trying to browse an https page – fairly typical error message

Basically, it could work if you downgraded your home WiFi network to WPA (or even worse, WEP), and only browsed sites whose servers have not been updated since the end of support of OS X Leopard (in 2009, I believe). That’s a scary perspective.

So, what will happen with this Mac?  I will donate it. To people who still have room in their large home, where it will join a burgeoning computer museum. Until they decide to downsize of course.


An anecdote – the iMac was the first Apple computer I bought, but not the first I used. In the early eighties, I even had the privilege of being trained on Apple SOS (nicknamed Applesauce, of course), the operating system of the Apple III. It makes me a true geek.

For the fans of all things Apple, and among all the bios of Steve Jobs, I recommend the excellent “Becoming Steve Jobs“, by Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli.


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“les petits chapeaux” – Apple iPhone 7. Even a recent iPhone outperforms an iMac G4 – and it also takes pictures.

One thought on “Old iMacs never die, they just go slower

  1. I had a bunch of Mac games from the ’90s, if for no reason than that I wish I had an older Mac. Had a Umax computer from ’94 (the only year Apple allowed Mac-compatible 3rd party computers), and it died about 10 years ago.

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