Wednesday, 12 September 2018

Upgrading a PowerBook G4 with an SSD

A while back I bought an Apple PowerBook G4. A late-2005 high-resolution 1.67ghz 17" PowerBook G4, the last PowerBook before Apple switched from PowerPC to Intel. In its day it was a mutha; nowadays its performance is leisurely and very little software is still maintained for it, although in its favour the case still looks awesome. The 1680x1050 screen is almost but not quite HD.

I use it mostly as a giant iPod - I've downloaded a tonne of podcasts - but with TenFourFox it can still surf the internet. Debate rages as to whether it's best to install OS X 10.4.11 Tiger or 10.5.8 Leopard on older Macintoshes. Tiger is apparently slightly faster than Leopard, but having tried Leopard I didn't notice much difference. Feature-wise Leopard wasn't a great leap over Tiger, although as you will discover later in this post the Time Machine backup utility was very useful.

No amount of tinkering will make a fifteen-year-old G4 run quickly, but there are a few ways to speed it up. The easiest is memory. All of the aluminium-bodied PowerBooks take a pair of PC2-4200 DDRs. OS X enjoys lots of memory but sadly the G4 motherboard only accepts a maximum of 2gb of memory (1.25gb in the early 12" models), which was a bit stingy even in 2005.

The other big upgrade is a new hard drive. The 1.67ghz PowerBook G4 originally came with a 120gb 5400rpm hard drive, which was very good for 2005 both in terms of capacity and speed. Unfortunately G4 PowerBooks used the Parallel ATA IDE interface, which is a problem because PATA drives were discontinued several years ago.

In theory the most fuss-free way to upgrade the hard drive would be to fit a 7200rpm PATA Hitachi TravelStar or similar, but they're only available used, and I'm wary of buying a used laptop hard drive. How hard was it used?

There are other options. A Compact Flash card with an IDE adapter seems like a waste of a good Compact Flash card. There are a couple of PATA solid state drives on the market, but the reviews aren't great. Amongst the PowerBook cognoscenti the most popular choice is to use a little tiny Micro-SATA SSD mounted in an MSATA-IDE adapter, viz:

A 128gb Toshiba MSATA drive (bottom) beneath an MSATA-PATA adapter (top). You have to screw the MSATA drive into the adapter otherwise it sticks out at an angle. What kind of QC did the adapter pass? Who knows.

Some laptops take MSATA cards naturally. Modern Lenovo ThinkPads often have an MSATA slot for an SSD boot drive in addition to a 2.5" drive bay. But the PowerBook G4 predates MSATA so you have to use an adapter.

What is MSATA? It's a type of tiny SSD that uses the SATA standard, but it's tiny. You can also buy 2.5" SATA-MSATA adapters if you want to put an MSATA drive into a modern laptop.

The SSD in its cradle. One day I will remember that Philippines has one L and two PPs. One day.

The adapters are available from China via eBay. They cost about £3. Just search for "MSATA PATA". We live in a world where people in China can ship little electrical trinkets half-way across the world and still make a profit from £3. Somewhere out in the ocean there's a container ship ploughing through the waves, with a container filled with little electrical trinkets from China. I like to think about that when I go to sleep at night. A container ship driving through a rough sea. Someone has just brought the captain a mug of coffee. The wipers are trying to keep the bridge windows clear of spray. The weather radar shows better weather ahead.

Ordinarily when I replace a laptop's hard drive with a newer model, I clone the original to the replacement then swap them around. That's not possible with IDE, because there's no way to power the replacement drive outside the computer. I have a special set of cables that can power SATA drives and connect them via USB to a laptop, but 2.5" IDE drives don't support external power:

This is all well and good, but it doesn't power the MSATA drive. USB doesn't deliver enough power and there's no separate power header.

There are a couple of ways around this. If you've just bought a PowerBook G4 and you don't care about retaining any of the data, or if the seller reinitialised OSX, or indeed if it doesn't have a hard drive at all, you can simply put the MSATA drive into the G4 and install OS X from scratch. Note that the brand-new MSATA drive will be unformatted, so you have to pop open Disk Utility and format it as e.g. Mac OS Extended (journaled) before OS X's installation routine will recognise it.

To dismantle the machine I followed these instructions from iFixIt, although there's nothing conceptually hard about taking the G4 apart. You need a T8 Torx screwdriver head as well as a standard Philips head.

The G4's interior is as fascinating as its exterior. The orange-and-grey colour scheme is very attractive. This is the trackpad cable.

The edge of the keyboard. Note that the lid of the laptop's base comes straight off, and also note that the final 1.67ghz models had a slightly different keyboard than earlier models - the backlight was modified - with a slightly different part number. 

The original 100gb Ultra ATA/100 hard drive, now fifteen years old. It's noisy but still works. I'm going to put it in a desk drawer as a backup.

The interior, with a big hole where the battery goes. This is a good opportunity to blow dust out of the fans.

The MSATA SSD is much smaller than the PATA drive. Have you ever heard about Kure Kure Takora? It was a Japanese children's show from the early 1970s about a greedy octopus and his pals. The characters were played by actors dressed in large costumes, a la the Teletubbies.

What makes Kure Kure Takora hilarious is the relentless ultraviolence. It's like Cannibal Holocaust but much less restrained.
Kure Takora and his pals suffer horrible injuries in almost every episode but remain upbeat.
In this clip his friends persuade him to commit seppuku(!), and he almost goes ahead with it(!!), complete with close-ups of the clearly terrified title character holding a katana to his belly(!!!). Meanwhile kids in the UK had The Clangers, which wasn't the same.

As you can see the MSATA SSD looks sad and lonely in the hard drive bay. I eventually lined the bottom of the bay with a couple of strips of masking tape so that the SSD wasn't resting on bare metal. A couple of pads of heat-resistant foam might help keep it in place.
There's a risk the SSD might bounce around inside the case and loosen the hard drive cable - or the sound card cable, which runs over the top of the drive bay, but I suspect you'd have to really bash the PowerBook before that happened.

I didn't want to lose my data and reinstall everything from scratch. It takes time to track down old PowerPC applications. So I used Time Machine to back up all my settings to an external drive. I then installed the MSATA drive, installed OS X (from a USB stick, using this handy guide), updated OS X until there were no more updates, and then used OS X's Migration Assistant to transfer my settings and applications from the external drive to the MSATA SSD. I suggest you budget at least two afternoons to do all of this formatting and data transfer.

Ordinarily I'm wary of using an operating system's built-in backup and data migration tools, perhaps because I grew up with Windows. I'm a Norton Ghost and latterly Macrium Reflect man. But OS X's combination of Time Machine and Migration Assistant worked flawlessly.

Or at least almost flawlessly. For some reason Quicktime wasn't transferred, so I had to update Quicktime to the latest version for OS X 10.5.8 before I could use iTunes. Also my installation of CS2 lost its licence information (I assume it recognises that the hard drive is different, and contacts Adobe via the internet for guidance), but CS2 is now available from Adobe basically for free, so I just downloaded another copy.

In this episode Kure Kure Takora tries to steal a book from a lizard, who fights back, so he challenges the lizard to a samurai duel - and kills him! Kills him stone dead. It turns out the book was a cookbook; the lizard was planning to pour salt over Kure Takora and then cut him into chunks and eat him.

I've never liked the default OS X 10.5 wallpaper. The 10.4 wallpaper was less dramatic but more tasteful; Leopard's wallpaper is surprisingly tacky for Apple. Begone!

All done. Compare this image with the PowerBook at the top of the article, which had the original hard drive.

Does the rigmarole of installing an SSD in a fifteen-year-old laptop make rational sense? My Toshiba MSATA SSD was designed to pump data at 500mb/s through a 6gb/s SATA III bus, but the Ultra ATA/100 interface in the G4 can only cope with 100mb/s, so four-fifths of the SSD's performance is wasted. XBench's figures for sequential block writes are no better than a good 7200rpm physical hard drive:

However the random write speed is much faster than a physical hard drive. Random write speeds measure a storage medium's seek time, which is where SSDs excel, because they don't have to move a head over a disc to pick up data. SSDs in general are faster at writing larger blocks of data than smaller blocks, and the figures above reflect this; SSDs are slowest when writing lots of tiny files.

I really should have measured the speed of the physical hard drive for the sake of comparison. I should have thought of that. Am I going to dismantle the G4, put back the physical hard drive, and test it? No.

Subjectively the G4 doesn't feel as if it's booting faster, although it is noticeably quieter. Applications launch quicker, but TenFourFox is limited more by the CPU and RAM than by hard drive access, which is unfortunate because TenFourFox is the application I use most. MSATA-PATA adapters apparently produce more heat than a physical drive, but the G4's fan seems to come on less; whether it's because I've blown out the dust, or because there's a lot more space inside the case for air to circulate, I know not. I have read that this upgrade interferes with the fan management of the 12" PowerBook G4, which has much less interior space.

A few years ago this kind of upgrade would have been economically iffy for what is essentially a novelty toy. There comes a point when the money spent on upgrading a machine would be better off put towards the cost of a replacement. However MSATA SSDs have come down in price and are now widely available on the used market, so for what amounted to £30 and an afternoon fiddling with a screwdriver I feel it was worth it. Just don't expect the kind of lighting improvements you get from replacing a physical hard drive with a SATA II or III SSD. Oh no.

Saturday, 1 September 2018

Mamiya 55mm f/4.5: The Cumulative Power of Repetition

Mamiya 55mm f/4.5 / Velvia 100F

Have you ever thought about repetition? Sure you have. So have I. Some music achieves its effect from clever little twists and turns. It changes unpredictably in a way that delights the mind. Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody". "Good Vibrations". "Happiness is a Warm Gun". "Paranoid Android". Almost everything by the Dillinger Escape Plan. I would include some examples from the last decade but I'm way out of date.

In general however most pop music is simpler than that. The typical pop song consists of a group of musical blocks that repeat for three minutes or so. Typically there's a verse-chorus group, with middle eights and pre-choruses for variation. Rather than having a series of individual musical ideas that play one after the other without repeating pop songs are instead composed of a simple pattern of musical blocks, each of which has a couple of ideas inside it.

Oh yeah, Mr Moon

There's also a kind of music that doesn't change. It has a single idea that repeats. On an extreme level there's OM chanting, which consists of a single note. On a more complex level there's Stellardrone's "Red Giant", which I listened to on repeat while writing this post:

I could have picked an Indian raga, or Philip Glass, or Orbital's "Halcyon+On", or any number of other examples. "Red Giant" isn't perfect. The drums straddle the uneasy dividing line between epic music and carpet warehouse commercial. But the song is a good example of repetition. It's essentially a fifteen-second chord sequence, with angel trumpets and devil trombones, repeated thirteen times, and it should be boring but instead it's a bird of rarest-spun heaven metal, or silvery wine flowing in a spaceship.

Some people spend their lives wearing headphones, either because the outside world is boring, or perhaps because they want to block out the horror. I find that repetitive music has a hypnotic effect. My brain craves the pattern. Small musical variations that would otherwise pass unnoticed achieve a monumental effect, because they stand out more.

Why does music affect us? Did it give us an evolutionary advantage over tigers? Would our distant ancestors have been able to hunt for food more effectively if they had heard Katy Perry's "Swish Swish"?

Or was music simply a form of drug that overwhelmed our fear of death, so that we could pluck up the courage to drive tigers away from freshly-killed caribou? Is our love of music just a quirk of our complicated brains, a side-effect of consciousness? One of those chaotic by-products that causes some men to become sexually aroused by rubber boots; that causes some people to feel a sense of satisfaction from a GIF of a drill making a neat little hole in a piece of metal?

This is how they refuel boats in Venice. It's a petrol station - for boats. Or, as Ferrari owners will attest, it's a "benzina" station. In Italy they have a type of petrol called benzina.

This, my dear and only friends, is called padding. Imagine if I got straight to the point. I would probably be higher up Google's search rankings. In the last post I had a look at the Mamiya 55mm f/4.5, a wide-angle lens for the Mamiya C twin-lens-reflex system. Here's what it looks like:

It's really sharp at f/11, not bad at f/4.5, needs sunshine or a tripod. The last post was illustrated with examples shot using Fuji 160. In this post let's look at some Fuji Velvia 100F.

Burano. Yet again. They built it, I came. These two shots illustrate one of the problems of wideangle coverage with square format - you can fill the frame with buildings or have parallel verticals, but not both.

I've written about Velvia before. It's a slide film launched by Fuji in 1990. It was an immediate hit. Strong contrast, super-saturation, almost grain-free, more vivid than Kodachrome or Ektachrome. It was digital before digital. Landscape photographers in particular lapped it up.

But there was a downside. It was so popular that I now associate it with cigarette and car adverts. Adverts and Athena poster collections. Boring images of Miami's skyline. Boring but technically perfect images of North American mountains at sunset. Boring, slick, proficient. It was never used by news photographers so as a consequence none of the famous images you remember from the 1990s were shot with it. Instead posters, adverts.

Velvia wasn't universally beloved. The colour balance was no good for skin tones, particularly caucasian. Furthermore there was nothing subtle or arty about it. Over the last decade or so there has been a rise in Instagram filters that try and replicate the "film look", usually by pushing the blacks and washing out the saturation. That's nothing like Velvia. No-one of consequence is nostalgic for it.

In some respects the retro film movement of the 2000s was a reaction against the perceived slickness of Velvia; it was the kind of film used by professionals to make competent but boring images, the kind of film used by lawyers and dentists during their holidays to imitate the professional look, the exact kind of film that's forum dwellers would have gravitated towards in the 1990s, and in that respect I can't think of it without also thinking of a man who has a custom-made shelf filled with Laserdiscs.

Velvia's colour balance was such that a polarising filter was almost unnecessary in the daytime. The film's version of sky-blue was rich and deep and slightly purply. In the shot above I used a polarising filter just for the heck of it. The result has something of the colours of Kodachrome, a mixture of cold blues, vivid reds and yellows, slightly washed-out everything else, dark shadows. Bear in mind that the Velvia I used expired about ten years ago.

During my trip to Venice I noticed that a lot of the locals were like this cat. Just lounging around in the sun not doing any work. What if they're right and we're wrong? What then?

What then. Oh yes. Exposure. The rule of thumb is that you're supposed to meter for the shadows with negative film. You don't have to care about the highlights because negative film is very tolerant of overexposure. Let the highlights fall as they may. With slide film however it's the other way around - it does blow out highlights - with the problem that shadows become pitch black, so if the situation exceeds the film's dynamic range you have to choose a compromise. In the shot of the cat above I metered wrong; the shadows are too dark. I brought them up with Photoshop but if the image had been just slightly darker it would have been lost. I would have to go back to Venice and shoot it again, which would be tragic.

There were different types of Velvia. Mark one was just called Fuji Velvia. It was ISO 50. Hardcore. And awkward, because long-duration exposures suffered from colour shifts. Velvia 100F was launched in 2003. It was less saturated, faster and fixed the colour shifts but there were grumbles that it wasn't really Velvia.

The original Velvia was replaced in 2005 by Velvia 100, which was apparently similar to the original look; a new ISO 50 version of Velvia called Velvia 50 was launched in 2007, which also apparently replicates the look of the original.

This is one of those shots that triggers my OCD. If only the pigeon had been facing the other way, facing into the image. The composition would be slightly better. As it stands I have a choice of cropping out the pigeon, erasing it with Photoshop (easy) or flipping it with Photoshop (too much work for too little gain), or leaving it present as a kind of visual speck of grit that forever irritates me.

Over the years I've shot all of the different kinds of Velvia. I can't pass judgement on any of them because the rolls I shot were expired and I'm not a scientist. Furthermore I run all of my film through Photoshop, leaving behind only a shadow of the original look.

My recollection from scanning Velvia is that the black border of the film is always slightly red and the film feels thick. The emulsion feels thicker than other emulsion - probably psychosomatic, simply because the film borders are solid black instead of translucent amber as per negative film - and I always have a mental image of the scanner trying hard to push light through it.

As of this writing Fuji still sells Velvia 50 and Velvia 100, along with the general-purpose / portrait-balanced Provia 100F, the latter two also available in larger formats. As far as I can tell they're the last slide films still on sale, so at least in terms of slide films the winner was Fuji.

What about Venice? Modern cities are often built on a grid pattern. Venice on the other hand is wonky and misaligned. The horizontals are all over the place; the verticals lean and sag. The paving slabs undulate in an organic manner. It's one of the few major cities that wasn't flattened by war or remodelled by town planners or crushed to death by its suburbs, with the result that it feels non-standard in the modern world.

Venice is incompatible, with visible gaps and areas of imperfection. Its parts are not interchangeable. And yet people flock there whereas the likes of Milton Keynes - with its beautiful miniature roundabouts - and the futuristic concrete perfection of Birmingham are shunned by tourists. I just don't understand it.