Programming Blog

Jeremy Morgan

Mostly Coherent Ramblings of a Silicon Forest Software Developer

Old G4 + Debian Linux = Dirt Cheap Development Machine

Author: Jeremy Morgan

So last week my laptop died on me. Motherboard took a dive, and unfortunately that was my “main machine”.  I know it takes me quite some time to find and fix up a machine, and decided a quick interim machine needed to be built. So I hit craigslist.

I quickly found that if I wanted to spend 4-500 dollars on a laptop I’d have plenty to choose from. Most have Turion processors, or are some cheap knockoff. I just needed to finish up some PHP work, and these machines would work fine, but eventually I’m going to purchase a nice 17” laptop with all the bells and whistles and have a $500 machine that’s going to collect dust.

I remembered using a G4 Powerbook for development just a few short years ago, and I loved it. So I thought “why not?” I knew I could get one pretty cheap. I ended up finding one for $200 that was quite a steal.

I picked up this PowerBook G4 with the power adapter, manuals and everything for only $200. It was in really good shape, and a great deal. Even if I didnt get this one, I found several in the 2-300 dollar range all over the place. I took it home and set it up.

My ignorance of Mac operating systems showed pretty quick when I tried to do anything. It came pre installed with OSX “Panther” which I wasn’t really familiar with. My old G4 had Leopard installed, and was pretty modern. Panther is a dinosaur. I quickly found out that Safari didn’t render pages well at all, and it was the latest version you could install on Panther. I couldn’t install a newer version of Java to run any tools and I didn’t even bother putting Apache or anything on it. It was clear even if I could build things, I couldn’t test them on such an ancient browser anyway. So I had to come up with something else.

You cannot develop websites effectively with Panther in 2011. Sad but true.

The cheapest version of Leopard I could find was $150, almost what I paid for the whole machine. $150 for a really outdated operating system? There has to be a better way.

Linux saves the day again!

I remember reading about people porting linux to PPC years ago, and figured I’d give it a shot. After some research I found that three good options existed for Linux on PPC machines:

I decided to go with FreeBSD at first, and had some problems with partitioning. I got it installed, but it seemed like no matter what I did, I had drive seek and partition errors. I figured I’d go with something I’m more familiar with and downloaded the Debian ISO.

At first I downloaded the initial install CD and it installed without a hitch. I am not allowed to connect this machine to my company network, so I was doing an offline install and started putting debs on a flash drive and going back and forth. This got old really quick, so I downloaded and burned the full DVD and reinstalled a full version with Gnome and the web server box checked.

The install process for this is identical to setting up linux on any other machine, with the exception of creating a small boot partition so the bootloader can work. It was much easier than I thought it would be. In no time I had a nice smooth Linux install with very few issues.

Debian on Mac Powerbook

It was a good way to make an old computer “modern”. It comes with a good version of “IceWeasel” which is a rebranded FireFox and has decent updates to Java and other things. The webserver and PHP installed without a hitch, and MySQL needed a little configuring. Now I can use Gedit or Vim to write php and test them and GFTP to upload it. I have a nice smooth running web development system for $200.

If I want to use Photoshop I’m probably out of luck, but everything else this thing will work great. This is a nice solution if you need a rock bottom priced development machine, it would be hard to find comparable hardware in the $200 range, and this old mac actually runs really well. It only uses 180 megs of memory while I’m working, which is pretty impressive. I would recommend this setup to PHP or web developers not doing any kind of graphics, it’s smooth as can be and dirt cheap!

Do you like articles like this?

I’m constantly hacking on stuff and writing about happenings in the programmer world. You can subscribe to my feed here, or you can get the hacker newsletter 100% spam free!

You can also follow my projects on GitHub: