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PowerBook G4 15″ Buying Experience

Ultimately, you know better than anyone else what your needs are when looking for a PowerBook. This article isn’t intended to help you pick out which PowerBook is right for you. It might be an 867 MHz PowerBook G4 12″, or it might be a 1.67 GHz PowerBook G4 17″. That decision is entirely up to you. However, this article may help you avoid some problems in the buying process. Humans, among all the animals, have the unique ability to learn from another’s experience…

When buying a high-value item like a PowerBook G4, it is important to do so safely. Unfortunately, the most likely source for a used PowerBook at a reasonable price is eBay. And on eBay, most of the power lies with the seller. I thought at first that I would get a good deal through buying from a reseller of refurbished PowerBooks or of PowerBooks obtained via an estate sale or the like. I picked up a PowerBook G4 15″ 1.67 GHz for $710 from a dutch auction. I payed with a balance transfer via PayPal. A week later, it arrived in fantastic shape. The case was perfect. This was too good to be true, I thought. And indeed it was. When I turned it on for the first time, I got a single solid tone indicating that bad RAM was installed. After a trip to the Apple store and some investigation online, I determined that the problem was actually a bad RAM slot, not bad RAM. I sent it back to the seller for an exchange (he had more than one).

After some helpful advice from the online community, I opened a dispute via PayPal. Oh boy, the seller didn’t like that. The seller had already received my PowerBook, but he refused to send the replacement until I closed the dispute. At this point, I was more interested in obtaining a $710 dollar PowerBook G4 than I was in having my money returned to me. So I caved and closed the dispute. The seller did follow through and send a replacement PowerBook. I like to give people the benefit of the doubt when I first meet them, so I will refrain from thinking he was being vengeful or spiteful when he sent me a replacement that was in considerably worse cosmetic shape (screws that wouldn’t completely recess, dents and dings galore, and more scratches than sandblasted crystal). Add to that the fact that the same RAM slot was defective (only this time the problem was intermittent).

This was the second PowerBook that I had received from the seller that was defective. At this point, either the seller knew he had a supply problem, or he was beginning to suspect that I was somehow causing the PowerBooks to malfunction when the arrived. Needless to say, he wasn’t as friendly as the first time when I contacted him regarding a defective PowerBook. He did offer yet another exchange, but I wasn’t willing to test the old adage that the “third time’s the charm.” And, with my PayPal dispute having been closed and not having paid via credit card, I had no recourse but to politely and gently ask for a refund. Much to the seller’s credit (and contrary to his listing’s text), he did finally agree to a refund (minus all shipping costs, of course).

So what were my two biggest mistakes? 1) I pre-maturely closed my PayPal dispute. Stick to your guns until the problem is resolved to your liking. When buying on eBay, the seller holds all the cards (money and goods). PayPal helps to level that playing field by acting as a sort of escrow service when a buyer takes issue with a transaction. Without this protection, you always run the risk that once you pay for an item, the seller can walk off with your money. 2) I didn’t use a credit card to pay even though the seller accepted credit card funded PayPal payments. Even after you close a dispute via PayPal, you can still start the process for a charge back through your credit card company. This affords you an even greater level of protection as a buyer.

So let that be a lesson to you. But I have a few more tips to offer. In researching PowerBooks to buy, I finally settled on a 1.67 GHz 15″ G4. Along the way, I learned a few things about common failures and frequent problems in them.

1) Dead RAM Slot
Perhaps the most frequent issue to plague owners of the aluminum line of 15″ PowerBooks is the failure of one of the RAM slots. Sometimes this problem manifests itself at startup with a single long beep indicating bad RAM is installed. Sometimes it gives three beeps indicating it can’t locate any memory. Sometimes you Mac seems to work fine except that half the RAM is missing according to “About this Mac.” And sometimes it surfaces as complete system freezes after the PowerBook has been running for a while. A lengthy discussion of this issue appeared on MacInTouch. In fact, the problem was so pervasive that Apple offered a free repair program: About the PowerBook G4 Memory Slot Repair Extension Program. Apple claimed this issue only affected a very limited number of 1.5 GHz and 1.67 GHz PowerBooks with 15″ screens manufactured between January and April in 2005. However, this problem has surfaced in all iterations of the 15″ aluminum PowerBooks, and there is an online petition to have all them covered under this repair program here: PowerBook Lower Memory Slot failure – The Petition

2) Case Flexing
These machines are all made of aluminum which is a relatively pliable metal. Repeated lifting by holding the corner next to the CD/DVD drive’s slot can cause subtle deflection at that corner. Eventually this manifests itself as a PowerBook which has an unsightly gap at that corner when the lid is closed. Although the PowerBook will continue to function, this is visually unpleasant.

3) Dents!
Aluminum is slippery. If you don’t have a good grasp of an edge, it is very easy for an aluminum PowerBook to slip out of your grip and crash down to the floor. This results in unsightly dings and dents over the lifetime of a PowerBook. In some cases, small dents at the rear corners of the PowerBook can cause enough case deformation to prevent the AC adapter from making adequate contact with the power socket. This can ultimately end up in a PowerBook that cannot be recharged.

4) Trackpad Stutter or Unresponsiveness
Although I haven’t experienced this myself, some have reported that the new trackpads Apple used in the aluminum G4s are less sensitive than the previous trackpads used in the titanium G4s. In some cases, the trackpads are completely defective. They also appear to be highly susceptible to static discharge events so user beware: Don’t wear wool socks on winter nights and use your trackpad at the same time.

5) Broken Trackpad Clicker
Sometimes, even though you haven’t heard (of felt) the un-click when you pick your thumb up off the trackpad button, the button does electrically un-click. If you are moving a bunch of files or dragging for a large selection, this can be especially annoying. And, unfortunately, it requires an excessive amount of force to keep the button depressed. Which can lead to the next problem: In some cases, the clicker can be completely separated from it’s supporting structure. This can make for a “squishy” click, or very noisy “snapping” sound during a click, or a completely non-functional button a la the 5300 of yore. While annoying, this can be worked around with an external mouse or through use of the “click” or “tap” functionality of the trackpad itself.

6) Battery Recall
Shades of the PowerBook 5300! Apple issued a recall on certain batteries in the PowerBook G4 15″ line. These batteries were manufactured by Sony (just like the Li-Ion batteries for the 5300) and could present a serious safety hazard if not dealt with. Fortunately, the number of reported “accidents” has been very low. Check out the Battery Exchange Program for iBook G4 and PowerBook G4.

7) Closed Lid Won’t Stay Closed
There are at least two failure signatures for this problem. In one scenario, the little hook that latches when the case closes won’t clear the latching mechanism and so can never engage. In the other scenario, the little hook doesn’t actuate at all and doesn’t descend when the lid is closed. In both cases, sometimes a little gentle prodding or “convincing” by applying a little extra acceleration just at the last moment will allow the case to latch shut. In extreme cases, the lid simply will not stay shut at all.

Enjoy & happy hunting,

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