The death of fiddling

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Above: In the belly of the beast, where Apple really prefers users not to go. Photo by Mark Lyndersay.

BitDepth#1066 for November 08, 2016

I spent six hours this weekend with two old Mac laptops, big hulking computing beasts from the days when a slim laptop meant you could hold it in one hand and not need to grapple with it two-handed like a shy schoolgirl holding her class notes in front of her.

Husky things, not these skinny ninja star things that Apple is making now, chunks of aluminium and plastic with honest-to-goodness screws in them that you could take a tool to and disassemble their big metal bits.

Then you would root around in their tidy chassis like a weekend mechanic tuning a cool hotrod, a red bandana stuck in your back pocket and a toolkit on the bonnet, like a real man.

Like most heroic fantasies, this sort of thing is a desperate illusion. There is a certain kind of person, a robust, choppin’ wood kind of log cabin pioneer who wants to carve his name in silicon (and it’s usually a man), hitting up NewEgg to put together the ideal mix of motherboard, processor, cooler and storage to build that most elusive of chimera, the perfect PC.

I’ve been using Macs as my main axe for all of my two and a half decades of computer use and as a consequence, the scope for such machismo has been limited. But limited doesn’t mean entirely absent.

You can, of course, build yourself a Hackintosh, the perfect PC adapted through clever, quasi-legal code to pretend it’s a Mac that Apple never built (but probably should have).

But even serious PC frontiersmen acknowledge that it’s probably more trouble than it’s worth to navigate the byzantine corridors of Apple’s software based locks to get the Mac OS running on unauthorised hardware.

When I was just getting started with this kind of tooling around twenty years ago, the craziness that engineers were coming up with to hotrod Apple’s computers was truly insane, more Twilight Zone adventurism than a dozen Hackintoshes.

I have, personally, bypassed a Mac Classic’s anemic video circuitry to plug a large monitor into a sealed box specifically designed to do no such thing.

I’ve stacked four SIMM chips into a single stacking chip to turn a bag full of 256k chips into 4MB of RAM to put into a IIci, the Mecca of Mac upgrade madness.

That adventure led to a sprouting forest of RAM chips, organically budding from slots designed for much humbler purposes.

That got pruned when a company called Mobius designed a PowerPC card for the same IIci, the equivalent of overclocking the processor, except that the company was making use of a slot not designed for that purpose and completely bypassing Apple’s logic board CPU.

The stacked RAM couldn’t keep up with the faster bus speed demanded by the PowerPC card, and it all had to come out. I still have the contraption, because you can’t explain this sort of thing to incredulous people, you have to be able to produce it as evidence of lunacy experienced.

The weekend mission with the MacBook Pros, 2008 models and the last of a line of laptops that you could open without a degree in engineering, was to upgrade them to SSDs, add RAM to one and replace batteries that had swollen with age.

This involved keeping track of no less than 24 screws, bundled into four groups by size, the smallest of which were so appallingly tiny that I had to sweep the floor twice to find them and even then it was only with the help of a magnet that I was able to separate them from the daily crud.

I think that when screws become indistinguishable from dust, the writing is on the wall. Apple really didn’t want us sashaying into their tidy Macs anymore, installing any of our cheap RAM and budget solid state drives.

That’s easy enough to see in retrospect, now that the company has basically sealed its computers, but then most folks never saw the inside of the white iBook, fondly known as the chiclet.

That was the most user hostile computer Apple ever sold, and yes, I know about the tower that bled people trying to open it.

This was a computer that had components in it held down with super sticky, single-use tape. That was the middle finger that led me to shut down any pretensions I had of making a go of continuing to consult with people about their Macs and helping them to make better use of them.

More computers today aren’t designed to be upgraded. It’s the tabletization of the consumer computer. Buy it, use it, pass it along. If nobody wants to do aftermarket upgrades, why bother to make the innards accessible?

It’s been almost ten years since then and after spending most of a working day on the weekend back in the land of fussy clips, sticky tape and lilliputian screws, it’s time to admit it. You win, Apple. I can’t go home again and really, I can’t muster the bravado to open even your “user-upgradeable” devices anymore.