The Mac that saved Apple (and Steve Jobs)
Deep inside the Bondi Blue
This Old Box On May 6, 1998, Apple CEO Steve Jobs introduced the iMac at the Flint Center Theater in Apple's home town of Cupertino, California — the same venue where he had unveiled the original Macintosh back in 1984.
"We think iMac is going to be a really big deal," he told the crowd. He was right.
The iMac shipped at the stroke of midnight on the morning of August 15 of that year, sparking one of the original fanboi feeding frenzies — roll-out rituals that have since become de rigueur for every major Apple-product intro.
I remember covering that crowded midnight rollout at a Palo Alto, California, store, and talking with then Apple hardware-engineering honcho Jon Rubenstein, who was beaming like a proud papa. An exhausted proud papa, to be sure, but grinning ear-to-ear nonetheless as he watched a long line of purchasers plop down $1,299 for the latest shiny-shiny, and lug their big boxes out of the store, smiling as broadly as Rubenstein himself.
Rubenstein told me that the iMac was going to redefine consumer computing. He was right.
A few years back, I got my hands on one of those original iMacs — or so I thought. A few days ago, I decided to take it apart, grab my camera, and share its innards with Reg readers — and when I did, I discovered that what had been represented to me as being an original iMac, well, wasn't an original iMac.
But it's close — and let me explain.
The original iMac is known by the moniker of "Bondi Blue" — that name being a reference to its color, which was inspired by the waters lapping up to the shore of Bondi Beach, a suburb of Sydney in Australia's province of New South Wales. (Note: my Bondi Blue iMac is more "Bondi" than "Blueberry" in reality than in my photos. Blame it on my misreading of color temperature.)
There were, however, two versions of the Bondi Beach babe: Rev. A, which shipped only briefly, replaced by Rev. B on October 26 of the same year. The differences between the two are minimal — and I'll point them out as we take apart what I discovered to be my Rev. B, not Rev. A, model.
When Jobs introduced the iMac, he enthused to his Flint Center audience, "The back of this thing looks better than the front of the other guys'." Indeed, Apple's focus on industrial design was one of the revolutions ushered in by the iMac.
Remember, if you're old enough, the beige boxes of yesteryear. For all intents and purposes, they're gone — even the stodgy fogies at box-churners such as Dell have had to put ID designers on their staffs.
Design was on Jobs' mind when he rolled out the iMac — he must have used the word "cool" at least a dozen times. "It looks like it's from another planet," he cooed. "And a good planet — a planet with better designers."
Like the original Macintosh 128k — and lesser lights such as the Color Classic and LC 575, the iMac was an all-in one. Like that original Mac, it included a handle, fastened snugly to its plastic case with four healthy-sized screws. At 40 pounds (18.1kg), however, the iMac was far less luggable than the 1984 original, which weighed in at a mere 16.5 pounds (7.5kg).
The front of the iMac was home to a pair of SRS-enhanced stereo speakers. The grille for the speaker on the right side — the iMac's right, that is, not yours — included a deep-red window for the iMac's infrared connectivity. The port used the IrDA protocol, which could handle data at up to 4Mbps and supported both AppleTalk and TCP/IP.
Use of the infrared port never quite caught on, however, even though Jobs at his rollout touted its ability to stream digital photos wirelessly from an IrDA-equipped camera — digital-camera images were smaller in those days...
The infrared capability disappeared from the iMac when the Bondi Blue's follow-ons — Blueberry, Strawberry, Lime, Tangerine, and Grape — debuted in January 1999. The Bondi's tray-loading CD-ROM drive survived that next generation, but was replaced by a slot-loading CD-ROM or DVD-ROM drive in October 1999's product-line refresh.
And in one of its most controversial design decisions — said to have been championed by Rubinstein — the original iMac (and its follow-ons) had no floppy drive. That decision worked out quite well, however, despite claims by many at the time that the lack of a floppy was going to be the iMac's fatal flaw.
The right-side speaker grille's dual headphone jacks were a nod to the iMac's education-market hopes: a teacher and a student — or two students — could simultaneously listen to what was then called "multimedia content". Also, the dual jacks may also have been part of the iMac's family-friendly focus, which Jobs said was defined by the "i" in its name, which stood for "internet, individual, instruct, inform, and inspire."
Ports and plugs
Over on the right side of the iMac there was a pop-down door with a 25mm rubber-ringed hole through which cables could be threaded to the iMac's ports. And behind that door was where the iMac broke most clearly away from its predecessors.
"We're leaving the old Apple I/O behind," Jobs told his rollout audience. And the iMac most certainly did. Gone were SCSI, the Apple Desktop Bus (ADB) connecters for mouse and keyboard, and serial connectors for printer and networking.
In their place were stereo audio-in and -out ports, a pair of 12Mbps USB 1.1 ports, an RJ-45 100Mbps Ethernet port, a power-reset switch and NMI (nonmaskable interrupt) button (better known as the "programmer's switch"), and an RJ-11 port for the iMac's modem.
Below the ports was an enticing rectangular area blocked by a screw-in plate — but more on that entryway into the supposedly non-upgradeable iMac's innards later.
The modem, by the way, wasn't the 33.6Kbps V.34bis unit that Jobs had said the iMac would have when he announced it in May. At that announcement, Jobs had said that "We are targeting [the iMac] for the number-one use that consumers tell us they want a computer for, which is to get on the internet, simply and fast."
V.34bis wasn't exactly what would be called "fast" — even in those pre-broadband days, and complaints were raised by many observers. When the iMac shipped in August, however, it included a 56Kbps modem based on the V.90 (aka "V.Last") standard, which was a harmonic convergence of the two competing 56kbps wannabe modem standards at the time: US Robotics/3COM's X2 and Rockwell/Lucent's K56flex.
Apple's attention to design detail was evidenced in such small niceties as that port door's rubberized ring, and even the iMac's recessed AC-cord socket. Principal industrial designer Jonathan Ive once referred to the iMac as being "unashamedly plastic". He also noted that the iMac's translucency had caused him and his team to "[find] ourselves caring about the appearance of internal components that had previously had little impact on the product's appearance."
User-serviceable — for some users, at least
The Bondi Blue iMac was designed to be relatively easy to open to upgrade both system and video memory. Doing so, however, wasn't what we'd now call a simple matter — it involved setting the iMac face-down on a pad or fluffy towel, removing its bottom, popping off a few cables, and sliding its guts out on a tray.
Popping off the bottom of the Bondi Blue is a simple matter of removing one screw, then grabbing hold of the handle and pulling off the cover. It's after you free that cover that things get a bit wonky.
If those look like video and serial cables, it's because they're video and serial cables (click to enlarge)
To free the system tray after popping off the bottom plastic, you first need to remove a pair of power cables — one for the drives and another for the rest of the system, including the fan — plus a video cable that leads to the CRT, and a serial cable that leads to the infrared sensor.
After you've disconnected the cables, you grab the system tray by its top plastic handle, lift — and wiggle and coax a bit — and it slides up and out.
Once out of the iMac, the system tray reveals itself to consist of two main areas. in its boxy flat front live the CD-ROM drive and the hard drive, with the former siting on top of the latter. In the tilted rear section lives the logic board and all its computing goodness
One thing you can't immediately see when looking at the system tray is the lack of hefty boot ROMs. The iMac was the first Mac that used what was called the New World ROM — meaning that after the machine booted from a 1MB Open Firmware ROM, the 3MB Mac Toolbox image was loaded into RAM from a file on the hard drive. Previous Macs had the Toolbox and boot routines in a hardware ROM.
When the system tray is propped up on its CR-ROM foot, it's easy to see the cage in which lives the CPU daughtercard and SO-DIMM RAM slots. A simple clip holds the cage's lid in place; removing it allows you to also remove the CPU's heat sink — which sits right on the chip with no thermal paste — and expose the little guy himself. Or herself. Whatever.
In the chips
After I freed the system tray from within my supposedly original Bondi Blue iMac and began looking around, I noticed that there was a two-sided SO-DIMM in the slot labeled SGRAM SO-DIMM Only. The original Bondi Blue had only 2MB of video SGRAM soldered onto the logic board, and a SO-DIMM slot in case you wanted to upgrade to 4MB or 6MB.
Being a "glass half-full", optimistic, Polyannaish kinda guy, I at first thought: "How nice — the previous owner must have upgraded the video RAM in this original iMac from its stock 2MB to its max 6MB."
With a two-sided SGRAM SO-DIMM, the Bondi can be equipped with 6MB of video memory (click to enlarge)
But then I got out my magnifying glass and read the ID info on the graphics chip sitting next to the SGRAM slot — and discovered that what I had thought for years was an original Rev. A iMac was instead a Rev. B.
The Rev. A's display was powered by an ATI Rage IIc with a core clockspeed of 60MHz and a memory bandwith of 480MBs. My now-unmasked Rev B., on the other hand, has an ATI Rage Pro Turbo PCI chip, which has a 75MHz core and talks to SGRAM at 800MBs.
The Rage Pro — and notice also the CPU's heat sink through the cage holes at left (click to enlarge)
Yeah, the Rage Pro is a better performer than the Rage IIc, but I miss the cachet of owning the original.
At least the CPUs in the Rev. A and Rev. B are identical: a 233MHz Motorola PowerPC 750, aka the G3, running on a 66MHz system bus. It may be hard to stretch your memory back to 1998, but a 233MHz G3 was a respectable part at that time. Jobs, however, when introducing the iMac, went well beyond respectable: "This thing screams," he said.
The daughtercard cantilevers over the logic board, snapped securely into two multi-pin sockets. On the top of the daughtercard lives the CPU — the aforementioned XPC750-ARX233SE, and one 2-inch, 144-pin SO-DIMM slot. On the bottom of the daughtercard is the Motorola XPC106ARX66CG bridge/memory controller chip and a second SO-DIMM slot, albeit a 1.5-inch one.
The Bondi Blue shipped with 32MB of RAM in one SO-DIMM — no RAM was soldered onto the logic board. Again, to quote Jobs from his intro spiel: "Let's go ahead and put a lot of memory into this thing: 32 megabytes standard — it's expandable to 128." Actually, it was expandable to 256MB, but not from Apple.
The bottom of the daughtercard, with the bridge/memory controller chip in the lower left (click to enlarge)
One distinct advantage of the daughtercard setup was that third parties could and did offer CPU upgrades for the Bondi Blue and the next two iMac revisions, which were also daughtercarded.
Sonnet Technologies, for example, offered the 600MHz PowerPC G3 Sonnet Harmoni G3, which also added a FireWire 400 port that poked through that aforementioned screwed-in plate behind the Bondi's port door.
Which brings us to...
The mysterious mezzanine
Soon after the iMac shipped, enterprising geeks took theirs apart to find out what that plate below the port array was hiding, and were surprised to find that on the underside of the logic board there was a connecter labeled "Mezzanine" that Apple hadn't trumpeted in its promo materials or spec sheets.
The slot turned out to be a proprietary PCI connector — the iMac's Motorola XPC106 bridge chip (aka "Grackle") supports PCI. Its usage by Apple was, to my knowledge, never officially confirmed, but the word on the street is that Apple techs used it to test, monitor, and diagnose the logic board and other system functions.
This slot has absolutely nothing to do with Nicholson Baker's novel (click to enlarge)
A PCI slot in an otherwise expansion-hobbled iMac begged for third-party devices to be plugged into it — but both the cramped location of the slot and its access difficulty for the average user kept the upgrade aftermarket small.
That said, the now-defunct Formac* made a TV tuner–SCSI adapter mashup called the iProTVRAID that fit into the slot. Another now-defunct outfit, Micro Conversions, was said to have announced a mezzanine slot version of its Game Wizard 3DFX VooDoo graphics card, though I've been unable to find out if that card ever shipped.
Nestled next to the mezzanine slot on the bottom of the logic board, by the way, lived the 56Kbps modem I mentioned earlier, powered by a Rockwell L2800-38 and R6764-62 chip pairing.
When stripped of the daughter card and its cage, plus the modem, the Bondi Blue iMac's logicboard is a clean design with no "whoops" do-over traces — at least none that I could spot.
The top of the Bondi Blue iMac's logic board, with the ATI Rage Pro to the left of center (click to enlarge)
Spinning stuff and nifty speakers
While the RAM upgrades — both video and system — on the Bondi Blue are straightforward, upgrading the hard drive is less straightforward. But it's doable — especially if you're not lumbered with XXL hands, as is yours truly.
Four-thousand, three-hundred, and eleven megabytes — and each one well-appreciated (click to enlarge)
With only 4.3GB of space to work with, upgrading your Bondi Blue's hard drive was certainly welcome. However, because the iMac's ATA implementation doesn't support 48-bit logical block addressing, you're limited to hard drives of 137GB or under.
According to the venerable LowEndMac, you can also upgrade a Bondi's CD-ROM drive to a CD-RW drive. I've never seen a DVD-ROM upgrade for tray-loading CD-ROM iMacs such as the Bondi Blue, but that certainly doesn't mean they don't exist. I don't get out much.
Before we crack open our Bondi Blue to take a look at its bulky, dangerous, and archaic CRT display, let's take another look at those cables that I unhooked right before I slid out the system tray:
The one in the center is an eight-pin mini-DIN RS-232/RS-422 cable — which makes sense, seeing as how it snakes around the side of the CRT display and hooks up to the iMac's front-mounted infrared sensor:
What is interesting about the photograph of that cable's destination, however, isn't the silver rectangular infrared-sensor unit to which it connects. Of greater interest is the translucent chamber with a curved top to the sensor's right, inside of which you can see a translucent tube.
That unit is a pint-sized speaker enclosure for the iMac's SRS stereo sound system, and the tube-within-a-box setup is essentially a bass-reflex system, but with the porting happening in the back end of the enclosure and not the front.
The iMac had a deservedly good reputation for decent sound despite its speakers' size. That little translucent box is one reason why.
The display of death
My Bondi Blue had been sitting unused for a couple of years, so after I stripped its digital side down to its basics, I felt perfectly safe in opening up its CRT enclosure — something I wouldn't dare do if I had just shut the thing down.
If you don't already know, hear this: inside of CRT enclosures lurk massive, deadly voltages, just waiting to leap out of, say, an industrial-strength capacitor and lay you low. If you have a CRT-based display and it starts to go on the fritz, don't blithely open it up and start mucking about — even the next day or, as some say, the next week. One false move and your family will find out if your will is in order.
That said, here's what the Bondi Blue's analog CRT looks like when it's stripped naked:
A CRT's bulk, complexity, and heat make you appreciate today's flat-panel displays (click to enlarge)
I'm the first to admit, like some rural folks used to say, that I "don't know jack-dog" about CRT techology — I just enjoyed opening the damn thing up, taking a peek inside, and remembering the bad old days:
Not that CRT technology is inherently bad — don't get me wrong. There are many fine CRT displays that can outperform many of today's flat panels. But the iMac wasn't equipped with one of them.
Despite Steve Jobs' assertion during his rollout presentation that the iMac's CRT was "an Apple-quality display that we are very proud of," iMac displays were notoriously short-lived and problem-plagued.
The iMac CRT's flyback transformer was often cited as flaky and problem-inducing. Also problematic were the CRT's electron guns.
My family has owned three G3 iMacs. The CRTs on two of them failed. A small sample, I know, but cruising around the interwebs looking for similarly disappointed users told me I wasn't alone.
Flyback-transformer adjustments might help your failing display — or kill you if you slip up (click to enlarge)
That said, the iMac certainly wasn't alone in having problems with its CRT — I once had a an off-brand CRT implode while I was testing it — and satisfied CRT-equipped iMac users far outnumbered those faced with fading colors or fuzzing focus.
If the G3 iMac's display problems had been fatal to its acceptance by consumers, Apple would now be either dead or dying, and Steve Jobs would be out of work. They weren't, it's not, and he's the CEO of the Decade, immortalized in cheese.
And now my office floor is littered with Bondi Blue iMac G3 parts, and my desktop is cluttered with PC boards, wire bundles, SO-DIMMs, and screws. Lots of screws.
I'm surrounded by the guts of the personal computer that saved Apple, arguably jump-started the internet age, helped kill off the floppy, and brought translucency to everything from George Foreman grills to Rowenta Surfline steam irons.
If it were a Rev. A, I'd probably reassemble it. But a Rev. B? Meh... ®
Although Formac has disappeared from the US market, it's alive and well in Europe, with offices in the UK and its home country of Germany.
All photographs by the author