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Apple switched to Intel processors in 2006 – any Mac from before then uses the PowerPC platform. For a while Mac software was designed to work on both types of computers, but those days are for the most part gone.
Put simply: you cannot use the latest Mac software on devices build before 2006. Whether you’ve had such a Mac for years, or picked it up at a garage sale, figuring out what you can and can’t do with such a Mac gets confusing fast. I should know: my primary computer until a year ago was a PowerMac G5. That is admittedly among the most powerful PPC Macs in existence, so speed wasn’t much of a problem for day-to-day computing – the machine could keep up with low-end devices even six years later. I could easily use this hardware for another couple years, from a hardware perspective.
The problem is software. Apple hasn’t released a PPC-compatible operating system since Leopard, meaning new features, and the Mac App Store, are completely out of reach. The situation with Apple’s desktop software isn’t much better: the last browser offered by Apple for PowerPC is 2010’s Safari 5, and Apple’s media player iTunes was last updated for PPC that same year. The latest versions of iWork and iLife you can use is ’09.
And it’s not just Apple that’s abandoned the platform – they put out software longer than most. The latest versions of Microsoft Office, Adobe Creative Suite and anything else you can think of probably won’t work on your PowerPC Mac.
This would all be fine if you had access to web apps, but even that’s potentially limited because of a lack of browsers for the platform. Google never even made a PowerPC version of Chrome, so it’s not usable. The last PPC version of Firefox is 3.6, meaning you’re up to date as of early 2011. And Opera fans are stuck with version 10.
Luckily, there is workable software out there. You just need to search for it.
Using Your PowerPC As A Normal Mac
You can use your Mac, as-is, to get things done. It just takes some flexibility, and the right software. Here’s how to get started.
For Browsing: TenFourFox
Is there a modern browser for PowerPC Macs? Yes. It’s called TenFourFox, and it’s a PowerPC Mac build of Firefox. This software is maintained to this day, and based on Firefox’s Extended Support Releases. This means you won’t necessarily get the latest Firefox features, but you are getting a modern browser that’s periodically updated – you aren’t being left behind.
For Media: VLC
Stick with the old versions of iTunes and Quicktime if you want – there’s nothing wrong with them. But if you want a lightweight media player that can play just about anything, I recommend VLC. It’s still maintained for PPC, so far as I can tell, and it works wonderfully on that platform. Best of all: it can play just about any file (assuming your Mac can handle it – HD video might be stretching things for an iMac G4).
For Work: Old Versions Of Commercial Software
It’s not up to date, but older commercial software will work just fine on your Mac. Office 2008 is the last version for this platform, and that’s not bad. It’s compatible with files from the latest version of Office, and is the last version of Office to not feature the Ribbon interface (perhaps a plus).
It’s also worth checking out iWork ’09, which many feel is actually better than Apple’s latest offering. This software is lightweight, so its pretty fast even on older Macs. Many longtime Mac users swear by its word processor, Pages, though Excel fanatics may find Numbers disappointing as a replacement.
Are you a designer? It’s worth noting that your PowerPC Mac can’t run the latest versions of Adobe’s Creative Suite – but it can run CS5. While lacking the latest features, this software is extremely capable to this day. You’ll be hard pressed to think of features you’re missing out on, compatibility with newer versions aside.
Finding More Software
This quick list shows that there is, with some digging, uses for a PowerPC Mac running OS X. There’s a lot more software out there, however. I highly recommend you check out this archive of PowerPC software.
I also recommend you check out and subscribe to MacPowerPC.com, a blog that to this day digs up software compatible with PowerPC Macs. And you can simply search for software on your own. Any download marked as “Universal” or “PPC” should work for you.
Replacing OS X With Linux
Want up-to-date software on your PPC Mac? Consider making the switch to Linux. You’ll find the latest versions of Firefox, LibreOffice and basically any other open source software you can think of, all in a central repository. Stop searching for software and simply get to work.
Ubuntu, among the easiest versions of Linux for Mac users, offers a community-maintained version for PPC Macs. The Ubuntu Wiki offers an in-depth outline for installing on PowerPC, which you should check out if you’re interested. I’d also recommend checking out PowerPC Liberation, a blog about installing Linux on your PPC Mac. You’ll learn a lot.
It’s worth noting that most commercial software for Linux will not work on your PowerPC – this means no Adobe Flash, no Dropbox and no Google Chrome. Put simply: companies are not compiling versions of this software for PowerPC, even on Linux.
Still, open source isn’t exactly limited: you’ll have access to tens of thousands of programs. Install, then explore. You’ll be amazed what your old Mac can still do.
Alternative Uses For Your PPC Mac
We’ve established that it’s perfectly possible to use an old PowerPC as a regular computer, but is it ideal? Not really – these machines are probably quite slow to anyone used to modern devices. Don’t panic: there are other uses for this hardware. Here’s a quick list:
As Your Own Alternative To Cloud Apps
We taught you about OwnCloud, which is a cross-platform, self-hosted alternative to Dropbox, Google Calendar and more. Well, as it turns out, this software is easy to install on a PPC Mac running Linux: just check out your distro’s package manager.
Set up the server on you old PPC, then install the client on your other computers – Windows, Linux or Mac. You’ve now got your own version of many popular cloud service – there’s even an online music player! – without the need to trust a third party company.
I couldn’t find a PPC Mac version of OwnCloud. Consider this a compelling reason to install Linux.
As A File Server
Your Mac can serve up files to your network. Plugged directly into your router, this makes for a decent local server. It’s not as full-featured a solution as OwnCloud, but it works if you just want local file storage.
Jackson outlined how to share files across Mac and Windows computers back in 2008 – these instructions should work perfectly on your PPC Mac.
As A Bittorrent Machine
So long as you’re using your old Mac as a server, why not also put it to work downloading torrents? MacPowerPC.com has a list of BitTorrent Clients for Mac, many of which offer support for adding files over the network. It’s worth trying out.
As Anything You Can Imagine
Is an old PPC Mac the ideal computer in 2013? Not really. Is it useless? Absolutely not. With the above tips you should help you put old hardware to good use.
What have I missed? A lot. You could, for example, strip the Mac parts out of your old device and rebuild – but that’s something for another article entirely. In the meantime, leave what you think an old PowerPC Mac could be useful for in the comments below.
Oh, and if anyone wants to try any of this out, I’ve got an old PowerMac G5 in my closet. If you’re in Colorado we could make a deal…
iMac photo by Omega21, usage of image free under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.