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Way back in Jan of 2016 I wrote an article on the slot loading iMac G3. This time we’re going to take a look at the original Bondi blue “tray loading” iMac G3 and see how this iconic computer that is often times referred to as “the Mac that saved Apple” compares to its later “slot loading” revision. In this article we will be looking at a more or less bone stock very first revision or revision A model originally released in August of 1998.

As I stated in my original post on the slot loading variant of the iMac I was not the greatest fan of the Mac and was firmly in the Wintel PC camp during that time. My disdain for the iMac though was at the height of my displeasure with all things Apple and I honestly did not know why anyone would want one of those computers. Time and experience though has softened my stance and I now can appreciate these computers for what they are and the use they were intended for. The all in one iMac G3 was not a new idea but it was an idea that Apple as a company had moved away from during the latter half of the ’90s to make more generic “PC” type machines and hence lost a lot of what made Apple unique and stand out in the market. The iMac G3 was an all-in-one machine and was extremely simple to set up and played with Apple’s strength of focusing on industrial design with a colorful and inviting Bondi blue colored shell as opposed to the standardized beige of almost all other PC cases. The iMac was intended to be extremely user-friendly and be simple to set up like a microwave or a toaster. This computer was aimed at the average user just wanting to “surf the net” or write school assignments rather than power users or gamers (even though the iMac certainly could be gamed on).

The original model seen here only came in Bondi blue as opposed to later models that were offered in a variety of colored shells. A handle was provided at the top to help move the Mac around but to be honest it always feels a little awkward to use and I always feel like it’s going to snap off despite the handle being very sturdy.

The bulk of the iMac is taken up by the built-in 15-inch shadow mask CRT monitor capable of resolutions up to 1024 x 768. The iMac G3’s kept this same spec monitor throughout all models though later slot loading iMac’s supplied an external VGA port to connect to an external monitor. These early tray loaders did not which makes it quite unfortunate if your monitor dies. The rear of the Mac hides only a small handle, which is used when removing the motherboard, and a standard 3-prong power connector.

They also came with a matching Bondi blue iMac keyboard and mouse. The keyboard is a simple Apple USB keyboard and is not so dissimilar from others besides the color but the mouse, a USB ball type mouse, is the infamous “puck mouse” so called because of its hockey puck like shape.

Unfortunately the rumors of the poor ergonomics of the of the puck mouse are completely true and the mouse can be very awkward and uncomfortable to use over any extended period of time. This isn’t a major problem since the mouse can be swapped out with any Apple USB mouse including later Apple Pro mice which use a standard shape and sports a laser as opposed to the older ball for tracking. The puck mouse also uses the traditional one-button Apple style mouse so no scroll wheel. The mouse has held up well though I’m not sure if this is from rugged construction or lack of use.

The iMac was famously the first Mac to drop the floppy drive although one was easily added via a USB port. In its place a 24x CD-ROM drive was standard and is located below the monitor. The early runs of the iMac used a tray loading CD drive, hence the “tray loader” title where as the later models used a self-loading slot mechanism. Next to the CD drive we have a power button that emits a soft green light when on and on the right and left sides we have two built-in stereo speakers. These speakers do have a habit of rotting a bit but it is a repairable issue and fortunately this particular iMac does not suffer from the foam around the speakers deteriorating.

The speaker on the left has a wireless 4Mbits/s IrDA inferred sensor which was removed starting with the revision C tray loaders. The right speaker has dual 1/8 stereo jacks for hooking up headphones that two users can use at once which is quite nice. Underneath the Mac is a fold-out stand of the same Bondi blue as the case.

On the left side of the iMac we have a small compartment housing some various ports. The is a plastic cover which can either be removed entirely or replaced after your various peripherals are plugged in and the wires snaked out through the several openings provided.

Once the plastic cover is removed we are greeted by a variety of ports.

On the left we have two more audio jacks, one for a microphone and a second for optional external speakers, handy if the built-in speakers fail or are not powerful enough for your liking. Next to that is a scant two USB 1.1 ports. The iMac is also known for going all in on USB and ditching the traditional Apple ADB ports in favor of USB though I wish more USB ports were made available. The mouse is generally expected to plug into the USB port on the keyboard (this why the cord is generally so short) and this does help free things up. A USB hub can also be used without issue in case you have multiple USB devices you want to use. Next we have a 10/100 Ethernet jack and lastly a 56k Modem jack.

Under these ports we have a mysterious little covered cutout held in by two screws. Behind this cover is what is commonly called a “mezzanine slot”. This is a sort of expansion slot that originally was only supposed to be for Apple’s internal use but you can use it for other things and third parties did make expansion devices that took advantage of the presence of this slot though from my research they seem to be extremely rare. I even know of at least one third party adaptor that uses the slot to add a 3DFX Voodoo II upgrade and according to Wikipedia SCSI and TV tuner cards were also available though I’ve never seen any of these cards in person. This port was removed along with the previously mentioned inferred sensor with the tray loading revision C model.

Opening the iMac is much easier then it is on later revisions and there is no “mesh” layer present that requires removal. You just need to remove a few screws on the underside and then use the handle to pull off the plastic case section. Once the outer case is removed as well as a few more screws and cables the motherboard assembly will slide out though be careful as with most older Macintosh computers the plastic casing can be delicate and things tend to snap off.

Here is the underside of the case with the motherboard assembly removed. The early tray loaders sport a fan for cooling as seen here while the later slot loaders used a fanless convection process to cool internals.

Here we have the tray that holds the motherboard and most of the iMac’s components completely removed from the case. The hard drive is located under the CD-ROM drive as seen in the image below. Mine came with the original 4GB 5400 RPM drive.

imactlx1

Originally the iMac came preloaded with Mac OS 8.1 or 8.5 with the ability to officially upgrade to OS X 10.3.9 though mine has been upgraded to OS 9.2.2.

1 ) CPU/RAM – The CPU and RAM on the tray loaders were both located on daughterboards that connected directly to the main motherboard. The metal cage enclosing the daughterboard easily wiggles off with some light force. Revision A as seen in this article and revision B iMacs only shipped with a 233MHz PowerPC 750 G3 processor w/ 512kb of L2 cache but later revision C and D tray loader iMacs had 266MHz and 333MHz CPUs installed.

tlmac12

imactlx3

imactlx4

CPU module top

imactlx5

CPU module bottom

Standard RAM amount was 32MB of PC100 SDRAM in a smaller laptop style form factor. The revision A iMac was expandable officially to 128MB and unofficially to 384MB. Revision B, C and D were officially expandable to 256MB and unofficially to 512MB. My machine came with the oddly numbered 288MB of RAM installed. It seems the previous owner did make the sole upgrade of adding a 256MB stick of memory in addition to the 32MB of RAM already installed.

I had no problem up upgrading my RAM to a full 512MB by installing two 256MB RAM modules despite being a Rev. A motherboard and sources online indicating 384MB being the limit.

2) Video – Original revision A iMacs shipped with a built-in Rage IIc chip and 2MB of SGRAM as seen on my iMac but this was quickly changed in revision B and up tray loaders to the much more powerful Rage Pro chipset with 6MB of SGRAM standard. The original revision A boards can be upgraded to a full 6MB of SGRAM.

The ATI chip isn’t a surprise as Apple has a history of using ATI chips for graphics in this era. As far as I can tell the revision A iMac G3 is the sole computer to use this specific version of the Rage chip built in. Overall the Rage IIc is an adequate chip, though by 1998 it was getting quite outdated and was seen as a entry level 3D video chip. 2D applications should run just fine as well as less intensive 3D titles as long as resolutions and features are kept in check.

imactlx2

with 4MB extra video RAM module

3) Sound – Sound has always seemed like a bit of an afterthought in Apple machines and finding specifics has always been a bit of a chore as sound chips aren’t commonly noted on spec sheets. The iMac would appear to use Crystal CS4211-KM chip which supports simulated surround sound via the two built-in speakers.

4) Battery – Lastly we have the PRAM battery which acts just like the CMOS battery in a standard motherboard. Be sure to replace this on any newly acquired Macintosh computer.

The iMac does what it set out to achieve and I can see now what I couldn’t see as my high school self, why the iMac succeeded. It wasn’t meant for people like me. It was meant less for hardcore PC gamers and those that liked to expand and tinker with their computers and more for the everyday user, the soccer mom, the person that just wanted to do homework and surf the internet and it made a pretty easy to setup and usable computer to sit in the corner of the family room and have for general family usage.

As a collectors piece the Bondi blue iMac is certainly worth adding to the collection and holds a significant place in computer history and especially Apple’s history. They are still relatively inexpensive as of 2019 though an original revision A may take some work track down and identify. If your purely looking for a Macintosh for late 90’s gaming though there are much better options. Personally, I think your better off acquiring a Power Macintosh G3 tower or desktop simply for the vastly greater options you get in upgrading (such as PCI slots) and higher ease of repair. Failing finding one of these a later slot loading iMac or even a G4 could make a good choice as they seem to be easier to source and are more powerful out of the box.

 

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3 Comments

  1. I like how it comes apart completely isolated from the higher voltage monitor section. This makes upgrades and other simple work safer to perform. You have to be careful of other older Macs with integrated screens as the high voltage boards are not insulated when working on the computer.

  2. You suggested that iMacs may not attract overclockers. Actually old iMacs are fairly easy to overclock. Just reconfigure some resistors (surface mount soldering required). Low End Mac-website has a table of available settings:
    http://lowendmac.com/2009/overclocking-a-tray-loading-imac-g3/ . Swapping processor-cards may be another option. Not sure about compatibility between iMac-revisions.

    Hints: Old iMacs are picky about 256 MB RAM-modules. For up to 128 MB-modules just use PC100 SD-RAM SO-DIMM (PC133 may work). However 256 MB modules need to be of a type suitable for tray-loading iMacs (also for 1998-99 PowerBooks G3) and are usually labeled as such. I never found out what exactly makes it compatible. Other 256 MB modules may function but are registering only 128 MB.

    Boot into Mac OS 8.5.1 to 9.1 for better performance and compatibility with older classic (not OS X) games (333 MHz iMacs need at least Mac OS 8.6). Do this better on a separate partition, since OS X will complain if you later try to start the Classic environment with anything older than Mac OS 9.2.x (or so).

    Old iMacs handle most 1990’s games (for Mac OS 7 to 9) and simpler ones from the early 2000s quite well. For later games OS X is required (running quite OK on RAM-enhanced iMacs) but are more demanding about the graphics card. Some came bundled with iMacs and iBooks: “Nanosaur” and the technological similar “Bugdom” (both great graphics, Rev.A iMacs need a VRAM-upgrade), also the slightly odd but entertaining action-shooter “MDK”, and even famous “Myst”. Bungie’s Marathon series does also well. But since I’ve never been a big gamer the only I’ve completed was MDK – and this mostly out of desperation while writing my PhD-thesis.

    No floppy! In 1998 I had to move half a hard-disk worth of files from an LC to the iMac. The two computers did not share a single port or technology for exchanging data. I ended up producing compressed data packages, and sending them over an old 14400 bps-modem to the iMac. Compression and sending at 1.5 kB per second took hours. Later we purchased an Imation Super-Disk-drive, which wasn’t very reliable.

    • My experience is mostly with PC. As I said I wasn’t a big Mac guy growing up and I hardly knew anyone that owned. When I think of gaming though I also think of things like expandability and options for adding video/sound cards which the iMac severely lacks. If it requires soldering to OC then it’s probably not something a casual OCers like myself would have done. It can be done and maybe it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to do it but it still seems easier in general on a PC from what I can tell.

      That said I have overclocked two macs. One being a G3 outrigger and the other was a G4. I had to desolder a resistor if I remember correctly to bump the FSB up 33MHz on the G4 which was simple but I still would have preferred a jumper or switch.

      From what I read you can swap processor cards across some iMacs provided they are close enough in models. One thing I liked about the late 90’s Macs is that G3 upgrades seemed to be pretty plentiful and simple to install via though processor slots. The G3 outrigger is my go to Mac for 90’s gaming mostly because I love the desktop form factor and I found that model relatively easy to expand and upgrade (plenty of room for extra drives, RAM / CPU upgradability, PCI slots) and I just use whatever monitor I choose. I would like to get a slightly faster CPU then the 300MHz G3 in it now though it never had trouble running anything I’ve played on it. I do have a 9600 in storage I really need to get out and mess with.

      thanks again for the comment and insight on the Mac side of things here.


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