May 9, 2006

Back to Kansas: A Look at the Fastest, Most Expandable Pre-G3 Power Macs

Remember the Power Mac 8600 and its bigger, badder brother, the 9600? You know, the beige titans based on the Kansas motherboard architecture, Apple's exclamation point to the end of the cloning era meant to outperform every previous Mac that had ever shipped? The systems that, at their fastest, would challenge their successors for months? I bought one of these beasts, a Power Mac 8600/300, in May '01 for use as a hobby system and found that, despite its age, the system was far from being a relic.

The Top End

The last of the second generation PowerPC Macs, the Kansas systems ruled Apple's high end for quite some time. Announced August 5th, 1997, this revision used a speed-bumped version of the PowerPC 604e, the Mach V. This chip ran from 250 to 350 MHz in the Kansas systems, though it eventually reached 400 MHz elsewhere. The 9600 had 12 RAM slots, enough for 768 MB at the time. It also housed a whopping six PCI slots. The 8600 was slightly less robust, with eight RAM slots and three PCI slots. Needless to say, these systems whipped Mac OS 7.6 around like a a tricycle tied to the end of an F-22 Raptor.

As more of the operating system was rewritten for PowerPC as Mac OS 7.6 gave way to Mac OS 8, these systems got even faster. The same held true when Mac OS 9 was released. The systems could also house double their original memory capacities as newer RAM chips debuted. So powerful and expandable were these systems, in fact, that Apple actually reintroduced the 9600/350 to supplement the G3 high end due to its greater expandability. Even as PCIe and PCI-X appeared there were never any other Macs with six PCI slots.

8600 vs. G3 iBooks

My primary systems in 2001 were a 300 MHz clamshell iBook and a 500 MHz Dual USB iBook. The clamshell ran Mac OS 9.2 and the Dual USB ran Mac OS X v10.0. And the 8600, running Mac OS 9.1, wailed on both of them. Of course, a lot of this was due to the chip, as the Mach V was a high-end workstation processor and the 750 was a low-end chip. But the difference was there and it was startling. Only the PowerPC G4 truly eclipsed the PowerPC 604 and 604e in Apple's high end.

Power Mac 8600iBookiBook (Dual USB)
Processor300 MHz 604e300 MHz 750500 MHz 750CXe
L2 Cache1 MB (2:1)512k (2:1)256k (1:1)
Bus Speed50 MHz66 MHz66 MHz
Max RAM1,024 MB320 MB 640 MB

Figure 1 Power Mac 8600, iBook, and iBook (Dual USB) compared.

The first thing I did with the 8600 was upgrade the memory to 1 GB. After turning virtual memory off, the system was the most responsive Mac I had ever used. Turning my disk cache up to a ludicrous 32 MB resulted in a Finder that seemed never to access the hard drive. For daily use the 8600's performance easily surpassed either of my iBooks, and even processor-intensive applications ran faster. The only thing the iBooks had over the 8600 was OS X, which I had just started to seriously evaluate.

Switching to OS X

I continued using the 8600 as my primary system while I adjusted to Mac OS X on my Dual USB iBook. After upgrading to Mac OS X v10.1, however, I completely switched to OS X. Musing over my switch, I recalled that Apple had developed the operating system on 604-based Macs but later reneged on its deal to support those systems and wondered if there were some way to install OS X on the G2 systems. Mac OS X officially supported the G3 or newer only, but the possibility of running Mac OS X on the 8600 was too great a temptation to abandon.

Ryan Rempel's XPostFacto, then called Unsupported X Installer, allowed for just such installations, and in no time at all I made the switch. In testament to Mac OS X's G2 heritage, it accurately reported my processor and speed. And everything just worked. I eventually updated to Mac OS X v10.1.5 and was hard-pressed to tell OS X wasn't running on a supported system. And Mac OS X loved the gig of RAM to say the least. And now, since I had overcome the one drawback to using the 8600, it became my primary system again.

No Jaguar for You

A few months later, Apple debuted Jaguar. And with the new features and optimizations in the operating system, Mac users upgraded as fast as they could. Except for G2 owners. Not long after, the XPostFacto site had the news: Jaguar would not work on PowerPC 603 and 604 systems since Apple had dropped support for the chips from Jaguar. If you wanted Jag on your G2, you had to buy a G3 or G4 upgrade card. There was no other recourse, just a new CPU or bust. Period. Finito. The end.

And so the line had been drawn for my 8600. If I wanted to move forward with Apple technology, I had to shell out for a CPU upgrade that I just didn't have the money for. Instead, I switched over full-time to my Dual USB iBook and made the 8600 a headless home server and storage system. It served that purpose well, but a few months later I mothballed it when I moved and its hard drive died while in storage. My iBook went on to run Panther and Tiger and I eventually bought a Power Mac G4 Digital Audio.

XPostFacto Comes Through

And then, just over a year ago, XPostFacto 3.1 arrived with support for Jaguar on 603 and 604 chips. The XPF forum-goers seemed happy with stability on G2 systems, and Mac OS X v10.2.8 was quite a bit more capable than v10.1.5 had been. I started looking for a new hard drive for the 8600 and fished out my Jaguar CDs, which I hadn't touched since September '03, eager to revive my sleeping giant. In the meantime, I took the tower apart and blew all the dust out, lovingly cleaning the system in anticipation of its reawakening.

But what happened on my return to Kansas is another story, for another time, in another column.


  1. Hey Grant
    You're a jedi if you can answer one question for me. (or finish the story for me) I cannot get past the 10.2 update in my 8600 using XPF. When I try Juaguar update disks I get waiting for debugger and that's it. Dead in the water. Everything I have after that is on DVD disk so any hints on getting Jaguar to install? Or Tiger for that matter?