Building a PowerMac Media Center Part 1: Selecting Your PowerMac

by Tanner Godarzi Dec 03, 2007

My previous articles have focused on upgrading an older PowerMac to Leopard and outfitting it with a NewerTech G4 upgrade, but now it’s time to go deeper and finally build a PowerMac media center.

The goal here is not to build some super rig capable of plotting the locations of the CIA’s ten most wanted using Google Maps, or calculate all the digits in pi, but an Apple TV on steroids, and then some.

The best thing about a PowerMac Media Center is the final configuration: a static rig. We’ll be aiming for HD playback and the spec for that won’t change. By the time it does, a new format will emerge that might make this configuration obsolete. The focus is to playback HD 720P and 1080P content. After that, the only tweaking would be in storage.

What Kind of PowerMac Should I Get?

From the PowerMac G4 PCI Graphics to the G4 Mirrored Drive Doors, all make a good choice, but some better than others. We’ll be needing to get something moderately fast, particularly in the 1-6 to 1.8 GHz range. That makes PowerMacs with dual and single processors running at under 1 GHz a waste since you’ll be paying more for raw speed when you’ll need a faster G4 processor upgrade.

So then the best configuration in this case is one that is either prebuilt (or close to it) or an older and slower PowerMac that is much cheaper. However, there are some models you should avoid such as the Cube, PCI graphics, and those with faster processors than the Gigabit Ethernet model but slower than a dual 1 GHz Quicksilver.

However, there are some things you’ll need to know that apply to all PowerMac G4 models.

The default video card is nowhere near sufficient for HD output. Everything from the low end ATi Rage 128 to the nVidia GeForce 4 mx won’t work or your Mac will have to bear a very heavy burden.

You’ll need a PCI upgrade card for large drive support. By default, the PowerMac G4 does not support drives larger than 128 GBs, which hampers its use as a media center. You can go external with a spacious Western Digital MyBook ,but for the sake of not converting the back of your TV to a jungle, we’ll go internal. The innards, save for the MDD model, leaves more than enough room for cabling and airflow so an upgrade card is a no-hassle ordeal. The Mirrored Drive Door compacts everything onto its own section and limits the amount of hard drives to two in order to have proper ventilation for the extremely hot G4 Processors. You’ll have to work some cable routing magic here and SATA would be the wisest choice due to the small and flexible cables.

You’ll have to decide between wireless or Ethernet for file sharing and iTunes streaming to the Mac. The Apple TV works in the same way but supports 802.11N as well as Gigabit Ethernet. Most PowerMacs support the latter (Gigabit model and later) but cannot utilize 802.11M due to the lack of a physical 3rd antenna. You can buy a USB adapter but you’ll be limited to 480 Mbps instead of 11N’s native speeds of 540 Mbps.

That divides the PowerMacs into two categories: the low end and high end.

The Low End

If you are buying a PowerMac from this category, it’s almost a bare bones configuration and will need a lot of work done on it such as Processor Upgrades, a faster video card and an IDE or SATA PCI card.

Usually these Macs will sport a graphite colored case and a ZIP drive.

The Higher End

Usually these are Quicksilvers and Mirrored Drive Door models. The only thing you’ll have to do is add a PCI card that will allow large drive support and more than two which the current IDE bus has room for.

This Friday’s article will discuss which video card is suitable for a Mac Media Center between nVidia and ATi.


  • PowerMacs from the Quicksilver 2002 and newer support drives at least up to 250Gb (I know, I have one with such a drive).

    Peter Cole had this to say on Dec 03, 2007 Posts: 7
  • Take a closer look at your MDD G4: in addition to the 2-drive bay mounted vertically at the rear of the chassis, it has a second 2-drive bay below the 2-drive optical bay, the bay has a second drive sled which goes in perpendicular to the optical drives, and has a 2-head power cable waiting for you. You can even sneak a hard drive into a free optical bay, though you may have to be creative mounting it in place. I have a client whose MDD has been populated with 5 hard drives and an optical drive since new, it has run stably & well within temp.

    dgarant had this to say on Dec 03, 2007 Posts: 2
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