Mac Mini G4 1.5Ghz Hard Drive and RAM Upgrade 11

I ignored the early warning signs: the slow boots, the strange noises, the polite requests to insert the install DVD and run the disk utility. My main problem was that I’d lost my install DVD a long time ago. I had purchased my Mac Mini G4 1.5Ghz brand new in 2005, and it had hummed along without a hitch… until recently. When it eventually stopped booting altogether, I “borrowed” a full install DVD from “the internets” and tried to do a full re-install. I spent the better part of a day letting the installer progress far enough to give me hope before it choked and froze at various and random times. I gave up, powered off my little Mac Mini, and stuck it in a corner.

Fast forward a few months to today. My wife and I were planning on visiting the mall today anyway, so I made a web appointment at my local Apple Store Genius Bar. I showed up at 12:52PM to check in for my 1PM appointment. At 12:58PM, I met Bruno.

It was Bruno’s first day as an Apple Genius. He admitted that he had just graduated from sales associate, and I could tell he was a little nervous. But he was a geek, in good company in an Apple Store, and I didn’t have to say a word for him to know I was a brother geek. My t-shirt read “The Internet was down so I decided to come outside today.” I detected a slight accent when Bruno spoke. I asked “C’est un accent francophone, non?” (That’s a French accent, right?) Bruno’s eyes lit up and he asked “Vous êtes français?” I replied that no, I wasn’t French, but I’d lived there for a couple years a while ago. Bruno smiled and relaxed. We continued in French and asked where he was from. He told me “Corse” (Corsica) which is a small island off the southern shore of France in the Mediterranean. It was obvious that Bruno was far more comfortable geeking out en français, and I was happy to oblige. For the next 30 minutes, we tried a number of things to resurrect my ailing Mac Mini. After ruling out all the other possiblities, we both agreed it was as I had suspected: a dead hard drive.

Bruno looked up the price for a new 80GB hard drive from the Apple Store: $250. We both laughed, because we both knew that’s about $100 more than a functioning 1.5Ghz Mac Mini with 512MB of RAM and an 80GB hard drive would fetch on CraigsList – even with the Bluetooth and AirPort options (which mine has). He recommended that I buy a cheap replacement drive online and just swap it out myself. After explaining our findings to one of the other Geniuses (who only spoke English… apparently not that much of a Genius), he recommended that as long as I was going to crack the Mini’s case, and because the warranty had expired 4 years ago anyway, I may as well install a bigger hard drive and upgrade the memory. OK – English-speaking Genius earned back some Genius cred with that one. He gave the specs on the RAM (a single 184-pin PC2700 333 MHz DDR SDRAM module, if you were wondering) and told me the Mini would support up to a 320GB 2.5″ IDE hard drive. I bid the Geniuses “Merci,” tucked my critically injured Mini under my arm, and strolled into the mall with a geeky plan taking form.

After dropping off my wife at home (I still have no idea why she doesn’t love Frys Electronics as much as I do), I headed to Frys to buy the required parts. My choices were limited on 2.5″ notebook drives: 250GB or 320GB. I decided on a 5400 RPM Western Digital Scorpio Blue 320GB with 8MB of cache. I was relieved they still had the 5400 RPM version. Although a 7200 RPM drive may have been 10-15% faster, it also runs hotter – and there’s a single small fan in the Mac Mini that probably couldn’t keep things cool. The drive cost me $94 (it was $90 on Amazon, but I would have had to pay shipping) and the RAM module was $45. Apple didn’t design the Mac Mini to be upgraded, and it’s not easily opened by the end user, so I also stopped by Lowes Hardware to grab a painter’s tool to help pop open the cover on the Mini. So for $139, I had everything I needed to resurrect my Mac Mini, double the RAM, and quadruple the hard drive space.

I brought all my goodies into my office and got right to work. Google helped me find a great tutorial on iFixit with easy-to-follow instructions and photos on upgrading any part of my Mac Mini. The whole process took me about 20 minutes (the trickiest part was actually reconnecting the AirPort and Bluetooth antennae – those connectors are tiny).

The Mac Mini fired up on the first try. I popped in the OS X install DVD, started the install, then came back to my desktop system to author this blog post. That was 32 minutes ago. The install is now finished, and my Mac Mini (whose machine name is MacDaddy) is now humming along… noticeably faster and happier than ever. I was going to connect it to the plasma screen in the guest room, so that guests could easily surf the Web and check email, but I think I might use it as a digital jukebox and media player in my office, as well as my primary iTunes system for syncing songs to my iPhone, jailbreaking, and unlocking.

The moral of this story is this: Steve Jobs is filthy rich and he didn’t get that way by accident. He got there by charging suckers $250 to replace hard drives in a machines that could be completely replaced for $150. You’re better off spending a fraction of the price, buying new parts yourself, having some geeky fun, and massively upgrading your system. You just might end up with a grateful computer that has a new DHCP lease on life.

  • The Genius Bar folks are pretty awesome, though, I have a story I like to refer to as “the Silence of the Lambs” incident resulting directly from the referral I was given by one of said geniuses…

    Have to give them credit though, seems they have no problem directing people toward more financially sound solutions!

    And yes, I’m sure I’ve purchased more than a few pairs of shoes for Mr Jobs over the course of my computer-using life, devoted Mac user that I am 🙂

  • Dorian

    Thank you so much for your blog. Really interesting!! I bought a Mac Mini as well on craigslist. All good but is has some glitches or hiccups when watch videos or movies from internet. I was updated to Leopard 10.5 and I see the programs from the previous version still there. I also want to update the hard drive but i cannot get a retail version. Would it be too much to borrow yours since you borrowed it as well from “Internet” 😛 ??? It would be great to make it a little bit faster as it happened to yours. Best wishes.

  • Dorian

    Second time I write on your site, the first one did not show up 😛 I want to thank you for your site, very informative. All the information will be useful to update my hard drive on my mac mini G4. Steve, is there any chance you could make me a copy of the r tail version of L eopard 10.5. I need it to make a fresh install in a new hard drive. Or could you tell me where to get it from the Internet?? Thank you.

  • It’s a pretty big DVD to copy, so your best bet is to Google for “leopard os x torrent” and use a bittorrent client to download it fast.

  • Thanks for the info! I have one of the first G4 1.25GHz minis with a 40GB drive, partitioned into 20GB Leopard + 20GB Linux. A few days ago I went to install the latest Leopard update rollup, and it informed me there wasn’t enough space available, annoyingly. This is basically a clean install; no extra installed programs and no large files, I really just use it for testing.

    Anyway, I looked at the 320GB Scorpio Blue, but didn’t know if there would be any issues with a drive that large (Apple never sold G4 minis with hard drives larger than 80GB). Good to know that I have the exact same specs as you, and it worked for you.

  • I just upgraded my old G4 1.25 GHz Mini this year, including:

    – adding a bluetooth/airport card
    – changing the original 40 GB hard drive which had died for a 160 GB/7200RPM one (no problem for the Mini, and a significant speed increase)
    – upgrading the RAM to 1GB
    – dumping Tiger for Ubuntu 10.10.

    It makes a very fine machine for about 200€ (well I’m French too 🙂 ) in upgrades, brand new OS included.

    • Salut, Vincent! 🙂 All great upgrades. And I’ve actually been dual-booting Ubuntu 10 with yaboot on mine, too. It runs REALLY fast.

  • Mike Hunsaker

    This is my first time to your blog and so far I really like reading what you have to say. You seem to know your stuff. While I do own a Mac, I can honestly say the price Apple charges for any of their machines is pointless. I can build or buy a equally nice PC or better and hackintosh it with OS X or VM iOS on it with Horizon for less than half the cost.

    Dont get me wrong Macs are fun but unlogical in almost every way unfortunately. One reason I say this is that OS X 10.4 – 10.6 determine 1GB as 1000MB. Which is not true, its globally 1024 on every back end system. This cause some nasty reporting issues. Again Mac’s are great but not incredibly logical.

    Despite all this I really like reading your blog and you have some really good experiences that I enjoy reading about and posting about. Nice to learn some things also from your blog. Thanks again!

  • Florence

    Dear Steve,

    I have a Mac Mini 1.42 GHZ . I have no idea what size hardrive it came with but it is in dire need of upgrade in harddrive space and speed. Will the upgrades you did work for me? Are those items you purchsed still available?

    • Not only are they still available, they’ll be even CHEAPER than when I did it. 🙂

  • Logan

    Hi, Steve! I have the exact same mini that you do, sans the upgrades. I had been considering doing these and I’ve been nervous about going forward with them, but reading about how well it went for you has really helped me make up my mind to do it. This is my first visit to your blog, and it most certainly will not be my last!