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Booting a PowerBook 1400 from Compact Flash

The PowerBook 1400 is the last PowerBook to have a real keyboard and is wellknown for having one of — if not the best — keyboards Apple ever put into a notebook. Several years ago, I bought a PowerBook 1400c off eBay as my grandmother’s first computer. She used it lightly for a few years to surf the Internet on dial-up AOL, but since 2003 or so, the PowerBook has been sitting in a box unused.

Going to divinity school, I find myself doing a lot of writing in coffee shops each week. Modern computing devices — be that a laptop or a tablet — are constantly connected to the distractions of social-media, etc. They make it very difficult to concentrate on focused, intentional, deep writing. Further, modern keyboards just aren’t great for longform writing. The key travel is too shallow and they just don’t have a good typing feel.

As a solution to this problem, I decided to start doing my coffee shop writing on my old PowerBook 1400. The PowerBook has no access to the Internet and, even if it did have connectivity, could not load any modern websites. With the great keyboard and forced distraction-free writing mode, the PowerBook was a good solution. There was only one problem, the old spinning harddisk was loud. I wanted a fully silent notebook. I wanted to boot off a compact flash card.

There are several tutorials on around the Internet about how to boot a classic PowerBook off a compact flash card. Unfortunately, many of them are over a decade old. I’m not sure what’s happened over the last decade, but booting from a compact flash card seems to not be as easy as it once was.

Here’s what I learned:

It took several months and a lot of trial and error to find the correct compact flash card, but all-in-all this was an easy project. I simply pulled the original 2.5" drive, plugged in the Uxcell adapter, and popped in a formatted compact flash card with Mac OS 8.6. The machine new runs silently in all but the heaviest loads — which never happens since I’m just typing in Simple Text.

As an added bonus, using a PCMCIA compact flash adapter, all the cards that wouldn’t boot internally can be used for data transfer between the PowerBook and my modern iMac. Though, since I have a Raspberry Pi running an AFP Netatalk fileshare, I just pop on my network via Ethernet and transfer files that way.