Skip to content
Thoughtful, detailed coverage of everything Apple for 34 years
and the TidBITS Content Network for Apple professionals

New Life for an Old PowerBook Drive

Late last year, I pulled the original 4.5 GB hard drive from my PowerBook G3 (Bronze Keyboard) and replaced it with an inexpensive 12 GB drive. Not only did this give me more room for my data, it enabled me to store more than a gigabyte of MP3 files from my music collection. However, this meant that my perfectly usable 4.5 GB drive ended up in a drawer. I’ve had no complaints about my new drive, but in the back of my mind I regretted that the old one was sitting unused.

At the last Macworld Expo, I found a way to press that drive back into service: the Xcarét Pro Expansion Bay Hard Drive Kit by Mac Components Engineered (MCE). This $150 kit lets you place a 12.7 mm (or shorter) IDE hard drive into an enclosure that fits into the expansion bay of a PowerBook G3 (MCE sells kits for the 1999 and 2000 PowerBook models, as well as the 1998 model, which has a different-sized bay). The company offers enclosures with hard drives already installed, but I was more interested in the enclosure kit itself to give my 4.5 GB drive a new life.


Drive Me Crazy — Since I’ve swapped out dozens of PowerBook drives in my time, I figured that installing my old drive into the enclosure would be no sweat. And, in fact, it may have been simpler had I not tried to follow MCE’s instructions step-by-step. Amazingly, there are no photos accompanying the steps: even grainy, oft-photocopied pictures would have helped enormously. I suspect that the documentation problem arises from a recent redesign of MCE’s drive enclosures. The Xcarét Pro 99/2000 Drive, which fits my machine, is shown in a second user manual as a wider enclosure that resembles the PowerBook’s CD-ROM module; the one I received is narrower and shaped more like a battery.

The biggest problem I ran into was with the copper connecting ribbon, which apparently needs to be bent in order to fit the drive into the carrier. It was initially stiff, and required that I bend it backward so that the kit’s drive connector (a thin green circuit board that bridges the black plastic connector and the connector that fits into the bay’s internal slot) is turned 180 degrees. The drive also needs to be pushed a bit toward the center of the enclosure for it to fit, so the ribbon now looks more like a partially furled flag than a smooth sheet. These contortions aren’t mentioned in the documentation, and I finally ended up carefully nudging it into place and hoping for the best.

With the drive circuitry connected, I needed to secure it into a silver kit base that holds the drive steady within the enclosure. Fortunately, it fits only one way in its designated space, but this was where I ran into screw problems. The kit contents lists 4 silver bevel head screws, 2 silver (or brown) round head tapping screws, and 2 black flat head screws. In my kit, I received 4 silver flat head screws, and 9 black flat head screws. The black screws hold the kit base in place, and also secure the outside enclosure, so the silver screws must be used to hold the hard drive in the kit base. However, the silver screws were too thin to thread into the hard drive’s screw holes; I used one to at least try to keep the drive from sliding in the kit base, which seems to be working, but the other screws wouldn’t stay put and rattled inside the enclosure.

Luckily, there aren’t that many parts to deal with, so if you’ve already taken a hard drive out of a PowerBook, you should have little difficulty figuring out how to make them work. Still, I’ve been doing this for years and spent nearly an hour trying to figure out the mechanics.

Hard Driving — Fortunately, things improved considerably once the enclosure was assembled. I initially shut down the PowerBook, inserted the drive into the right expansion bay (my PowerBook G3 (Bronze Keyboard) has both right and left bays; the left is only for the battery; see below), then powered the computer back up. The disk icon popped onto the desktop as if it were built-in. I used Apple’s Drive Setup to initialize it, and within minutes I was faced with 4.5 GB of freshly minted storage space. To inaugurate the drive’s new lease on life, I quickly copied over 1.2 GB of MP3 files.

In almost every respect, the drive operates as if it’s an internal mechanism. It uses the Energy Saver control panel’s settings to spin down when not in use and has no trouble sleeping when I put the PowerBook to sleep. To eject it in favor of an extra battery or CD-ROM drive, I only need to make sure no application is currently using data from the drive, then put it away (by typing Command-Y, dragging the icon to the Trash, or selecting Put Away from the File menu), and pop the Xcarét module out using the PowerBook’s ejection lever. When I return the Xcarét to the bay, the drive appears after a couple of seconds.

Having two hard drives running simultaneously impacts my battery life, but not as much as I expected. To test this, I listened to music using iTunes from the drive continuously while working until I got a battery warning. After charging the battery overnight, I ran without the Xcarét loaded. The difference in this (highly unscientific) test was about half an hour of extra usage time when not using the Xcarét, which is completely acceptable for my uses. I would imagine that using it as normal storage (versus reading from it continuously), would improve the battery performance.

Running Mac OS X — I ordered the Mac OS X Public Beta when it was first available, but never got around to installing it on my PowerBook because it’s my main machine, and I don’t have any other computers that will run it. So despite my curiosity to play with Mac OS X, I didn’t have the time or desire to run a beta operating system on a daily basis.

With an expansion bay hard drive available, I finally had an opportunity to play with Mac OS X. Installing it, however, was trickier than I thought, through no fault of the Xcarét drive. The Mac OS X Beta must be installed from the CD as a startup drive. My initial thought was to use the CD-ROM in the right bay, and the Xcarét in the left bay, with power supplied by the AC adapter. The Xcarét seems to fit into the left bay but was a very tight fit, and I didn’t want to risk forcing it and possibly damaging my PowerBook. Good thing too: although the original 1998 PowerBook G3 Series can accept devices in both bays, my 1999 Bronze Keyboard model uses the left bay for batteries only. That day’s lesson became: check Apple’s Tech Info Library (or your manual) before forcing anything.

< n58329>

This meant that I couldn’t have both the CD-ROM and expansion bay drive installed at the same time. Borrowing a colleague’s USB CD-RW drive proved fruitless as well, since the computer couldn’t be started up by the external device. I had reached my last resort.

With a full backup of my data in hand (I’ve learned my lesson: see "DriveSavers to the Rescue" in TidBITS-495 to learn why I back up my data every night), I pulled the 12 GB drive out of my PowerBook and swapped in the 4.5 GB drive that was in the Xcarét enclosure. I was then able to use the CD-ROM module to install Mac OS X, then swap the drives back into their respective places.


Now, I can start up the machine in Mac OS X by using the System Disk control panel (located on the expansion bay drive) to specify Mac OS X as the active system, then restarting the machine. When I’m done, I can restart under Mac OS 9 running on the internal 12 GB drive.

Hard Driven — Although it sounds like it was a rough road to add 4.5 GB of storage space to my PowerBook, the worst was short-lived and is now over. I’ve used the Xcarét module frequently with no problems whatsoever, and I’m happy to have pressed a perfectly functional piece of hardware back into service.

Subscribe today so you don’t miss any TidBITS articles!

Every week you’ll get tech tips, in-depth reviews, and insightful news analysis for discerning Apple users. For over 33 years, we’ve published professional, member-supported tech journalism that makes you smarter.

Registration confirmation will be emailed to you.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA. The Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.