Recovering data from a Powerbook G4 with a crippled keyboard


The prospect of recovering data off of a client’s Powerbook G4 proved to be a challenging project for several reasons:

1. Over the years, the laptop had suffered extensive physical damage to the keyboard and case. For example, the ‘O’ keycap was missing and the entire row of qwerty keys did not respond to tactile input.

2. My client did not remember her admin password.

3. The laptop was running macOS 10.3.9 (“Panther”) and I had not performed troubleshooting of an unsupported operating system of that vintage for about a dozen years.

powerbook g4 keyboard full view
PowerBook G4 keyboard showing damaged or missing keys

Despite the age of the PowerBook and not knowing the admin password, I was able to log onto the Desktop and access some normal functions like the Finder and System Preferences, as the owner had configured her laptop to auto-boot directly without having to fill in her login credentials.

The PowerBook was equipped with a 60 gig hard drive, and the amount of readable data stored in the home folder and other file locations was small enough to fit onto a single DVD disc (less than 4.6 gb). When I worked on this computer, I could hear soft clicking in the background from time to time, so I knew there were issues with the hard drive’s mechanics and avoided the use of standard diagnostic tools like Disk Warrior and TechTool Pro.

While the laptop included a SuperDrive, I could not test or use the hardware to burn files onto a blank disc because of problems using the keyboard. For instance, copy and paste was non-responsive on the G4. That glitch also made it impossible to copy files onto a USB flash drive. I had to figure out an alternative way to offload the files and burn the data. I knew I had to use target disk mode, but how could I copy the files to another Mac if I didn’t know my client’s admin password?

The first step I took was to create a second admin account on this machine and then made myself the co-owner of my client’s home folder and underlying files. Afterward, using System Preferences, I turned on Remote Desktop using the Sharing pane. My client had not assigned a computer name to her machine, so I manually gave it a name of ag because those were two keys that still worked.

In order to use Target Disk Mode, I had connect the G4 with its FireWire 400 port to my MacBook Pro with its FireWire 800 port. I also had to be able to press and hold the T key at startup on my client’s machine.

I solved the first task by deploying a 6 foot FireWire 400 cable enhanced with a FireWire 800 adapter plug that attaches to one of the ends. I then connected my standalone keyboard to the USB port on the G4. Success!

powerbook g4 connected to firewire400 cable
my macbook pro with firewire800 adapter

Here is how the PowerBook G4 was connected to my laptop:

data recovery setup

And here is the PowerBook running in Target Disk Mode:

powerbook g4 running in target disk mode

Once I copied the data that was salvageable (a few files were unrecoverable), I then burned them onto a blank DVD.

burned dvd disc from powerbook g4 data

Afterward, I ran Drive Genius 5 for a couple of hours to securely erase the G4’s hard drive, ejected the drive on my MacBook Pro, and shut down the laptop by pressing its Power button.

using drive genius 5 to securely erase hard drive

After Drive Genius finished deleting files, I checked the status of the mounted drive using Get Info (Command-I).

macintosh hd get info

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Filed under Apple Hardware, Apple Software, Data Recovery, security, Third Party Software, Troubleshooting

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