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Powerbook G4 aluminum 15-inch/167MHz/2GB won't charge battery

edited September 2014 in PowerBook
Hi John--Just stumbled across your website after doing a Youtube search.

I have a G4 aluminum powerbook that I bought used from a friend about seven years ago. It’s absolutely bulging with expensive software so I don’t want to get rid of it; I do desktop publishing using PageMaker which mandates the use of OS9, so I’m determined to keep this old machine running.

A couple of years ago it started developing problems charging. The original A/C adapter failed (I thought) so I bought a replacement on Amazon, which showed as having the illuminated ring, but sadly it doesn’t. Still, it seemed to work fine for a couple of years (even though I just discovered it’s only 45 watts).

Last year, the battery seemed to fail; I would regularly run it up and down from fully charged down to 15 percent or less, and it would always recover, but then it only recovered to 50 percent, then 25, and finally it only went up to about 4 percent. I presumed it was a bad battery. Bought a replacement (again on Amazon) and it worked for a few weeks, then exhibited the same symptoms. Battery level is very low, battery icon shows plugged in but NOT charging.

One day, the machine refused to reboot and I dragged it around on a two-week vacation without using it. I learned the trick of removing the battery, unplugging the power and holding the power button for 5 seconds to reset it, and that worked--it allowed the machine to boot up once everything was plugged in, and the battery charged up to about 14% (with a ‘battery charging’ icon), then it stopped charging. It has stayed at 14% for the past month or so.

I now keep it as a home-computer only, plugged in all the time, and while I occasionally reboot it, mostly I just put it to sleep.

Today I came home from work to find the machine totally dead even though the battery was at 14% when I left this morning. After sweating bullets, I stumbled across the technique of reset the power manager with Shift-CTRL-OPT-Power / wait 5 seconds / Power, the system comes on. But the clock is back to 1970 (until it automatically resets). The battery icon shows 0% charge, power adapter plugged in, and not charging.

Searching the internet, I’ve seen several different theories as to a possible cause. I don’t think the problem lies with the power input (although could the fact that I have a 45-watt power adapter be significant?). Could it simply be that my PRAM battery is dead and needs replacing? Or do you think the problem is more serious?

While I could always buy another Powerbook G4 and transfer my hard drive over, there’s no reason to believe that one that somebody is selling would be any better than mine.

Care to hazard a guess as to what the problem might be, and what you might charge to fix it for me? I drive 30-40 year old cars to work every day, and plan to keep using this Powerbook as my only computer until…well, forever if I can!

Thanks in advance for your help!



  • edited September 2014
    Hi Mike! Thanks for the post, and congrats on keeping an old laptop running for so long!

    I would start with the AC adapter. 15" Aluminums are right on the edge of needing a 65W AC (17" Aluminums absolutely need them), and I've found several that won't power on with a 45W if they don't have a live battery attached. So I would start there -- you can get a 3rd party 65W for $10 on Ebay, but preferably you want OEM so you can see the amber/green light and know what's going on with the battery. 3rd party is fine if money is an issue.

    I'd remove the battery, connect the 65W, and if that won't power your laptop, I'd try disconnecting the PRAM battery, powering up without it, then shutting off, re-connecting the PRAM battery, and trying to power up again. A bad PRAM battery is usually not enough to cause a computer to fail to power up, but sometimes it does happen and this test can help. When you have a good main battery, the battery maintains the PRAM info even when the PRAM battery is not strong enough to be functional, but when your main battery is bad, you're truly depending on the PRAM battery, so once that drains, your computer will lose time settings and sometimes even fail to start. It's asking a lot of a 45W AC to bring a 15" Aluminum back from a truly dead state with no help from the internal battery.

    You may need a new primary battery. The fact is, batteries die, and I wouldn't expect the average 3rd party battery to survive much longer than a year. If you get the laptop up and running again, I'd recommend installing Coconut Battery, a free battery tool, and it will show you the current max capacity of your battery, which I expect you'll find has dwindled down to nothing, if the battery is even still showing valid numbers. It would take a really strong battery to still have any power left when starting the day at 14%. Very likely it's a bad battery, or a battery with diminished capacity, in which case 14% of that reduced capacity doesn't amount to much. Always keep that in mind -- the analogy I use is, imagine if your car had a 1 gallon gas tank. When it's full, the gauge would show full, but that doesn't mean you can drive 300 miles, because you've only got a gallon. After 10 miles it would show half empty, and after 20 miles you'd be out of gas wondering why you ran out, since you just got gas! Batteries, unfortunately, work the same way.

    Anyway, between making sure you have a good 65W AC and a good battery, it sounds like there's a good chance you might not actually have a hardware problem with the computer. Or, at least, it's worth taking those steps first -- first resolve the AC adapter issue without the battery attached, and make sure the computer is once again powering on reliably, and then tackle the battery issue. To deal with them both at the same time is to complicate the situation.

    And make sure to backup the hard drive with SuperDuper or Time Machine, because at some point it's going to go, and you don't want to lose your stuff!

    Thanks again, and let me know how it goes!

  • Thanks John--I just ordered a used OEM Apple 65W charger on Amazon. My battery is only a few months old so I trust that it's still good. FWIW I don't think I've ever been able to boot without a battery installed? So my first step when the new charger arrives will simply be to plug it in and hope for the best. I'm not wild about the idea of tearing my computer apart and horsing around with the internals, but I'll do so if I have to....

    Stay tuned!
  • Sounds good! A laptop should definitely be able to power on without a battery attached, so that is definitely evidence that you current AC adapter is underpowered. I'll keep my fingers crossed!

    Hopefully the battery is still good, but I have a feeling that it is the lack of a charged battery (bad battery) helping the AC adapter out that is preventing you from powering on.
  • Update--new (used) Apple power adapter arrived. I shut down, quickly swapped adapters, and rebooted. Adapter showed green ring, computer showed plugged in but not charging, battery at 0%. I shut down, removed battery, disconnected adapter, held down the power button for 10 seconds to reset the PMU, then plugged battery and adapter back in and rebooted.

    This time I got amber ring, indication was plugged in AND CHARGING. Hooray! Battery started climbing fairly rapidly, got to 11% in about ten minutes and then stalled out. Ring turned green, computer showed plugged in but not charging, battery held at 11%. I quickly disconnected the adapter from the computer, screen dimmed as it switched to battery power. Plugged it back in again, ring stayed green but now battery shows 0%!?

    Sounds like a bad battery, or ???? FWIW this battery only has six cycles on it. System profiler shows:

    Battery Information:

    Battery Installed: Yes
    First low level warning: No
    Full Charge Capacity (mAh): 4349
    Remaining Capacity (mAh): 0
    Amperage (mA): 0
    Voltage (mV): 10798
    Cycle Count: 6

    AC Charger Information:

    AC Charger (Watts): 65
    Connected: Yes
    Charging: No


    So, do I buy another battery and hope for the best? Or ????
  • It could easily be a bad battery, or a battery that only has an 11% max capacity. 3rd party batteries fail at an alarmingly high rate. Unfortunately moving forward with the troubleshooting process often involves buying new parts, and we we probably won't know much more until you have a known-good battery to test with.

    I will say, it would be odd that a computer had a problem where it would charge for a while and then stop. Laptops either have the ability to charge a battery or they don't, so I would guess the reason it stopped is it hit the capacity of the battery.

    Also, definitely download Coconut Battery (Google "download Coconut Battery" -- it's free) and see what numbers it pulls up. It will show you current charge, max charge, current capacity, and design capacity (capacity when new), and it's much easier to make sense of than the info Apple provides.

  • Thanks!

    Coconut Battery says:

    Current battery charge: 0 mAh
    Max battery charge: 4349 mAh

    Current battery capacity: 4349 mAh
    Original battery capacity: 4400 mAh

    Battery loadcycles: 6
    Age of your Mac: 24528 months
    Charger connected: Yes
    Battery is charging: No


    This would suggest that the battery is good? (BTW still showing charger connected, green ring, 0% battery charge, NOT charging)

    I'd love to test with a 'known-good' battery but where can I get such an animal? I've bought three batteries off Amazon now and all three appeared to be the same even though they came from different vendors. All three worked for some period of time (weeks) and then fell apart. I did perform the 'battery conditioning' drill as instructed, by draining them fully, then charging to 100%, three times in a row. FWIW....

    So now what?

    Thanks for your continued help! I do hope to slay this dragon at some point!
  • edited September 2014
    Hmmmm...those numbers indicate that the battery thinks it's a good battery, but I've seen many batteries with good numbers that wouldn't charge. The fact that you have bought several that have all gone through the same pattern in certainly odd. I wish it was telling us it had a 500 current capacity -- that would be more conclusive.

    One thing we know for sure is that until now you've been using the wrong AC adapter for this computer. I wonder if continuous use of a 45W is somehow having a negative impact on the batteries, although I wouldn't normally guess that would be the case. But if you did get one more battery, at least it would be a first test with a 65W, and it would be a battery that hasn't potentially been "killed" by the previous situation.

    FYI, the need for "battery conditioning" is largely a myth, and it hasn't really been necessary since we moved to lithium ion batteries...previous battery types had a "memory" and needed to be drained fully in order to avoid losing potential. And even if it was a factor, it wouldn't be so much a factor while the battery is new, and certainly not enough to kill the battery to this degree.

    Honestly you've got me fairly stumped. Unfortunately the only way to move forward is to replace parts. It makes sense to see what a new battery will behave like with the 65W AC, and see if that makes a difference. If not, the next step is probably to replace the DC-in/sound board, which controls a lot of the power functions.

    The fact that several different batteries have followed the same pattern almost makes me wonder if there's some kind of odd environmental variable we're missing, like bad power, or electrostatic discharge, etc. Hard to say.
  • I think my next step should be a new battery. The thing is, all the ones I've purchased on Amazon have been exactly the same despite coming from different sellers. Do you have any specific tips as to an exact source for a quality battery that can be used to rule out the battery as a potential cause for my problem?

  • I've found the same thing to be the case -- all third party batteries for any given type of laptop are going to be manufactured by the same company in China, and no matter what vendor you get them from, you're going to get about the same thing. I would try Ebay rather than Amazon because it's easier to spot subtle variations in batteries. You can also find an OEM battery (original Apple) by searching "OEM PowerBook 15" aluminum battery", etc., but the only thing to keep in mind with that is that Apple hasn't made these for years, so there's no such thing as a truly "new" OEM -- only ones which are used but still working, and unused but which have been sitting. So it's arguable whether or not OEM is better than new 3rd party at this stage. However, a working OEM battery might give you more consistent performance than 3rd party...3rd party batteries have a tendency to have erratic behavior, whereas when OEM goes bad it's more along the expected pattern, so maybe that would be better in your case.

    Anyway, good luck, and let me know how it goes!
  • Okay, done--I found and bought a genuine Apple battery (used) on E-bay. Fingers crossed that it works and solves my problem!

    Interestingly, I did find one seller offering an "OEM" battery for $18.95, but in his ad he states that he is an OEM manufacturer. Whether it's true that his company actually produced them for Apple back in the day, is impossible to know. The one I bought is the genuine article (it seems) complete with Apple logo. FWIW.....

    I'll let you know how it works out!
  • Update--genuine Apple battery (which cost me $35) is installed. The computer *immediately* began charging, a good thing! However I was a bit dismayed to see that the percentage of charge was rising rapidly. Before long it was at 100%, but the ring remains amber. Did a Coconut Battery check and it shows original capacity 4400 mAh, current capacity only 577 mAh. The battery is fully charged, 100%, to its max capacity which is only 577 mAh.

    The battery is shot, in other words.

    On the one hand it seems to be good news, because it implies there is nothing wrong with my computer. On the other hand, I still don't have a battery that I can use.

    So, where do I turn now? I'd like a source for good, reliable batteries, whether OEM or not. Suggestions?
  • edited September 2014
    Sorry for the delay -- just got back from vacation. I buy hundreds of 3rd party batteries a month, but to be honest I buy them almost randomly just based on volume pricing. I would never vouch for the quality of 3rd party batteries, but I would say you've had worse luck than average, so hopefully with the next one your luck will change. I would say stick to Ebay sellers that have good feedback and that have hundreds to sell, and that have sold hundreds (as opposed to small sellers that have 1-10 items). The big sellers are more likely to have fresh inventory, whereas oddball sellers are more likely to have old batteries that have been sitting. Plus, they pretty much all have warranties in case something goes wrong. Amazon is not bad either, but the seller statistics are not quite as easy to see as Ebay.

    Good news though that it does sound like the computer is working properly. If the seller of that $35 battery guaranteed anything maybe you can get a refund based on it only having 15% capacity.
  • Thanks John--just ordered from the link above. I'll let you know how it works out!

    BTW, my current battery is now showing only 98% charged although it has been plugged in continually. Computer shows green ring, plugged in, NOT charging. Battery capacity still 577 mAh, currently has 568 mAh. How low does the battery typically fall before the computer decides it's appropriate to start charging it back up to 100% again?
  • Hmmmm...there's often a small gap before charging kicks in (I wouldn't say 10MAH is unusual), and batteries are sort of "organic" devices that are never 100% accurate or repeatable in performance, especially with a battery that has already degraded to the point it has, and that is probably still in the process of "going bad". I've come across lots of batteries, for example, that will show 2000MAH, then the next time you charge it shows 2500, then 1000, then 1500, etc. So a battery in decline is a battery that shouldn't really be trusted or expected to behave according to the rules of a new battery. And even new batteries will show an MAH or two difference between charges. Someone once described battery tools like Coconut Battery to me as a "battery dip stick", and that's always made sense to me -- it gets an approximate reading, and the second you try it again, it might look a little different.

    There's also the phenomenon of the battery that has been sitting for a long period of time. The electronics in the battery will remember the capacity it had when it died in storage, and when finally connected to a computer again, it will "wake up" and think it still has that capacity for a period of time. But upon warming up and charging, it will "realize" it has degraded to, say, 1500 MAH, and then after showing confusing numbers for several hours while it charges, will finally settle on the lower capacity. That is why lots of people will take an old battery off the shelf, check it for a second and see that it has good numbers, then sell it, only to get a complaint from the buyer that it's bad, or that it has diminished capacity.
  • John--new battery is installed, was at 52% and is now at 56% and slowly climbing, with an amber ring on the power adapter cord. Coconut Battery says original capacity was 4400 and current capacity is 4331, which is close enough for me!

    Looks like everything here is tickety-boo. It remains to be seen how long this battery lasts. I typically keep my machine plugged in all the time, and put it to sleep (rather than shut down) when I'm not using it. The thing runs solely on battery power only once or twice a month, for a couple of hours at a time. Is this 'hard' on the battery? Should I be doing something differently to prolong its life?

    Thanks again!
  • edited October 2014
    Great news!

    Some people will say you should drain the battery now and then to prolong the battery life. As I mentioned above, I don't think it's technically necessary, and even if it did make it last a month longer, I've always felt that batteries are meant to adjust to our demands, and not the other way around, so I've never bothered with anything like that. And even if you don't fully discharge it now and then, a good battery should last for years without problems. My own laptop is 1.5 years old, and the battery only has 17 loadcycles, yet it still works fine (even though I obviously don't undock it very often at all).
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