Is It Worth Maxing the RAM in Old G3 and G4 Macs?

Is it worth maxing the RAM in older computers? This has been a long-asked question, one I see on mailing groups regularly. Older RAM can be quite expensive, especially the PC100 or PC133 type for G3 and G4 machines.

Currently a 512 MB stick of PC133 for machines like the PowerBook G3 and PowerBook G4 are around £25, which isn’t too bad for higher-end Titaniums like mine, but the RAM can sometimes cost more than the machines themselves, especially in machines like the slot-load iMac G3, which can take two 512 MB sticks. [Publisher’s note: As we migrate this article to WordPress in mid 2013, OWC is selling 512 MB laptop modules for about US$20 each.]

I currently use a 15″ 867 MHz Titanium PowerBook G4, which I have had for about six months. When I first got it, it came with two 256 MB sticks for 512 MB total. This machine officially supports Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard. With only 512 MB of RAM, it would have suited OS X 10.4 Tiger, but Leopard wasn’t going to be too smooth an experience. Luckily, I had a spare 512 MB stick laying around, so I upped the RAM to 768 MB at no extra expense and installed Leopard.

I have been running it like this for a few months, and I must say it has been a good experience. A few days ago I got hold of another 512 MB stick, took out the remaining 256 MB, and maxed the machine to its 1 GB limit.

It Was Worth It

Is it worth it from a performance point of view? And is it worth it from a financial point of view? And is there a fine line between performance and value?

I have been running my TiBook with 1 GB of RAM for a few hours, and the difference is instantly noticeable. Boot time is a lot faster, and app loading time is faster, especially with processor heavy apps. Photoshop loaded more quickly, opening large files was slightly faster, and even editing them was quicker. iTunes encoded audio tracks about 10% faster, and adding effects to audio files in Audacity was quicker too.

I benchmarked the system before and after I upgraded the RAM, and that also has a positive reflection. With 768 MB of RAM, Xbench results were 21.85 and Geekbench was 424. With 1 GB of RAM, Xbench results were 26.43 and Geekbench was 519. These increases are large – especially on older machines.

Leopard is a huge operating system (OS), and it is very RAM hungry, so it is no surprise that the added RAM helps general system and application handling.

Also Better with Tiger

However, this isn’t just limited to Leopard. A few months ago I had a Power Mac G4 Sawtooth. Running at 400 MHz, it wasn’t the fastest G4 by a long stretch, but I upped the RAM from the measly 256 MB it came with, and the performance was instantly improved. I was running Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger, which according to Apple has a minimum requirement of 256 MB, but realistically, it should be a lot higher.

I upped it from 256 MB to 512 MB, and the performance shot through the roof. It was no longer sluggish at booting, no longer showed the “spinning wheel of death” every time you asked it do something, and apps loaded and handled so much faster. Taking it even further to 1 GB (by means of four 256 MB sticks of RAM) you could have easily forgotten it was only a 400 MHz G4.

This machine supports up to 2 GB of RAM, however I didn’t have the funds to shell out for extra RAM, but it would have been interested to see how much further performance would have improved with all the extra RAM. [Publisher’s note: G4 Power Macs have either 3 or 4 RAM slots, and mid 2013 prices at OWC are $13 for 256 MB sticks and $19-20 for 512 MB, currently making 512 MB modules the better buy.]

Living at the Low End

Performance-wise, more RAM is better. However, most of us low-end Mac users don’t just use older Macs because we love them; we use them because funds are tight and we cannot afford the expense of a shiny new Mac. In my local Mac User Group, I have gained a reputation for collecting all the older equipment and usually get first refusal on older equipment. I have been offered G3 and G4 towers, iMac G3s galore, even an iBook G3 recently, simply because they are “too old” for most people to bother with.

With that in mind, is it financially viable to spend lots of money upping the RAM in older machines?

I would initially say no. Don’t go out and spend £50 maxing the RAM in a G3 iMac that is probably only worth about £30. Use that money to buy a slighter faster machine that wouldn’t necessarily need cramming full of RAM to get the most out it.

An Example

For example. A 600 MHz iMac G3 model could be picked up for free or around the £20 mark, maxing it with two sticks of 512 MB PC133 RAM will set you back around £40. Then there is the hassle and expense of getting an AirPort bracket and AirPort Card at around £35 if you want to have WiFi.

A 1.25 GHz eMac G4 can be picked up for £60. Two sticks of 1 GB DDR RAM will set you back no more than £20, and a AirPort Extreme Card will cost you around £15, so for around £95 you could get an AirPort enabled, maxed out G3 iMac or an AirPort Extreme enabled, maxed out G4 eMac with twice the RAM.

Take your pick.

My 867 MHz PowerBook G4 is probably worth around £150, so I wouldn’t want to spend £50 on maxing the RAM to add only £10-20 on the final resale value, which is dropping each month I keep hold of it.

Conclusion

In conclusion, upping the RAM is a good idea in older Macs; it gives the OS and software so much more breathing room, but be careful. Do it as cheaply as you can. Remember that these machines do not have a great resale value, and adding lots of RAM probably won’t increase that resale value by the amount you have spent on the RAM.

Your payback comes from working more efficiently, not resale value.


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