2008: The Beginning of the End for Low End Macs

The first Mac with memory expansion and a hard drive bus was the Mac Plus, introduced way back in January 1986. It came with an impressive 1 MB of RAM, and memory could be expanded to a mind boggling 4 MB. The SCSI port on the back let you add up to 7 devices, including hard drives. The Plus was far more expandable in memory and number of drives than any PC of the era.

Mac Plus with LaserWriter

Mac Plus with LaserWriter

Prior to the Mac Plus, Macs had no expansion bus and were not designed for memory upgrades. What you bought was all Apple intended for you to have. Except for the Mac 512Ke, no Mac introduced after the Plus was not designed for memory and hard drive expansion until the first MacBook Air arrived in January 2008.

13" MacBook air

The MacBook Air marked the beginning of the end for built-in optical drives, memory upgrades, and, to a great extent, installing a faster or higher capacity hard drive or SSD. The forthcoming iMac Pro is configurable with 32, 64, or 128 GB of system memory and a 1, 2, or 4 TB SSD, but note that it is listed as configurable on Apple’s website, not upgradable.

The Olden Days

Back when I worked at Computerland of Grand Rapids, Apple still sold bare Macs. The dealership could order a 1 MB Mac SE, SE/30, IIcx, IIci, etc. and configure it with third party memory and hard drives, providing capacity and warranty options Apple didn’t at prices below what Apple would charge for a similar configuration. (We sold a lot of Microtech hard drives, which had a five year warranty, while Apple was still selling computers with a 90 day warranty!)

Over time the option of buying a Mac with no hard drive disappeared, but we could still get a faster, higher capacity, better value hard drive to swap in for customers who demanded more than Apple offered. And every Mac offered lots of memory expansion options.

The Bad Old Days

It was Steve Jobs who insisted that the original Macintosh have no internal expansion. No way to upgrade RAM. No room for an internal hard drive or a second built-in floppy. Any expansion was to be through the Mac’s serial bus, which was a lot slower than the pokey USB 1.1 that debuted with the iMac in 1998.

Bondi iMacJobs returned to Apple at the end of 1996, immediately killed any project that took attention away from the Macintosh, and began moving toward the original Mac model of no internal expandability. The 1998 iMac was a consumer computer with limited memory expansion, no floppy drive – which most of the tech press saw as its Achilles heel – and no expansion slots. Just one

Power Mac G4 CubeThe Power Mac G4 Cube, introduced in mid-2000, was a first step in that direction with just one card slot and one hard drive bay, but you could boost memory from 64 MB (a very useful amount with the Classic Mac OS) all the way to 1.5 GB. And that card slot wasn’t for a PCI card; it was for an AGP video card small enough to fit inside the Cube.

The Bad New Days

When I started in personal computing – in the era of the Apple II+, Commodore, Atari, Tandy Radio Shack, and the Osborn One barely portable – expandability was a given. Memory was expensive, so you only bought what you needed. You could always upgrade later. Floppy drives were expensive, so you only added another one if you had to.

Then came IBM with a computer that had as little as 16 KB of memory. Its video cards and floppy controller were options. Even the operating system was sold separately. For the rest of its days, the PC world had expansion options – usually lots of them with several expansion slots and several drive bays.

The iMac gave us the first Mac with no floppy drive. The Cube, the first Power Mac with no PCI expansion slots or extra drive bays. But we had to wait until 2008 for the first Mac without memory expansion. System memory was soldered to the system board in the MacBook Air, and your only choice was whether you wanted a horribly pokey iPod-style 1.8″ hard drive or an SSD. 2 GB of memory was not a choice, and it would be years before Apple offered a MacBook Air with 4 GB of RAM.

Kudos to Other World Computing and other vendors who came out with replacement drives for the MacBook Air, giving users a lot more capacity and speed than Apple included in those early Airs.

Losing Interest

I hate to say this, but a lot of us consider upgradability a standard feature of computing, and it irks us when Apple solders RAM in place. In the olden days we would buy a Mac with the memory we needed at the time and upgrade when (and if) there was a need to do so. And with the Mac OS gaining features, there usually was a good reason to expand memory and even install a bigger hard drive.

With the Retina MacBook Pro models, Apple’s pro notebooks began the switch to fixed memory. And let’s not forget the unibody MacBook and MacBook Pro models that followed the MacBook Air in having a built-in battery that wasn’t easy to replace by the average user.

Apple really added insult to injury in 2013 with the new Mac Pro. No hard drive bays. None at all. If you wanted a hard drive, you needed an external device, just like the 1986 Mac Plus. And as with the Mac Plus, the 2013 Mac Pro does let you expand memory.

The Way We Like It

For a lot of us in the Low End Mac community, something is missing when you buy a computer that you can’t readily update. My 2007 Mac mini and Early 2008 iMac have each been upgraded to 3 GB of RAM, and my Aluminum MacBook to 4 GB (with 8 GB ready to install when I have time to tear it down again). I’ve replaced the hard drives in the Mini and MacBook with SSDs and plan to do so with the iMac as well. (It would also benefit from an upgrade to 6 GB total RAM.)

As nice as the newer Macs are – and with those Core i Intel CPUs, speedy SSDs, etc. they are very nice – they feel as disposable as iPhones. Once you replace the old with the new, the old one is soon forgotten because of the power and other features of the new one.

One More Thing

Ever since the first iMac, Apple has been shorting most users on expansion slots. With two USB port, the iMac only had one available to users after the keyboard and mouse were plugged in. The original iBook had only one USB port, which was a significant limitation. May Late 2008 MacBook only has two USB ports, almost requiring the addition of a USB hub for desktop use. (I prefer a full keyboard and a real mouse, and I also like a larger display than the MacBook’s 13″ when at home.)

With the 12″ MacBook, Apple returned to the bad old days of one USB port, but with the caveat that you have to use it to charge your MacBook as well. That means almost every user will need a hub so they can plug in a USB flash drive while charging their MacBook.

Cut us some slack, Apple. We need more built-in ports.

Looking Forward

The highly anticipated 2018 Mac Pro should have memory expansion plus drive bays and plenty of ports. Should being the operative word.

For those of us who value expansion options, older Macs that let us upgrade memory, swap out hard drives in favor of SSDs, and perhaps replace the CPU or add expansion cards are what we want. There is a solid market for old style Mac Pro models because of all the options they offer.

The other alternative is one I like more all the time, even though Apple doesn’t. It’s called Hackintosh, and it means building or buying a PC that will run the macOS nicely. Lots of upgrade options and the opportunity to build a machine as expandable as you want or need it to be. I’m not recommending the Hackintosh route, because there are often hardware issues and the possibility that they may not work with some future version of macOS, but for the adventurous, rise to the challenge!

I’m writing this on an Early 2007 20″ 2.4 GHZ iMac with 3 GB of RAM, a 250 GB hard drive, and Mac OS X 10.11 El Capitan, and it’s working very nicely for me. Surprisingly so, although I must say that El Capitan also runs very nicely on my 2.0 GHz Late 2008 Aluminum MacBook with 4 GB of memory and an SSD. I’d like more power, but this is what I’m used to, and I’m not complaining.

I am dreaming of an i5 or i7 21.5″ iMac. iMacs have a sufficient number of built-in ports, and with 8 GB of system memory and an SSD, one of these would positively scream in comparison to my aging Core 2 Duo machines. Then again, the good is the enemy of the best, and even these 2007 and 2008 iMacs are good enough for me.

Thanks, Apple, for all the expansion options they offer!

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2 thoughts on “2008: The Beginning of the End for Low End Macs

  1. A few things come to mind when I read this. First, the new iMac pro can have RAM upgrades, and possibly CPU upgrades. Of course, it’s a beast to tear down, so you either need to get special tools or have a pro do it, but it can be done. This is not a defense of Apple in this case. I am just thinking that ECC RAM and the CPUs don’t come in packages that can be soldered at present.

    As you said, Jobs dream was of a computer appliance. Remember that the early iMacs had a slot that Apple later stopped putting into the systems because vendors started making cards for them.

    What I think is missing here is that pretty much the entire industry is moving towards the computer as an appliance that is disposable model. Yes, on the PC side there are some that are not that way, but they are the minority. The vast majority of machines purchased will never be upgraded. If you don’t believe me, go to a Best Buy and take a look around. The computer sales floor is devoted almost entirely to laptops. And yes, while many laptops can still be upgraded, the vast majority never will. By the time the average user buys the parts and then pays someone to install them they are looking at sinking so much money that buying a new system becomes attractive.

    The systems that are the second most prevalent on the Best Buy sales floor are the all-in-ones. Some of these may or may be able to be upgraded. I’m not sure. However they are at a price point that is designed to be disposable. Even many of the desktops that you can purchase are not designed for upgrades. Most of the small form factor systems cannot accept a full sized graphics card. Even if you purchase a 1/2 height card, the power supply often cannot support it. The standard business desktops are similar in that their power supplies have very little extra wattage available. Even though they have the room for a powerful graphics card, they can’t get the juice to it.

    Hmm, a state of the low-end computer market now could be a good article to write.

    • I used to work in IT, and I know that probably over 80% of all people who buy computers never upgrade them beyond what was there when they bought it. That includes memory upgrades, bigger and/or faster drives, and updated operating systems. This is part of the reason the entire PC industry is based on regularly replacing your 3-5 year old computer with an entirely new one.

      Back in the day, the Apple II line had expansion slots, and starting in 19987, so did Macs. You could add cards, upgrade memory, get a bigger hard drive, add a better video card, move to the next Mac OS version, etc. – and a lot of Mac users did that, because it was a lot easier than in the PC world. As an IT guy, I made sure each of the 80-some Macs I oversaw had enough memory and speed for the task at hand, the best version of Mac OS for the hardware and applications used, etc. Upgrade as needed, replace only when necessary.

      Granted that most people never upgrade, but there’s an entire contingent of nerds, geeks, hobbyists, power users, and gamers who demand expandability. And Apple has been making that harder and harder for years. That’s part of the reason we just launched a Low End Hackintosh group on Facebook, for Mac users who are not having their needs met by Apple hardware. Even the Mac Pro has no expansion slots, just video and SSD. The older Mac Pro had drive bays, expansion slots, and you could even replace the CPU. That was a power user computer, a production machine, an investment in years and perhaps even a decade of use.

      Speaking of low-end, I am typing this on a 2.4 GHz 20″ Early 2008 iMac upgraded to 6 GB RAM (from 3 GB when I got it, and it started life with 1 GB) and macOS 10.11 El Capitan, and it runs very nicely. My newest Mac is equally low-end, a 2.0 GHz Late 2008 Aluminum MacBook upgraded to 8 GB of memory (from 2 GB to 4 GB to 8), given a 500 GB SSD, using a Data Doubler to put a hard drive in the optical drive bay for when I need macOS 10.6 Snow Leopard and to store my downloads. My third production machine is a 2.0 GHz Mid 2007 Mac mini with a 250 GB SSD, its maximum of 3 GB memory (up from 1 GB when I got it), and it runs macOS 10.6 Snow Leopard very nicely. Each in the decade-old range. Each still productive because of upgrades. The only upgrade I have planned is eventually putting an SSD in the iMac, which still has its original 250 GB 7200 rpm Hitachi hard drive.

      Yes, definitely a good topic for an article.

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