The Efficient Mac User

Just How Good Is a $300 Mac?

- 2007.01.30 - Tip Jar

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Yesterday Andrew Fishkin shared his experiences with ultra-cheap Windows PCs in Just How Bad Is a $300 Windows PC?, saying that his experience has taught him that a $300 Windows PC is actually a pretty good bargain. He then went on to describe how he turned a recent purchase of two such machines into workhorses for his law office.

I fully respect Andrew's perspectives on how Windows PCs serve his needs better than Macs. I wanted to check his comments, however, with a view from "the other side" about how the same bargains can be found in Macs.

"What? Since when did Apple start selling Macs for $300?"

Then don't, of course. I'm speaking of a used Mac that is still utterly serviceable. This is Low End Mac, after all - you should have expected it.

There are plenty of Macs out there that are completely useable - even machines that, just a few years ago, were cutting-edge. One of the core philosophies of Low End Mac is that these machines can and should be kept in service until they simply give up the ghost.

The Life of a Mac

One of the things that stands out about Apple's closed environment (i.e., they build both the hardware and the operating system) is how high the quality of the hardware is. This has long been a point in Apple's favor in the eyes of many.

"Sure, you could buy a Nissan," they say, "but it won't run like a BMW!" And by and large, most Mac users agree with this assessment.

What is significant about this level of quality - and sometimes overlooked - is just how long these machines will last.

My mother-in-law is running a Blue and White G3/350 MHz that was first sold in 1999. Before she got it, she was using a machine not unlike the system Andrew describes in his article - one she bought in 2002. Though her previous machine was three years newer, it was sluggish and frustrating to use. (What you should know at this point is that she paid a service tech good money about a year ago to upgrade the computer, install a better OS than Windows ME - that would be Windows XP - and clean all of the malware crud off of her hard drive. The sluggishness has set in since then.)

Her "new" Mac is considerably faster and more responsive. Part of this is because Macs, as hardware, are built to last. Part of it is because OS X is, shall we say, much less susceptible to malware, and therefore not given to hundreds of small, annoying files running in the background and installing new friends. And part of it is because, with every upgrade of OS X, Apple has actually made older hardware run faster.

Yes, you read that right - while Windows Vista will require a major upgrade for any hardware bought more than six months ago, OS X is optimizing older hardware with each new version.

So the life of a Mac can be quite long. I have a friend who got an iBook just under two years ago as a high school graduation present. She fully intends to use that iBook throughout college - and she'll make it, unless college takes her longer than five or six years.

Thanks to many of our sponsors and advertisers, finding these so-called low-end Macs isn't very difficult, but there are many other ways to come by them.

I recently purchased a Power Mac G4/933 MHz (2002 Quicksilver) from a local school that had upgraded, and I got a true bargain. This Quicksilver came with a 60 GB hard drive, 768 MB RAM, a SuperDrive, and Mac OS X 10.3 "Panther." It also came with an Apple Pro Keyboard (the older style with black keys) and an Apple Pro Mouse (again the older black single-button model). I paid the school $250 for this gem.

Now, the Quicksilver was eminently useable as-is. Had I chosen to, I might have set it up just as it stood and had plenty of computer for what I wanted it for - and much more computer than many - such as my wife, sister, mother, or mother-in-law (all of whom use Macs) - would need. It plugged right into the 19" LCD monitor that I already had, and it was up and running.

Unlike Andrew's experience, I found the Apple Pro keyboard to be a great keyboard; I even replaced the Logitech keyboard I had on my desk with it.

I prefer a two-button mouse, but since I already had one of these, that was no problem. The Quicksilver has two USB ports and two FireWire ports, and the Pro keyboard has two USB ports on it (it serves as a hub), so as it stood I had enough ports for the necessities with some room left over.

And while Windows XP just devastates RAM - most users I know would find 768 MB to be somewhat sluggish - Tiger (OS X 10.4) runs quite comfortably with that much, so Panther would not have been a problem.

Since I like to tinker, however, I did do some tweaking. I got a USB card for $15 that added five more USB ports. I added a second hard drive (another 60 GB) for $25. And I happened to have a spare license of OS X 10.4 on hand (the OS X "family pack" is a real bargain!), so I installed Tiger.

So now I'm out $290 - still below Andrew's threshold - and I'm flying with plenty of RAM and an even faster operating system.

Next, I surfed over to the Low End Mac Swap List. I unloaded my recently acquired license for Panther for $25. (I'm also thinking of selling the older Pro Mouse there for a few dollars.) And I picked up a 15" Apple LCD Studio Display for $70. This display had a broken foot, so it was another true bargain. I was able to support it without any trouble, and both it and the other LCD are driven by the Quicksilver's NVIDIA GeForce 4 128 MB AGP video card, which supports DVI. Of course, if I wanted more video options there are plenty of 64 MB and 128 MB PCI graphics cards I could drop in.

Let me jump back to Andrew's bargain PC. Please notice that he spent $300 on the base PC, but had to put a significant amount in to get it to where he felt like it was ready for use. Here's how he breaks down his costs:

PC: $300
Video card: $100
RAM: $50
Wireless card: $17
Keyboard: ~$30
Mouse: ~$15
Total: ~$512

Even if we assume that the two LCDs he spoke of were already in his possession - a $260+ assumption - then we're still talking about a pretty big investment. Compare that to my buy:

Quicksilver: $250
60 GB HD: $25
USB Card: $15
15" Display: $70
Panther license: -$25
Total: $335

That's with a display. Add the cost of a used LCD to Andrew's mix, and his cost closes in on $600.

You will argue, of course, that Andrew bought a machine with a much faster CPU - as much as 2 GHz faster in direct clock-speed comparisons. But this isn't a fair comparison, since the chip architecture and the operating system are different enough to make the chip speed a poor benchmark.

That generation of Power Macs is highly upgradeable. Off the shelf, there is room for up to 1.5 GB of RAM (three slots, each holding up to 512 MB), up to four hard drives, and a Zip drive. With four PCI slots, there's plenty of room for all sorts of additional upgrades - add a faster IDE interface, additional video capability, or input options for external peripherals.

Plus there are a number of processor upgrades. For under $200 you could have a 1.2 GHz G4 processor driving one of these, or for about the cost of the difference between the two systems you could be in the 1.4-1.6 GHz range. For only $400 you could have a 2.0 GHz G4, and for $429-$629 you could get dual-processor G4s from 1.6-1.8 GHz. (The fastest G4s Apple ever sold were 1.67 GHz PowerBooks.)

Combining that scale of upgrade path with the longevity of Apple hardware and there is a lot of computer in a Mac. Even a low-end Mac. LEM

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