Why a 7-year-old Power Mac G4 Replaced a Mac mini
- 2006.10.31 - Tip Jar
Last month I installed a second video card into the seven-year-old G4 Power Mac that was my family's home computer and put that computer to work in my associate's office in the place of the G4 Mac mini she had used since March. The mini is by measurements the more powerful computer, though when the requirement came to drive a second monitor, it simply isn't possible on that computer.
When I bought the mini for attorney use, my thoughts were that multiple monitors were for artists, but after watching my associate use her laptop alongside the 19" monitor of the mini for about a month, I realized that multiple monitors would be far more productive, so I switched out the Power Mac for the mini.
Now, with the 19" SXGA (1280 x 1024) LCD and a 15" XGA LCD side-by-side, she has the ability not only to view multiple web pages alongside her documents, but to effortlessly cut and paste between them. More useful than a widescreen or more pixels on a single monitor, the second display allows the easy separation of projects while retaining full access to each.
What this really taught me wasn't that multiple monitors were cool or that the Mac mini lacks expansion. It taught me how modern that seven-year-old Power Mac remains. Perhaps it's the most modern and powerful Mac in my office, which I'll explain in more detail.
On the spec chart, that old tower is decidedly low-brow these days. Its 400 MHz G4 processor has been upgraded to 1.0 GHz, but that's not much by the standards of 2006. Worse than clock speed, its G4 architecture and 100 MHz system bus speed are positively archaic, meaning that it's incapable of playing modern games, and rendering high quality video would take forever.
But is processing muscle really the only measure of a computer's power? I'm not so sure.
The old G4 is outfitted with only 768 MB of RAM, though it can handle up to 1.5 GB. Its ATA/66 drive controller was fast by 1999 standards, but it's very limited today in both speed and capacity (it won't address drives larger than 128 GB without third-party software - see How Big a Hard Drive Can I Put in My iMac, eMac, Power Mac, PowerBook, or iBook?). Its ethernet chip is only a 10/100, and it only accepts the older 11 Mbps AirPort card in its internal PCMCIA slot (which is too short of non-Apple cards). Finally, it has only a pair of slow USB 1.1 ports and a pair of FireWire 400 ports.
What makes it more powerful than even the 20" G5 iMac or the new Core Duo laptop I'm using are its PCI slots. In one of them I have a modern 54 Mbps wireless card that works seamlessly with Apple's AirPort drivers for full 802.11g "AirPort Extreme" functionality. In another PCI slot I've installed a fast USB 2.0 card, while installed the second video card the final PCI slot I.
As it's now an office machine, the USB 2.0 card is superfluous, meaning one of the slots could easily be reclaimed for use with a third video card, a faster ATA card, or just about anything else that might come along, though video is the most likely addition.
What this means is that a seven-year-old computer can easily drive many monitors or just about anything else I might want to plug in, where the far more modern Mac mini cannot. The mini is faster, though I'd imagine that with another processor upgrade to either a 1.8 GHz single or a 1.0 GHz or faster dual processor that the old "Sawtooth" would even put the 1.5 GHz Mac mini to shame in speed tests as well as expansion.
Even disk access fares far better on the old Power Mac than on the much more modern mini, despite my continued use of its slow ATA/66 controller. That's the difference that desktop drives make, with the G4 Power Mac currently using a 250 GB 10,000 rpm Seagate drive that - even with the slow controller - is far faster than the 5400 rpm laptop drive (also a Seagate) that resides in the mini's tiny case. Of course, throughput isn't everything.
I also have a big and fast Pioneer dual layer DVD-RW that, while no more versatile than the SuperDrive in the mini, is significantly faster.
Oh yeah, one more thing about hard drives. While the fast Seagate drive on its own is a serious boost over the smaller and slower laptop drive in the mini, the fact that I have three more hard drive bays (four if I pull out the Zip drive) makes for some seriously massive storage capability. As for that pesky 128 GB ceiling on the old controller, that was overcome with a third-party driver for $40 or so that allows the original controller to address up to 1 TB drives. That's some serious storage capability and could make the old Power Mac into quite a capable little server.
Video is about equal on the primary card, a 32 MB Nvidia GeForce MX that, like the mini's ATI 9250, lacks support for Apple's CoreImage technology, but it works fine with Quartz Extreme. I've had my eye on a number of 128 MB AGP cards from ATI and Nvidia that would give the primary monitor a serious boost, though current video performance is terrific on both the primary AGP slot's 19" Samsung LCD and the secondary ATI Radeon 7000 (32 MB PCI) with its 15" Dell LCD.
When I look at other computers I'd used in 1999, nothing else comes close. Could a 1999 laptop function today as a primary computer? Not very well, thank you very much. We're talking about Lombard PowerBooks on the Mac side and Pentium II on the PC platform, neither of which are particularly robust platforms for the current versions of OS X and Windows, let alone Leopard and Vista which are just around the corner.
How will the current crop of machines fare in long-term value? Are they more like the Mac mini or the old G4 Power Mac?
This positively ancient computer could drive four or more monitors with ease....
The 20" G5 iMac in the front office can drive a second monitor and has plenty of muscle to do even high-end multimedia work, but it's not upgradeable beyond more RAM and a larger hard drive. The mini is already as good as it will ever get, but the old Power Mac just keeps getting better as the upgrade companies keep on releasing faster G4 CPUs and more capable PCI expansion cards. FireWire 800 is easy, as are dual head video cards for both the AGP and PCI slots. This positively ancient computer could drive four or more monitors with ease, each of them one part of a single, massive desktop. My modern laptop or the G5 iMac can drive only two monitors, ever, while the Mac mini is limited to only a single display.
Display space is a very important aspect of a computer's power. I use a laptop with a 12" 1024 x 768 screen, and when I plug in my 19" 1280 x 1024 LCD at the office, that computer become an infinitely more powerful tool for getting through my various tasks. If I use the 12" laptop screen in addition to the 19" LCD, my productivity rises even more. I dare say that I would be far more productive sitting at the 1 GHz G4 with its two monitors than sitting at a 20" iMac despite having less than half the processor speed and memory.
I think that expansion in the lower-end machines is an area that is seriously lacking in Apple's current lineup. Were I to hire another attorney today, I'd not be looking at another mini or even another iMac, but likely for a solid used Power Mac G5 or even G4 that could handle a few good video cards and an extra hard drive or three.
Not bad for a seven-year-old computer you can buy used for about $200.
Andrew J Fishkin, Esq, is a laptop using attorney in Los Angeles, CA.
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