The Mobile Mac

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 theseven-year-old G4 Power Mac that wasmy family's home computer and put that computer to work in myassociate's office in the place of the G4 Mac mini she had used since March. Themini is by measurements the more powerful computer, though when therequirement came to drive a second monitor, it simply isn'tpossible on that computer.

When I bought the mini for attorney use, my thoughts were thatmultiple monitors were for artists, but after watching my associateuse her laptop alongside the 19" monitor of the mini for about amonth, I realized that multiple monitors would be far moreproductive, so I switched out the Power Mac for the mini.

Now, with the 19" SXGA (1280 x 1024) LCD and a 15" XGA LCDside-by-side, she has the ability not only to view multiple webpages alongside her documents, but to effortlessly cut and pastebetween them. More useful than a widescreen or more pixels on asingle monitor, the second display allows the easy separation ofprojects while retaining full access to each.

What this really taught me wasn't that multiple monitors werecool or that the Mac mini lacks expansion. It taught me how modernthat seven-year-old Power Mac remains. Perhaps it's the most modernand powerful Mac in my office, which I'll explain in moredetail.

On the spec chart, that old tower is decidedly low-brow thesedays. Its 400 MHz G4 processor has been upgraded to 1.0 GHz, butthat's not much by the standards of 2006. Worse than clock speed,its G4 architecture and 100 MHz system bus speed are positivelyarchaic, meaning that it's incapable of playing modern games, andrendering high quality video would take forever.

But is processing muscle really the only measure of a computer'spower? I'm not so sure.

The old G4 is outfitted with only 768 MB of RAM, though it canhandle up to 1.5 GB. Its ATA/66 drive controller was fast by 1999standards, but it's very limited today in both speed and capacity (itwon't address drives larger than 128 GB without third-party software -see How Big a Hard Drive Can I Put in MyiMac, eMac, Power Mac, PowerBook, or iBook?). Its ethernet chip isonly a 10/100, and it only accepts the older 11 Mbps AirPort card inits 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 ofFireWire 400 ports.

Expandability

What makes it more powerful than even the 20" G5 iMac or the newCore Duo laptop I'm using are its PCI slots. In one of them I have amodern 54 Mbps wireless card that works seamlessly with Apple's AirPortdrivers for full 802.11g "AirPort Extreme" functionality. In anotherPCI slot I've installed a fast USB 2.0 card, while installed the secondvideo 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 thirdvideo card, a faster ATA card, or just about anything else that mightcome along, though video is the most likely addition.

What this means is that a seven-year-old computer can easily drivemany monitors or just about anything else I might want to plug in,where the far more modern Mac mini cannot. The mini is faster, thoughI'd imagine that with another processor upgrade to either a 1.8 GHzsingle 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 asexpansion.

Faster Drives

Even disk access fares far better on the old Power Mac than on themuch more modern mini, despite my continued use of its slow ATA/66controller. That's the difference that desktop drives make, with the G4Power Mac currently using a 250 GB 10,000 rpm Seagate drive that - evenwith 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 nomore versatile than the SuperDrive in the mini, is significantlyfaster.

Oh yeah, one more thing about hard drives. While the fast Seagatedrive on its own is a serious boost over the smaller and slower laptopdrive 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 massivestorage capability. As for that pesky 128 GB ceiling on the oldcontroller, that was overcome with a third-party driver for $40 or sothat allows the original controller to address up to 1 TB drives.That's some serious storage capability and could make the old Power Macinto quite a capable little server.

Video

Video is about equal on the primary card, a 32 MB Nvidia GeForce MXthat, like the mini's ATI 9250, lacks support for Apple's CoreImagetechnology, but it works fine with Quartz Extreme. I've had my eye on anumber of 128 MB AGP cards from ATI and Nvidia that would give theprimary monitor a serious boost, though current video performance isterrific on both the primary AGP slot's 19" Samsung LCD and thesecondary ATI Radeon 7000 (32 MB PCI) with its 15" Dell LCD.

Long-term Value

When I look at other computers I'd used in 1999, nothing else comesclose. Could a 1999 laptop function today as a primary computer? Notvery well, thank you very much. We're talking about Lombard PowerBooks on the Mac sideand Pentium II on the PC platform, neither of which are particularlyrobust platforms for the current versions of OS X and Windows, letalone 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 drivefour or more monitors with ease....

The 20" G5 iMac in the front office can drive a second monitorand has plenty of muscle to do even high-end multimedia work, butit's not upgradeable beyond more RAM and a larger hard drive. Themini is already as good as it will ever get, but the old Power Macjust keeps getting better as the upgrade companies keep onreleasing faster G4 CPUs and more capable PCI expansion cards.FireWire 800 is easy, as are dual head video cards for both the AGPand PCI slots. This positively ancient computer could drive four ormore monitors with ease, each of them one part of a single, massivedesktop. My modern laptop or the G5 iMac can drive only twomonitors, ever, while the Mac mini is limited to only a singledisplay.

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 my19" 1280 x 1024 LCD at the office, that computer become aninfinitely more powerful tool for getting through my various tasks.If I use the 12" laptop screen in addition to the 19" LCD, myproductivity rises even more. I dare say that I would be far moreproductive sitting at the 1 GHz G4 with its two monitors thansitting at a 20" iMac despite having less than half the processorspeed and memory.

I think that expansion in the lower-end machines is an area thatis seriously lacking in Apple's current lineup. Were I to hireanother attorney today, I'd not be looking at another mini or evenanother iMac, but likely for a solid used Power Mac G5 or even G4that could handle a few good video cards and an extra hard drive orthree.

Not bad for a seven-year-old computer you can buy used for about$200. LEM

Andrew J Fishkin, Esq, is a laptop using attorney in Los Angeles, CA.

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