The Long Term Value of a High End Mac
- 2008.11.21 - Tip Jar
The focus at Low End Mac is on getting the most out of older hardware and on maximizing your computing bang for the fewest computing bucks. I'd like to suggest a top-of-the-line, high-end Mac.
Depending on how you use a computer, buying at the low end may make a lot of sense, but for many, the opposite is true. Using myself as an example, I am a poor candidate for a very expensive laptop for the simple reason that I tend to wear them out. While new technologies such as LED backlighting and unibody construction should go a long way toward making laptops more durable, the lack of upgradability and the rigors of mobile use still conspire against a top-of-the-line laptop for me. For someone who is more careful with his or her gear or who travels less, the equation will be different.
High End Mac Value
Where a high-end Mac is a good value for me is in a desktop. The last time I bought a desktop Mac for my own use was 1999, and that desktop Mac - a Power Mac G4 "Sawtooth" - remains a very useful machine to this day. I upgraded its 400 MHz processor to dual 1.0 GHz and bumped the RAM from 128 MB to 2 GB. The graphics were also upgraded to a 64 MB Nvidia GeForce FX 5200 that is (barely) CoreImage capable, while a pair of 320 GB drives on an upgraded PCI ATA controller provide more than adequate storage and speed. Finally, the original 802.11b AirPort Card was replaced with a PCI 802.11g card based on the Atheros chipset, and it's recognized by Mac OS X as an honest-to-Apple AirPort Extreme.
Snow Leopard will leave this workhorse (and all PowerPC Macs) behind, but this machine still has upgrade potential - up to dual 1.8 GHz and to much better video and SATA storage. The 100 MHz system bus is slow by modern standards, but the computer feels and is fast in most applications and is capable of just about everything a modern Mac can do, except with regard to running Windows natively (though it will run Virtual PC in Tiger quite well).
Why bring up a 9-year-old Power Mac? Because that was an expensive, top-of-the-line machine that was not considered a bargain at the time, but a premium computer aimed at bleeding-edge content creators who could justify its $2,500 price tag.
The Mac Pro of today, a bleeding-edge, super-premium, 8-core monster is aimed at exactly the same person that the old Sawtooth was aimed at almost a decade ago, and like that old Sawtooth, the Mac Pro may very well be the least expensive Mac you can buy.
Low End: Obsolete Sooner
Another way to look at it is from the Macs I bought before the G4.
I bought a 75 MHz Performa 6200 Road Apple in 1995, which I got rid of the same year. I replaced it with a 75 MHz Power Mac 7200. The 7200 was an excellent Mac, but it was nowhere near top-of-the-line, and by 1999 it was no longer able to run Apple's latest and greatest OS, Mac OS 9, with any semblance of speed. Mac OS 8.6 was usable, but 8.1 was the last version that was truly fast.
Had I spent more in 1995 and purchased a Power Mac 7500, however, I would have an easy upgrade path through G3 and G4 processors and could have used Jaguar and even Panther comfortably. A Power Mac 7500 cost about $1,000 more than the 7200, but it would have been usable as a front-line machine for an additional 3 or 4 years.
Back to the Mac Pro
A Mac Pro as a bargain Mac at $2,800? Am I nuts?
Perhaps, but look at it another way. That Mac Pro you buy today for $2,800, if the next nine years are anything like the last nine years, will still be capable of basic computing tasks and will be far from left behind. Those two server-class quad-core Xeon processors are not soldered to the logic board, so they can be upgraded if needed, at least for another three or four years worth of technology. The video card is mounted on the latest and fastest double lane PCIe bus, again assuring you of many upgrade options in the years to come. 32 GB memory capacity and four SATA drive bays, not to mention those PCIe slots ensure that as new technologies emerge, the Mac Pro you buy today will keep pace - and for far less than the cost of a new Mac.
We don't know what new technologies will emerge in the next nine years, but PCI Express, a 1600 MHz front side bus, and upgradable dual quad-core processors will take many years to leave behind. Looked at another way, a Mac Pro at $2,800 used for nine years costs $311 per year.
Low End Comparison
Compare that to a lower-end Mac. In 1999, you could have purchased a G3 iMac, and that machine also had a long useful life and arguably can still be used today. More realistically, that G3 iMac would have been replaced once or twice by now.
Let's say that you bought the entry-level 350 MHz G3 iMac for $1,000, skipped the very cool G4 iLamp model, and then bought the base 17" G5 iMac around 2004 for $1,300. Now with 2009 approaching, the performance of your G5 iMac is probably about the same as my upgraded Power Mac G4, meaning adequate in terms of processor power, video, and storage, but nearing obsolescence as new technology finally approaches that machine's limits.
You can buy the latest Core 2 Duo iMac and enjoy another four years before technology again catches up. Looked at another way, a low-end 20" iMac today costs $1,200, which comes to $300 per year.
The iMac is a bit cheaper, but in the first four years, the time when you are using the iMac and Mac Pro purchased at the same time, the Mac Pro will give far higher performance. Over the next three years, if you compare the old 1999 Power Mac with upgrades to a then-new G5 iMac in 2004, you are still getting about the same processor performance (dual G4s about equal to a low-end G5) and the possibility of higher-spec video, RAM, and storage.
Pro Macs Are More Flexible
Even at the end of its life, the old Power Mac has more versatile storage options than the latest and greatest iMac of today, just as the Mac Pro at age nine will likely compare favorably to the 2017 iMac.
This, of course, leaves out displays, which do wear out. On the iMac, you can plug in a second display and pay a repair shop to replace the original display when it dies, while with a Mac Pro you can connect as many displays as you want and replace them as they wear out or you want something better.
I used a 17" CRT with my G4 in 1999. In 2002, I bought a 15" LCD. In 2004, I moved to a 19" LCD and kept the 15" LCD on a second video card. In 2006, I moved to dual 19" LCDs, and in 2007 upgraded again to dual 20" widescreens as the 19" 4:3 displays were repurposed throughout the office.
An iMac did not and does not have that flexibility. Yes, today's iMac displays are large and pretty, and I really cannot imagine them becoming obsolete anytime soon, though I thought the same about my 17" CRT, 15" LCD, and 19" LCD. I can't justify the cost, but the Mac Pro will drive up to 8 30" displays, though I do see a pair of 24" inchers in my future.
If you plan on maximizing the useful life of a computer, it really can make sense to buy at the high end.
Case Study: Dan Knight of Low End Mac
When I started Low End Mac in 1997, it had been over 10 years since I first used a Mac Plus. However, I didn't own a Mac until early 1991, when I earned enough "Apple points" through holiday computer sales to get a free Mac Plus and carrying case from Apple. I paid tax on the value of the computer, upgraded RAM as I could afford it ($77 per megabyte!), added a hard drive when I could (about $400 for 40 MB), and had it upgraded to 16 MHz. Total cost was about $1,300, and I used it until mid-1993, so it averaged $520 per year - but I sold it for over $700, reducing my net cost to $240 a year.
My next computer was an entry-level Centris 610. My student price was about $1,350, and I slowly upgraded VRAM, RAM, and hard drives as funds allowed. I used that computer from about June 1993 to June 1998, when I got a too-good-to-pass-up close-out deal on a Umax SuperMac J700. Over five years of use, adding in the cost of upgrades, I may have invested $1,800, for an average of $360 per year. But I sold the Centris for $200, cutting my cost to $320 per year.
The computer was similar to the Power Mac 7500 Andrew Fishkin mentions - lots of slots for memory, lots of PCI slots, lots of drive bays, and easily upgraded processors. Mine started life with a 180 MHz PowerPC 601 CPU and ended up with a 333 MHz G3, if I recall correctly. Upgrades included more RAM, a better video card, and a bigger hard drive, and I used that $800 computer until January 2001. Figure $600 in upgrades for $1,400 over 2-1/2 years, and it comes out to $560 per year.
Like Charles Moore, I believe that notebooks are the logical computer for most people most of the time, and I jumped at the entry-level 400 MHz PowerBook G4 when it was introduced at the Jan. 2001 Macworld Expo. $2,600 made it the most expensive computer I've ever owned, and over time I boosted RAM, added AirPort, and replaced the original 10 GB hard drive twice. I used the PowerBook exclusively for 2-1/2 years, and it was in use for a total of 5-1/2 years. Adding $350 for upgrades, it cost me $536 per year. And when it died, I parted it out and got over $300, reducing my net cost to $482 per month - less than the close-out SuperMac!
In mid 2003, I bought a refurbished discontinued 700 MHz Combo drive eMac so the TiBook could go to Apple for service, which took a week. I think it cost about $800, and it spoiled me with speed. I used it until mid 2005, when I replaced it with a 1.25 GHz eMac (also a discontinued refurb). I recall it cost about $600, and I sold the 700 MHz eMac for $300 or so. I still used the PowerBook as my field computer.
Two years with the first eMac, including RAM upgrades, cost me about $450 per year - or $300 when you factor in sell it. The second eMac was my production machine until about three years ago, when I acquired a used dual 1 GHz Power Mac G4 from a friend at church. I paid $675, and I've been using it daily for about three years - with no end in sight. It has 2.0 GB of RAM, two USB 2.0 cards, two 400 GB 7200 rpm hard drives, and its original video card. I'm probably got $1,100 invested, not counting the monitor. Net cost: $366 per year.
It's interesting that my average cost per year, including upgrades and deducting what I could sell the old Mac for at the end, came out pretty close to Andrew's figures. The eMacs had the shortest useful life, while my 2002 Power Mac (acquired in 2005) is very comfortably running Tiger - and handles Leopard decently when I want to play with it.
There's a lot to be said for buying a computer that you can upgrade time and again - and for buying used or refurbished when you can. Dan
Andrew J Fishkin, Esq, is a laptop using attorney in Los Angeles, CA.
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