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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 olderhardware and on maximizing your computing bang for the fewest computingbucks. 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 makea lot of sense, but for many, the opposite is true. Using myself as anexample, I am a poor candidate for a very expensive laptop for thesimple reason that I tend to wear them out. While new technologies suchas LED backlighting and unibody construction should go a long waytoward making laptops more durable, the lack of upgradability and therigors of mobile use still conspire against a top-of-the-line laptopfor me. For someone who is more careful with his or her gear or whotravels 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. Thelast time I bought a desktop Mac for my own use was 1999, and thatdesktop Mac - a Power MacG4 "Sawtooth" - remains a very useful machine to this day. Iupgraded its 400 MHz processor to dual 1.0 GHz and bumped the RAM from128 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 anupgraded PCI ATA controller provide more than adequate storage andspeed. Finally, the original 802.11b AirPort Card was replaced with aPCI 802.11g card based on the Atheros chipset, and it's recognized byMac 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 1.8GHz and to much better video and SATA storage. The 100 MHz system busis slow by modern standards, but the computer feels and is fast in mostapplications and is capable of just about everything a modern Mac cando, except with regard to running Windows natively (though it will runVirtual 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 whocould justify its $2,500 price tag.

The Mac Pro of today, ableeding-edge, super-premium, 8-core monster is aimed at exactly thesame person that the old Sawtooth was aimed at almost a decade ago, andlike that old Sawtooth, the Mac Pro may very well be the leastexpensive Mac you can buy.

Low End: Obsolete Sooner

Another way to look at it is from the Macs I bought before theG4.

I bought a 75 MHz Performa6200 Road Apple in 1995, whichI got rid of the same year. I replaced it with a 75 MHz Power Mac 7200. The 7200 was anexcellent Mac, but it was nowhere near top-of-the-line, and by 1999 itwas 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 thelast version that was truly fast.

Had I spent more in 1995 and purchased a Power Mac 7500, however, I wouldhave an easy upgrade path through G3 and G4 processors and could haveused Jaguar and even Panther comfortably. A Power Mac 7500 cost about$1,000 more than the 7200, but it would have been usable as afront-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 fromleft behind. Those two server-class quad-core Xeon processors are notsoldered to the logic board, so they can be upgraded if needed, atleast for another three or four years worth of technology. The videocard is mounted on the latest and fastest double lane PCIe bus, againassuring you of many upgrade options in the years to come. 32 GB memorycapacity and four SATA drive bays, not to mention those PCIe slotsensure that as new technologies emerge, the Mac Pro you buy today willkeep pace - and for far less than the cost of a new Mac.

We don't know what new technologies will emerge in the next nineyears, but PCI Express, a 1600 MHz front side bus, and upgradable dualquad-core processors will take many years to leave behind. Looked atanother way, a Mac Pro at $2,800 used for nine years costs $311 peryear.

Low End Comparison

Compare that to a lower-end Mac. In 1999, you could have purchased aG3 iMac, and that machine alsohad a long useful life and arguably can still be used today. Morerealistically, that G3 iMac would have been replaced once or twice bynow.

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 isprobably about the same as my upgraded Power Mac G4, meaning adequatein terms of processor power, video, and storage, but nearingobsolescence as new technology finally approaches that machine'slimits.

You can buy the latest Core 2 Duo iMac and enjoyanother four years before technology again catches up. Looked atanother way, a low-end 20" iMac today costs $1,200, which comes to $300per year.

The iMac is a bit cheaper, but in the first four years, the timewhen you are using the iMac and Mac Pro purchased at the same time, theMac Pro will give far higher performance. Over the next three years, ifyou compare the old 1999 Power Mac with upgrades to a then-new G5 iMacin 2004, you are still getting about the same processor performance(dual G4s about equal to a low-end G5) and the possibility ofhigher-spec video, RAM, and storage.

Pro Macs Are More Flexible

Even at the end of its life, the old Power Mac has more versatilestorage options than the latest and greatest iMac of today, just as theMac Pro at age nine will likely compare favorably to the 2017 iMac.

This, of course, leaves out displays, which do wear out. On theiMac, you can plug in a second display and pay a repair shop to replacethe original display when it dies, while with a Mac Pro you can connectas many displays as you want and replace them as they wear out or youwant something better.

I used a 17" CRT with my G4 in 1999. In 2002, I bought a 15" LCD. In2004, 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 dual20" widescreens as the 19" 4:3 displays were repurposed throughout theoffice.

An iMac did not and does not have that flexibility. Yes, today'siMac displays are large and pretty, and I really cannot imagine thembecoming 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 Prowill drive up to 8 30" displays, though I do see a pair of 24" inchersin my future.

If you plan on maximizing the useful life of a computer, it reallycan make sense to buy at the high end. LEM

Case Study: Dan Knight of Low End Mac

When I started Low End Mac in 1997, it had been over 10 years sinceI 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 Plusand 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 harddrive when I could (about $400 for 40 MB), and had it upgraded to 16MHz. Total cost was about $1,300, and I used it until mid-1993, so itaveraged $520 per year - but I sold it for over $700, reducing my netcost 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 fundsallowed. I used that computer from about June 1993 to June 1998, when Igot 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 anaverage of $360 per year. But I sold the Centris for $200, cutting mycost to $320 per year.

The computer was similar to the Power Mac 7500 Andrew Fishkinmentions - lots of slots for memory, lots of PCI slots, lots of drivebays, and easily upgraded processors. Mine started life with a 180 MHzPowerPC 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 harddrive, and I used that $800 computer until January 2001. Figure $600 inupgrades for $1,400 over 2-1/2 years, and it comes out to $560 peryear.

Like Charles Moore, I believe that notebooks are the logicalcomputer for most people most of the time, and I jumped at theentry-level 400 MHzPowerBook G4 when it was introduced at the Jan. 2001 Macworld Expo.$2,600 made it the most expensive computer I've ever owned, and overtime I boosted RAM, added AirPort, and replaced the original 10 GB harddrive twice. I used the PowerBook exclusively for 2-1/2 years, and itwas in use for a total of 5-1/2 years. Adding $350 for upgrades, itcost 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-outSuperMac!

In mid 2003, I bought a refurbished discontinued 700 MHz Combo drive eMac so theTiBook could go to Apple for service, which took a week. I think itcost about $800, and it spoiled me with speed. I used it until mid2005, when I replaced it with a 1.25 GHz eMac (also a discontinuedrefurb). 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 wasmy production machine until about three years ago, when I acquired aused dual 1 GHz Power MacG4 from a friend at church. I paid $675, and I've been using itdaily for about three years - with no end in sight. It has 2.0 GB ofRAM, two USB 2.0 cards, two 400 GB 7200 rpm hard drives, and itsoriginal video card. I'm probably got $1,100 invested, not counting themonitor. Net cost: $366 per year.

It's interesting that my average cost per year, including upgradesand deducting what I could sell the old Mac for at the end, came outpretty close to Andrew's figures. The eMacs had the shortest usefullife, while my 2002 Power Mac (acquired in 2005) is very comfortablyrunning Tiger - and handles Leopard decently when I want to play withit.

There's a lot to be said for buying a computer that you can upgradetime 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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