The Very Best Macs: Sometimes Apple Just Nails It
- 2008.12.01 - Tip Jar
Are Macs really special?
Do they really last longer than PCs?
Are users more productive on a Mac?
Are they more capable?
Each of those questions is debatable, and none of them will have the same answer for every person, but the truth is that Macintosh computers tend to remain in service longer than most Windows machines, at least outside of the corporate sector.
Like everything else, it is very subjective what makes us bond with one machine and not with another. I got my Performa 6200 back in 1995 when I worked as a pre-sales technical support trainer for Apple, and a coworker bought the exact same model. This was, by every technical and most anecdotal accounts, one of the very worst computers Apple ever made.
I hated mine, but my coworker loved his. The difference was a combination of expectations, actual use, and most importantly, how we got online. I was stuck using dialup through the 6200's crippled modem; he connected on a network that had fast (for 1995) ISDN that got into the 6200 through an equally crippled - but still fast-enough - ethernet card.
Expectations and longevity go hand-in-hand, which leads me to the only older Mac in my stable, a 5-year-old PowerBook G4, and the only Mac I wish I'd never sold, a now 9-year-old Power Mac G4. These Macs are both, in my opinion, special. They have that special something that makes us hold on to them long after other models have surpassed their abilities.
Let's look first at the Power Mac.
The Power Mac G4 "Sawtooth" was my first ever high-end Mac purchase. Even then, I bought it used when it was two years old. The difference in 2001 between the current model and my Sawtooth was minor, especially running OS 9, and it is much like comparing the 8-core Mac Pro of today to the original quad-core model of 2006.
I kept that machine on OS 9 until "Panther" (Mac OS X 10.3) was released, at which time I finally moved to OS X. Even in its stock 400 MHz configuration with its wimpy 16 MB Rage Pro graphics, the then 4-year-old G4 was still an excellent performer.
A few months before moving to "Tiger" (Mac OS X 10.4), I upgraded it with a 1.0 GHz dual processor card, 1.5 GB of RAM, and a fast 160 GB drive that required a special third party driver to overcome the ATA controller's 128 GB limit. A few months later, the old ATI video card was replaced by a low-end Nvidia GeForce FX5200 card with 64 MB of VRAM and an ATI Radeon 7500 PCI video card with 32 MB of VRAM, each card driving a 19" LCD monitor hooked up via DVI.
If I still had this computer, I would install "Leopard" (Mac OS X 10.5) on it and keep it in service at my office. It's not fast enough for video editing and the like anymore, but it's more than adequate for working with audio files, Office 2008, and Acrobat Professional. Since my version of Photoshop (7.0) is an older one, the G4 makes an excellent platform for image work as well.
The best part is that the old Sawtooth, which though totally left behind in terms of internal technology, is still very much upgradable today. You can install dual 1.8 GHz G4 CPUs that are not only faster than anyone imagined in 1999, but that rival many Intel systems when running PowerPC code. RAM can be pushed to a full 2 GB, which is adequate for real work even with today's software. There's room for large modern drives and the availability of SATA and USB 2.0 controllers, so you won't be missing out on any modern features. You can even add Bluetooth via a USB dongle. Not bad for an almost 10-year-old computer that still looks great and has one of the easiest to work on case designs ever.
The other old Mac that I bonded with is one that I sold in 2005, only to buy an almost identical, though faster version. I'm talking about the 1 GHz 12" PowerBook (Rev B). The first version of the Little Al ran far too hot, lacked USB 2.0, and had a weaker graphics card. Rev B was only a minor speed bump for the processor, but it was a computer that ran much cooler, was much faster on account of more cache and better video, and was fully modern in its technologies (USB 2.0, Bluetooth, etc.). There was also just something about it.
I moved to the 1.5 GHz Rev D 12" PowerBook, but somehow despite sharing the same case and being a feature improvement in every way, it just wasn't special any more. I sold the Rev D in my first (failed) attempt to go Intel, and when I grew tired of my ultraportable ThinkPad X32, I traded it for a used Rev B 12" PowerBook. At first the old PowerBook ran Panther and Office 2004, serving as a backup to a high-end ThinkPad. When the ThinkPad was replaced by a MacBook, I moved the old PowerBook up to Tiger after briefly trying it with Leopard. Leopard was fine, if a bit sluggish, but Tiger is the best match. Now the MacBook has been replaced by an early 2008 MacBook Pro, and the 12" PowerBook remains perhaps my favorite computer.
The old PowerBook doesn't come close to the MacBook Pro in any feature except size, but it still has that special something. Despite sharing a very similar design, the build on the older machine is a bit tighter, and the shape of the 12" model just somehow always looked right to me. It is thick by modern standards, but very small and light. Many people who see me using it in coffee shops ask if it's "the one that goes in an envelope".
Under Tiger, the old PowerBook - maxed out at 1.25 GB of RAM and fitted with a 120 GB hard drive - is adequate in terms of performance. It isn't fast, but it isn't slow either. Microsoft Office 2008 is a bit slow to launch, but once the applications are open, they are responsive enough to not annoy, and they function as well as they do on more modern machines.
Of course, all of the modern Mac features (except for the Leopard goodies) are present, and it still gets the same 5 hour battery life (on a new battery) and weighs the same 4.6 lb. that it always has. In short, other than playing high-def video, which it won't do, I can do almost everything on my old 12" PowerBook that I can do on my new MacBook Pro, just at a much slower pace.
Is the MacBook Pro a "special" machine like the 12" PowerBook? I don't think so. It is amazingly fast, beautifully assembled, and an absolute delight to work on, but the size and proportion don't work as well as the 12-incher's magic combination. It is a very nice machine, no doubt, and I will enjoy using for the next few years, but when the upgrade cycle hits again, I can see myself selling it but still holding onto the Little Al.
Are any of today's Macs special?
I think so. I have become very fond of my Mac Pro, and not just because of the speed. Like the Sawtooth, its design and construction are a thing of beauty, and it just oozes quality everywhere you look or touch.
I would also put the MacBook Air into the special category. It isn't practical, is a lousy value in terms of features and performance for the price, but even more than the new MacBook and MacBook Pro, it just has that special something.
Most longtime Mac users have a few favorite models, and the criteria are entirely subjective. The Pismo PowerBooks are much loved, but I never cared for the look or feel of them. Likewise, the PowerBook 5300 has received tons of bad press, but I really liked my 5300c and look back on it fondly.
What are your favorite Macs? Do you think Apple's current lineup includes any "magic" models?
Andrew J Fishkin, Esq, is a laptop using attorney in Los Angeles, CA.
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