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Aquatic Mac

How Low Can You Go?

Andrew W. Hill
2001.12.28

Most people don't need the latest and greatest in computer technology. Low End Mac has traditionally covered the older, cheaper, less capable computers. However, there comes a time when something is just too old for certain tasks.

My recommendation when most people ask me if I can find them a good, cheap, secondhand computer is to go for a PCI Power Mac. A basic setup can be had for under $200, which includes the computer with at least a gigabyte of storage, 64 MB of RAM, a monitor, and a modem. These computers can take USB/FireWire cards, ATA cards, and higher performance video cards, as well as G3 upgrades. They're very capable machines for very little money and make for a great household computer for a family.

I try to keep people away from the 6400 and 6500 series. Personally, I love the things. I think the case design is great and the sound system is excellent. Unfortunately, they have a fairly low RAM limit (136 MB) and only two PCI slots. While there is onboard ATA, it is very slow. The G3 upgrade cards do not integrate as seamlessly as they do into other PCI Power Macs. The nice case and sound system do add to the price a lot, as well.

On the plus side, Apple's TV/Video system is excellent. If you want to capture low resolution videos or watch television, these machines are great. Due to the lack of expansion, I wouldn't recommend them to a family or college student, but they make a great secondary computer to have for children to do school assignments, listen to music, or watch television on. They can be expanded somewhat as needs increase, but all solutions leave something to be desired.

As far as I see it, the NuBus Power Macs are history. This is not to say that they aren't good machines; my mother's primary machine is a 7100/80 with 136 MB RAM and a Newer Tech G3 upgrade. But it is impossible to add USB, FireWire, or ATA to it, and the G3 upgrades can sometimes be a little sketchy. You can run Mac OS 9, Micro$oft Office 2001, and AppleWorks 6.2 on them, and the 6100 is nice as small. If all you need to do is write documents and handle email, something like the 6100 would work just fine.

The 68k series are still good machines. If you need a $10 computer to write an essay on, or something for your three-year-old to discover computing on, or something for a teenager to "learn about" (read: break), an LC III or Quadra work great. They will word process, browse the Internet, write emails, and chat on the more popular instant messengers, but for all of these tasks you must use older versions of software. This is not always a problem for most, but it can cause headaches as far as compatibility goes. If you write something in ClarisWorks and email it to a buddy on a PC, Word 2000 may not open it. Likewise, HTML 4 support in 68k browsers is poor at best.

While you would have a nice $10 computer, its value would be precisely that. A computer nearly eight years old cannot be expected to keep up with the features of newer computers, and things that seem easy on new machines suddenly become a huge task on the older machine. The frustration this can cause is frequently worth the extra $50 or so to get something like a 6100.

The key to value computing, in my opinion, is not to budget too low. Even if you're just looking for a machine for your grandparents to send you email from, try to look past that $10 SE and closer to a $50 6100. If the difference seems large to you, start looking at other expenses you have. Lunch at McDonald's costs about $5. A blender or a pair of jeans will cost you $30.

A computer is both an appliance and an entertainment device; by spending just a little bit more for a low-end Mac, you can get something that better fits your needs. Decide what your price range should be, then add an extra $50 "just in case."

My next article involves laptops.

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Andrew W. Hill (a.k.a. Aqua) has been using Macintosh computers since 1987 and maintains that the Mac SE is the perfect Macintosh, superior to all - including the Color Classic. He is on the verge of being evicted from the family home due to its infestation of Macs (last count: about 50). Andrew is attempting to pay his way through college at UC Santa Cruz with freelance Web design and Mac tech support.

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    Aquatic Mac begun December 28, 2001. All Tech Reflections articles ©2001-2003 by Andrew W. Hill. Low End Mac is an independent publication and has not been authorized, sponsored, or otherwise approved by Apple Inc. Opinions expressed are those of their authors and may not reflect the opinion of Cobweb Publishing. Advice is presented in good faith, but what works for one may not work for all.
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