Mac Daniel's Advice

Strategic Upgrades

Dan Knight - 2001.09.10

Whether you're using a stock Mac Plus or the latest dual-processor Quicksilver G4 from Cupertino, sooner or later you're going to find it falling short in one or more areas. The ultimate question: Are you better off upgrading what you have or replacing it?

The first question: Where is your computer falling short? If you regularly get out of memory errors or have no space left on your hard drive, it's pretty obvious what you need to do. But what if it's sluggish performance you want to combat?

There are a lot of ways to speed up a Mac. You can replace the CPU, use a more efficient operating system, switch to a faster hard drive, replace your older CD-ROM, add memory, move to a higher or lower resolution on your monitor, change video cards, speed up your Internet connection, chip the CPU, and who knows what else to see a small or large system improvement. That's why you need to take a strategic approach to upgrades.

Know Your Mac

First, look at what you have - installed memory, drive size, video, etc. Then look at your Mac's potential, something our computer profiles focus on. How much RAM does your system support? Does it have extra drive bays? What about hard drives: SCSI and/or IDE support? Are there faster processors available?

This might convince you that you can't go where you want with your current Mac. If you need 32 MB of memory, an LC II or Classic II simply can't take you there. (With 10 MB RAM and virtual memory or RAM Doubler, you can fake 30 MB, but performance is going to suffer.) A lot of older PowerBooks have relatively low RAM ceilings - which wasn't a problem when they were first designed.

The Replacement Option

If you find your Mac can't go where you need to be, then it's time to replace it with a newer Mac (and maybe even a new one). Again, our profiles and Best Buys listings can help you make the right choice. And our Road Apples section can help you avoid the few real dogs Apple produced.

Odds are fairly good that you'll end up holding on to your old Mac; a lot of us do that. If so, you may want to look into way to network the two machines, whether by LocalTalk or ethernet.

Upgrading Memory

Now look at solutions. For memory expansion, see what kinds of SIMMs or DIMMs your Mac supports and then check pricing (we're fans of ramseeker). For instance, you may find it a lot less costly to buy two 256 MB modules for a TiBook than a single 512 MB module. And if you're working with an older Mac, you may be able to find secondhand or "pulled" memory from eBay or your local Apple dealer.

Plan ahead. With today's memory prices, this might be a good time to buy more memory than you would otherwise.

Once you've got more memory inside your Mac, there are a few tricks for speeding things up:

  • If you've been using Virtual Memory, you may be able to turn it off and improve performance. (This is not an option under Mac OS X.)
  • More recent versions of the Mac OS will automatically set aside more RAM for the disk cache as you add memory. If you're using an older operating system (8.1 and earlier?), you should manually increase the disk cache in the Memory control panel.
  • Some programs run much more efficiently if you give them more memory. Web browsers are notorious for running a lot better when you give them a lot more RAM. See How Your Mac Uses Memory for more information. (This no longer applies with Mac OS X, since it allocates memory to programs as they need it.)

Upgrading Your Hard Drive

As Andrew Hill noted recently, the hard drive may be the slowest part of your computer that's used almost constantly. The CPU is fast. Memory is slower, but still pretty fast. In comparison to that, your hard drive is slow.

Increasing the size of your disk cache in the Memory control panel will help things a bit, but the older the drive, the slower it is. We used to marvel at drives that could spin at 3000 RPM and move a couple megabytes per second. By comparison, today's fast drives spin at 7200, 10,000, and even 15,000 RPM and can move tens of megabytes of data per second.

Dropping a faster hard drive even into something as pedestrian and antiquated as a Macintosh SE can more than double hard drive performance over the original 20 MB MiniScribe drive. I know; I've done the upgrade by simply taking an ancient 40 MB hard drive from an LC and seen how it changes the whole character of the SE.

If you're using virtual memory, FileMaker Pro, a Web browser, OS X, or even most email clients, your Mac is constantly accessing the hard drive. The faster your hard drive, the better overall system performance.

Don't be fooled by rotation speed; it's just one indicator of potential performance. Look at the rated transfer speed and the size of the cache on the hard drive itself. Higher numbers are better.

Then ask around. Some people swear by Maxtors, while others swear at them. The same can be said of IBM, Quantum (now part of Maxtor), Western Digital, and other brands. I recommend avoiding the old Conner drives; other brands of similar vintage will outperform them.

And you don't have to go all out. If your Mac is several years old, the newer 7200 RPM drives will offer an immediately noticeable improvement. (Ditto for the new, expensive, and still relatively uncommon 5400 RPM hard drives for laptops.)

Some cautions:

  • Be careful putting a higher RPM drive in an air cooled Mac, such as the Cube or slot-loading iMac. The new drive could generate too much heat.
  • SCSI hard drives are becoming less common and are quite expensive compared with IDE/Ultra ATA drives. Consider a PCI card for more recent Power Macs (and clones) and also look into the various SCSI-to-IDE adapters currently on the market. You can save enough on the drive to more than cover the cost of the card or adapter.
  • Some Macs have small drive bays with poor air circulation. This can lead to overheating, something I once ran into with a half-height drive in a Centris 660av. Be careful placing high RPM and/or physically large mechanisms in small spaces.

For lots of good user feedback on different drives, visit Accelerate Your Mac.

Caches, Chipping, and CPU Upgrades

A little cache will make a little difference - but it might be enough. For instance, dropping a 32K cache card into a Mac IIci boosts performance 15% or so. Not bad for a card that usually sells for about $5. Ditto for dropping a 256K cache into a Power Mac 6100 - for a small investment (often under $5 before shipping) you can see a 10-15% boost in speed.

That's the easy, inexpensive solution. The next inexpensive solution isn't as easy and requires some expertise: clock chipping your Mac. For instance, a IIsi will often run just fine at 28 MHz, but you have to make some modifications to the motherboard. Ditto for pushing a Quadra 605 to 33 MHz, a 6100 to 80 MHz or so, and other possibilities. See Chipping the Mac for more details. This will void warranty, could overheat your computer, and is done at your own risk.

A few Macs can be easily and inexpensively upgraded by replacing the CPU. In particular, any Mac with a 68LC040 will see some improvements by dropping in a regular 68040 CPU. Best source: dead Quadras from your local Apple dealer and pulled '040s offered for sale on eBay. Don't pay too much, and note that in some cases, the additional heat can cause problems.

There used to be a class of processor upgrades that clipped onto your old CPU, plugged into the processor direct slot (PDS), or even into a NuBus or PCI slot. They're no longer common, but can provide a nice boost in performance. Before investing, be sure to compare the cost of the upgrade with the cost of a used Mac with the same horsepower. You may find the used Mac is a lower-cost option.

Finally, there are the Macs designed with CPU upgrades in mind. The Power Mac 7500 is a sterling example of the daughter card design. The 7500 shipped with a 100 MHz 601 processor, but you can drop a 500 MHz G3 or G4 inside if you need to. Not bad for a machine that rarely sells for over $50 on eBay (unless it has a monitor and G3 upgrade). There were a whole series of Power Macs (7300, 7600, 8500, 8600, 9500, 9600) and clones (Umax SuperMac and Power Computing) that used the same daughter card connector. You can often find very nice pulled 604 cards for a song and brand new G3 cards (200-300 MHz) for under US$100.

More recently, Apple abandoned the daughter card in favor of the ZIF socket, which allows for more compact, less costly upgrades. From the beige G3 through today's Quicksilvers, upgrading can be as easy as popping out the old CPU and plugging in a new one.

There are a lot of upgrade options in this category, and it's easy to get seduced by high MHz numbers. Always compare the cost of the upgrade to the cost of new or used Macs offering similar performance.

Video Cards

I don't game much, and when I do, it's not the kind of 3D games that today's accelerated video cards are designed for. In short, I can't offer much personal experience here.

Chris Lawson has done extensive research on NuBus video cards, which work in Macs from the Mac II of 1987 through the x100 Power Macs of 1994. Rely on his profiles in our Guide to NuBus Video Cards and also to the various columns on the topic in Mac Daniel.

Bryan Rumsey's Gaming and 3D Video Cards takes a helpful look at the situation for PCI Power Macs.

CD-ROM

Again, because I don't game much, I hardly ever use the CD-ROM drive in my computer. If you really want to improve CD-ROM performance, skip past all the pretenders with their 24x maximum speeds and look at the True-X drives (see Accelerate Your Mac for a nice review). The 52x drive spins at the same speed as an 8x drive, making it a lot quieter than the 24x speed demons. Through clever technology, the True-X drives read 7 tracks at once, yielding a consistently high throughput compared with the more common "high speed" CD-ROM drives.

For me, when I weigh the cost and benefits, the fact that I use CD-ROM so rarely means I don't even consider replacing what I've already got, but if your CD-ROM has become a bottleneck, look into the True-X drives and check out the other user recommendations at Accelerate Your Mac.

Final Analysis

The last time I went through this process, in June 1998, I determined it would cost about $800 to upgrade the CPU, memory, and hard drive in my Centris 610. Even then, it would only be about twice as fast. At the time, Umax was closing out their SuperMac line of Mac clones. For the same $800, I could buy a SuperMac J700 with a 180 MHz 604e processor, 2.1 GB hard drive, 8x CD-ROM, accelerated video card, and 24 MB RAM. The decision was a no brainer, and I have no regrets about buying that clone.

And that's where the final analysis come in. Now that you've looked at your current Mac and considered which upgrades would make sense, you need to add up the numbers. Add the cost of the memory, hard drive, video card, or whatever else you're contemplating. Write down what you'll end up with.

For instance, my J700 ended up with a G3/333, 192 MB RAM, a 15 GB IDE hard drive and controller, and a slightly better video card. If I were buying all those upgrades at once (and I didn't - it was a piecemeal upgrade) I'd want to compare that with a Blue & White G3/300. Those are closing for $600-700 on eBay. The G3/350 sells for even more.

I spent about $115 for the 15 GB hard drive, $100 for the IDE card to control it, $80 for the video card, and maybe $300 for the G3/333 upgrade. Of course, that was a couple years back, but you get the idea. All the upgrades ended up costing as much as a Yosemite G3/300 sells for today.

After you've done that kind of comparison, ask yourself one more question. Can I sell my old Mac at a good price? In my case, probably not. Recent J700s have closed for $100 and less on eBay. For that, I'd just as soon hold onto the computer and find another use for it. (In my case, one of the kids is using it.)

That's the strategic upgrade process. Once you've gone through all the steps, look seriously at new Macs and the used market, both locally and on eBay (search completed items and only pay attention to ones that have resulted in a sale). Compare what you can buy with what you might invest in your old Mac or what it's worth on the used market.

Keep in mind that with newer Macs you may have more options, such a built-in IDE drive support, CPUs that can be upgraded more easily, support for greater amounts of RAM, the ability to run Mac OS X. Weigh it all, balance the options, and you'll come to a conclusion you can live with - at least until the next round of new hardware from Apple.

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Not sure if you should upgrade your old Mac or replace it? Check the Mac Daniel index to see if we've already addressed your problem.

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