Mac Daniel's Advice

The Value and Limitations of the Beige G3

Dan Knight - 2003.03.03 - Tip Jar

This week we'll be looking at the value of four generations of Power Macs: the beige G3, blue & white G3, "Yikes" (PCI) G4, and early AGP G4s. Today we begin with the oldest of the four, the beige G3 models introduced in November 1997.

Seven years ago, when I began Low End Mac, the company I worked for had just retired and sold some old computers - a Mac II, LC, and LC II. These vintage 16 MHz workhorses had been in use for up to a decade. They also made great first computers for my kids.

Working in IT, at the time I was supporting Macs from a 1989 16 MHz IIcx to the Power Mac 8500s used in the graphics department. With such a vast array of hardware to support and few good resources on older Macs on the Internet, Low End Mac was born.

1997 was also the year the beige Power Mac G3 was introduced, the oldest Mac officially supported under Mac OS X. Today Apple sells dual 1.42 GHz Power Mac G4s with AGP 4x video, Quartz Extreme, Mac OS X 10.2, a DVD-burning SuperDrive, three IDE buses, and lots of drive bays.

Just how practical is the beige G3 in 2003, either as a classic Mac OS workhorse or an OS X platform?

The Pros

I was stunned to see used beige G3s selling for US$200 recently when working on our weekly Power Mac G3 Price Tracker. Both Mac of All Trades and MacResQ have recently been selling 266 MHz beige G3 desktop systems with 128-256 MB of RAM, a 4 GB hard drive, and a 24x CD-ROM drive for that price. There may be other equally low priced sources as well.

The price is definitely one reason to look at a beige G3 as an entry-level OS X machine or a nice step up from any pre-PCI Macintosh.

The beige G3 comes in three configurations. It was the last Power Mac to use the clever slide-off case G3 All-in-Onedesigned for the Power Mac 7500 - and the minitower version used the same convenient case as the Power Mac 8600 (definitely a precursor of the brilliant drawbridge design of the blue & white G3). A third alternative was the Power Mac G3 All-in-One, Apple's last all-in-one design prior to the iMac. What a behemoth!

The beige G3 was the last Power Mac to include a floppy, and it was often ordered from the factory with a Zip 100 drive installed. It was also the last to include SCSI support on the motherboard; SCSI became optional using an add-in card on future Power Macs. This was also the last desktop Mac to use Apple's serial port, and it still has the ADB port for older mice, keyboards, sketch tablets, and other ADB peripherals.

Although far from the first desktop Mac to use an IDE hard drive (that honor goes to the Quadra/Performa/LC 630 of 1994), the beige G3 was the first top-end Mac to use an IDE hard drive instead of SCSI. That means that you can easily plug in inexpensive, fast, high capacity drives today.

The CD-ROM drive is a standard sized IDE device, making it quick and easy to swap it out for a CD-RW drive, DVD-ROM, etc. Accelerate Your Mac! maintains a huge database of reader reports on which drives are compatible.

Compared with earlier Power Macs, the beige G3 had a faster bus (66 MHz vs. 50) and better video.

The ZIF socket made it easy to replace the CPU, and the J16 jumper block made it easy to experiment with overclocking. (Most G3 users find the computer readily supports 33 MHz more speed than rated, and sometimes you can get away with a 66 MHz boost.) Today you can plug in fast G3s and G4s to easily speed up performance.

The beige G3 supports every Mac OS from 8.0 (we recommend the free 8.1 update) through today's 10.2.4 and has three PCI slots, providing enough expansion options for most users.

The Cons

Although the G3/266 generally outperformed the 350 MHz 604e in Apple's top-end Power Mac 9600, there were some places where the newer computer fell behind the older one. The first of these was the IDE bus.

I'm not going to debate the merits and demerits of SCSI (generally faster, requires less CPU overhead, allows 7 devices per bus, costs a lot more), since they tend to be less significant with modern drives and on a desktop computer. Now that IDE includes DMA (direct memory access), most users won't find a good IDE drive the least bit sluggish.

In fact, our profile of the beige G3 notes: "For the first time, Apple shipped a Power Mac with a top notch EIDE hard drive that held its own against SCSI-2 drives. It was a bit of a paradigm shift, but one the Mac OS community eventually embraced."

But the Rev. A ROMs of the earliest beige G3s doesn't support slave drives, a problem that can be solved with a ROM transplant. With the Rev. A ROM, the beige G3 only supports 2 IDE devices; with Rev. B and later, it supports 2 masters and 2 slaves.

Also, although 16.6 MB/sec. was a fast IDE bus back in 1997, most of today's IDE hard drives - even the cheap ones - offer 2-4x that much performance, making the beige G3's IDE bus a real bottleneck for drive performance and use of virtual memory. I consider the slow IDE bus one of the beige G3's greatest drawbacks, but it can be overcome by putting a relatively inexpensive Ultra66 or Ultra100 PCI card in one of the expansion slots.

The beige G3 has one more significant drive-related drawback tied to Mac OS X: If the drive is larger than 8 GB, it must be partitioned, the first partition must be no larger than 8 GB, and OS X can only boot from that partition. This can be overcome by using a SCSI hard drive, and some IDE cards (such as the Acard Ahard) trick the Mac into seeing the attached IDE drive as a SCSI device, eliminating the need to partition.

Video performance is nice under the classic Mac OS, it's just adequate under Mac OS X. You can address this by adding a third-party PCI video card (the Radeon Mac Edition is a favorite). Although it will never match Quartz Extreme on the AGP Power Macs, you can have decent video performance under Mac OS X.

Although CPU upgrades are generally quick and simple, be sure to check under the hood before buying a faster CPU. Some beige G3s have voltage regulator module made by Royal Technology that "doesn't seem to adapt to the new processor properly" (see Macworld for more details). The Royal VRM could provide too much power and damage your new CPU. If your beige G3 has a Royal VRM, it should be replaced before you upgrade the CPU.

A Best Buy?

The question: Should we rate the beige G3 as a Low End Mac Best Buy? We've done it once before on a model that had some significant limitations but got so cheap that it became a good value (see our Best Buy report on the Power Mac 7200).

With prices as low as $200, it's very tempting to apply the best buy label - but we're not going to do it. The beige G3 is a very good buy. Although it's relatively inexpensive to add a faster PCI controller and a larger, faster hard drive, that money more than makes up the difference between the cost of a used beige G3 and a used blue & white G3, which we'll be looking at tomorrow.

When you factor in the b&w's faster system bus (100 MHz vs. 66), faster IDE (33 MB/sec. vs. 16.6), improved video, and the presence of USB and FireWire, the newer model is the better value.

The beige G3 remains an excellent low-cost computer, especially for use with the classic Mac OS. It would be an excellent step up from a Quadra, x100 Power Mac, or Performa, especially since it's still compatible with ADB peripherals, serial printers, and SCSI devices.

If it's all your budget allows, it's a very good buy. The b&w G3 is better if you can afford it, but as long as you know the beige G3's limitations and are content to live with them, you can definitely find happiness with a beige G3. LEM

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