Miscellaneous Ramblings

Low End Macs Revisited

Charles Moore - 2002.08.06 - Tip Jar

Since my WallStreet PowerBook unceremoniously died last week, my old Umax SuperMac S900, which had been mostly gathering dust since I bought a Pismo PowerBook last October, has been pressed back into service as my backup machine. The old SuperMac, with its 200 MHz 604e processor, is no G3 or G4, but it acquits itself quite decently, especially when performing tasks that don't tax the processor or the mediocre video card I have installed in it too strenuously.

In particular, Web surfing and email are very lively, with page downloads that seem significantly quicker than with the late, lamented WallStreet - or even the 500 MHz Pismo. I attribute this partly to the 5400 rpm hard drive in the Umax, and possibly to more efficient port access as well. The modem I'm using with the S900 it is an old Global Village Platinum 33.3k external serial unit, as opposed to the built-in 56 K modems in the PowerBooks, but since none of these modems connects at better than 26,400 bps over my less than optimum dialup service, the slower modem isn't a handicap.

On the other hand, slow scrolling drives me nuts after years on the speedy G3s, with system bootups and program startups also very leisurely by comparison. I could do production work on this machine - and indeed I did for a week back in May, 2001 - but I wouldn't be likely to use it with a G3 or G4 available.

Which brings us to the topic of processor upgrades. I have been tempted, as the price of G3 PCI upgrades has dropped, but several issues keep holding back.

While a 350-400 MHz G3 upgrade can be had for a reasonable $100 or so, my Umax has only a 4 GB hard drive, 120 MB of RAM, and that poky old video card from a Umax J700, all of which would want to be upgraded as well.

Another issue is dictation software support. I am heavily dependent upon dictation software. MacSpeech's iListen 1.1 works with the 200 MHz 604e, although it's not officially supported, and is frustratingly slow. ViaVoice Millennium Edition refuses to install on the Umax at all, although it might work with a G3 in place. However, MacSpeech specifically says that iListen won't work with processor upgraded machines.

Nevertheless, I'll bet the old S900 would really fly with one of Sonnet's new Crescendo/PCI G4 800 upgrades installed - and even run OS X happily. It would be a blast to be able to experiment, but $399.95 is a lot of money to spend on old computer, and I would still need that other stuff I mentioned.

Speaking of old computers, my former workhorse PowerBook 5300, which has been my daughter's computer for the past three and a half years, really saved my bacon when the WallStreet melted down. I had been a bit lazy about backing up my files recently, and there were about three weeks worth of work and email files in the PowerBook's hard drive that I didn't have duplicated on other media.

Happily, I was able to install the WallStreet's 10 GB Toshiba drive in the case of a little 810 MB VST expansion may drive my daughter has for the 5300 and then transfer my unbacked up files to the Pismo via Zip disk.

The old 5300 has been a rock of dependability since I bought it back in 1996; the only real problems having been a broken trackpad button and a loose AC adapter jack. The entire case plastics were replaced by Apple in 2000 under their REA service extension program for the 5300 series when the trackpad button broke, at which time the AC jack was resoldered. Despite the 5300's generally spotty reputation, this one has been an excellent computer. It's now about twice as old as the WallStreet was when it expired, and it's still going strong.

My daughter, however, has now switched to the PowerBook 1400 I wrote about here a couple of months ago, is enjoying the larger, color screen and a bit more speed. The 5300 is now her backup computer.

While the G3s and G4s are speedy and slick, these old legacy machines still have a lot of going for them, and they do seem to be more robust than the flashy new speedsters.

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Charles Moore has been a freelance journalist since 1987 and began writing for Mac websites in May 1998. His The Road Warrior column was a regular feature on MacOpinion, he is news editor at Applelinks.com and a columnist at MacPrices.net. If you find his articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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