Miscellaneous Ramblings

Outfitting the BTO SuperMac S900

12 July 2000 - Charles Moore - Tip Jar

If you're a regular Low End Mac reader, you probably remember my articles back in May about the Frankenstein Power Mac 9500 project, in which I was attempting to procure a decently fast and capable machine for a backup to my faithful Wall Street PowerBook by adding bits and pieces to a stripped 9500 my son had obtained from a friend.

If you prechance did not read those articles, a quick click back through them will provide you with background context for this column.

When I left off this thread on May 31, I had just ordered one of the bare-bones but brand new Umax SuperMac S900s that Other World Computing's new build to order used Macintosh store was offering for $300 (Umax S900Lsorry, they're all gone now). The S900 was Umax's high-end 6-slot PCI minitower machine that used basically the same Tsunami motherboard as the Power Mac 9500 and 9600. This purchase seemed like a no-brainer compared with paying the same price, or more, for a 9500 motherboard to replace the one that had been damaged when a RAM module caught fire.

I'll take this opportunity to say some nice things about Other World Computing. I think that the used Mac BTO idea is extremely cool, and I found them very nice people to deal with (thanks, Heather). My new SuperMac arrived promptly, well packed, and in perfect condition - brand new, as advertised. My only complaint, as I mentioned in a previous article, is that as a Canadian resident I got nicked for US$65 in freight charges, while a U.S. resident would have paid a paltry $5. That's really not OWC's fault, but rather a general, across-the-board rip-off by the courier companies for Canadian customers ordering merchandise from the U.S.

Currently the closest thing in a multi-slot PCI Mac that OWC has available on their BTO Website is some Power Mac 7600/132 A/V units starting at US$235.

The PowerMac 7600/132 Base Systems offered at that price include:

  • Average Cosmetic Condition (Office Use)
  • 44 MHz System Bus
  • 256 KB level 2 Cache
  • 8 168-Pin DIMM slots
  • Internal SCSI Bus
  • 3 PCI slots
  • No RAM, but 8 Empty 168-Pin DIMM slots
  • Apple built-in A/V System w/eideo and audio in RCA jacks
  • Built-in AAUI and 10Base-T ethernet connection
  • Single ADB port
  • 2 MB VRAM (expandable to 4 MB)
  • Floppy Drive
  • 25-pin SCSI port
  • Modem and printer ports

Keyboard and mouse are not included with the base configuration. 2 MB VRAM is included via 2 VRAM DIMMs. Apple AV features are present with RCA jacks for video in and audio in. The base 7600 does have on board video, but you can add a better a video card. You can find a selection of these, plus RAM, hard drives, and the other bits you will need on the BTO page.

Once my S900 arrived, I couldn't really do much at first but a admire it, since the processor card, video card, RAM upgrades, and monitor were still with the 9500, 200 miles away where my son, Tristan, was working. The old, scrounged Mac monitor he had found for the 9500 was in pretty bad shape anyway, and getting worse, but Tristan, who was planning to move home for a while at the end of June, had a line on an NEC 15" multiscan VGA unit that was being declared surplus at a school where he did volunteer work, so the project went on hold for a few weeks.

Tristan arrived home with an interesting collection of stuff to trick out the SuperMac with. There were the original 180 MHz 604e ZIF card and a video card from Dan Knight's Umax SuperMac J700 that we had previously installed in the ill-fated 9500, plus another 200 MHz 604e card and a big video-capture PCI card that Tristan had picked up somewhere. We also had six RAM modules - no two of them exactly alike, but happily in non-identical pairs of 32 MB, 16 MB, and 8 MB respectively. Combined with the 16 MB of RAM soldered to the S900's motherboard, that gave us roughly 128 MB of RAM according to the "About This Computer" dialog, once we had it all installed.

This time we tested each of the scrounged RAM modules separately in Tristan's beater Power Mac 7200 before installing them in the SuperMac, also one by one, in order to ensure that there would be no repeat of the 9500 exploding RAM debacle. They all worked fine.

I had mentioned in the previous article, I had originally ordered a 4x CD ROM drive ($30) with the S900, but these units turned out to be out of stock, so rather than hold up the order, I opted for a Sony 2x CD300 drive for $15. Tristan had a 4x unit, but it behaved erratically when we tried it in the S900, so I'm back to the 2x unit for now. Someday I may replace it with a CD-ROM burner. I don't use CDs much anyway, and I still have the 20x unit in my PowerBook for when I need them.

The freebie NEC monitor turned out to be quite decent, albeit beat up in external appearance, but at that "price" you can't really complain.

We tried the 180 MHz processor card first, and then switched to the 200 MHz card, which on the basis of unscientific observation seemed to boost performance by a lot more than the nominal 11.1 percent. Therefore the 200 MHz card will remain installed for now, possibly to be replaced down the road by a G3 or G4 upgrade.

Late last month, Robert Farnsworth, President and CEO of Sonnet Technologies, Inc., announced that Sonnet's Crescendo PCI and Encore ZIF G3 and G4 processor upgrades will definitely be compatible with Mac OS X.

This is great news for anyone with a PCI-based Power Mac who has been holding their breath in hope that they wouldn't be shut out of the OS X experience. Sonnet's announcement does not mean, of course, that OS X will be officially supported by Apple on upgraded older machines (to the best of my knowledge, the exact support cut-off has not yet been firmly announced, but it could be the 233 MHz G3, which would include the early beige G3 Power Macs and the Revision A/B iMacs, as well as all of the G3 Series PowerBooks).

When I bought the S900, I hoped that the upgrade folks would come through with OS X compatibility. Sonnet is the first to do so. Thanks, folks!

The 2.15 GB Barracuda 7200 rpm/1024k 8 ms hard drive ($59.00) that I ordered with the S900 is delightfully fast, although it's annoyingly loud, even drowning out the machine's two cooling fans. While it's tolerable for the occasional use the S900 will be getting initially, I don't think I could tolerate the din from the drive and two fans day in and day out. I will have to think about mounting the CPU in an out of the way spot for workhorse use.

Apparently, I'm not the only one who finds the S900 excessively noisy. Dan Knight says he keeps his under his desk. LEM reader Ben Kerosky writes to say that his SuperMac S900 with four internal hard drives is really loud. "Not only do both those fans run all the time," says Ben, "but four hard drives spinning all at once on top of that is even worse. Now I love my S900; it's one of the best Macs I've ever owned, but its loud." Must be cacophonous, Ben. One screaming drive is bad enough!

Another S900 user, Ron Risley, who recently posted an interesting article on using a PowerBook 5300 as a LAN router and Web server, also notes that his SuperMac is loud.

We did a side-by-side comparison of the SuperMac and Tristan's Lombard 333 MHz PowerBook running the same QuickTime video. Naturally the G3 had substantially superior performance, but the 200 MHz 604e did remarkably well, and its finder and especially hard drive response appear to be better than the PowerBook's.

That's pretty much our progress to date. There are still empty drive bays and PCI and RAM slots in there, so there is plenty of potential for future adventures with this machine.

The general concept of building a Mac configured to suit your needs and pocketbook appeals to me, and if you're looking for a reasonably priced Mac and want to have it your way, check out Other World Computing's BTO store. I hope this is a low end Mac concept that catches on.

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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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