Mac Musings

Build Your Own Mac

Dan Knight - 2001.08.03

I think almost every Mac user wishes Apple would add just one more product to their pro/consumer, desktop/portable matrix. For some, it would be an ultralight laptop. Others want a PowerBook with expansion bays. Still others want a headless iMac. And yet others want a G4 with more expansion bays. And another group wants the Cube back. And IT types wish Apple made a real server.

Here's how Apple can make some of those people happy while potentially growing market share: Build Your Own Macs.

In the PC world, you can pick any of dozens of motherboards, drop them into one of hundreds of cases, choose your own processor, hard drive, CD-ROM, keyboard, case, power supply, video card, etc. Windows and Linux users don't just do this for their own use; there's an entire industry composed of people who integrate their own hardware from the best (or sometimes cheapest) components.

Mac users have never been so fortunate. We came close when Mactell let you choose between Motorola and Umax motherboards in a desktop or minitower case with several hard drive, memory, and other options - but then the cloning era came to an end.

Old timers might remember back a decade or so when we had the next best thing to build your own Macs - low memory, no hard drive base models. You could buy a floppy-only SE, SE/30, or IIci with just a meg or two of RAM, then add whatever size and speed hard drive you needed along with third-party memory. As someone who sold Macs in those days, I know this option saved our customers money while giving us the opportunity to make a little more profit.

Option 1

The simplest option for Apple would be to sell a bare bones Power Mac G4. It would include the motherboard, case, power supply, power cord, and operating system. It would not include memory, a CPU, a hard drive, a CD or DVD drive, a modem, or even an AGP video card. It would be cheap.

Mac fans could buy the Power Mac Zero from their dealer or from The Apple Store, where they would have the option of purchasing Apple approved memory, hard drives, CPUs, video cards, CD/DVD drives, modems, mice, and keyboards. Or they could find their own source - pulled G4 processors from someone who has upgraded, or maybe that Sonnet dual G4/500 card, shop around for the best RAM deal, pick their favorite hard drive based on cost or speed, etc.

Apple would provide a one-year warranty on the base system. Individual Apple certified components would be covered only if Apple or an authorized Apple dealer installed them.

Option 2

The more desirable option for system integrators would be for Apple to sell a bare motherboard/Mac OS package. This would allow a lot more flexibility - one could build a real desktop Power Mac or put the mobo (motherboard) inside a server enclosure with a host of hot swappable drive bays, redundant power supplies, and lots of blinking lights. A small industry would spring up offering traditionally horizontal cases, towers and minitowers with more external bays than the Power Mac currently has, and server enclosures.

Facing Reality

Unlike most proposals for a new Macintosh, this uses existing components and enclosures. It's based on Apple's second-most-popular product, the Power Mac G4, which sells at about 60% the pace of the iMac. By making it available to build your own hobbyists and systems integrators, prices might range from under $1,000 to whatever it takes to build the server of your dreams - and it could boost G4 sales by maybe 250-500,000 units per year, propelling Apple past the 5 million unit per year mark.

Granted, some of these would be lost Power Mac G4 sales, but I think a lot would be new sales to those for whom the current G4 just doesn't cut it for one reason or another (price and expansion come immediately to mind). As the only source, Apple would be able to guarantee a decent profit on each mobo/OS package sold, so it needn't negatively impact the bottom line.

And it would provide us with one more reason to visit our local Mac dealer, who would definitely appreciate the opportunity to make decent money selling Apple hardware.

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Dan Knight has been using Macs since 1986, sold Macs for several years, supported them for many more years, and has been publishing Low End Mac since April 1997. If you find Dan's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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