Picking Up a Used Power Mac G3 or G4: Is It Worth It?
One of my interesting jobs at Low End Mac is compiling our price trackers, which have evolved quite a bit over the years. We do price trackers for all Macs that are supported by some version of Mac OS X, from beige G3 Power Macs and WallStreet PowerBooks through today's Intel-based Macs. We also track the price of memory upgrades for these Macs, and we recently added estimated shipping costs (based on our location in Michigan).
To round things out, we also track prices for the Classic Mac OS, earlier versions of OS X, and Leopard. And Time Machine and AirPort hardware and Apple TV and iPods.
Anyhow, I've noticed that for some older Macs, shipping can cost more than the computer. That raises the question, Is it worth it?
Today I'm working on the Power Mac G3 price tracker. The absolute cheapest is a used 300 MHz beige G3 - $25 from Beta Macs. Plus about $35 for ground shipping. That makes it a $60 computer. Max out RAM to 768 MB, and you've spent $90.
- Pros: Runs Mac OS 8 through 10.4 (officially supported to 10.2). Last Power Mac with a built-in floppy drive. Last Power Mac in a traditional desktop configuration. ADB port. Last Power Mac with AppleTalk ports. Accepts ZIF G3 and G4 CPU upgrades. 3 PCI slots for video cards, USB, etc. Built-in SCSI. Built-in 10Base-T ethernet. Supports up to 768 MB of RAM (about $30 these days). Relatively easy to overclock. May include a built-in 100 MB Zip drive. 300-366 MHz models with Rev. 2 motherboard support up to 4 IDE drives.
- Cons: Issues with IDE drives over 8 GB in size. Internal IDE bus limited to 128 GB hard drives. Slow IDE bus. Horribly outdated ATI Rage Pro GPU really struggles with Mac OS X. No built-in USB or FireWire. Can only boot OS X from one IDE device, which must be set to "master". Video support limited to 1280 x 1024. Last Mac to use Apple video port instead of VGA.
Best bet upgrades include upgrading RAM and putting in a faster IDE hard drive (at least 5400 rpm, and 7200 rpm is even better), especially if you already have one pulled when upgrading another computer. Video card upgrades are harder to justify; if you want to go that route and plan on using OS X, the $35 Rage 128 is a good, low cost option. (For the Classic Mac OS, the $15 ixMicro Twin Turbo is very nice.)
As a Classic Mac OS computer, the beige G3 is a great performer. The ATI Rage Pro video is fine, 768 MB of RAM is plenty, and it's a great bridge between old Mac standards and new ones: It can read 800 KB floppies, it has AppleTalk and ADB ports, it uses both SCSI and IDE drives, and it has 3 PCI slots for adding FireWire, USB, a fast IDE controller, better graphics, etc.
As a Mac OS X computer, the beige G3 can be adequate. Look for 300 MHz and faster models. The crippling factors are the ATI Rage Pro video and the slow IDE bus. There are some Radeon PCI cards, but it's hard to justify the expense, and the same goes for adding a faster IDE controller. I would not invest in a new copy of OS X for a beige G3, but it's a good place to use an old copy from a Mac you've updated to a newer version.
Conclusion: A useful bridge computer for legacy peripherals and bridging ethernet to LocalTalk using the Classic Mac OS. Especially useful for 800 KB floppies, which USB floppy drives do not support. Hard to justify shipping costs, so look for one locally. With no official support beyond OS X 10.2, these 10-year-old Power Macs should be cheap.
Blue & White G3 'Yosemite'
The blue & white G3 started at 300 MHz and topped out at 450 MHz, and it's not hard to overclock. It has a 50% faster system bus, one more expansion slot, and one more RAM slot. It retains the traditional ADB port while adding USB and FireWire, although you cannot boot from its FireWire port.
Prices start at $80 for the 300 MHz model, and shipping can add $30 to that. Max out RAM to 1 GB for $40, and you've spent $150.
- Pros: Runs Mac OS 8.6 through 10.4. Last Power Mac with ADB. USB and FireWire built in. First Power Mac with 10/100 ethernet. 66 MHz bus for ATI Rage 128 video card, which has a VGA port. 3 33 MHz PCI slots with 32-bit support. Faster IDE bus than beige G3, no 8 GB partition issue (although same 128 GB limitation). Relatively easy to overclock. Accepts ZIF G3 and G4 CPU upgrades. Rev. 2 motherboard supports UDMA-33.
- Cons: Cannot boot from FireWire or USB. No AppleTalk. No built-in floppy, so no access to 800 KB diskettes. SCSI not standard, although it was a fairly common addition for legacy drives and scanners. 128 GB maximum for IDE hard drives. USB 1.1 is slow. The Rev. 1 motherboard does not support UDMA and may be unstable with modern hard drives.
Best bet upgrades include topping out RAM and putting in a 7200 rpm hard drive. The video card is descent, and it would be hard to justify the cost of installing a Radeon card in an $80 computer.
As a Classic Mac OS computer, the blue & white is a solid performer. The Rage 128 graphics supports 1600 x 1200 resolution displays and is considerably faster than the Rage Pro in the beige G3. The faster memory bus, faster IDE bus (with the Rev. 2 motherboard), and built-in FireWire and USB ports give you lots of options.
As a Mac OS X computer, the blue & white is a good performer thanks to a faster memory bus, a higher RAM ceiling, and a faster IDE bus. USB means access to a host of modern mice, keyboards, printers, and other peripherals. It's a very competent performer right through Mac OS X 10.4 "Tiger", although again it's hard to justify the expense of a new copy of OS X.
Conclusion: The oldest Power Mac fully supported through OS X 10.3 and 10.4, this can be a good personal computer or work well as a network server, especially with its many drive bays and ability to use FireWire drives. Be sure to buy one with a Rev. 2 motherboard. Shipping costs are a big factor, so buying locally is probably your best bet.
More than anything, low-end G4 Power Macs are coming in cheaper, which should drive prices down.
Update: A reader just informed me of a very hot deal from Wegener Media - a 300 MHz blue & white with 64 MB of RAM, CD-ROM, and no hard drive for $9.99 plus shipping (about $30). If you've got a spare hard drive and Mac OS 8.5 or 8.6 handy, this could be an incredible value!
Power Mac G4 'Yikes'
Take the blue & white G3, remove the ADB port, and replace the G3 CPU with a 350 MHz or 400 MHz G4, and you've got Apple's original low-end Power Mac G4, code named Yikes. A 5400 rpm drive was standard, although drives were relatively small in 1999.
The G4 CPU adds the AltiVec "velocity engine" to the power of the G3 design, and that power is unleashed when working with video, later versions of Photoshop, and all versions of Mac OS X. The 'PCI Graphics' Power Mac G4 has a less efficient memory bus than other G4 Power Macs, does not support AGP graphics, and is not supported in Mac OS X 10.5 "Leopard", although it can run it with a better video card.
- Pros: In comparison to other G4 Power Macs, none. In comparison to the blue & white G3, the G4 CPU.
- Cons: Less efficient memory bus than other G4 Power Macs. No support for AGP graphics. Not easy to use with Leopard - probably not worth the expense and effort. First Power Mac without an ADB port. Cannot boot from FireWire or USB. One USB controller handles both USB ports.
As a Classic Mac OS computer, everything said about the blue & white G3 applies, but there are no motherboard revision issues.
As a Mac OS X computer, the G4 is a big advantage over the G3. The lack of support for AGP graphics is a bottleneck and a real obstacle to hacking OS X 10.5 to run on this model.
Conclusion: Basically a blue & white G3 with the benefit of a G4 CPU, but without the AGP and memory bus advantages of other G4 Power Macs. A descent personal computer or network server, but AGP Power Macs are a better bet. Again, shipping costs are a big factor, so look locally.
The Yikes model is relatively uncommon, and AGP Power Macs are often available for about the same price, making them the better buy.
Power Mac G4 'Sawtooth'
Introduced at the same time as the Yikes model, the "Sawtooth" Power Mac G4 has a more efficient memory bus and supports AGP graphics, and low-end configurations (350-400 MHz) are often available for under $100. Shipping costs are the same as for the blue & white G3 or Yikes G4, making Sawtooth Power Macs a great choice for those on a budget.
RAM tops out at 2 GB, although the Classic Mac OS only sees 1.5 GB of that, and these are the oldest Power Macs than can boot from FireWire. Max out RAM for $90 - or go to 1 GB for $40.
- Pros: AGP 2x graphics. Oldest Mac to support 2 GB of RAM. More efficient memory bus than earlier Power Macs. ATA-66 drive bus, twice as fast as Yosemite and Yikes. DVD-ROM is common. Lots of CPU upgrade options. Can boot from FireWire and USB. Two separate USB controllers. AirPort slot. Can run Leopard, although Apple does not support it.
- Cons: 128 GB IDE hard drive limitation. Incompatible with some later AGP video cards. USB 1.1 is slow.
As a Classic Mac OS computer, it's a powerhouse.
As a Mac OS X computer, that was the first to unleash the potential of the G4. It may be overkill to install 2 GB of RAM, but 1 GB for $40 isn't hard to justify. That ATA-66 drive bus is excellent, although it does limit you to 128 GB and smaller hard drives. These can run Mac OS X 10.4 "Tiger" quite comfortably, but you will want a better video card, at least 1 GB of RAM, and a 7200 rpm hard drive if you want to work with Mac OS X 10.5 "Leopard".
Conclusion: Shipping is a big factor for computers worth less than $100, so try to buy locally.
Power Mac G4 'Mystic'
Introduced at the July 2000 Macworld Expo with the phrase "Two brains are better than one", the 450 MHz and 500 MHz 'Mystic' Power Macs had two CPUs - the first dual-processor Macs since the PowerPC 604e era. Unfortunately the Classic Mac OS couldn't take advantage of the second processor, and very few Classic apps used it. Fortunately every version of Mac OS X can take full advantage of the second CPU, and Classic Mode on a dual-processor Mac is a treat - it can be faster than running the Classic Mac OS natively!
The other distinguishing feature of this model is gigabit ethernet. It uses the same drives and RAM as Sawtooth.
- Pros: Two CPUs. Gigabit ethernet. Supports up to 2 GB of RAM. Can run Leopard (unsupported). Lots of CPU upgrade options, including dual 1.8 GHz G4s.
- Cons: 128 GB IDE hard drive limitation. Incompatible with some later AGP video cards. USB 1.1 is slow.
As a Classic Mac OS computer, this really has no advantage over Sawtooth.
As a Mac OS X computer, the second processor makes a huge difference.
Conclusion: Used Mac dealers typically charge $400 an up for these - well over twice what you'd pay for a Sawtooth at the same CPU speed. All things being equal, these might be worth a 50-75% premium over Sawtooth, so they are currently overpriced - regardless of shipping issues.
If you can pick up a 450 MHz Mystic for under $225 or a 500 MHz one for under $250, it's worth considering.
Power Mac G4 'Digital Audio'
Apple took three steps forward and two steps back with the "Digital Audio" Power Mac G4. On the plus side, Apple moved to a 133 MHz system bus, adopted AGP 4x, and finally broke past the 500 MHz mark - the top-end model ran at 733 MHz. On the minus side, maximum RAM is 1.5 GB on these, down from 2 GB in Sawtooth and Mystic, and there's no longer an analog sound-in port. That meant you needed a USB adapter to use a microphone or line-out from your stereo.
There were five different configurations: 466 MHz, 533 MHz, 667 MHz, and 733 MHz single CPU models and a 533 MHz dual processor one. These were the first Power Macs to use an Nvidia graphics card: The GeForce2 MX was standard on all but the entry-level 466 MHz model.
- Pros: AGP 4x video. 133 MHz system bus.
- Cons: 1.5 GB RAM ceiling. 128 GB hard drive limitation. USB 1.1 is slow. 512 MB modules are a bit more expensive than PC100, about $8 more to max to 1.5 GB.
As a Classic Mac OS computer, the Digital Audio Power Macs have no drawbacks.
As a Mac OS X computer, AGP 4x plus faster CPUs on a faster bus gives it a leg up on earlier G4 Power Macs. The 466 MHz and 533 MHz models tend to be reasonably priced, while the top-end 533 MHz dual and 733 MHz models command a premium.
Conclusion: The 466 MHz model is a good value for as little as $169, 533 MHz would be at under $190 - which is rare. The 667 MHz model itself is quite rare, and the 733 MHz Power Mac often command prices from $200 to $400. It's a steal below $250.
The dual 533 MHz Digital Audio goes for $350 and up, which is overpriced in comparison to the single processor models. I'd peg top value at $300 unless it's been upgraded significantly.
Field reports indicate that these all handle Tiger beautifully and Leopard adequately. Shipping is less of a factor at these prices, but $45 on a $200 purchase is still significant, so you might want to check out local deals before ordering online.
Power Mac G4 'Quicksilver' and 'Quicksilver 2002'
Apple updated the appearance of the Power Mac G4 with the "Quicksilver" model, introduced in July 2001. There were three configurations: a 733 MHz entry-level model, an 867 MHz midrange machine, and a dual 800 MHz top-end powerhouse. The line was updated the following year, and the "Quicksilver 2002" was even faster - 800 MHz at the bottom, 933 MHz in the middle, and 1 GHz dual processor at the top. For the first time, 7200 rpm drives were standard across the line.
These were the first Power Macs to support hard drives over 128 GB without a special card or software. The 867 MHz, 933 MHz, and dual 1 GHz models are fully supported by Leopard, and reader reports indicate that the other Quicksilver models run it comfortably - especially the dual 800 MHz one.
- Pros: Big drive support. Oldest Power Macs with official Leopard support (3 of 6 configurations).
- Cons: 1.5 GB RAM ceiling. USB 1.1 is slow.
As a Classic Mac OS computer, there are no drawbacks.
As a Mac OS X computer, big drive support is a huge thing - it's getting hard to find drives below 160 GB. And topping out RAM for just $42 is another cost benefit vs. earlier Power Macs, where 1.5 GB can cost $70-75.
Conclusion: Quicksilver models tend to be fairly priced we found one vendor with an 800 MHz QS 2002 for $200 and the dual 1 GHz model for $340. (These are a steal compared with Digital Audio prices.)
Power Mac G4 'Mirror Drive Door'
Apple refreshed the look of the Power Mac G4 with the August 2002 introduction of the "Mirror Drive Door" (MDD) models - all of which had dual processors. The entry-level machine ran at 867 MHz, the middle Power Mac at 1 GHz, and the top dog at an impressive 1.25 GHz. Apple also brought back support for 2 GB of RAM and included 4 PCI slots in addition to the AGP 4x slot.
The faster models run on a 167 MHz system bus and use PC2700 RAM, while the slower ones use PC2100 RAM on a 133 MHz system bus. A faster memory bus is nice, but very few CPU upgrades run on the faster bus. These were the last Power Macs capable of booting into the Classic Mac OS. A single 1.25 GHz CPU model was added in June 2003.
- Pros: Fastest Power Macs to boot into Mac OS 9. 2 GB RAM ceiling. Faster memory bus (1.0 and 1.25 GHz models). 4 PCI slots. Fully supported by Leopard.
- Cons: 167 MHz system bus limits upgrade options. Still uses USB 1.1. Requires a special build of Mac OS 9.2.2 that's hard to find, so try to get it with the computer.
The 1.25 GHz MDD is the fastest Mac that can boot into the Classic Mac OS.
As a Mac OS X computer, dual processors unleash things, room for 2 GB of RAM is a real plus for power users, and that fourth PCI slot can be useful (you can add USB 2.0, 802.11g/n WiFi, a SCSI card, a faster IDE controller, a SATA card, FireWire 800, etc.).
Conclusion: If you want the fastest Power Mac G4 with upgrades, look at the 867 MHz model with its 133 MHz system bus. Upgrades top out at 2.0 GHz for a single CPU, 1.8 GHz for two G4s. These are reliable tanks - we've been using a dual 1 GHz one at Low End Mac for years (maxed out with 2 GB of RAM, and it also has two USB 2.0 cards, a SCSI card, and two 400 GB 7200 rpm hard drives).
Recent prices include $200 for a dual 867 MHz (a steal!), $300 for dual 1 GHz (lower than Quicksilver), and $450 for 1.25 GHz (a little high). It's worth $35-50 shipping to get one of these from a dealer who has carefully refurbished it and packed it for shipping, but look on the local market as well.
Power Mac G4 'FireWire 800'
The final version of the Power Mac G4 looks like the MDD model and is the only G4 Power Mac that can't boot into the Classic Mac OS. The "FireWire 800" model adds FireWire 800 and came with a single 1 GHz CPU, two 1.25 GHz CPUs, or two 1.42 GHz CPUs. The 1 GHz model uses a 133 MHz system bus, so there are lots of upgrade options. The 1.25 GHz and 1.42 GHz models use the faster 167 MHz system bus.
- Pros: FireWire 800. Fastest G4 Power Mac ever (1.42 GHz). 4 PCI slots. 2 GB RAM ceiling. RAM is about half the price - $14 for a 512 MB module vs. $25 for PC133.
- Cons: Cannot boot into Mac OS 9. Limited upgrade options for 1.25 and 1.42 GHz versions. And it still uses USB 1.1.
This is strictly a Mac OS X computer, and as nice as being able to boot into Mac OS 9 may sound, I can count on one hand the number of times I've done it this year.
Conclusion: The FireWire 800 Power Mac tends to command a premium price ($600 for the top model is the best we've seen), when in reality 1.42 GHz is less than 15% faster than 1.25 GHz. Avoid the 1.42 GHz model unless you get a really good deal - that last little bit of performance won't make much of a difference and will cost you dearly.
Buying from a dealer usually means the machine has been inspected and tested and includes a 60- or 90-day warranty. It can also mean $35 or more in shipping costs, so it makes sense to look locally.
There is a bit more risk buying privately, and Craigslist is a great tool for finding local sellers. Sellers tend to list on the high side, remembering what they originally paid, but you should be able to use our price trackers to show them what dealers are charging with a store warranty.
That said, Craigslist prices vary widely from region to region. And eBay, being an auction site, tends to command higher prices, so it's not the first place I'd look.
In general, I can't recommend the G3 Power Mac unless you're getting a real bargain on them, and the same goes for the Yikes G4. Sawtooth tends to be reasonably priced, Mystic overpriced, Digital Audio and Quicksilver a bit high, MDD quite reasonably, and FireWire 800 steep, especially the 1.42 GHz configuration. (For a quick overview of the various Power Mac G4 models, see our Power Macintosh G4 Guide.)
There's a lot of life left in PowerPC Macs, especially the G4 and G5 models. All of them can run Tiger, and most will run Leopard nicely. They have sufficient power for most of what you'd use a computer for, the big exceptions being working with video and high-end gaming, where you really want a modern Intel-based Mac.
The G3 Mac market is on its last legs because there just isn't much money to be made selling $25-50 computers. Most G3 models can run Tiger, which provides access to most current browsers, and those that can't run Tiger can run Mac OS X 10.3 "Panther", which is competent, although dated. If you still have a Classic Mac OS workflow, however, even a G3 is plenty powerful - the big drawback there being no real options in an up-to-date browser.
G3s can be great for writing, basic spreadsheet work, email clients, and basic image editing. Where they show their age is things like Flash on the Internet. Sites such as YouTube take everything a low-end G3 Mac (233 MHz to 450 MHz) has to offer.
Living with Low-end Macs
Living with low-end Macs is something of an art. You want to use a computer that's comfortably adequate for your tasks and avoid unnecessary and expensive upgrades. It's a simple fact of life that any version of Mac OS X is far more demanding of hardware than any version of the Classic Mac OS. It's equally a fact of life that the most up-to-date software is generally available only for recent versions of the Mac OS.
It's something of a balancing act, and in general Tiger is optimized to the point that it will run better on a low-end G3 Mac with sufficient RAM (at least 512 MB, and more if you can do it) than Panther. You can view YouTube videos on a 400 MHz Mac, but they'll be choppy.
If you've got an old G3 Mac, by all means try to get the most out of it at minimal expense, but if you're picking up a secondhand Mac, jump right to G4 if possible. (Faster G3 iBooks aren't bad.) Invest in some RAM, use that spare copy of Panther or Tiger you have (I like to buy the 5-user family edition, since I have so many Macs).
Have realistic expectations, and you may find happiness with your PowerPC Mac for years to come.
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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