Mac Upgrade Guide

You’ve decided to keep your old Mac and increase its capabilities. It’s users like you that keep the add-on manufacturers in business. Modems and CD-ROMs are usually external and can easily move from one Mac to another, so I won’t be addressing them.

Name Your Need

Assuming you have identified your need, now we need to name it.

  1. Do you have enough RAM?
  2. Do you have a large enough hard drive?
  3. Do you have enough processor speed?

Memory Upgrades

Memory gets cheaper by the year – which is a good thing, since your older computer is worth less than it used to be and new computers offer more bang for the buck every year. You have several questions to ask:

How much RAM do I have? Open the Memory control panel to see how much available built-in memory you have.

How much RAM do I need? If you have 4 MB and want to run Netscape Communicator, figure you’ll want at least 16 MB. If you have 8 MB and just barely run out of RAM, maybe you only need 4 MB additional. The rule of thumb: Buy more than you think you’ll need. In the long run, there’s no such thing as extra RAM. And be sure to compare memory costs; sometimes the next larger SIMM can be a much better value, maybe only a few dollars more.

Be sure to take into account that you may have to remove memory to put in more. A typical 8 MB Mac IIci has eight 1 MB SIMMs – you’d need to remove four SIMMS/4 MB of RAM to make room for more memory.

Can my Mac handle that much RAM? Here are some design limitations.

  • The Mac Plus, SE, and Classic are limited to 4 MB RAM.
  • The LC, LC II, Classic II, and Color Classic can only address 10 MB RAM.
  • The backlit Portable and PB 100 are limited to 8 MB RAM.
  • The PB 140-145b and 170-180c are also limited to 8 MB RAM.

Most other Macs can go to 32 MB or more, which should be adequate for all but the most ardent Photoshop users.

Can I afford the RAM? A legitimate question – that’s what keeps us low-end. :-)

A 16 MB upgrade should run roughly $60-100 for desktop Macs. 8 MB would be about half that; 32 MB about twice as much. (PowerBook memory tends to be much more expensive.) This will give you a ballpark figure. For current mail order memory prices, check out ramseeker.

There are three alternatives to adding physical RAM.

  1. Virtual Memory works with 68030-based and later Macs. Advantage: free. Disadvantages: slow (especially on pre-68040 models), can use a lot of hard drive space.
  2. RAM Doubler works with 68030-based and later Macs. It emulates virtual memory in RAM when possible, spooling to the hard drive (like virtual memory) when necessary. RAM Doubler 1.x works with 4 MB systems; 2.x requires 8 MB of physical RAM. Advantages: faster than virtual memory, may be cheaper than physical memory. Disadvantages: more expensive than virtual memory, will use hard drive when necessary.
  3. RAM Charger takes a different approach to memory management. Instead of emulating virtual memory, it provides dynamic memory management on any Mac. As each application is launched, RAM Charger gives it just enough memory to work. As an application needs more memory, RAM Charger provides it. (I’ve used it for years and love it.) Best of all, RAM Charger is compatible with virtual memory and RAM Doubler, so you can use both together. Advantages: works on all Macs (even 68000-based ones), less expensive than RAM Doubler, never uses hard drive for memory. Disadvantages: more expensive than virtual memory, some applications don’t allow dynamic memory management (but you can disable it for those program).

If you do eventually buy another computer, keep in mind that your old SIMMs may not work in it.

Bigger Hard Drives

My first Mac hard drive held 40 MB. Compared with the two 800KB floppies on my Mac Plus or the 20 MB drive in my PC clone, it seemed like a lot. So did the 80 MB drive in my Centris 610 – for the first few months. As with RAM, there’s no such thing as extra hard drive space. Sooner or later you will use it.

The first question is internal vs. external. Most Macs were designed for a single internal drive, although there are exceptions (notably the Power Mac 72007600 and Quadra 800840av). Buying an internal drive usually means removing your old drive – and figuring out how to move data from the old drive to the new one. (One good reason to own a Zip drive.) Internal drives are less expensive.

If you ever replace your computer, the external hard drive has a big advantage: You can just plug it into your new computer. That alone could be worth the extra cost. The second advantage of an external drive is the ease of moving data from your old drive – you just copy it. A third advantage is that you will have more drive capacity by using your old drive in addition to the new one. A fourth advantage, which I hope you will never need, is that it’s much easier to send an external drive in for repair. Unplug it and box it up. And you can still use your computer while the drive is being repaired, although you would be limited to whatever is on the internal drive. (Be sure to back up your drives regularly.)

There is one performance reason for choosing an internal hard drive over an external one, but it only applies to certain models. Some Macs, such as the 7300-7600, have two SCSI busses. The internal bus is twice as fast as the external one. (The 7300-7600 also have a second internal drive bay, so you can add a drive without giving up your old one. Very nice!)

Unless you are looking to spend as little as possible, odds are you’ll be looking at a 4 GB or larger hard drive. That’s a lot of space. It might take years to fill it (you will!). You should be able to get a good internal hard drive for $200-250; external for $50-75 more.

UNPAID PLUG I’ve been ordering from APS Technologies for years, both at home and on the job. They’re a little bit more expensive, but they also have a great track record. Their warranty service is exemplary (I’ve used their warranty service almost exclusively for optical and DAT drives, only once or twice for hard drives). For my peace of mind as a system administrator, APS is an excellent choice.

More Speed with an Accelerator

You can never have enough RAM, a large enough hard drive, or a fast enough CPU. At least that’s what Photoshop power users say. And the whole industry is moving in that direction. Just look at this data:

Year  Model         CPU            RAM   Drive
1984  Macintosh     8 MHz 68000    128 KB   0.4 MB floppy
1986  Mac Plus      8 MHz 68000      1 MB   0.8 MB floppy + SCSI port
1987  Mac II       16 MHz 68020      2 MB    40 MB
1989  Mac IIci     25 MHz 68030      4 MB    80 MB
1991  Quadra 900   25 MHz 68040      4 MB   160 MB
1994  PM 8100/80   80 MHz PPC 601    8 MB   400 MB
1997  9600        350 MHz PPC 604e  32 MB  4000 MB
1998  Beige G3    300 MHz PPC 750   64 MB  6000 MB
1999  B&W G3      400 MHz PPC 750   64 MB  9000 MB

Today’s Power Macs run vastly more efficient CPUs (RISC design, wider data bus, internal cache) with support (level 2 cache) at more than one hundred times the speed of the first Mac. (I benchmarked an iMac using Speedometer 3.06 – 110 times faster than a Mac Classic! And this is running a benchmark written in 68K code, not PowerPC code.)

Faster is better. The question is, how much faster can you make your Mac and what else will you gain with an accelerator? Then, is it worth the price?

I’ve listed known accelerators on each computer page. There may be none, one, or several to choose from, depending on your computer. In addition to acceleration, some also offer capabilities your Mac may be lacking: more memory expansion, access to virtual memory, and the ability to run PPC native software among them.

You’ll have to weigh the pros and cons. These are some general points:

  • Get a more powerful CPU (PPC in a 68040 Mac, 68040 in a 68030 machine, etc.) You gain a more efficient chip and a faster clock speed. The newer chip may also offer features your old chip lacked (e.g., 68020 doesn’t support virtual memory, but 68030 does; 68040 has built-in FPU, which is faster than external FPU used with 68030).
  • Whenever possible, get the FPU (floating point unit). From spreadsheets to graphics, the FPU can make a big difference. (If you have a desktop Mac with the 68LC040, seriously consider upgrading to the full-fledged 68040.)
  • Especially on the SE and LC/LC II, look into accelerators that provide access to more memory.
  • Clock chipping works, but the 25-40% improvement cannot compare to what an accelerator offers. It could also overheat your Mac, so be sure it comes with a cooling fan if you choose this route.
  • Be sure to compare the total upgrade cost (accelerator, RAM, drives, etc.) against the cost of a new or nice used computer. Sometimes newer is less expensive.
  • Some accelerators will let you run Mac OS 8.1 on computers that otherwise would be incapable of using it.

Another possibility for some models is to replace the motherboard. In most instances, you can simply move your RAM from the old computer to the new one. But be a savvy consumer: compare the cost of the motherboard with the cost of a used Mac.

Right now, a Power Mac 7100 sells used for $650 and up. That includes a hard drive, CD-ROM, memory, the whole ball of wax. Paying $600-700 for a new motherboard makes no sense. $500 might. $400 probably would.

Make a similar comparison with any upgrade you’re looking at.

Remember, for the best speed you need to have enough real RAM, a fast hard drive, and a fast CPU.

This article was first published in September 1997 and last updated before the Power Mac G4 was introduced at the end of August 1999.

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