Where Is the ‘Low End’ in Low End Mac?

Where is the “low end” in Low End Mac? It’s a question we’ve addressed many times over our 18 year history, and it was a topic of conversation in our Facebook group this past week. Exactly what do we mean when we apply the label low end?

New Low End Mac User graphic

First, let me share the origin of the site’s name. Way back in 1993-95, there was an ezine called Low End User. Its focus was on getting the most out of older, low-end, discontinued Mac gear such as the Mac LC. I downloaded and read every issue I could find, and when I started building Low End Mac, Low End User was my inspiration. Our name is an homage to a pioneer in the field.

Low End Means…

Everyone knows what high end means. It usually includes high prices, high quality, high performance, and often state-of-the-art features. In the Mac realm, the Mac Pro is the high-end model, and it comes in four different versions. Low-end on the Mac Pro is a 4-core 3.7 GHz, midrange includes 6-core 3.5 GHz and 8-core 3.0 GHz versions, and top-end is a very powerful 12-core machine running at 2.7 GHz.

At the low end of the Mac spectrum today are the Late 2014 Mac mini (1.4 GHz dual-core i5 for US$499) and the Early 2014 11″ MacBook Air (1.4 GHz dual-core i5 for US$899). But by the standards of Low End Mac fans, even these are generally considered higher-end gear.

Where Do We Draw the Line?

It was easy to label everything low-end when I began the site in 1997. I started with profiles of Macs with at least 1 MB of RAM and SCSI ports, so the initial two dozen pages ran from the 1986 Mac Plus through the 1990 Mac IIfx. Then I added Quadra profiles and 680×0 PowerBooks, and nobody thought to object to the low end label.

Over time I added PowerPC Macs and PowerBooks, but even then I was behind the times in getting the Mac profiles compiled and posted. In mid-1998, we covered the first consumer iMac, and nobody thought it was too high-end for the scope of Low End Mac. The beige Power Mac G3 ran faster – up to 333 MHz – and was far more expandable. It has a floppy drive and SCSI, two features missing from the consumer iMac.

The Power Mac G3 probably marked the beginning of criticism about our covering brand new high-end hardware, and a few voices even said that any PowerPC Mac was to modern to be considered low end. That was the realm of 680×0 Macs for them.

I shot back with a new site slogan: Because sooner or later every Mac becomes low end. It appeased some, but not all. That was as true in 1999 and with the Intel transition in 2006 and even today, when some argue that any Mac capable of running OS X 10.10 Yosemite should not be considered low end.

It’s a Matter of Value, not Price or Power

A low-end Mac is always a useful Mac. By that definition, the Mac 128K, 512K, and 512Ke don’t really qualify. You can’t do much of anything with less than 1 MB of RAM, especially on Macs designed for floppy disks only. That’s why these three models were not initially profiles on Low End Mac. They were no longer really useful.

These Macs were eventually added for the sake of completeness and because of their place in Mac history, and Mac history itself has always been a secondary interest at Low End Mac. It helps to keep a historical perspective looking at what OS was current, which Macs were on the market about the same time, what CPUs and speeds PC had in that era, and which versions of DOS or Windows were shipping with those PCs.

Macs have always seemed a bit high priced, but even when that has been true, they have had great value, as they may remain in productive use for five years, a decade, or even longer. I was still using a 2002 MDD Power Mac G4 with OS X 10.4 Tiger earlier this year, and I currently have a Late 2005 Power Mac G5 running OS X 10.5 Leopard. Its display sits next to the one connected to my Mid 2007 Mac mini running OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard.

I bought two of these used, and the G5 was donated, as was my current laptop. That’s a Late 2008 Aluminum MacBook normally running OS X 10.9 Mavericks, although it has partitions to boot into Snow Leopard and Yosemite when I want to or need to. My most-used Macs 7-8 years old and doing just fine, albeit a 2.0 GHz Core 2 Duo CPU is slow by today’s standards. That makes them low end in my book.

Is It Speed or OS or Something Else?

I have to disagree with those who argue that a 2.0 GHz Core 2 Duo Mac isn’t low end if that model supports OS X 10.10. Yosemite may be a high-end operating system, but it struggles with limited memory, and many of its “hot new features” aren’t supported on older Macs that can otherwise run Yosemite.

That said, any Mac that can’t run anything newer than OS X 10.7 Lion is definitely low end. But that doesn’t mean running OS X 10.8/9/10/11 makes Macs high end. If you can’t install at least 4 GB of RAM – and 8-16 GB is much better – you will find Yosemite sluggish. If you have a slow and/or nearly full hard drive, Yosemite will be sluggish. A larger, faster hard drive or hybrid drive will help, and an SSD will help even more, but we label Macs as low end based on their original configuration, not the upgrades you can perform.

Worse yet, some Macs have little to no upgrade path. Look at the early MacBook Air models with their sluggish microdrives and 2 GB of soldered RAM. Even with an upgrade to SSD, that 2 GB of RAM limits you to OS X 10.5 through 10.7, and while it’s going to handle Leopard nicely and Snow Leopard decently, you’ll probably find Lion frustrating with so little RAM.

That highlights one of the beauties of using Macs: Apple often makes it possible to install and use a much more modern OS than your Mac shipped with, but without some upgrades, you won’t usually be too happy with performance. We get compatibility, we get to look at upgrade options, and Apple gets a chance to sell us a newer Mac that will handle the latest version of OS X so much more smoothly.

Lines In the Sand

If your Mac can’t handle at least 4 GB of RAM, it’s low end. If it can’t run anything newer than OS X Lion, it’s low end. But we can’t go much beyond that and draw a line in the sand where everything on this side is low end, but everything on that side isn’t. There are clear-cut lines below which everything is definitely low-end or above which everything is definitely not low-end, but there’s a lot of space between those lines.

In the end, low end is a subjective label, not an objective one. It’s relative to what you’ve been using. For someone still running a 2.0 GHz Core 2 Duo Mac, the current i5 Mac mini or 11″ MacBook Air would seem like a huge upgrade. But for someone using a high-end 2012 Mac Pro, they would definitely seem low end.

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