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The Very Best Macs: Sometimes Apple Just Nails It

- 2008.12.01 -Tip Jar

Are Macs really special?

Do they really last longer than PCs?

Are users more productive on a Mac?

Are they more capable?

Each of those questions is debatable, and none of them will have thesame answer for every person, but the truth is that Macintosh computerstend to remain in service longer than most Windows machines, at leastoutside of the corporate sector.

Performa 6200I've had many Macs over theyears, and just as many PCs. Some of my Macs have definitely beenspecial (PowerBook 145B), whileothers were best forgotten (Performa6200).

Like everything else, it is very subjective what makes us bond withone machine and not with another. I got my Performa 6200 back in 1995when I worked as a pre-sales technical support trainer for Apple, and acoworker bought the exact same model. This was, by every technical andmost anecdotal accounts, one of thevery worst computers Apple ever made.

I hated mine, but my coworker loved his. The difference was acombination of expectations, actual use, and most importantly, how wegot online. I was stuck using dialup through the 6200's crippled modem;he connected on a network that had fast (for 1995) ISDN that got intothe 6200 through an equally crippled - but still fast-enough - ethernetcard.

Expectations and longevity go hand-in-hand, which leads me to theonly older Mac in my stable, a 5-year-old PowerBook G4, and the only MacI wish I'd never sold, a now 9-year-old Power Mac G4. These Macs areboth, in my opinion, special. They have that special something thatmakes us hold on to them long after other models have surpassed theirabilities.


Let's look first at the Power Mac.

Power Mac G4 'Sawtooth'ThePower Mac G4 "Sawtooth" was my first ever high-end Mac purchase. Eventhen, I bought it used when it was two years old. The difference in2001 between the currentmodel and my Sawtooth was minor, especially running OS 9, andit is much like comparing the8-core Mac Pro of today to theoriginal quad-core model of 2006.

I kept that machine on OS 9 until "Panther" (Mac OS X10.3) was released, at which time I finally moved to OS X. Even inits stock 400 MHz configuration with its wimpy 16 MB Rage Pro graphics, the then4-year-old G4 was still an excellent performer.

A few months before moving to "Tiger" (Mac OS X 10.4), Iupgraded it with a 1.0 GHz dual processor card, 1.5 GB of RAM, and afast 160 GB drive that required a special third party driver toovercome the ATA controller's 128 GBlimit. A few months later, the old ATI video card was replaced by alow-end Nvidia GeForceFX5200 card with 64 MB of VRAM and an ATI Radeon 7500 PCI videocard with 32 MB of VRAM, each card driving a 19" LCD monitor hooked upvia DVI.

If I still had this computer, I would install "Leopard" (MacOS X 10.5) on it and keep it in service at my office. It's notfast enough for video editing and the like anymore, but it's more thanadequate for working with audio files, Office 2008, and AcrobatProfessional. Since my version of Photoshop (7.0) is an older one, theG4 makes an excellent platform for image work as well.

The best part is that the old Sawtooth, which though totally leftbehind in terms of internal technology, is still very much upgradabletoday. You can install dual 1.8 GHz G4CPUs that are not only faster than anyone imagined in 1999, butthat rival many Intel systems when running PowerPC code. RAM can bepushed to a full 2 GB, which is adequate for real work even withtoday's software. There's room for large modern drives and theavailability of SATA and USB 2.0 controllers, so you won't be missingout on any modern features. You can even add Bluetooth via a USBdongle. Not bad for an almost 10-year-old computer that still looksgreat and has one of the easiest to work on case designs ever.

12" PowerBook

12" PowerBook G4The other old Mac that I bonded with is one that I sold in2005, only to buy an almost identical, though faster version. I'mtalking about the 1 GHz 12" PowerBook (Rev B). The first version of the LittleAl ran far too hot, lacked USB 2.0, and had a weaker graphics card. RevB was only a minor speed bump for the processor, but it was a computerthat ran much cooler, was much faster on account of more cache andbetter video, and was fully modern in its technologies (USB 2.0,Bluetooth, etc.). There was also just something about it.

I moved to the 1.5 GHzRev D 12" PowerBook, but somehow despite sharing the same case andbeing a feature improvement in every way, it just wasn't special anymore. I sold the Rev D in my first (failed) attempt to go Intel, andwhen I grew tired of my ultraportable ThinkPad X32, I traded it for aused Rev B 12" PowerBook. At first the old PowerBook ran Panther andOffice 2004, serving as a backup to a high-end ThinkPad. When theThinkPad was replaced by a MacBook, I moved the old PowerBook up toTiger after briefly trying it with Leopard. Leopard was fine, if a bitsluggish, but Tiger is the best match. Now the MacBook has beenreplaced by an early 2008 MacBookPro, and the 12" PowerBook remains perhaps my favoritecomputer.

The old PowerBook doesn't come close to the MacBook Pro in anyfeature except size, but it still has that special something. Despitesharing a very similar design, the build on the older machine is a bittighter, and the shape of the 12" model just somehow always lookedright to me. It is thick by modern standards, but very small and light.Many people who see me using it in coffee shops ask if it's "the onethat goes in an envelope".

Under Tiger, the old PowerBook - maxed out at 1.25 GB of RAM andfitted with a 120 GB hard drive - is adequate in terms of performance.It isn't fast, but it isn't slow either. Microsoft Office 2008 is a bitslow to launch, but once the applications are open, they are responsiveenough to not annoy, and they function as well as they do on moremodern machines.

Of course, all of the modern Mac features (except for the Leopardgoodies) are present, and it still gets the same 5 hour battery life(on a new battery) and weighs the same 4.6 lb. that it always has. Inshort, other than playing high-def video, which it won't do, I can doalmost everything on my old 12" PowerBook that I can do on my newMacBook Pro, just at a much slower pace.

Today's Macs

Is the MacBook Pro a "special" machine like the 12" PowerBook? Idon't think so. It is amazingly fast, beautifully assembled, and anabsolute delight to work on, but the size and proportion don't work aswell as the 12-incher's magic combination. It is a very nice machine,no doubt, and I will enjoy using for the next few years, but when theupgrade cycle hits again, I can see myself selling it but still holdingonto the Little Al.

Are any of today's Macs special?

I think so. I have become very fond of my Mac Pro, and not justbecause of the speed. Like the Sawtooth, its design and constructionare a thing of beauty, and it just oozes quality everywhere you look ortouch.

I would also put the MacBook Air into the specialcategory. It isn't practical, is a lousy value in terms of features andperformance for the price, but even more than the new MacBook andMacBook Pro, it just has that special something.

Most longtime Mac users have a few favorite models, and the criteriaare entirely subjective. The Pismo PowerBooks are muchloved, but I never cared for the look or feel of them. Likewise, thePowerBook 5300 has received tonsof bad press, but I really liked my 5300c and look back on itfondly.

What are your favorite Macs? Do you think Apple's current lineupincludes any "magic" models? LEM

Andrew J Fishkin, Esq, is a laptop using attorney in Los Angeles, CA.

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