Mac Musings

What Happened to the Low End at Low End Mac?

Daniel Knight - 2003.01.21 -

A few times a year we receive a letter like the following:

When I started reading Low End Mac in 1999, the content of the page fitted the name nicely. At the time, I was plugging along on the Internet with a Mac LC III. It was not exactly a speed demon, being over six years old, but there were plenty of articles that I found helpful to optimize the performance of the machine. There were also many other articles discussing the appeal and longevity of older machines, and my LC and I were in heaven.

Fast forward about two-and-one-half years. I have since upgraded to a blueberry iMac 266, which has 96 megabytes of RAM and a stock 6 GB hard drive. I run AOL 4.0 to access the Internet (but use Internet Explorer 4.01 for browsing), and I use Claris Works 5.0 (v.1) for all my word processing needs. These all run nicely under OS 8.6. The system fits my needs just fine, and most definitely outperforms my LC III. However, with the attention given to systems like mine on Low End Mac, one would think that my hardware and software is too antiquated to still be viable.

Maybe the authors at Low End Mac have moved on to become power users, but the name of the site holds, which prompts me to ask, "What happened to the Low End Mac?" It's been many months since I've seen an article giving tips or hints about something other than OS X, and, more recently, Jaguar. While I am sure that there are many readers who have the highest end machines and upgrade hardware/software whenever possible, there are still those of us who treasure the older systems.

Before, Low End Mac was a place where even stubborn compact Mac users could cling to their machines and still feel welcome. Indeed, not so far in the past, long after the release of Systems 7 and 8, there were articles discussing the merits of System 6. However, now I feel like an intruder reading any of the articles because I don't have Jaguar, let alone OS X. Low End Mac has gone from being a site where all Macs were appreciated to a place where only the most recent, cutting edge systems are recognized and discussed.

If the people of Low End Mac are ready to phase out their ties with the low-end world, so be it. But if they want to keep the title of the website (and deserve it), they should think about trying to appeal to the site's original audience. I don't know if it's just me who insists on clinging to the past, but you'll find me plugging away on my blueberry iMac (with no peripherals excepting the original keyboard and mouse, and a low-end HP printer) for years to come.

There's a lot more to Low End Mac than the new articles we publish each day. We have an archive of material going back nearly seven years, to the era where I was still supporting computers - like the seven year old Mac IIsis and IIcis - in my job as a Mac manager. (When I left that job two years ago, the Mac II series machines and Quadras were ancient history. The oldest Macs in daily use then were Power Mac 6100s, which were six years old at the time.)

Low End Mac grew up out of my need to support Macs as old as a Plus, Mac II, IIcx, LC, and others well past their prime in an office environment. There were a few sites with spec sheets for these old Macs and a few lone pages dedicated to specific models, but nothing I could find gave the skinny on each model along with the specs, upgrade potential, value, and links to other online resources. Low End Mac remains unique in that regard.

We have never removed those old computer profiles; everything that made Low End Mac special 5-7 years ago is still on our site. In fact, I updated most of the Mac II series profiles over the weekend - fixing links to Apple's specs, deleting links to pages that have vanished, adding some new links, updating price comments, reappraising their value in light of today's prices, and so forth. I try to do that about once a year, especially with the older models.

Low End Mac remains a place where compact Mac users can cling to their old Macs. Our Compact Macs mailing list has several hundred subscribers and remains busy - and that's just one of over 30 mailing lists we run covering everything from vintage Macs and PowerBooks through iMacs and G4s. We even support obscurities like System 6, multiple processor 604-based Macs and clones, and OS X on unsupported hardware, all of which is over five years old today.

We still publish new articles about 680x0 Macs, such as the Triassic Mac columns by Manuel Mejia Jr. The Mac Daniel columns contain a wealth of treasure about vintage Macs, as does our Online Tech Journal. Just yesterday we posted a Miscellaneous Ramblings mailbag column extolling WannaBe and iCab, two browsers that support vintage Macs - as well as new ones.

And for some inexplicable reason, our So You Wanna Build a Macquarium article has received over 130,000 hits over the past four months. Mac owners even want to find uses for their dead computers.

We don't look back to a golden age of Mac design at Low End Mac. The site's motto has long been "because every Mac becomes low-end sooner or later," and our focus has always been on getting the best computing value. In the era of the Worldwide Web, pre-68040 Macs just don't have the horsepower for decent graphical browsing, and the Quadra class machines are barely up to the task. Early Power Macs balk under the weight of most modern browsers, although iCab is a very nice exception.

In short, the low end keeps moving. Seven years ago, Quadras and earlier were low-end - and I was using a 20 MHz Centris 610 with a 14.4 kbps modem to create this site. That computer was four years old when I began Low End Mac; today's four-year-old Macs are full capable of running Mac OS X.

We don't draw a line in cement and say, "These are low-end; these aren't." Our rule of thumb is that if it's slower than the slowest Mac being sold today - a 600 MHz CRT iMac at present - it's a low-end Mac. And we do cover the new Macs because they'll generally fit into the low-end category within a year.

I can't speak for my writers. Some have embraced OS X wholeheartedly. Others don't have the hardware to run it. And some of us are somewhere in the process of migrating to OS X. It took me a year from the first installation until I got Jaguar, spent a week with it, and found that it was finally good enough,/a> to be my primary operating system. But thank goodness we have Classic Mode, because I'm still wed to a lot of old software that doesn't run natively in OS X.

I remember how readers would chide me two years ago because I had purchased the low-end 400 MHz PowerBook G4. How could I consider myself a low-end partisan and buy new hardware? That model was discontinued nine months later and replaced with a 550 MHz model - 40% more powerful. Today's $999 low-end 700 MHz iBook runs circles around my TiBook.

400 MHz wasn't blazingly fast two years ago, but it was fast enough. And it still is. That's value.

We stand on the other side of the "buy new every two" philosophy. We rarely recommend buying the newest, fastest Mac - and when we do recommend buying new, we generally suggest avoiding the overpriced top-end speed demon.

We recommend upgrades as a viable alternative to new Macs, whether that's a new G4 card for a Power Mac 7500, a 7200 RPM drive for a beige G3, or simply picking up a newer (but used) Mac that offers more power than you have today without the cost of today's new Macs.

And we live that philosophy. My TiBook has had a memory upgrade and hard drive upgrade. That was all it needed. My wife uses a 600 MHz 14" iBook, and her office manager uses a 333 MHz iMac. One son has his own 266 MHz WallStreet PowerBook G3, recently boosted to 320 MB of RAM and in need of a larger, faster hard drive. Another has a SuperMac S900 with a 400 MHz G3 upgrade, lots of RAM, a better-than-stock video card, and a big ol' 9 GB SCSI hard drive.

My youngest son uses a low-end Mac 266 MHz beige G3 that we're using as an OS X testbed. We've boosted RAM, dropped in a faster CPU, installed a big fast hard drive, and hope to pick up a better video card some day. My second oldest son switches between a 333 MHz iMac and a Color Classic that he's upgraded with an LC 575 motherboard.

We got most of our Macs used. When we bought new, only my wife's 14" iBook was at the top of its series - and that was the least expensive way to get a 14" display on a Mac portable. We are low-end Mac users.

This may diverge from what some people consider low-end, longing for the era when the Mac IIfx was "wicked fast" and the Quadra 840av a technological marvel.

I don't wear rose colored glasses. Those computers were great, and I still enjoy working and playing with my collection of vintage Macs, but the demands of the Internet have relegated these classics to word processing and email.

They are wonderful old technology. Just as some people lovingly restore older cars to museum quality and others keep driving their 1960s Chryslers until they can no longer be maintained, these old Macs are gems with a lot of life in them. But they're classics, not SUVs or minivans or economy cars. They're great for some, but they don't meet the needs of most any longer.

Still, you can be a power user on any platform. When I used Commodores and DOS machines, I was a power user. When I had a Mac Plus, I became a Mac power user. Today I am a power user on my two-year-old 400 MHz TiBook.

Being a power user simply means that you know how to make the computer work for you, not that you have several GHz of processing power under the hood. And that's probably a common thread among our writers - we use Macs because of the power they give us, whether these Macs are new or old. It's not because we cling to the past; it's because we use our computers as long as they are good enough, upgrade when practical, and then move on to something newer.

We can't ask our writers to keep writing about equipment they've retired. We write from our ongoing experience, so we write about our current hardware and the Macs that we may consider to replace them. For the oldest Macs, our email lists provide forums where people who actively use or support these computers help each other out. They may have a lower profile than our website, but they are at least as valuable a resource as the hundreds or thousands of articles we've posted over the past seven years.

Just because we look at the new Macs when Apple announces them doesn't mean we've abandoned the low end. It's just changed to encompass the compact Macs and the beige G3s, early iMacs, and WallStreet PowerBooks. As always, we're most interested in computing value, which sometimes means a bleeding edge dual processor G4 - but more often means holding on to your older Mac until it becomes a bottleneck.

After all, sooner or later today's high-end Macs will become low-end Macs, and Low End Mac will continue to be a resource for users with any level of low-end Mac hardware. When I started this site, the iMac didn't even exist, and now the person who emailed the above letter considers it a low-end Mac.