Mac Musings

Upgrade the Power Mac or Buy an Intel Mac mini?

Daniel Knight - 2006.11.30

One of the things we love about the Power Mac G4 design at Low End Mac is how expandable it is. All the models with AGP video support up to 1.5 GB of RAM or more, have several hard drive bays, and make it easy to swap out the CPU for a faster one.

FastMac makes a 1.5 GHz upgrade for everything from Sawtooth through Quicksilver. Newer Tech has G4 upgrades running at up to 2.0 GHz for the same models, as well as dual processor models as fast as 1.8 GHz. Sonnet's Encore/ST G4 reaches 1.8 GHz, and the Encore/ST G4 Duet includes a pair of 1.6 or 1.8 GHz CPUs for the same range of Power Macs.

You can plug these into G4 Power Macs that shipped with a single 350 MHz CPU for up to 6x the processing power, or into a 1 GHz Quicksilver to double CPU power - and that's just using a single 2.0 GHz CPU. With dual 1.8 GHz G4s, OS X can handle even more heavy lifting with ease.

Something's Missing

Curiously missing from most of the vendors listed above are upgrades for the Mirrored Drive Doors G4s. These models include 867 MHz, 1.0 GHz, 1.25 GHz, and 1.42 GHz dual CPU machines as well as 1.0 GHz and 1.25 GHz single processor Power Macs.

I own one of these, and it's my workhorse computer with a pair of 1 GHz G4 CPUs, 1.75 GB of RAM, and a 250 GB 7200 rpm hard drive. It's plenty fast for everything but video work. If I did a lot of that, I'd very much want a pair of 1.5-2.0 GHz CPUs.

As I researched this article, I discovered that GigaDesigns makes a processor upgrade for the Mirrored Drive Doors Power Macs. This "brain transplant" puts a pair of PowerPC 7455 G4 CPUs in your MDD Power Mac, and for US$499 it boosts CPU speed to 1.33 GHz. That's not a whole lot for most of these Power Macs.

I later discovered that Sonnet has a new Encore/MDX upgrade with a pair of 1.6 GHz CPUs at US$500 and 1.8 GHz CPUs at US$600. Now we're talking serious upgrades - the slowest is 10% faster than the fastest Power Mac G4, and the fastest is 26% faster. Compared with the entry-level 867 MHz dual, we're looking at 85% to 107% improvements!

I definitely found the value leader in MDD upgrades. My 1 GHz dual would run 60-80% faster, trimming 37-45% from the time spent processing the video work I do. I'm not sure I could justify $500-600 for such an upgrade just to speed up digitizing video, importing it into iMovie, and converting iMovie projects to iDVD, but it's nice to know these upgrades are available.

One Alternative to a $600 CPU Upgrade

Since video is really the only thing I do that really taxes my computer, there's another $600 option. I could buy a Mac mini Core Duo and use it to do all of my video processing. I'd guess it would run 3-4x as fast as my 2002 Power Mac.

It's a tempting thought. I'd really like to try an "Intel" Mac, and since I don't do 3D gaming, one of the mini's biggest drawbacks (for some users) isn't a significant factor for me. And if I use it with a big, fast, external hard drive, the limitations of the mini's notebook drive become a moot point.

Tempting. The only question is which would be my primary computer. Would I continue to use the Power Mac for the bulk of my work, leaving the Mac mini to handle my video work (and maybe adding a TV tuner)? Or would the Mac mini quickly become my primary computer, relegating the Power Mac to the task of burning DVDs and giving mw quick and easy access to Classic Mode? (Since my Power Mac has a SuperDrive, I don't need to buy a Mac mini with a SuperDrive.)

A More Expensive Option

A fair bit more costly than the Mac mini, buying a Core 2 Duo MacBook is another viable option - especially since my PowerBook G4/400 died earlier this year. I've been debating what to buy before Macworld Expo in January. I need something portable, and the MacBook seems practically perfect. Bump RAM to 2 GB. Buy a big, fast hard drive. Install SheepShaver for Classic (yes, I'm still using Claris Home Page 3.0).

Well, no rush on any of these decisions. A Mac mini would be nice. A MacBook would be nice. A fast accelerator for my Power Mac would be nice. But none are essential right now, and as I've decided to skip Macworld Expo, I can delay my notebook decision for some time.

Until then, I'll keep using my flexible, expandable, upgradable Power Mac G4. In fact, I'm even picking up a second one - a nice used 450 MHz dual processor model. Should make a great backup computer, file server, and mule that I can set to doing video while I go back to my main computer.

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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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