Mac Musings

Is the Computer You Have the Computer You Need?

Daniel Knight - 2009.03.24 -

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Macworld's Christopher Breen writes:

"It is frustrating when you've found a technology that works for you - whether it's a Newton, HyperCard, or AppleWorks - Apple pulls the plug, and provides nothing (or next to nothing) to fill the void."

Amen and well said. While we love technology and dream about the new, many of us keep working very comfortably with old technology. I don't dare call it obsolete or even outdated, as it suits our needs very well - maybe even perfectly.

We have writers who love their Newton eMates, clamshell iBooks, PowerBook 1400s, Pismos, G4 iMacs, eMacs, iBooks, G3 and G4 PowerBooks, first generation MacBooks, and who knows what else. In this day of dual-core, quad-core, and even 8-core Macs running at 2.0 GHz and faster, many of us are comfortably productive with far less powerful systems - my main machine is a dual 1 GHz Power Mac G4, Charles Moore still uses G4-upgraded Pismos and only recently migrated from his 1.33 GHz PowerBook to his first Intel-based Mac.

It's not just old hardware that we use; we often have a favorite application or two that is long since discontinued and perhaps not even supported by Mac OS X 10.5 or Intel-based Macs. Some say we have our heads in the sand, but we're productive and don't find our hardware or software bottlenecking our productivity.

Dialup Internet Access

In Moore's case, the bottleneck is the absolute lack of broadband access in his part of rural Nova Scotia. Moore writes for several websites, posting daily, and he gets by with what most of us would consider obsolete technology - dialup Internet access. Not only does he get by with a 56k modem, but his connection rarely tops 26.4k.

Fortunately for Moore, most browsers let him block ads and turn off Flash. Some (notably iCab) let you save an offline copy of a page, some (notably Opera) let you turn off images, and the latest Opera 10 preview add Turbo to the mix, which compresses files on Opera's servers and sends that compressed data to your computer. It works, although graphics tend to be softer with Turbo enabled.

Claris Home Page

I've said it many times in the past, but it bears repeating. Claris Home Page 3.0 was a high water mark in affordable WYSIWYG website design that gives you full and easy access to the underlying HTML while also producing HTML code that "just works" with any browser. It's what I'm writing this in. It's what I edit most of Low End Mac's content in. And it hasn't been updated in a dozen years.

In some ways, it's hopelessly outdated. It doesn't support HTML 4.0, let alone XHTML, Flash, Cascading Style Sheets, or any technology introduced since the mid 1990s. It requires Classic Mode or emulation of a Mac running the Classic Mac OS. Most of all, it's fast and just gets out of the way when you're writing. It's far from a complete solution these days, but I haven't found a thing under $100 that works as smoothly.

On top of all that, I'm used to Home Page. After using it for more than a dozen years, I know its in and outs, its strengths and quirks, its efficiencies and its bottlenecks. Until Low End Mac goes Web 2.0, which we hope to do using Joomla, it's the perfect tool for writing and editing.


Breen specifically mentions AppleWorks as a "venerable, capable, but seriously-people-this-thing-is-so-dead application suite." Apple's iWork '09 application suite puts it to shame in appearance and features, yet many of us cling to AppleWorks because we've used it for years, learned its ins and outs, and know that it's a more efficient tool than iWork or Microsoft Office.

I use AppleWorks extensively for word processing (when I'm not writing for the Web) and spreadsheets. I have Office 2004, and I've tried iWork, but AppleWorks is far more responsive, makes better use of the available screen space, and, as with Claris Home Page, fits like a comfortable old shoe.

At least AppleWorks still "just works" with OS X 10.5 "Leopard", even though Home Page won't and Moore has run into some dialup issues with his Unibody MacBook and his favorite email client, Eudora.

The Good Is the Enemy of the Best

There's a saying that the good is the enemy of the best. Maybe we should turn that on its head and proclaim that the best is the enemy of the comfortably adequate. Charles Moore had only one compelling reason to buy an Intel-based Mac - so he can review Intel-only software. Except for that, his Pismos, recently deceased G3 iBook, and 17" PowerBook G4 were adequate.

I have Leopard installed on a partition on my Power Mac G4, and also on a partition on an external drive (which also has partitions with Mac OS 9.2.2 and OS X 10.2, 10.3, and 10.4) so I can play with OS X 10.5 and do some work with it. I will admit that I like it and wouldn't mind switching to it. I'm particularly enamored with Time Machine, which makes it real easy to recover a previous version of a file you just messed up completely. But it doesn't support Classic, so for production work, I'm sticking with Mac OS X 10.4 "Tiger".

As Kent, one of our readers, observed in a recent email to Charles Moore, "There comes a point, a high water mark if you will, when the computer you have is really all the computer you need."

Indeed, and that's the whole point of Low End Mac. Cool new features, awesome levels of power, and incredible graphics are nice to have, but how much do you really need to get the job done?

Case Studies

I spent Monday afternoon in the basement testing two dozen vintage Macs from my storage room. It brought back a lot of memories from my days at Baker Publishing (1992-2001) when our editor's were very productive with System 7.x, Word 5.1a, a 16 MHz Macintosh LC or LC II with 4-8 MB of RAM, and an Apple Portrait Display.

In the design department, we were power users. The standard machine was a 25 MHz Mac IIci with 8 MB of RAM, a 40 MB or 80 MB hard drive, a Macintosh Two-Page Monochrome Video Card, a Macintosh Two-Page Monochrome Display, and the latest version of System 7.5.x. We'd set virtual memory to 12 MB and plug along with Quark XPress 3.1 or, when a book required it, FrameMaker.

FrameMaker was excruciatingly slow on the IIci, but it was what we had, and we managed to be very productive with Quark and productive enough with FrameMaker. (Quark had no support for footnotes in those days, but FrameMaker did, so when a book used footnotes instead of endnotes, we used FrameMaker.) Things got better when we moved to 68040-power, but the first generation of Power Macs finally unleashed FrameMaker. It was no longer excruciatingly slow and to be avoided when possible; it was fast enough on that hardware to really boost productivity.

Fast Enough

Sure, faster Macs meant Word saved files more quickly and ran spell check more quickly. It meant Quark and FrameMaker ran even faster, which was always a bonus. G3 Macs were another big step forward after early PowerPC Macs, but after about 300-350 MHz, there wasn't any significant improvement in terms of making you more productive.

That was about the point at which I left Baker to publish Low End Mac as my full time job, and I didn't hesitate to buy a PowerBook G4 running at 400 MHz, knowing full well that it had all the power I would need for years. And for about 4 years, that was true. I upgraded RAM incrementally, ending up at 768 MB. I replaced the 10 GB hard drive with 20, and later 40.

Apple threw a wrench in the works with Mac OS X. Where 300 MHz was lots of power with the Classic Mac OS, it was not enough to unleash OS X regardless of how much RAM you had or how fast a hard drive you used. The 400 MHz PowerBook handled OS X 10.1 through 10.4 reasonably well, but I was more productive running in OS 9.

The thing that spoiled me was sending the PowerBook in for screen replacement toward the end of its AppleCare coverage (the backlight was uneven). I picked up a secondhand Power Mac G4 Cube as a temporary solution, and it handled everything more nicely than my PowerBook did. I ended up selling that Cube to Charles Moore, who ended up trading it for a Pismo, if I recall correctly. And I ended up buying a refurbished 700 MHz eMac, which just ran circles around the PowerBook, which then became my field machine.

Fast enough is a moving target. From version 10.0, released 8 years ago today, through 10.4.11, Apple made the operating system more efficient, but also more demanding of memory. Still, with a fast hard drive and enough RAM (512 MB or more), each update to OS X tended to run a bit more efficiently than those that came before it.

All of that changed with Leopard. I have a dual 500 MHz Power Mac G4 and a 533 MHz Power Mac G4, and I can tell you from experience that while the 533 MHz Digital Audio Power Mac can run Leopard, it doesn't run it well. The dual 500 MHz Power Mac is more adequate to the task, but even with almost twice the power it feels like it's working hard to keep up. My 1.25 GHz eMac, my dual 1 GHz Power Mac, and the 1.53 GHz G4 upgrade in the Digital Audio all have plenty of power to run Leopard smoothly.

Why the Changes?

Apple doesn't make money from secondhand Macs. It doesn't make money when we keep using our Macs instead of replacing them. It doesn't make money when we stick with Panther instead of upgrading to Tiger, or sticking with Tiger rather than buy Leopard. And Apple, a for-profit corporation, is in the business of making money.

Detroit and Madison Avenue have perfected the art of upselling. Sure, your Chevy is adequate, but wouldn't you really be happier in a Cadillac? Sure, your shampoo cleans your hair, but wouldn't you rather have radiant highlights, a fuller head of hair, or more wonderful scents? Sure, you got along just fine with Mac System 7.5.5, but 8.1 gives you this - and 9.0 adds that - and OS X gives you so much more.

You get the picture.

As I was working with those old Macs in the basement, preparing them for a forthcoming vintage Mac garage sale, I was reminded how productive we were on them. And before those Macs, people actually designed books using PageMaker on the 8 MHz Mac Plus.

There are three categories of solutions, as in the story of the three bears: inadequate (the bed was too small), more than necessary (the bed was too big), and comfortably adequate (the bed was just right). Just where comfortably adequate is varies by user and task, but the truth is that for most of us, a G4 Mac running Mac OS X 10.4 is going to do everything we need to do without being a bottleneck most of the time.

Apple, Dell, HP, and the rest of the world would rather we buy computers that won't be a bottleneck no matter what our needs. That's like buying an SUV or Corvette when all you need to do is pick up groceries once a week.

Especially in these trying economic times, it makes sense to ask what you really need vs. what you lust after. It's time to put an end to conspicuous consumption, which has created an obese America wallowing in personal debt, and make sensible choices.

Good enough is good enough.

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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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