Mac Musings

Low End Macs in an Economic Recession

Daniel Knight - 2009.02.16 -

Follow Low End Mac's blogs: LEMblog and Low End Mac Services.

If ever it was important for a website such as Low End Mac to exist, this worldwide recession is it.

From the beginning, almost 12 years ago, our goal was to help Mac users get the most out of their older, probably nowhere close to state-of-the-art (yet still usable for some tasks) computers. We initially drew the line at the Mac Plus as the oldest Mac with practical usability, as it supported up to 4 MB of RAM, 800K floppy disks, and external SCSI drives. It was the oldest Mac that could run System 7, albeit somewhat sluggishly.

Our assessment of the Plus hasn't changed, but the world of computing sure has. While power users bemoan the woefully underpowered netbooks with their 1.6 GHz Atom CPUs, a lot of us are still plodding along with our aging PowerPC Macs - or even 680x0-based vintage Macs.

Computing power is definitely relative. Today's slowpoke would have set your heart to racing 2-3 years ago.

Upgrade Advice

Our rule of thumb is to use your Mac as long as its up to whatever tasks you need to do, upgrade it as necessary, and replace it when you run out of upgrade options. We have always preached the benefit of a faster hard drive, which will often have more impact on overall performance than more RAM, which is the other thing we recommend upgrading.

Only you can assess your own needs, but we generally find CPU upgrades hard to justify financially, as it's often cheaper to buy a faster Mac with the same CPU and sell your old one. That said, Apple never made a Power Mac G4 with 1.6 GHz to 2.0 GHz CPUs, and if you're able to increase your productivity sufficiently, you can cost justify upgrading the processor.

20th Anniversary MacintoshVideo cards are one place where modular desktop Macs tend to provide lots of options, the Mac mini and 20th Anniversary Macintosh (left) being notable exceptions. Especially as Mac OS X has evolved, demands on the graphics processor (GPU) have increased, and with Mac OS X 10.5 "Leopard", some features require more powerful video cards than some of the oldest G4 Macs that can run Leopard came with.

Another factor is monitor resolution, features, and number. The higher your screen's resolution, the more it will benefit from more graphic processing power. Some cards support two displays, and that's even more demanding on the GPU.

And then there are things like rotation - my Dell flat panel display rotates 90°, and Mac OS X 10.4 "Tiger" (which I still use) supports that. I occasionally rotate the display when working on very lengthy articles to gain 256 pixels of height, but there's a significant slowdown due to the stock Radeon 9000 Pro in my dual 1 GHz Power Mac G4. I'm sure something like a Radeon 9700 would make a big difference, but it's hard to justify spending $120.

We do live the Low End Mac philosophy here - my newest computer is a 1.25 GHz eMac from 2004, and my production machine is that Mirrored Drive Doors Power Mac G4 from 2002, which I acquired secondhand. Both computers have had RAM increased and bigger, faster hard drives installed. Both have had upgrades to 16x SuperDrives. And the Power Mac has two USB 2.0 cards, giving me plenty of USB ports at a speed the built-in ports can't provide (you can never have too many USB ports).

Thanks to the advent of Intel-based Macs, there has never been a better time to buy a used PowerPC Mac, and most upgrades are quite affordable. We're especially fond of Power Macs with all their expansion slots, drive bays, and CPU upgrade potential.

Financial Realities

These are trying times. People are losing their jobs. People are taking pay cuts to keep their jobs, whether due to less hours or agreeing to a reduction in their pay rate. Businesses are doing what they can to reduce expenses as income declines, reducing perks and benefits, reducing staffing, doing what they can to stay afloat.

Homes are being foreclosed in record levels, housing values are declining (many of us now owe more than our homes are worth), and lenders are being very cautious. It's a time for doing with less.

Here at Low End Mac, we haven't spent much on hardware or software in the past year. We bought a low-cost Brother all-in-one printer/scanner for my wife to use in her office, we had to buy toner for the laser printer, and I couldn't resist the value of the MacUpdate software bundle. DriveGenius alone is worth the cost of the bundle, and I've rediscovered the efficiency of Default Folder, which I hadn't used on OS X until now.

We've just come off six weeks covering Apple history - one week for the pre-Macintosh Apple, then one day for each of the Mac's 25 years. It's been fun, and traffic levels have been good. We're not quite at our record pace - we served 17 million pages in 2007 - but we're close at 16 million per year.

Up and Down

It's a good life writing about the Mac and working with other writers with the same passion, but it's had its ups and downs. I left my full-time job do publish Low End Mac full-time eight years ago, just as the dot-com collapse was shredding ad income. Things bottomed-out in 2002 at less than 1/10 of a cent per page view in ad income while site traffic grew by nearly 25%.

Income per page doubled in 2003 and kept moving upward, peaking in 2005/06, then slipping just a wee bit in 2007. Then came 2008. Through June, income was close to the 2006 level, but July fell well short of the previous year's level. Through October, income seemed to hold steady, and then came the crash.

November income was less than half what it had been in 2007, and December was even worse. We'd hoped to see things turn in January, but instead it was lower still. We don't know what February holds (checks usually arrive the last week of the month), but we're looking at our options.

My wife has been unemployed since autumn, and we sold the second car a few months ago, which also saves us about $60 a month in car insurance. We're using more coupons than even when grocery shopping, and we're grateful that gasoline prices fell so far back from last summer's record levels, but things are getting tight. We're wondering if we'll be able to find part-time work at all, as Michigan has the highest unemployment rate in the nation.

Low End Mac has been through hard times before, and our readers have helped out in the past. Here's how you can do that: Most of our articles have a "Tip Jar" link, a way for you to let our writers, who are almost all freelancers, know you appreciate their work. Donating to their tip jars can help them stay afloat - or pay for some more old Macs to write about.

These are trying times, and Low End Mac will be around to help you get through them as far as computing decisions go. And we thank you in advance for any help you can provide to keep us going through this recession.

UPDATE 2/18: I'd like to thank over a dozen Low End Mac readers around the world who have contributed to my Tip Jar. dk

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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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