My Turn

Picking a Mac for School

Dec. 6, 2000 - Andrew Hill

My Turn is Low End Mac's column for reader-submitted articles. It's your turn to share your thoughts on all things Mac (or iPhone, iPod, etc.) and write for the Mac web. Email your submission to Dan Knight .

I recently had to choose a computer for college. I knew I wanted something with a G3 processor and a decent-sized hard disk. I avoided the iMac line intentionally, due to the lack of customization possibilities. I like to play around a bit with my computers, so the iMacs weren't considered. I also wanted the option of adding a second monitor for a palette screen, which no iMacs offered. The Road Apple series of Power Macs was avoided, and the 6400 and 6500 were also not considered due to the premium price they command. Sure, it's got a nice subwoofer, but I can get a decent set of speakers for my computer for $30 on eBay.

I have a personal preference for Apple machines over clones, as the clones have limited support for upgrades and such. This is not to say that other products are inferior, just that these are the models I like and will mostly deal with. I also have a tendency to list prices after shipping. It's a pain to try to figure that out later. My favorite auction site is eBay, but when I say eBay, I also mean Yahoo! Auctions, Amazon, and the rest.

Power Macintosh 8100

This machine has many nice features. It comes in a tower case with plenty of slots and drive bays, even though the case itself is a pain to work in. The actual computer itself is quite cheap, and NuBus expansion cards and RAM are also relatively inexpensive.

The computer: The 8100/80 can be obtained easily on eBay for under $150, probably closer to $100. There are a few pointers that should be remembered when looking for this machine:

  • Try to get the 8100/80. This had the fastest bus speed and will be the fastest once upgraded with a G3.
  • Make sure you get a CD-ROM! Some 8100s didn't ship with one, but I guarantee you will need it.
  • Don't worry about getting an AV model. Once you get the G3 upgrade you either have to buy an adapter to use this or sell it. As these will sell for $25, don't turn down an AV machine - just don't pay extra for it. If you are certain you will use the AV features, then go ahead and get it, keeping in mind you will need the PDS adapter, which retails for $100, to use a G3 upgrade.
  • There is the potential to save a lot of money by buying an 8100 with the G3 upgrade already installed. Be careful that you do the math and make sure it really is a good deal.
  • Take RAM into account. If a machine has 80 MB of RAM, that will probably suffice, and if it doesn't, it's a lot cheaper to upgrade later as long as there are still empty memory sockets.
  • Don't lose perspective: That extra 2 GB drive is still going to be too small, and although that audio input card might be fun, but don't pay for what you don't need.

The G3 upgrade: I recommend a card with 1 MB of level 2 cache. If you look at the largest difference in performance of a given upgrade, the largest jump is when the cache moves from 512 KB to 1 MB. Unfortunately, this is also the biggest price jump. I recommend a Sonnet Crescendo G3/NuBus 266/1 MB. This will run you about $250. You may be able to save a few dollars by buying on eBay or a similar auction site. Unfortunately, people tend to keep their G3 upgrades unless they also sell their computer. This means that the resale value is going to be pretty close to retail.

The RAM: You will want at least 64 MB of RAM, but I recommend 128 MB. You need 72-pin FPM SIMMs rated at 80ns or faster, and you must install them in matched pairs. If the system already has 40 MB installed, just get another 64 MB - 104 MB is plenty! You should be able to get these for about $1/MB on eBay or the LEM-Swap list, as they're relatively common. You can use SIMMs with or without parity, including those scrounged from old 486s and low-end Pentiums. EDO SIMMs should work, but they are unsupported by Apple.

The hard disk: Since we're putting all this money into a machine, we want to have plenty of space. 9 GB should do. Keep in mind that you will probably have a spare drive bay, so you can add this to your existing hard drive. A 9.1 GB SCSI hard drive should do fine and will cost you around $200. You will need to get a 50-pin drive, unless you plan on putting in a SCSI card like the FWB Jackhammer or the ATTO Silicon Express IV. With either of those SCSI cards you can use 50-pin or 68-pin drives. The other option is to buy a few smaller drives from eBay or Yahoo! Auctions. In this case you will most likely need to switch the SCSI IDs and mess around with termination on at least one of the drives.

Video card: Since we replaced the Apple HPV card or AV card with the G3 upgrade, we need a NuBus video card. Most accelerated NuBus video cards have problems with either PowerPCs or Mac OS 8 and above. The VillageTronic MacPicasso 320 sells on eBay for under $50, performs fine up to Mac OS 9.0.4, and provides 2 MB of SGRAM for QuickDraw acceleration. The MacPicasso 340 has 4 MB of SGRAM, but is somewhat rarer and more expensive. If you can get a good deal on either card, go for it. For more details on NuBus video cards, check out Low End Mac's Guide to NuBus Video Cards.

Extras: If you think you deserve a special treat, go out and find a NuBus SCSI card. Both FWB and ATTO make fine SCSI cards, and for good compatibility with the Sonnet G3 upgrade you should use ATTO's Silicon Express IV. This will let you connect your hard disk at speeds somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 times that of the built in SCSI. Expect to notice it. Also expect to notice the price - $75 and up on eBay.

Operating System: I recommend Mac OS 8.6. I don't think there would be enough advantages of Mac OS 9 on an 8100 to make it worth the hassle. If there are some perks in Mac OS 9 that you feel you would use, go ahead. It will run fine, albeit a little slower than MacOS 8.6

Final Damage: $725 ($800 with the Jackhammer)

Power Macintosh 7500

With the exception of the G3 and G4 towers, the 7500 has the easiest case for adding extras you will ever see. This has a nice PCI architecture, so adding expansion cards is cheap and easy. Another nice thing is the AV features. Sure, it's just a nice feature that you probably won't use much, but it's free. Unfortunately RAM for this beast is expensive - and I really mean expensive. The 7500 is somewhat cheaper than the 8500, because they case has less room for extra upgrades. But let's face it, you're probably not going to be doing a whole lot of upgrading after this. If you can get any Power Mac 7300-9600 for the same price as the 7500, take it. However don't get tricked into paying "just a little bit more."

The computer: The actual price of the computer varies widely based on features. RAM is a BIG issue with this thing, so work on paying about $125 + $1 per MB of RAM.

  • A "bare" computer is fine. The hard disk is probably too small, the RAM to little to worry about, and the processor card will probably be replaced.
  • Check out the RAM. RAM for this machine can cost $1.50 to $2.00 per megabyte if you need it on an unlucky day that the market is up. As stated earlier, if you can get the RAM for $1/MB, go for it.
  • Don't get all excited about a PCI card you're unlikely to use, but feel free to get excited about one you will use. The same applies with the hard disk. Unless it's at least 6 GB, you will probably want a new one anyway.

The G3 upgrade: As noted before, I would get the slowest upgrade that has 1 MB of level 2 cache. Right now, this seems to be the Sonnet Crescendo/PCI 400 MHz/1 MB, which retails at $300. If you look around on eBay, you might be able to find an older upgrade. A 300 MHz/1 MB card should be available for about $225. Although Sonnet calls this the Crescendo/PCI, it fits in the processor slot, not the PCI slot. The "PCI" is to indicate it was for PCI PowerMacs.

The RAM: Ah, the RAM. RAM prices for this series of machines (7300-7600, 8500-8600, 9500-9600), are notoriously high and notoriously fickle. You will need 70ns or faster 168-pin DIMMs. These are not the same as PC66 or PC100 DIMMs. They are usually listed as "RAM for Power Mac 72-9600". Try to get your computer up over 96 MB of RAM by paying no more than $1.50 per megabyte. If you have matching pairs of DIMMs you can interleave your RAM for a small boost in speed.

The hard disk: UltraATA/66 drives are incredibly cheap compared to SCSI drives, but the 7500 has no UltraATA/66 support. That isn't a problem, as Sonnet makes one in the form of the Tempo. Not only does this allow you to connect cheap drives to your computer, but it's theoretically 5 times faster than the onboard SCSI. And if you need more storage later, you can add an UltraATA/66 drive in the lower bay without any problem (unless you have something else in that bay, like a Zip drive). The card is $100, and it is unlikely you will be able to pick it up cheaper used. You should easily be able to get a 10-15 GB UltraATA/66 hard drive for $100, bringing the total to $200.

Video card: The ATI Rage Orion is a decent video card with similar performance to the video card that ships with the Blue G3s. It is a 128-bit, 16 MB PCI card, which should be fine for the average user and even for many gamers. Be warned that some programs do not always work with the acceleration. This is often available for $75 on eBay. While some other cards are available for less, I would not get anything with less than 4 MB of RAM and would not pay more than $35 for it.

Extras: After the graphics card and the Sonnet Tempo, you only have one PCI slot left. A USB card will cost around $25, but then you have no way to get FireWire support. A FireWire/USB combo card will go for around $100 on eBay, so make sure you will use the FireWire before forking out the extra $75 for it.

Operating System: Go for MacOS 9.0.4. It should run fine on this machine. If you are particularly strapped for cash you can use Mac OS 8.6. Its just as good on such a system and could be as much as $50 cheaper.

Final Damage: $850 ($875 with USB, $950 with USB and FireWire)

Power Macintosh G3 (Blue and White)

The blue & white G3 has the advantage of a 100 MHz system bus, an UltraATA/33 hard disk bus, and a ZIF processor, all of which make it cheaper to upgrade in the future. I would pass on the beige G3 series and the later Power Macs simply because you pay the overhead for a faster processor and a few extra gadgets. There isn't much upgrading to do at all on these.

The Computer: I feel that it's incredibly important to get the Revision B motherboard. It has better graphics and IDE support. If you ever want to happily use two UltraATA drives in here, be sure to get the Rev. B. A quick way to check is to open up the computer, which is incredibly easy, and look at the hard disk mounting brackets. On the far right will be the UltraATA mount bracket. If there is a hard disk there, look for a set of metal brackets that look like they could mount a second drive above the first.

All 300 MHz Blue G3s are Rev. A, and all 450 MHz ones have the Rev. B motherboard, so you only really need to crack it open and check the mountings on the 350 MHz and 400 MHz versions. Expect to pay $1,000-1,200 depending on features like DVD and SCSI hard disks.

The RAM: You want at least 128 MB of RAM. You will appreciate more, so just go and buy a 128 MB DIMM if you have less than 128 MB. Prices are well under $1/MB, and they sometimes approach $0.50 per megabyte used on eBay. First try ramseeker to find the best retail RAM prices, or try looking on DealMac and DealNN.

Hard disk: The hard disk will probably be fine for now. Even the cheapest blue G3 came with a 6 GB drive, and as long as you make sure to get the Rev. B, it's a trivial upgrade to add more drives in the future.

Video card: The ATI Rage 128 has 16 MB of VRAM, which should be ample for most of your needs. Sure, it's not top of the range, but it's no lightweight.

Extras: There are more extras than you can shake a stick at with this machine. A TV Tuner card is often nice, but beware of the ATI XClaim VR as there is a compatibility problem due to the ATI Rage 128 that ships with the G3. ATI has promised to replace the BIOS on my XClaim card, but the process is long and tedious.

Operating System: Mac OS 9.0.4. Get Mac OS X when it comes out, of course! What else?

Final Damage: $1100

Which System Do I Choose?

So we have the following systems nicely setup:

  • Power Macintosh 8100/G3 for $700
  • Power Macintosh 7500/G3 for $850
  • Power Macintosh G3 for $1100

If you have the money, go for the Blue G3. With either of the two other systems, that's the level of performance you'll be aiming for. The Blue G3 can be upgraded to 1 GHz* with over 1 GB of RAM and has four internal hard drive bays.

* Assuming the G3 or G4 reaches 1 GHz at some point.

However, $250 will buy you a fair whack of textbooks or whatever, so it is quite tempting to go for the 7500. The choice between the 8100 and the 7500 is a very different matter. The 7500 is a newer and slightly faster machine, but the 8100 is very capable machine. The 8100 has a larger case with more drive bays - and you save $150. If you can only afford to spend $700 on your computer, don't feel you need to stretch to the 7500.

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