The Low End Mac Mailbag

An Incredible B&W G3 Deal, More on the G4 That Wouldn't Work, Apple's G4 Firmware Block, and More

Dan Knight - 2003.03.07 - Tip Jar

Today, after several weeks handling some of my most spam-laden email accounts, Mail is finally starting to recognize a good percentage of unwanted email messages a junk. It's too bad it's taking so long, but it's really neat to see it at work.

Incredible b&w G3 deal

After reading Why Apple's Blue & White G3 Is a Best Buy, Mark Therrien comments:

Hello. I recently switched from the Windows platform to Mac OS X, picking up a brand new 1 GHz Titanium PowerBook. I loved it immediately and soon began to tell friends using PCs how much easier Mac OS X worked in comparison to XP or Win 2k. In fact, I loved it so much that I couldn't resist the chance to buy an older Mac from a friend who wanted to get rid of it. The computer in question was a Power Mac G3 B&W Rev. 2 450 MHz, 9 GB SCSI, CD-ROM, 128 MB RAM. He also threw in the matching keyboard and mouse, a matching USB hub, a matching USB floppy drive, and the matching 17" Apple Studio Display.

After reading that you found an ad for a B&W G3 with a 16" Monitor for $350 and was astounded by that price, I just had to brag at the price I got my G3 for: $200. I haven't been in the Mac world for too long, but I think that qualified as a pretty good deal.

Definitely. You have a very generous friend.

It Was an OEM G4

After our dialog in Beige G3 a Very Good Buy, Matt Olson emailed me:

It was as a matter of fact an OEM module, a Mercury OWC chip, if I'm not mistaken. I already sold it to someone else on eBay and although I offered no warranty of any kind I'm feeling a little guilty...

I am a little disappointed in the firm that sold me the module. They never bothered to mention the system bus incompatibility and presented the chip as the ideal upgrade for a Beige G3 with a Rev. C ROM, which I also bought (and am selling) in order to make the chip work. Live and learn, I suppose.

Thanks again for your input. Maybe you could include that incompatibility problem in one of your upgrade articles, if you haven't already.

Good suggestion. I'm adding the following to the beige G3 profiles: "When buying a G4 upgrade for the beige G3, make sure it is compatible with this model's 66 MHz bus. Pulled G4s from Apple's "Yikes!" G4 and some OEM G4s are specifically designed for a 100 MHz bus and will not work properly in the beige G3."

The Upgrade Debate

Thomas J. Cook sent the following to Steve Watkins and me:

You guys argued the age old upgrade vs. newer computer in separate articles yesterday (see The Complete Mac Makeover: Updating an Older Power Mac or iMac for Under $500 and Why Apple's Blue & White G3 Is a Best Buy), and I have to say you both presented very convincing arguments, even though you may not have even realized that you were debating . . . in fact maybe we should suggest this style for the next presidential debates - you can only argue the pros of your position, and you can't even hear your opponents answers . . . just a thought.

Back to the topic - I have a basement full of PCI PPC and older Macs (9 running more or less full time and another 11 in various states), and Steve's suggestions for upgrading seemed like a great idea - until I read Dan's article on the reasons why the B&W is so much better than the beige G3, and consequently so so much better than even an upgraded 6100, 7100, or 6400. And this is always my dilemma: Why upgrade any of my machines when I can get an entire new machine with similar processor capability (and usually better overall specs due to faster bus, etc.) for a similar price? 

Wouldn't Dan's G3/300 128/6/CD-ROM, $312 be faster overall than Steve's upgraded $280 6100/G3-500 128/9? And, as Steve's points out, the 6100 still lacks USB and FireWire and could never run OS X?

The upgraded 7500/G3-400 512/9 or 36.7 gig at $336 has USB, FireWire, and OS X, but how does it compare to Dan's G3/400, 256/9/CD-ROM, SCSI, $398?

And then there is the issue of the 10 Mbps Ethernet max on the 6100/7500 machines compared to the B&W's 100 Mbps standard.

I always appreciate your articles on pushing my old Macs to their limits, but each time I get ready to buy a G3 upgrade card (even on eBay, where you can frequently find then for less than $100), I always stop myself. I remember that these old machines are still humming along nicely - and with just the G3 upgrade that still leaves them hamstrung by their other limitations. When I add up all of the suggested upgrades, that B&W G3 seems only about another $50 away.

Just my rambling thoughts. Keep up the good work.

Thanks for letting me rant.

Thanks for your thoughts. I wrote the four articles on the Power Mac G3s and G4s on Monday, the same day I edited Watkin's article. The merits and demerits of upgrades have always been debated and will always be debated. At times I've gone one way; at other times, the other way.

For instance, I paid nothing but income tax on my first Mac, a Mac Plus that I earned in an Apple sales competition. A friend donated a second floppy. I spent about $300 on four 1 MB SIMMs, buying a pair at a time as funds allowed. I bought a $400+ 40 MB hard drive, although there were cheaper ones on the market. (The drive lasted about 8 years.) And I invested $200 in a Brainstorm 16 MHz upgrade. Add in a printer cable, drivers, and some software, and that came to about $1,000. But not all at once. And it's still a nice computer to play with.

After a few years of use, I sold that for $750, picked up a Centris 610 for about $1,350, and began upgrading it. Increase VRAM. Drop in another 4 MB or 8 MB of RAM. Save up for a 270 MB hard drive. Work out a deal for a 56k modem. Dream of a QuadDoubler, a CD-ROM drive, more memory, and a still bigger hard drive.

Then SuperMac left the clone business, the last company to do so. For $800 - about the cost of a QuadDoubler, big hard drive, and maxing out RAM on the Centris - I could get a 180 MHz 604e powerhouse. I sold the C-610 to one of my sons to help finance the purchase of a SuperMac J700. That machine's still in use today.

It, too, was upgraded with memory, a G3/250 processor, more memory, an IDE controller and hard drive, a better video card, a G3/333 processor, an ixTV card, 10/100 ethernet, and eventually a stripped S900 - and with all the old leftover parts, the J700 was rebuilt as a slower alternative to the S900. Another of my sons uses the S900 these days.

There are always three options when upgrading - Is it more economical to make a few upgrades? Am I better of with a new Mac? Or is there something in between what I have and what's new that might be the best investment?

I also look at expansion potential. The b&w G3 has phenomenal expansion potential; a Power Mac 6100 has very little. I'd have a hard time justifying a big hard drive, lots of memory, and a CPU upgrade all at once - but a bit here, another bit there, and it sometimes fits the budget better to upgrade a little at a time.

There is no right answer. There is only your right answer. In my last job, I got to work with almost everything from the Mac Plus through the Sawtooth G4s, including about 40% of the PowerBooks. I had to know enough to help my employer make the right decisions about new purchases and upgrades. And, of course, I've been making the same choices with my own money for over a decade.

It's always the value equation, and that's the whole reason we share our expertise on older Macs. Without knowledge, it's hard to measure value. we have steered some people away from some Road Apples. We have steered others toward our Best Buys.

Best Version of Mac OS 9

Coming back to the Mac after a few years away, Brad Browne wonders:

I'm a fan of your Low End Mac site, as I have a closet full of legacy systems. I left the Mac world in 1998 when I was working as a full-time network engineer and the Apple/NeXT/Rhapsody fiasco was at its height. I had a 68K Performa 636 and didn't want to spend the cash on one of those mid-generation PowerPCs. My mistake back then, But I came back Mac last year.

My question is this:

Since I was out of the Mac World for all of OS 8 and 9, I have a Cube I want to run as a Mac OS 9.x machine. What are the differences between the different version of 9, and what would you recommend for my Cube? I've got an MDD Mac and TiBook for Jaguar, so this will be strictly an OS 9 machine.

Welcome back. Although Steve Jobs held a funeral for it, Mac OS 9 remains a great operating system. I only switched from it to using OS X full-time two months ago. Just as there are people using System 6 and 7 today, I suspect we'll have people using Mac OS 9 five years from now.

Mac OS 9 represents the culmination of nearly two decades of operating system evolution. From the early days of the Macintosh project in the early 1980s until last summer, Apple kept tweaking it. Sometimes making it more efficient. Almost always making it more friendly. Sometimes making it a bit less stable, then putting the stability back with the next revision.

In my experience, I can't say that any version of OS 9 is clearly better than any other. I can't see any reason not to recommend 9.2.2, the final version of the classic Mac OS.

Best Portable?

After reading my thoughts on the best Power Macs, Brian asks:

I enjoyed your article but have a question...

What would you say is the equivalent "best buy in a portable?

I don't know yet. I've been debating doing a series on that in the next week or two. I'm never quite sure what my conclusions will be until I've finished writing.

Three Slots or Four?

Continuing the discussion from Four PCI Slots, Al Shep writes:

I did not mean to offend. I only wanted to note that some took issue when Apple said the machine had 4 PCI slots when one was dedicated to video.

You might also note that a SCSI PCI card was a very common build to order option, since the Blue and White did not have onboard SCSI. This left only 2 PCI slots open.

Your point that upgrading the video is much more efficient with the Blue and White is quite valid, but I would argue that upgrading the video is not as common as you might think. Many Mac users do not view a gaming video card as essential or even recognize the importance of a fast video card, especially since Photoshop acceleration is no longer selling point for video cards.

No offense taken. I tend to write a quickly and briefly as possible so I can get close to caught up on email (I'm currently a day behind).

I guess I'm kind of simple. If there are four PCI slots inside the box, that's the way I call 'em. Nobody questioned whether the Mac II had six slots or the IIcx had three. Yes, each one really needed a video card to be much good, but you there was no debating how many NuBus slots were inside the computer.

It would have been disingenuous of Apple to call the Mac IIci a four slot machine, although if you added the processor direct slot, it was a four slot computer. Either way, with onboard video, those three slots provided more expansion options than three slots did on the IIcx.

It is disingenuous of Apple to claim some Macs have 5 USB ports when two of them are on the keyboard - and one must be occupied by the keyboard's USB cable in order for those two to function. It is also disingenuous of Apple to say the more recent G4 Power Macs have five slots without additional qualification, since one of the slots (the AGP slot) is not compatible with the others. (Yes, it's equally misleading when PC vendors do it, and I realize Apple is only following their lead.)

Until I actually used a beige G3, confronted its limitations (especially in OS X), and saw the real world solutions, I would have considered three PCI slots plenty for almost any user. To get good OS X performance, which was an important consideration in this series of articles, you really want an Ultra66 drive controller and a better video card. The remaining slot could hold a USB/FireWire card, and 802.11g wireless networking cards, a 10/100 ethernet card, or something else - but that's the only slot left.

A blue & white G3 would not be so limited. It starts with very good video, very good Ultra33 drive support, FireWire and USB on the motherboard, 10/100 ethernet, and three empty PCI slots. As has generally been true of Power Macs, there are more empty slots than almost any user will ever need on the b&w G3 and the G4s that followed it.

In its day, that was true of the PCI Power Macs and beige G3 as well, but the video demands of OS X make it increasingly likely that users will want better video and will drop in a PCI video card. Today's hard drives also seem quite sluggish on a 16.7 MBps system bus - another important factor with an operating system where virtual memory cannot be disabled - making a good IDE controller another good addition.

And suddenly the beige G3 isn't any less expensive than the blue & white, which offers pretty good performance in comparison without the expense of two or three PCI cards.

But more important than the number of PCI cards is how necessary they are. In retrospect, the beige G3 would have been far more flexible and viable as an OS X platform with four slots - and coming up with enough reasons to fill three slots in the b&w G3 would be a challenge to most of us. It's not only faster (bus, CPU speed, IDE, etc.), it's also more flexible, which is why I call it a best buy.

The Anti-G4 Firmware Update

After reading about the b&w G3 and its upgrade potential, Doug Arnott asks:

Hey Dan. Long time listener, first time caller with a quick question.

In you article you briefly mention processor upgrades for the Blue & Whites. Wasn't there a Apple Firmware update that, among other things, prevented you from upgrading the processor? I remember a huge furor about it at the time, mostly due to the fact that Apple didn't bother to mention that their update would hamstring the machine's future upgrade options.

Am I imagining things here?

No, you are not imaging things. The b&w G3 was originally capable of supporting a G4 processor, although none were shipping when the computer was first released. In May 1999, Apple released a firware update (ROM Version 1.1) for the b&w G3 that explicitly disabled support for the G4 processor, a preemptive move to prevent the upgrade industry from offering G4 upgrades.

It didn't work. It did and perhaps still does prevent b&w G3 owners from installing and using Apple branded G4 modules from the "Yikes!" G4, but all of the upgrade makers found a workaround to Apple's ROM block. Apple ended up with egg on their face, and you can read my take on the whole mess in Why the G4 Uproar?

More on USB Bandwidth

Andrew Prosnik

USB 1.x bandwidth is actually crappier than you're aware of. I can't find any direct links since the stupid USB website changed their FAQ, but...

USB 1.x (I don't know about 2.0) allows one device to only ever have 8 Mbps total bandwidth out of the 12 Mbps. So from 1.5 MBps (12 Mbps) theoretical bandwidth you instantly drop to 1.0 MBps (8 Mbps) theoretical usable bandwidth. That's why they refer to 900 KBps as a real-world transfer rate.

They used to make it easy and just tell you that in the FAQ but the only thing I have that can somewhat back up my claim now is:

<http://www.usb.org/developers/whitepapers/bwpaper2.pdf>

In the introduction:

"The 12Mb/s full speed (FS) bandwidth of USB allows the creation of very exciting low to medium speed devices. USB is intended for devices in the 8Mb/s and below range. USB also provides a lower cost, reduced feature mode of operation for low speed devices. This mode uses an 1/8th speed clock resulting in a 1.5Mb/s low speed (LS) bandwidth."

If I cared enough, I would post on the USB forum and see if someone could confirm my assertion. However, I'm about 90% sure I'm right in my recollection that one USB device can only use 8 Mbps max, theoretical, out of the total 12 Mbps. And then again I don't know how USB devices contend for bandwidth . . . is it the same as ethernet broadcasting or does the USB controller/hub tell each device when to send data? Maybe that's the case and the reason why we're magically losing 4 Mbps for some unknown reason.

Anyway, more fuel for the fire. I have no idea about USB 2.0's per-device bandwidth allocation or any of the overhead involved there.

I love having an informed readership, because sometimes the teacher gets to become the student. (Okay, I'm always learning, but that should be true of all teachers.) I was not aware of the inner workings of USB. This explains why very few USB 1.1 benchmarks have ever passed the 800 kbps level.

From the head-to-head comparisons I've seen with FireWire and USB 2.0, although FireWire is "only" rated at 400 Mbps and USB 2.0 should be faster at a maximum of 480 Mbps, the FireWire drives almost always win the benchmark tests. I suspect this is because FireWire is related to SCSI and uses smarter peripherals, but I'm far from an expert on connectivity.

Thanks for the education.

Well, that wraps it up for this week. It's almost 3:30 in the afternoon, and I haven't had lunch yet. We'll get to more emails over the weekend and post another mailbag on Monday.

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Dan Knight has been publishing Low End Mac since April 1997. Mailbag columns come from email responses to his Mac Musings, Mac Daniel, Online Tech Journal, and other columns on the site.

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