Charles Moore's Mailbag

Old and New Macs: Nostalgia vs. Realistic Pragmatism

Charles Moore - 2011.02.03 - Tip Jar

Downgrading to a G4 iMac with Tiger

From Ryan in response to Alltime Favorite Macs: Nostalgia Confronts Realistic Pragmatism:

Charles,

I just finished reading your article on Vintage Macs vs. Current Macs, and I have to say I agree completely with your assessment. The sad thing is the older PowerPC Macs are really starting to show age as the newest models using Intel processors keeping arising and the cycle continues over and over. I myself just sold a really great Unibody 2 GHz MacBook a few months back to buy . . . a 17" iMac G4. It pretty much goes against everything that you said yourself in the article, but I just couldn't help it. Speed be damned: This iMac is by far the most gorgeous thing I've ever had on a desk, and I've been the owner of 10 different Macs, including this one. It's not fast at all . . . it's quite slow actually, but then again I didn't expect too much out of it with an 800 MHz G4 and 256 MB RAM.

When I sold the MacBook, I was getting quite bored with Mac OS X to be honest, having used it continuously for 3-1/2 years with not too many different changes. When I sold the MacBook, I went out and purchased an HP laptop with Windows 7 . . . a nice change of pace. I still wanted to own a Mac, and since this wasn't going to be my main machine, I immediately knew the iMac G4 was the one vintage computer I always wanted - and for the right price would be the one to own. I purchased it off eBay for $100, and it really has been a workhorse. Even with OS X Tiger, it still feels modern to enough to browse the Web, check email, play music under iTunes, and even do some light photo editing with iPhoto.

Another sad thing I realized is how slow my last MacBook felt compared to Apple's latest offerings, even with the Core 2 Duo and 2 GB of RAM. My situation would have most likely been helped with upgraded RAM, but compared to the 11.6" MacBook Air I used a few weeks ago, my old MacBook just feels sluggish. It was sped up a little bit when I reinstalled Snow Leopard, but it's amazing how fast technology is moving these days, and pretty soon those original Intel machines and the very first Core 2 Duo machines are going to be just as outdated as their PowerPC counterparts. You can imagine the shock I feel when going to my local Best Buy and using a new 27" Core i5 iMac and then come back and log on to my old G4....

Ryan

Hi Ryan,

Hey, if the G4 iMac does what you need it to do, rock on. It's one of the most interesting Macs - and one of the few desktop models that I've really liked aesthetically. It's faster than my G4-upgraded Pismos, which remain in daily production service.

Still loving my 2.0 GHz Unibody MacBook and OS X, however, and I noticed a significant increase in performance after upgrading to 4 GB of RAM. I aim to get another year out of it as my number one Mac, after which its successor will probably be a 13" MacBook Pro or Air.

Charles

Vintage and Current Macs

From Alex:

I got to experience Intel Macs too, and unless today's world in tech is downshifted to the day of any given vintage Mac, complete with lowered expectations in every area, then the vintage machines just can't hold their own. With that said, would I love to set the clock back to 1999 or 2000? You bet I would. But pre-Intel Macs save the aluminum PowerBook G4 and your Pismo. Me, I am clumsy, so I went for the seemingly indestructible (until some internal something messes up) iBook G3 Revision B Tokyo SE 366 MHz graphite clamshell and love it - have it running OS 9 for envelope printing to a 1997-vintage HP LaserJet 4000N, well outfitted, called and AppleTalk named "Lucky VII" in fact - are just being forced obsolete, and unless you bring their heydays back, they just can't be justified unless semiretired.

Writing this on a Early 2008 MacBook White MB403LL/A 2.4 GHz pre-unibody (with [gasp!] Intel GMA X3100 graphics) that has seen thorough use but so far still works, and I have a Spring 2010 MacBook Pro aluminum unibody 2.4 GHz 13.3" to go with my iMac Early 2008 aluminum and glass pre-unibody 24" 2.8 GHz that dual-boots Snow Leopard and Windows 7 Ultimate when necessary-and love it too. I love the built-in optical drive, the more substantial feel versus the Air, and the better-than-standard-fare Nvidia GeForce 320M graphics. I knew Apple could do better than 9400M, and the old White MacBook and iMac (metaphorically speaking) tided me over until they did.

If Apple makes the Pro into an Air with differences like I keep hearing, my advice is to pick up a Spring 2010 13.3" 2.4 GHz MacBook Pro (i.e., go with your head). I find it everything I desire in a portable iMac, and between the afore-rumored Air lookalike redesign and the fact you at least sort of like what you have, but with modifications, my .00002 cents is to go Spring 2010 MacBook Pro 13.3" 2.4 GHz.

I love the way they do things at Low End Mac, but as a college student living on financial aid, I don't have money to contribute. (I apologize sincerely for that, but look forward to Dan Knight getting an Intel Mac.)

Most kind regards,
Alex

Hi Alex,

You're certainly well equipped with Mac hardware! Makes me a bit envious. ;-)

I'm inclined to agree that the Spring 2010 revision of the 13" MacBook Pro is going to be one of the all-time high water marks in Apple laptops. As you say, it's almost identical in form factor to my Late 2008 Unibody MacBook, which I'm extremely fond of, only even better, with the faster processor, the Nvidia 320M IGPU, FireWire, the SD Card slot, and larger standard HDDs.

I hope that the 13" MacBook Pro will continue to be a compact but full-featured professional laptop and few-compromises work tool, and I'm not going to commit myself yet even provisionally until I know what will be available when I'm ready to upgrade, but ultimately my inclination is to go with my head. The ideal is when your head and your heart can zero in on the same object.

Thanks for reading.

Charles

Publisher's note: It looks like I'll have that 20" white Intel iMac by early May at the latest. Turns out my son has just the model I'm looking for and wants to upgrade. Very much looking forward to it - and to having two 1680 x 1050 displays side-by-side (the 22" Apple Cinema Display on my G4 Power Mac and the 20" iMac). dk

Pragmatism Means Intel Core 2 Duo as a Realistic Starting Point

From Kent:

The premise of your article really hits home when I am asked to help friends and relatives get into the Apple world on the cheap. I really can't bring myself to go back further than an Intel Core 2, usually in the form of a MacBook. Generally these can be picked up for relatively good prices and should serve them well for at least a couple of years.

I don't even give away my older technology to friends and relatives, because it's not worth the headache. I know I will be called on to answer the questions of why it won't do or run the latest browser, etc. I just find you trip up on too many gotchas with the older computers in today's world - even for users who do the most simple of browsing, and e-mail.

Keep up the good writing, sir.

Kent

Hello Kent,

Thank you for the compliment.

I tend to keep my Macs beyond the cutoff most people would find short of their arbitrary threshold of acceptable performance and compatibility with current Web standards and software support. I still have almost every Mac I've ever owned, and they all still work, except for the dead G3 iBook.

For first line duty, I agree that Core 2 Duo is the minimum spec I would want to use in production work, and that MacBooks are the usual best choice for budget conscious used hardware purchasers.

Charles

My Favorite Macs

From Lloyd:

Hello, Charles:

PowerBook 1400As usual, your latest was a thought-provoking piece of writing. The question of what constitutes a favorite Mac really has to be split, in my opinion, between what one does online and offline. My PowerBook 1400, maxed out at 64 MB RAM and sporting a Sonnet G3 333 MHz processor, is as fast at handling basic tasks as my MacBook is, although the latter is only nine months old. If it were a matter of just writing something, WordPerfect 3.5a or Word 5.1 can handle it as well as NeoOffice or Microsoft Office 2008. Email on the 1400 is fast, too, so there's no advantage there. The 1400 also wins on its peerless keyboard and for ease of maintenance. OS 9 is still fast, stable, and transparent to use and customize.

That said, if I had to choose, the MacBook wins, no question. It's modern, has more life left in it, has a working battery, can handle any task I throw at it, is upgradable, plays nice with other hardware from the USB era, can dual-boot Windows, run Ubuntu Linux as a virtual machine, sync with my iPod touch, and, most importantly, go on-line, anywhere I want to go with ease. The screen resolution also leaves the 1400's passive matrix display in the dust. It even works with some of my legacy hardware, such as my Newton, thanks to a Keyspan serial-USB adapter.

Online computing tasks seal the 1400's fate as a daily driver. (Mine was just that until 2008.) With Classilla, one can go online, but not every page loads correctly, and encryption is not realistic. It can be done, and Microsoft Office 2001 will read anything not in .docx format, but the percentage of things I get in .docx is only going up.

Mac IIciThe same applies to the Mac IIci my wife still uses regularly for word processing. System 7.6 is rock-solid and fast, and the IIci has had one crash in 11,000+ hours of use. It's a fine machine for what she uses it for, but it hasn't been online since early 2009 (and text-only then via WannaBe). The ImageWriter II it's connected to is bulletproof, prints very cheaply (ribbons last a year and cost a fraction of what ink cartridges do), but the output, on computer paper, is really only good for use as a template for copying and other basic tasks.

In sum, if it's the ease and pleasure of use that determine a favorite Mac, the vintage ones hold up well. If it comes to range of abilities, connectivity, and raw computing power, then it's no contest: Our Mac stuff is getting better all the time.

Regards,
-Lloyd

Hi Lloyd,

Your observations regarding your hot-rodded PowerBook 1400 mirror to a great extent my ongoing experience with my hot-rodded Pismos, with a notable distinction being that the Pismo can run OS X up to version 10.4 Tiger, which radically diminishes the Web compatibility problems, although the writing is on the wall in that department as well.

Fascinating to hear that your wife is still getting useful service of a Mac IIci, but as you say, it's not a tool for the Web. I have an ImageWriter as well, although it hasn't actually been used to print anything for years. I still can't bear the thought of throwing it out.

I still use Mac OS 9.2.2 for regular production duty running under Mac OS X Classic Mode on the Pismos. I find it amazingly stable, and the old Pismo is immensely lively when booted directly into OS 9 - it's like turbocharger boost compared with the relatively lackadaisical performance running OS X 10.4.11. However, it's been years since I booted directly into OS 9 to actually do any work.

I agree about the stability of Mac OS Classic when it's properly set up and well version-matched to the hardware you're using. I one time got more than three months of daily production use out of my WallStreet without rebooting, and the old OS has proved very stable a and reliable in Classic Mode as well.

However, Mac hardware is indeed getting better all the time.

Charles

Hello, Charles:

Your observations mirror mine. I sold my Pismo (G4 upgraded, 1 GB of RAM) because one of my jobs required a more modern browser, and, as you note, Tiger's days are numbered in that arena. I really didn't want to part with it, but the proceeds went toward the MacBook I have now, and that came courtesy of an Apple educational promotion, with an iPod touch. (While I prefer my Newton 2000 for the amount of screen real estate it has, handwriting via a stylus, a greyscale screen that is easy on the eyes and readable in direct sunlight, as well as being powered on AA batteries, one of the courses I teach comes with a text that includes sections on 'apps for work' and the like, so I'm being led steadily away from what works for me to what interacts with others in this arena as well.)

Mac products are getting better, and they are progressively more elegant, which, as a principle of design, I admire, whether it be in cars, computers, or anything else. They are also, however, becoming more 'magical' in the sense of loss of user control. Maintenance on the new stuff is almost beyond the average user, whereas our ImageWriter II's manual, written in plain English and basically jargon-free, takes an owner down into the weeds - settings for dip switches, etc. - that are beyond the user experience one has today. By way of comparison, the Mac IIci is easy to get inside of, but the Mac mini, with a similar form factor, requires a special tool if one wants to pry the top off and, say, upgrade the RAM.

The gifts of advanced technology and beautiful design come with a price: Progressive loss of control. The App Store is another step in this direction. Perhaps the tradeoff is inevitable; nonetheless, I miss the simplicity and ease of OS 9 and the older hardware as much as I appreciate the power and quality of the new Macs, iPods, etc.

Regards,
-Lloyd

Hi Lloyd,

Excellent point about design elegance being somewhat antagonistic to hands-on control. That's actually quite closely analogized by what's happened to cars over the past 25 years.

For example, electronic fuel injection is a far better and more elegant solution to metering fuel and throttle application than carburetors were even at their best, let alone after emissions control leaned them out. However, while I can field strip a carburetor and rebuild it, I haven't the faintest clue how to troubleshoot and repair a fuel injection malfunction. Loss of control.

The upshot is that in the old days, I could hit the road with a toolbox and some key spare parts aboard feeling confident that I could address any problem that cropped up - and was pretty well always able to. I've stripped and repaired a SU electric fuel pump at the side of and isolated stretch of the Trans-Canada Highway late at night by flashlight. These days I just hope nothing breaks, and happily it almost never does.

More or less the same with OS X. It's inscrutable to fix for most of us, but it rarely needs fixing.

Charles

Alltime Favorite Macs

From Tom:

Charles,

Glad to see that you are back to Macintosh again in your ramblings. Actually, I have favorite cars, too. The most beautiful one I have ever owned is what I have now, a 2002 Ford Focus station wagon with which I can take my mother-in-law out to dinner, or haul five bails of straw for my garden. And, it's paid for . . . beautiful, isn't it?

I feel much the same way about Macs. The first one I actually owned was a humble Color Classic that I purchased from my son when he went into the Peace Corps. As a Special Education teacher, I used ClarisWorks to make classroom materials, keep student records, and create templates of my IEPs, turning them into computer documents long before it was the fashionable thing to do. Eventually, I slipped a motherboard from an LC 550 into it making it a more capable Color Classic II. You might have seen some of those in Canada, where Apple actually sold it. Since then, I have owned a PowerBook 1400, a Pismo, and a G4 Titanium.

My Mac philosophy is use what you have, upgrade, improvise, buy parts cheap on eBay, recycle, break down and buy a new machine only if you absolutely have to. I do video and graphic design now with a 2008 Mac Pro. 10 GB of RAM, disk space, multiprocessor speed . . . I'd be a fool not to use the tool that actually did the job. My heart is still with the old Macs, though.

Cheers,
Tom

Hi Tom,

One of my neighbors who has been our rural mail driver for nearly three decades (since standing in for her late mother, who had the job for about 40 years), got excellent service from two successive Ford Focus wagons.

I always thought the Mac Classic was kind of cool. They were outrageously expensive here in Canada, but I did consider buying one to replace my Mac Plus. In the end I bought an LC 520 instead, which probably wasn't that much different in performance (25 MHz 68030) from your upgraded Color Classic.

We seem to have fairly similar taste in computers. I've had a PowerBook 1400, three Pismos, and a PowerBook G4.

Your Mac philosophy is very sensible. I advocate using older machinery until it becomes compromised for what you want to do with it. My Pismos are still completely adequate for a lot of the things I do with computers. Even Web surfing is pretty good, although up to date Mac OS X 10.4 compatible browsers are getting thinner on the ground.

That Mac Pro must be a treat to use, even though I'm not much of a desktop computer fan.

Charles

All Time Favorite Mac: My Unibody MacBook

From Alan Zisman:

Charles:

I've also got a 13" aluminum MacBook, which I bought Boxing Day 2008. I've tended to upgrade my notebooks every two years but see no need to upgrade right now - which is frustrating to my daughter, who's using my hand-me-down 12" PowerBook and was hoping to get her hands on the MacBook about now. (In fact, the only reason I might replace the MacBook would be to pass it on to her.)

I replaced the hard drive with a 500 GB model and appreciate the storage - even with 180 GB free. I like the 11" Air - and currently have one on loan from Apple for review - but the limited storage would stand in the way of my wanting to actually purchase one as a MacBook replacement.

Alan
http://www.zisman.ca

Hi Alan,

My main axe is also a late 2008 revision 2.0 GHz Unibody MacBook, and it's so far one of the best Macs I've ever owned. It's still got the OEM 160 GB hard drive with some breathing room yet and will probably last out its targeted three year tenure with the 160 GB unit, which is still delightfully quiet-running.

It's good that my wife loves the 17" PowerBook that was the MacBook's predecessor, because the MacBook is likely going to become my "road" laptop when I upgrade.

Storage capacity is my main caveat regarding a MacBook Air becoming that replacement. The optional 256 MB SSD available with the 13" model would probably be ample, but it's stratospherically expensive compared with a 13" MacBook Pro.

Charles

Professionals Often Have Good Reasons to Stick with Vintage Macs

From Scott:

Charles,

A lot of people using 10+ year old Macs are professionals who don't want to repurchase thousands of dollars worth of expensive software that still works great. I know studios that are still running OS 9 for this reason. I'm in this situation myself. I'll never purchase an Intel Mac, because I'd have to buy all my software again. On top of that, I'd probably have to buy all my software over again when Apple dumps Intel in favor of Apple's own chips. I'll just hold out until the Apple chips arrive. Maybe then I'll upgrade, but only if I have an actual reason to do so.

In contrast to the professional Mac user is the average Mac user, who buys a new Mac every few years to have a smooth Internet surfing experience on today's multimedia rich websites. The average Mac user doesn't have any expensive software to replace. Most of the average Mac users I know never buy any software at all. A computer is a toy to them. They basically just use it to talk to their friends. These are the people Apple is currently pursuing with the iPod, iPhone, iPad. This is why the Mac desktop tower computers don't get much attention anymore. You can still walk into an excellent studio and see a Power Mac running OS 9 with expensive but obsolete software though.

Scott

Hi Scott,

Excellent point about professionals and the issue of having to repurchase key and expensive software applications.

I still use OS 9 every day in OS X Classic mode on my Pismos, not for reasons of software replacement expense, but because I like the OS 9 versions of certain software I still use regularly, and one or two for which no OS X native versions were ever released.

However, OS 9 is now horribly compromised in terms of Internet applications. I know there's Classilla, but I simply couldn't be happy not being able to use the latest browsers, which are so great. Even OS X 10.4's days are numbered as regards availability of up-to-date Web browsers.

As for Apple switching to its own processor silicon in the Mac, I can't imagine that they would abandon x86, which is one the biggest factors behind the Mac's roughly 4x market share advance over the past five years. Dropping x86 compatibility would be suicidal.

Charles

Sentiment for Older Macs

From Anonymous By Request:

What do I consider a reasonable service life for my Macs?

A secondhand iMac Core 2 Duo 2.16 GHz, 24" is servicing as our stereo and television in the living room. It is not a speed demon, mainly because of the original, slow hard drive. I want it to last at least a year, and I don't plan to upgrade the drive. The FireWire 800 port is not functioning without glitches. Our media library is backed up on a FireWire 400 drive. The computer is useable for editing home videos with iMovie HD.

The iMac G5 (iSight) 20" we had as a stereo and television 2006 - 2008 was handed to our daughter for her university studies. It developed occasional kernel panics, then the hard drive crashed in 2010.

My personal computer is a iMac G4 20", which was bought in the end of 2004. It was a display unit at a Mac reseller. The audio connectors have failed. Logitech USB speakers do fine. Internet is reached via WLAN (IEEE 802.11g). iMac G4 got a new hard drive and more RAM in 2009. It was easier to open than the iMac G5! Still not a piece of cake.

Mac OS X 10.4 was reinstalled on it this year, because of occasional kernel panics. I believe for the last time. Before kernel panics, I had for years used USB to ADB adapter eMate and Apple Extended Keyboard II. There were problems with some keys, and I retired the keyboard at the same.

Reading, writing, editing some audio files are fine, Web 2.0 style sites are too slow, and some Flash content is too much for my computer. I use Safari and Camino equally. NeoOffice is too slow. I prepare presentations and references as text and continue with Microsoft PowerPoint at work.

Some day I'll give a MORE 3 presentation at work, having prepared a USB flash memory with System 6 and vMac for Windows!

I have a Power Mac 6100/60 connected to my iMac via ethernet. It needs a new PRAM battery every five years, and hard drive has been upgraded at some point. It services as a print server for LocalTalk printer HP LaserJet 5MP. File sharing between Mac OS 9.1 and OS X 10.4 is easy. Occasionally I do MIDI editing and scanning with a SCSI scanner, and children play games on it. The MIDI keyboard is from 1995, too. The futuristic looking Apple AudioVision 14 display looks so 90's.

My wife has the only computer bought new in our house, a MacBook Air 1.83 GHz SSD. She is dependent on her work email.

The list must be too long for you. Low End Mac readers have sentiment for this old equipment. The paradigm of personal computing extends to Net apps, and these old computers won't cut it, despite lasting long. The iMac G4 has its place in design museum, but when nonfunctional, my desk cannot bear it. Thank you for your article!

Anonymous By Request
A long time LEM reader

Hi Anonymous,

Not too long at all. I'm always interested in hearing about others' experiences using their Macs - old or new. Thanks for sharing yours.

Incidentally, OS X kernel panics are very often associated with USB peripherals, at least with some Mac models. My old G3 iBook was somewhat prone to them when connected to my office setup connected to a constellation of USB peripherals.

I've not had the kernel panic issue with either the 17" PowerBook G4 or the Core 2 Duo MacBook that succeeded the iBook as my main production Mac. The MacBook in desktop substitute mode is routinely connected to three 4-port USB hubs, and usually the ports are pretty well fully occupied, so whatever the kernel panic issue was with the old G3 machine, it seems to have been addressed in either the later hardware or the software.

The iMac G4 is one of my all-time favorite desktop Macs - and a high water mark in terms of industrial design. The subsequent G5 and Intel iMacs are nice, but comparatively unexciting from a form factor design perspective.

Charles

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Charles Moore has been a freelance journalist since 1987 and began writing for Mac websites in May 1998. His The Road Warrior column was a regular feature on MacOpinion, he is news editor at Applelinks.com and a columnist at MacPrices.net. If you find his articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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