Mac Musings

A Week with an eMac Finds It an Exellent Value

Dan Knight - 2003.07.09 - Tip Jar

Needing a machine I could use to run the site so my 400 MHz PowerBook G4 could go in for service, I finally settled on an eMac as the best machine for my needs. It's faster, has a larger screen, and there had been some incredible deals on refurbished units.

It took a bit longer to decide which eMac to buy. I wanted the Combo drive so I could burn CDs and watch DVDs, but the discontinued 700 MHz Combo drive eMac was not generally available at the time. The 1 GHz Combo drive eMac at $999 was a bit rich, so I was hoping to wait for some refurbs to hit the market.

That hasn't happened yet, but one day in June I noticed that the Apple Store had refurb 700 MHz Combo drive eMacs for $749, and that price included shipping. Compared with my TiBook I'd get a 75% faster G4 processor, better video, Quartz Extreme support, and a larger screen. I ordered it immediately. Bang for the buck, it was an excellent deal.

Part of my reasoning behind choosing a refurbished eMac is that this means that Apple went over it with a fine toothed comb after it was returned to them. Refurbs have the same warranty as new Macs, but they cost less. Besides, there were some problems with video in the 2002 eMac; since Apple checked this one out personally, I don't expect any problems.

Memory

The eMac arrived with 128 MB of memory. When I booted it, the computer didn't seem much faster than my 400 MHz PowerBook G4, which has 512 MB of memory. But I'd ordered a 512 MB module from Coast to Coast Memory, and installing that made the eMac a real speed demon.

After a couple hours of use, it also turned it into one very unstable computer. And each time I rebooted, it would run for a shorter period of time before crashing. Suspecting bad RAM, I pulled the module, and everything was good to go - just slow.

Back to the TiBook until Coast to Coast replaced the RAM. I shipped the module back insured and with proof of delivery on June 19. After receiving the module, Coast to Coast had to verify that it was bad before sending a replacement, which finally arrived here on June 30. That afternoon I installed and tested the RAM.

Drives

And then I began my switch from Quicksilver (my TiBook) to eMaculate (my eMac). As before, I connected the TiBook to the eMac in FireWire disk mode and ran the eMac from the PowerBook's hard drive. I also had my 10 GB portable FireWire drive attached, since that's where I keep my working files for Low End Mac and other websites.

Part of my strategy to work efficiently was to ignore the slower 40 GB hard drive inside the eMac and use a fast external FireWire drive. I had an 80 GB 7200 rpm Western Digital drive with an 8 MB buffer that I'd been using in a FireWire enclosure for backup; this would be my new working drive, and a similar drive with a 2 MB buffer would replace it as my backup drive. (Next I'll add a second drive to the enclosure, use RAID to "stripe" them - make the OS see them as a single drive - and have 150 GB for network backup.)

Step one was to move the backup archive from the faster drive to the slightly slower one. It takes a long time to copy 35 GB, even with FireWire. Then I had to come up with a partitioning strategy for the monstrously huge 80 gigger. (Until now, my biggest drive had been 20 GB.)

The drive formats to 75 GB, and in the end I decided to create a 40 GB main partition for the OS (9 and X), applications, and most of my files. Then came a 10 GB partition for my Web files. After that came 25 GB that could be shared on the network, allowing me to retire a SuperMac C600 that had been our family file server.

Each of these partitions is at least three times bigger than it needs to be, so I've got plenty of room to grow.

Once the drive was partitioned, the next project was using Carbon Copy Cloner to move everything from my PowerBook's drive to the first partition on the external FireWire drive. That took a while. Copying files from the 10 GB compact FireWire drive went pretty quickly, but it took a couple hours to move all the files from the server, since that's on the 10Base-T part of our network. (Only the computers in one room have 100Base-T, so they're the only ones on our small 10/100 switch.)

Then it was time to shut down the SuperMacs, both the J700 backup server and C600 file server. Two less computers running 24/7 should help a bit with the electric bill.

Sharing

I've worked with personal file sharing on Macs since the early days of System 7, and with AppleShare on servers since about 1995, but sharing on OS X was new to me. I'd heard that it had virtually no impact on the user. Because this is my main machine, that's a very good thing. I really haven't noticed any slowdown.

To learn about sharing, I pulled out my big reference, Mastering Mac OS X, Second Edition, by Todd Stauffer (US$27.99 from Amazon.com). The first step was creating users for anyone who might be sharing the eMac or the files on the shared partition. That was pretty easy.

Then it was time to set up sharing privileges for the folders on the drives. Within the family, we all have access to each other's folders, but files used by my wife's business need to remain confidential, so the Family Matchmakers folder is locked from unauthorized access. Likewise, the personal folders are off limits to Family Matchmakers employees.

Chapter 19 covers file sharing in OS X, and it very clearly lists the benefits and dangers of sharing files, especially on a computer connected to the Internet. Take the warnings to heart and be careful what you share.

Managing sharing was a cup of tea with AppleShare, and only slightly more difficult using Personal File Sharing in the classic Mac OS. After reading Stauffer's information, I went online, where I discovered SharePoints, a very nice donationware program that helps manage groups and set sharing privileges for the various folders you want to share. Highly recommended if you need to control access to shared files on any OS X machine.

Backup

I have Retrospect up and running on the eMac, but I have to update my 10 user client license before I can do backup over the network. That'll cost about $70, and it's something I need to do soon, since my wife's iBook and her agency's iMac haven't been backed up in over a week now.

Using the eMac

I love the huge 17" display, and I'm running it very comfortably at 1280 x 960. That's not quite as crisp as 1152 x 864, but the extra real estate is very nice. Since this is a lot taller than my TiBook's 1152 x 768 display, I now have the dock at the bottom of the screen, where it's nailed to the lower right corner. (That way the Trash is always where it should be.)

The screen is bright, and the colors are much richer than on the laptop. I can see now that the yellow sidebar is a bit garish on some displays - it always looked fine on the PowerBook's screen. I'm making design tweaks as I go along.

The speed is excellent. I used to have a lot of problems with command-C not copying as I zipped from one application to another. I'd select and copy something, only to discover that OS X had never put the data into its copy buffer. It still happens once in a while on the eMac, but maybe only 10% as often as before.

There are still times when OS X can be sluggish on a 700 MHz G4. Things do feel a bit slower (but not too bad) when Retrospect is backing up files in the background. The auction manager in Internet Explorer grabs way too much power when it checks auctions every 15 minutes. I find myself quitting IE to eliminate that annoyance. (Maybe I should learn to use Sherlock to track my auctions....)

iTunes, on the other hand, takes a lot of horsepower. I often have two or three browsers open, two or three email clients, and maybe half a dozen other programs. OS X handles that with alacrity - until I start listening to my MP3s and AACs in iTunes. It takes several seconds to switch back and forth between iTunes and anything else. Then again, I don't use iTunes very often, since my wife and I share an office - and I don't have headphones.

I'm very grateful for my monitor stand, which allows me to set the iMac about 4-5" above the desk. That makes for nearly perfect ergonomics, although I wish I could move the computer back another 6" or so. (Maybe time to rearrange the office....)

The eMac isn't as quiet as my TiBook. The constant hum of the fan isn't as bad as some Macs I've worked with, but it's too bad this doesn't have convection cooling like the slot-loading iMacs did. With the FireWire drives on the floor beneath my desk, it's still a fairly quiet setup.

The eMac has plenty of ports for now. I don't anticipate outgrowing it for a long time.

Future Plans

640 MB of RAM is plenty, but some day it would be nice to bump it to 1 GB. It would also be nice to get the tilt-swivel stand, which would allow better control of reflections off the glass display. And I really should get headphones so I can listen to my music without irritating my wife.

Beyond that, I can't think of anything else I'd need. The only real room for improvement would be USB 2.0, since there are some very nice peripherals (Minolta's Dimage Scan Dual III, for instance) that don't support FireWire. I'm sure the 2004 eMac will get USB 2.0, and then it will be nearly perfect for anyone who doesn't need portability, a huge display, or maximum processing power.

Now that everything is up and working, it's time to pull the AirPort card and the upgrade hard drive from the TiBook, put the original 10 GB drive back in, send the machine back to Apple for a backlight problem, put the AirPort card in my wife's iBook, and send the 20 GB drive out for warranty replacement (it has bad sectors on my second partition).

Once the TiBook is back, I look forward to testing Crystal View from New Color Ltd. and writing up a review of their screen protector for the 15" PowerBook. Crystal View is best described as a screen clarifier for laptops. It adheres to the surface of the screen and and provides a crisper, more contrasty image. I don't want to install it until I get my 'Book back from Apple, just in case they need to replace the screen.

Once that's back, I may consider selling the TiBook, which has AppleCare coverage through January 30, 2004. Or I may keep it. I'm really up in the air. I'd like a 'Book with a Combo drive before my next trip, but there's no rush. The TiBook is paid for, decently fast, and has served me well for 2-1/2 years.

And I'll probably turn on USB Printer Sharing for the Epson Stylus Photo 870 connected to the eMac. None of us use the printer much, but sometimes the kids need it for a school project. Being able to print remotely would be so much easier than having to use my computer to load and print the project.

Although I still think it was a mistake for Apple to kill off the more compact, lighter CRT iMac in favor of the flat panel iMac and eMac, I find the eMac to be a wonderful computer. It has plenty of power, a gorgeous display, is easy to upgrade, has decent speakers, and sells for a very reasonable price.

It is big, heavy, and starkly white, but that's not a big deal once you have it set up. There's no reason to open the case, since RAM and AirPort can be added through an access panel on the bottom, and FireWire and USB provide lots of ways to expand your system using external devices.

In the final analysis, the lowest cost Mac is an excellent value for those who don't need a portable, a huge display, or the sheer horsepower of the Power Mac.

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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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