My Turn

Upgrading a Power Mac G4 on the Cheap

- 2008.01.04

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 have been talking to several of my friends about low-end Macs and how easy it is get a decent Mac for not a whole lot of money. I have noticed that there are several arguments that most folks use against going to Mac. Number one is cost, and the other ones included lack of gaming and lack of software to run on Macs (that last one is more of a myth, in my opinion).

Since I own three low-end Macs, I though I would share my upgrade experience, which (against my initial expectations) turned out to be just about at a level of a PC upgrade.

When I received my Mirror Drive Door Power Mac G4, it was a dual 867 MDD with 1.25 GB of RAM, stock GeForce 4 32 MB Video card, a PCI wireless G card (Buffalo) which shows up as an AirPort Extreme, and a stock Combo Drive, stock 60 GB hard drive.

I have a miniDV camcorder and burn video files for my folks in Europe with their first grandson starring in most, so I needed a SuperDrive. Most drives I have seen advertised on the Web were going for just a tad under $100. I did some research and ended up buying a Pioneer dual-layer burner that I installed in the bottom tray for $40. After the install, I found latest version of PatchBurn, and my new SuperDrive is available in iTunes and iDVD. I also use Toast with it; never seen an issue yet.

I work as a support technician for an IT consulting firm and try to work at least one day a week from home. Once I switched to Mac, I noticed that having several tabs opened in the browser along with Office software, Remote Desktop connection sessions to couple of servers, all chatting applications for work and personal, X-lite for my VOIP phone, my RAM was getting pretty low, so I picked up two sticks of 512 MB each on eBay for my Mac for $16 apiece, after shipping another $40 (making it total of $80 since I purchased the Mac). I removed original stick of 256, and upon next boot my MDD showed 2 GB of RAM. I have since installed Leopard (Mac OS X 10.5) and have not been able to push the memory usage over 1.2 GB yet with my normal usage.

There were two more pieces that I was missing from the PC I switched from. USB 2.0 was the first piece. I use an external hard drive, and copying larger files was driving me nuts. Once again, I did my research: There are sites specializing in selling Mac PCI USB 2.0 cards for around $40-50. I got mine from a seller on eBay for $10 and $10 shipping (4 days from HK to Ottawa). The card was brand new, NEC chipset, came with Windows drivers, but once installed in my Mac it showed up fine - and the copy times are what I was used to on my PC. That brought me to a total of $80.

As you know, Power Macs do not have a mic built in, so I was using a USB headset with mine. It worked fine until my son ripped it apart. I looked for a replacement and decided to install a Bluetooth dongle and use my Bluetooth headset instead. OWC was selling those for $20, so that brought complete upgrade project to a bit over $100.

I was going to stop there, but there was one last thing that I missed from a PC world - occasional game of first person shooter. Video card upgrades for Mac are not cheap, and I needed something lower priced than Mac stores and eBay. I again went to Google and decided on an ATI Radeon 9800 Pro 128 MB. That card cost close to $240 at Mac stores online, or you can buy a modified PC version on eBay for between $100 and $150.

I decided to do the work myself to save some money. I purchased a PC version of the card on eBay for $50 and $20 shipping. Once it arrived, I flashed the card (please be advised that this voids warranty on the card and may go wrong, turning your card to an very nice Christmas tree ornament), then I desoldered two resistors as per the wiki page on the Mac Elite website, swapped cards, and was able to play some Halo at pretty decent settings. Cover Flow also appears to benefit from new card. It runs nice and smooth now.

I also ended up with a Keyspan Front Row dongle and remote (no cost to me, but I'm told it goes for around $30), so I am able to use Front Row on my Power Mac.

To summarize: for around $170, my Power Mac offers everything that a new Mac would at a fraction of the cost (with the exception of a CPU performance - I have not found this to be a bottleneck in my daily use however).

I guess if someone is looking for adding some file to their old Mac, it can be quite inexpensive as long as you don't mind some Google time and for most part stay away from retail.

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