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Is At Hand: Time to Upgrade

© 1997 Lawrence I. Charters

Washington Apple Pi Journal, September/October 1997, pp. 37-38, reprint information

Several developments have come together over the past few months that lead to one inescapable, giddying conclusion: the world of the Power Macintosh is about to explode. Speed, capacity and capability have taken gigantic strides, and the near future promises more of the same. A revolution is at hand; what does it mean?

Recently, after ten faithful years, I removed the Macintosh II from my desk at home. Purchased in 1977, the Macintosh II introduced color to the world of the Macintosh, completely overwhelmed the print publishing industry, drastically altered the world of video editing, and stormed the citadel of scientific workstations. But after ten years of upgrades, and after eagerly accepting virtually every new technology Apple had to offer and every new version of the Macintosh operating system, the Macintosh II ran into a wall: Mac OS 8.

It was time to upgrade. Some might argue: long past time. After all, the long-gone Centris and Quadra Macs were several times faster than a Mac II, even a Mac II upgraded with a IIfx logic board. And the Mac II can't hold a candle to the RISC-based PowerPC-fueled Power Macs. Yet despite the allure of these latter-day speed demons, the Mac II plugged along faithfully, running the latest Macintosh operating systems, playing the latest QuickTime movies, printing with the latest print drivers, operating the latest word processors, databases and spreadsheets. A bit slowly.

The world has changed, and if you have anything older than a Centris or a Quadra, you should consider changing, too. Consider:

Top Of The Line

July 1987

July 1997


Macintosh II

Power Macintosh 9600/233


16 MHz

233 MHz

RAM, std.

1 megabyte

32 megabytes

RAM, max

8 megabytes

1,536 megabytes

disk, std.

40 megabyte 5.25"

4,000 megabyte 3.5"


stereo 8-bit

stereo 16-bit


640 x 480, 8 colors

up to 1152x870, millions of colors




Don't Blink

As this is written (July 1997), the slowest desktop machine Apple offers is the Power Macintosh 7300/180, fueled by a 180 MHz PowerPC 604e processor. This machine, Apple's "entry level" corporate offering, is so fast it is scary: it can even pretend it is a Pentium PC, thanks to Connectix's Virtual PC software, at speeds approaching real Pentiums. When it is doing more useful, Mac-like things, it is only a gazillion or so times faster than a 10 year old Mac II. And the 7300/180 is, remember, Apple's slowest desktop machine.

Power Computing and Motorola, meanwhile, are hardly standing still. Power Computing offers one model, the PowerTower Pro, with 128 megabytes of RAM, standard. Motorola has one model that zips along at 300 MHz, and includes a 100BaseT Ethernet port as standard equipment. DayStar Digital and Umax, not content to just speed up the CPU, have taken the next step: multiple PowerPC processors.

According to rumor, Apple will introduce some new Power Macintosh machines at MacWorld Boston that may run at 350 MHz. Motorola and Power Computing are both rumored to be preparing speedy CHRP (Common Hardware Reference Platform) machines for sale this fall. By the time this is printed, these rumors will be either confirmed or discredited, but in any case the conclusion is the same: Power Macintosh machines, and clones, do not lack for power.

More! More!

The computers are not the only things that have changed. Hard drives are far more reliable, much, much larger (it is virtually impossible to purchase a drive smaller than two billion bytes), and cheaper: a three gigabyte internal hard disk in 1997 costs less than half as much as a 40 megabyte hard drive in 1987.

Memory is far cheaper, too. Due to trade barriers and tariffs, RAM reached a thousand dollars a megabyte in 1987. In 1997, you can't buy megabyte SIMMs or DIMMs; people use them as jewelry or Christmas tree ornaments. If you insisted on spending a thousand dollars in 1997, you'd get 250 to 300 times as much memory as a decade ago.

Monitors have changed, too, if not as drastically. In 1987, the brightest, crispest monitor offered by any manufacturer was Apple's Trinitron-based "AppleColor High-Resolution RGB Monitor" (what a name), a thirteen-inch monitor displaying 640 by 480 pixels. It cost a thousand dollars. Today, a Trinitron-based fifteen-inch Sony MultiScan 100sf costs less than half as much, and can display up to 1152x870 pixels.

What To Buy

Believe it or not, it really doesn't make much difference what machine you buy (except to Apple, Power Computing, Motorola, Umax, etc.). The important step in upgrading is defining some Minimum Essentials:

Minimum Essentials, 1997

PowerPC-based computer
32 megabytes RAM (minimum)
1 gigabyte hard drive
15-inch monitor
Video RAM (or card) capable of displaying "thousands" of colors at 832 x 624 pixels
Built-in CD-ROM drive
256K Level 2 cache (minimum)
Mac OS 8 operating system

A quick glance at this list should reveal that the Minimum Requirements are easy to meet; you can get a factory-refurbished machine with all these characteristics, including monitor, for less than a thousand dollars, and a brand-new machine for just a bit more. If you want to go for the long term, and try for a computer that will be reasonably current for a decade, like my old Mac II, consider this list:

Long-Haul Essentials, 1997

PowerPC 604e CPU on replaceable daughterboard
Four or more DIMM slots for RAM; 64 megabytes of RAM
1 gigabyte hard drive
17-inch monitor
Video RAM (or card) capable of displaying "millions" of colors at 1024 x 768 pixels
Built-in 4X or greater CD-ROM drive
Upgradeable Level 2 cache slot, with at least 256K Level 2 DIMM
Mac OS 8 operating system

You'll note the "long haul" list is vague on most things except one: expansion potential. You can add an external (and often an internal) hard drive to every current Power Macintosh or clone, so the size of the hard drive isn't really relevant. The amount of RAM, while important, is not as important as the potential for expansion; some machines have only two DIMM slots for memory, and four (or more) slots offers much more flexibility for future growth. Similarly, upgradeable CPU cards and Level 2 cache slots allow you to boost the speed of the machine over time instead of tossing everything and starting over.

Choices, Choices, Choices

A judicious, timely upgrade from your old compact Macintosh or Mac II to a Power Macintosh opens up vast new worlds. If you wish, you can use Insignia's SoftWindows or SoftWindows 95 to dabble in the world of the Dark Side, or, using Connectix's Virtual PC, you can install any Intel-based operating system -- Windows 3.1, Windows 95, Windows NT 4.0, OS/2 -- according to your whim, patience, and capacity for masochism.

If you wish to stick to PowerPC-based options, Mac OS 8 offers unrivaled elegance and style (not to mention a 64 megabyte QuickTime rock video). But if this seems too tame, you can dive right into the world of UNIX with MkLinux, a snappy, powerful, free UNIX clone, offering all the joys, hatreds and terrors of this thirty year old operating system (but with spiffy 1997 refinements).

And, of course, upgrading to a Power Mac now will give you time to get used to how it works and what it has to offer. Then, in 1998, you get to decide if you want to try the ultimate thrill ride: Rhapsody.

You don't have to experience Rhapsody rapture, of course. Your new Power Mac will be quite happy with Mac OS 8, and you'll be happy with the vast amounts of RAM and disk space you now have at hand.

Whither Art Thou, Mac II?

And where is my old Mac II? It is, at this writing, on loan to Washington Apple Pi, hard at work as a UNIX server running Tenon System's MachTen. You talk to it every time you call up the Pi's Explorer service, or send mail through the TCS.


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Revised August 28, 1998 Lawrence I. Charters
Washington Apple Pi
URL: http://www.wap.org/journal/