With prices of full-featured Power Macintosh G3s dropping below $2,000 (see the MailBIT in this issue), people have been asking me whether it's time to buy a new Mac. I hadn't thought much about new machines until I was recently hit by hardware troubles, which naturally renewed my interest in the current Macintosh hardware market.
Variety, Needs, and Desires -- When Apple squelched the just-blossoming Macintosh clone market last year, Mac customers worried that the price of a Macintosh would skyrocket while the number of available models declined. In part, these fears have been realized in the last six months: Apple has reduced its Macintosh product line (eliminating Performas and all but a few Power Mac models) and Macintosh clone vendors have largely evaporated, with remaining vendors like UMAX facing an uncertain future.
In the same time frame, however, Apple has introduced powerful new machines at competitive prices (although there's still no entry in the much-touted sub-$1,000 domain), along with the ability to order custom configurations via the Apple Store. Furthermore, recent price drops, third-party products, and forthcoming Macintosh models make it an interesting time for anyone looking for a new machine, or wishing to upgrade an existing unit.
When you get past advertisements and hype, the decision to purchase or wait should still be based on what you need in a computer. I don't fault early adopters, or those who can afford the latest hardware just to use email. But for most of us, it's important to determine our needs before we start giving in to our desires.
One of those needs is time. It's always the wrong time to buy a computer. You can buy a machine today and be guaranteed its value will drop precipitously within months; but if you always wait for a better model, you'll never buy a computer at all. In short, if you need a machine now, buy one based on what you need it to do.
For example, if you know you're going to be engaged in high-end, processor-intensive operations such as video editing, image manipulation, or 3D rendering, get as much power as you can afford. At Apple's online store, a current top-of-the-line Power Mac G3 with frills (128 MB SDRAM, 4 GB Ultra/Wide SCSI with PCI card, internal Zip drive, 6 MB video memory, and a 128-bit 2D/3D graphics accelerator card) was $3,819 (monitor and keyboard not included). This may be only an average setup for video editing (I haven't done much of it, but more RAM and another monitor would be good), but the price isn't bad compared to a roughly equivalent video editing rig for Unix or NT. On the other hand, if you know you don't need bells and whistles but still value speed, the low-end G3 configuration is only $1,699 with 32 MB SDRAM, a 4 GB IDE hard drive, 2 MB of video memory, and 10Base-T Ethernet (again, not counting a monitor or keyboard).
These figures reflect Apple's recent price drops, which usually signal that new machines will appear soon. Apple is expected to announce 300 MHz G3 systems at this month's Seybold Seminars conference, so expect to see the 266 MHz chip become the "slowest" G3 processor you can buy new.
PowerBooks Coming Down the Street -- Notably absent from Apple's price reductions was the PowerBook G3, currently trumpeted as the fastest laptop in the world. At $5,699, Apple is no doubt picking up a nice profit from each sale. Although the PowerBook 1400cs/166 (a PowerPC 603e processor) is now $1,749, the performance difference between the two machines is vast.
This summer, however, Apple should ship two new PowerBook models, code-named Wall Street and Main Street. The 233 MHz Main Street model may use a PowerPC 740 chip (which lacks backside cache) instead of a PowerPC 750 (G3) processor, while the high-end Wall Street model will sport a 292 MHz G3 processor. Prices are expected to be between $2,000 and $6,300, depending on the configuration. The new laptops will feature a new form factor, with two side-loading expansion bays at the front of the unit that can hold lithium-ion batteries and floppy, Zip, CD-ROM, and DVD-ROM drives.
Upgrades Come Forward -- In years past, upgrading a Mac's processor meant replacing the entire motherboard, a laborious proposition that was rarely worth the expense (except perhaps in the case of our precious SE/30s). However, when Apple introduced PCI-based Power Macs with removable processor daughtercards, processor upgrades suddenly became a viable reality. I was able to upgrade my Power Mac 7500/100 from a PowerPC 601 at 100 MHz to a PowerPC 604 at 120 MHz early last year. Now, even that jump is a pittance.
Newer Technology offers a variety of processor daughter cards with a PowerPC 604e or G3 processor running anywhere between 200 MHz and 275 MHz. The clever folks at Newer will also be shipping processor upgrades for NuBus Power Macs - the 6100, 7100, and 8100 - with a 210 MHz G3 processor upgrade available for as little as $499. The most expensive option will get you a 275 MHz G3 with 1 MB of backside cache for $2,295.
Also up Newer's sleeves are a pair of G3 upgrades for the PowerBook 1400, which are expected to ship in April. They will appear in 216 MHz and 250 MHz cards that will cost $699 and $999, respectively. This means you can buy a low-end PowerBook 1400 plus an upgrade board, and end up with a G3-series PowerBook for about $2,500 - less than half the price of the current PowerBook G3.
Mactell is also offering a lineup of G3 and 604e processor cards. The G3 PowerJolt is available in configurations up to 300 MHz, with 1 MB of backside cache ($2,895). The entry-level PowerJolt holds a 250 MHz processor with 512K backside cache ($999).
Conclusion -- Even with the decline of the clone market, all these options make me feel confident telling people it's a pretty good time to buy a Macintosh, whether that means a brand new G3 or a used older Power Mac outfitted with an upgrade card. Although I was able to fix my hardware troubles with minimum expense, I'll admit those new PowerBooks have certainly caught my eye. With luck - and a little penny-pinching - I'll have a new machine to review this summer!