Q: What upgrades make really good economic sense on an older Mac?
A: I'm going to define "older" to start off with so that I don't bite off far more than I can chew in one article. "Older," at least for the sake of this article, means a Mac made before PCI slots and DIMMs became standard on the Mac platform. This means the 8100 and other first-generation Power Macs are the most recent Macs I'll deal with. There's simply too much you can do with most PCI-based Macs to cover in one article.
No matter what Mac you have, the version of the operating system you're running can make a lot of difference in your user experience. Earlier versions of the Mac OS were known for their instability — some much more so than others. The first thing to do with any of these older Macs is to evaluate your needs and decide what OS to run on them. For some perspective on the OS you should be running, see What's the Best OS for a Mac? and What's the Best OS for a Power Mac?. An OS downgrade may actually be a good performance upgrade, especially when you can add features from a later OS to the earlier one. When you're thinking about what OS you want to run, ignore how much RAM you currently have if you can afford to upgrade, because it will constrain your thinking if you're worried about the RAM. Once you've decided what OS will give you the optimal experience, procure a copy of it and clean-install it.
You're now ready to move on to the next step, upgrading the RAM. A good rule of thumb is to buy as much RAM as you can possibly afford, and at eBay prices now, there's no reason not to have at least 32 MB RAM in any Mac that will support it. To find out how much RAM your Mac can use, download a copy of GURU, or look at the computer profiles on EveryMac. If you can afford to do so, max out your RAM. For most Macs with a maximum RAM capacity of 68 MB or less, this will be very affordable — about $70 if you have to buy four 16 MB 30-pin SIMMs (the worst case I can think of).
If your Mac supports much more than 64 MB RAM (for example, the Power Mac 8100), try to get at least twice the minimum recommended RAM for the OS you're going to run on it. If I were trying to optimize an 8100, for example, I'd put either Mac OS 8.1 or 9.1 on it and try to put at least 128 MB RAM in the machine. If I were trying to optimize an SE/30, I'd put 32 MB of RAM in it and probably put System 7.1 on it with a few add-ons from 7.6.1.
Now for step 3, upgrading the hard drive. If you have a hard drive that's smaller than double what the OS requires for a standard install, you probably ought to upgrade. One-gigabyte hard disks are cheap enough on eBay now (around $25 shipped for a used one, at the worst), and you can get an even larger one for just a little more. If a gig is too much or too expensive, you can get pretty good deals on slightly smaller hard drives on eBay as well. Note that the maximum hard disk size your Mac supports will vary with the operating system you choose to run on it. See How Large a Drive Does My Mac Support? for more details.
That's the basics: OS, RAM, and hard drive. Now for a few little details.
A lot of older Macs, particularly the pre-Quadra Macs, have pretty slow video subsystems. A NuBus video card might be a good idea in some cases, as is a VRAM upgrade in Macs that have upgradeable VRAM. In most cases, however, a VRAM upgrade simply isn't worth the money, and of all the NuBus video cards I've tested, only the RasterOps Horizon 24 was significantly faster than the built-in video of the Quadra series. For the $50-100 you'd pay for one, you can buy a much faster Mac. (I haven't had a chance to benchmark the Horizon 24 in my 8100 yet, but I'm expecting it to be at least on par with the HPV card.) The most compelling reason to upgrade to a NuBus video card is to support more resolutions and/or more colour depths than built-in video will allow, and 24-bit colour is certainly worth it in most cases.
What about an ethernet card? Unless your Mac needs to be on a network (with broadband Internet connectivity becoming much more common, home networks have increased dramatically in popularity) you don't need an ethernet card. If you have a professional-class Quadra or newer, you already have onboard ethernet and will need only an AAUI transceiver ($5-10) to use it.
Fast ethernet? Fuhgedaboutit. Unless you couple it with a SCSI accelerator card (another option that is a waste of money for most people), you won't see much, if any, performance gain. For more on these two options and why they're a waste of money, see Faster SCSI or Ethernet? Prices have come down quite a bit since I wrote that article, but not enough to justify the expenditure yet. When you can get a 100 Base-TX NuBus card for $10 and a Jackhammer plus a couple drives for $30, then it'll be worth it. Maybe.
That leaves one last area. We've covered the OS, RAM, hard disks, video, ethernet, and SCSI accelerators, but what about the "heart" of the computer, the CPU? In some cases, upgrading the CPU is a great way to speed up your older Mac. In others, it's quite uneconomical.
If you have a consumer-level Quadra like the Performa 630-series or LC 475, one of the best upgrades you can do is to drop a full 68040 chip in place of the LC040 chip, which lacks a math coprocessor. A 25 or 33 MHz 040 chip should cost less than $30 and can speed up math-intensive operations (like the display of JPEG graphics on Web pages) by a factor of up to six. Anecdotal reports that people have emailed to me indicate the addition of the FPU will speed up Web page display in general by a noticeable amount.
Similarly, a G3 upgrade card for the first-generation Power Macs is a great way to have a G3-based Mac (many times faster than the original PPC 601) for under $300 ($100 for the Mac and $200 for the upgrade). By contrast, a PowerPC upgrade card for a Quadra or Mac II series is quite possibly the least economical investment you could make — you can buy a loaded 8100 for the price of a top-end PPC upgrade card, and you can buy at least a 6100 (and probably a 7100) for the price of even a low-end PPC card. To upgrade a Mac IIci to PPC status, for example, will require about $80 for the 66 MHz card and another $60 to add the 64 MB of RAM you'll need to use that PowerPC CPU efficiently. For $140, you could buy a really nice 8100 loaded with RAM, plenty of drive space, and future upgradability to a G3 or G4.
Any discussion of CPU upgrades would be incomplete without a quick mention of clock-chipping. For those of you unfamiliar with the procedure, it makes the CPU run faster than its manufacturer rating. For a rundown of how to clock-chip a good example machine, the Quadra 605, check out Chipping the Quadra 605. In many cases, this can be the most economical upgrade of all because it doesn't require anything more than soldering skill and, at worst, $17 for a couple soldering irons. I was able to increase performance on my Q605 by one-third in 10 minutes for only the cost of the soldering irons.
Some people will argue that any money spent upgrading a 68K Mac is money down the drain, and I'm beginning to see this same attitude toward the first-generation Power Macs. However, with a minimal investment (especially compared to the investment required for a new Mac), you can get your current Mac optimized and ready to reliably serve you for years to come.
copyright ©2000-2004 by Chris Lawson