Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Mac musings


While we were at Mac HQ the other day, picking up an AC adaptor for Liam's treasured thrift-store PowerBook 165c (thanks to a close family friend, there's loads of software coming his way for that), I noticed what looked like some very good deals on older, "as is" Power Mac G4s.

One of them ($99) was running MacOS 9.x on, I think, a 400MHz processor with 192Mb of RAM. Another ($129) was running OS X on (again, I think) a 500+ MHz processor with 794 Mb of RAM. I almost grabbed that one right then, but it sounded awfully noisy and I was worried the fan was about to blow on it (Wikipedia says that fan noise was a frequent complaint on the G4, though).

Here's the thing, and I'm hoping some of the Mac aficionados who read KN@PPSTER will help me figure it out: I'm starting to think about going back to Mac, but I need to understand what I can expect to get for my (limited) money.

Back when I was a 680x0 and early PowerPC Mac person (original Mac, then an SE, then an SE/30, then a IIci, then a Performa), my personal, informal benchmarking tests gave me a simple rule of thumb: Whatever processor speed the Mac had, multiply it by three for a rough equivalent of how it matched a PC for speed. For example, my old 25MHz 68030 Mac IIci ran about as fast as my 75MHz Pentium Windows 95 Packard Bell unit. When Tamara and I moved in together, she had a 75MHz Mac Performa 6200; it seemed to run competitively with a generic 233 MHz Windows 98 box. My "benchmarks" were things like "how long is it from the time I click the browser icon to the time the window is open, the home page is loading and I can start typing in a URL?"

Question #1: Does that rule of thumb remain true for later models? If I put a 500MHz G4 on my desktop, can I expect it to run about as fast as a 1.5GHz Windows box?

Next, peripherals. I spend a lot of time at my computer, and contrary to all common sense and good advice, I often eat, drink and smoke while sitting there. This means that I go through a lot of keyboards and mice. Some of them I just plain wear out. Others I spill my drink on. Etc., etc. The optical mouse I'm using right now has lasted for more than a year, but I've probably gone through three or four keyboards in that time.

One of the nice things about the "standard PC platform" is that I can walk into just about any department store and walk out with a decent keyboard or mouse for ~$10 or less. When I'm at a thrift store, I often pick up a stack of keyboards for a buck or two apiece, stick them in the closet, and find out if they work the next time I need a new keyboard.

Question #2: Can the G4 PowerMacs work with "standard PC platform" keyboards and mice (I know that the ones I've seen will accept a standard VGA monitor instead of requiring the Mac brand)? Or do I have to buy proprietary Mac stuff? If the latter, how pricy is it?

I've been looking around lackadaisically for awhile, and I'm finally getting ready to jump. My exquisite, but becoming somewhat obsolete (256Mb of RAM) Shuttle PC, a fantastic machine in the couple of years I've had it (handed down to me by The Hogarth), is starting to act weird. I'm getting strange crashes and haven't figured out if I've somehow accidentally pranged the Puppy Linux install, or if the hardware is starting to go.

I think I can find a "standard PC" with a 1.5MHz+ processor and 1-2Gb of RAM for $100-$200 -- format the hard drive, install a nice Linux distro, and I'm good to go.

On the other hand, If I can find a Mac in a similar or better price range that I can expect to perform just as well, and if the peripherals aren't going to nickel-and-dime me to death, I might go that way instead. I'd definitely want OS X (actually, I'd like dual boot, OS X and OS 9, but I don't know if that's doable and it's not a dealbreaker).

I'm not too worried about applications. If I have a good web browser and a decent text editor, everything else is gravy.

Advise in comments, please!

Update -- bonus question: I'm not that much of a game player, but I do like me some Starcraft now and again. It's been ages since I've played (seemed to run slow on my Linux box using Wine). Will it run in OS X?

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