Build a Mac clone

If you want a new desktop Mac but already have a nice monitor, you’ll have to spend $1,499 or more on a new G4 tower. But you can save a lot of cash by building a Mac instead—it’s not as difficult as it sounds. And since you’ll be deciding what goes in, you can put your money where you think it’ll make the most difference.

Project Difficulty: Medium

You’ll need a starter box to serve as the foundation for your upgrade. Almost any PCI-based Apple machine should fit the bill. But if you don’t have an acceptable machine, I recommend buying an old Macintosh clone on eBay. The Umax J700 or S900 and the Power Computing PowerTower Pro are particularly good candidates for upgrading. You should be able to pick one up for well under $100. For a handy guide to older Macs and Mac clones—including upgrade options—visit the Low End Mac Web site.

Once you have your machine, it’s time to open it up and start upgrading. Here’s what you’ll need to replace:

The CPU To bring your new baby up to present-day speeds, replace its old PowerPC processor with a more powerful G3 or G4 processor-upgrade card. You can find an extensive inventory at Sonnet Technologies. Prices range from $150, for a 500MHz G3 card, to $400, for an 800MHz G4 card. (I recommend the $300 700MHz G4 card as the best value.)

PCI Cards Your machine’s ADB and SCSI ports won’t be much use when it’s time to hook up modern peripherals. To add USB, FireWire, and ATA ports to your machine, you’ll need to install new PCI cards. You can buy inexpensive cards with just the ports you need. However, the simplest and most flexible option is Sonnet Technologies’ all-in-one Tempo Trio ($180), which adds FireWire, USB, and housings for connecting multiple internal ATA drives. This card is no less expensive than buying the cards separately, but it will make building your box considerably easier.

The Hard Drive Many older machines’ SCSI hard drives have capacities between 2GB and 4GB—a mere drop in the bucket of what’s available now. You can upgrade to a larger SCSI drive, but ATA drives are much less expensive: I found a 120GB drive for about $100.

Memory One thing you can never have too much of is memory. OS X is notorious for hogging RAM, so you’ll want to buy as much RAM as you can afford. To find the maximum RAM limits for your system, check its technical specifications on the Low End Mac Web site. Some can handle as much as 1GB of memory. When you buy RAM, find a dealer that stands behind its product. Older machines are picky about the RAM they’ll accept (some want 168-pin 5V DIMMs), and OS X 10.2 is even pickier. Some companies, such as Other World Computing, sell RAM specifically guaranteed to work with upgraded clones. (You can get a 512MB DIMM from Other World Computing for $104.)

The OS If you want to install Jaguar on your refurbished machine, you’ll first need to download a copy of the freeware XPostFacto. This open-source application makes some legacy Macs and clones compatible with the new OS. Of course, you can always skip this step and use your new Mac to run your remaining OS 9-only applications instead.

The Result With all of these changes, our refurbished machine cost us around $734—just under half of what we would have spent on a new Mac. Of course, if you don’t need a 120GB drive or 512MB of RAM, you can save even more money. Or you may choose to spend your cash on a better video card or CD-RW drive. That’s the beauty of building your own clone: the choices are yours.

Editor’s Note: Since this article was first published in our August 2003 issue, Apple has released the Mac mini, with prices starting at $499. Still, a build-your-own Mac project might still appeal to do-it-yourselfers looking to establish their tech-geek bonafides.

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