Remember that old Power Mac 7500 you banished to the attic when you bought your speedy new G4 last year? Granted, it's not the lightning-fast Windows killer it used to be, but that doesn't mean it's ready for the junk pile. If you find the right job for it, you can still get plenty of use out of your old Mac friend, often with only a small investment in hardware, software, or both.
During the Mac's 17-year history, Apple and its erstwhile partners Power Computing, Motorola, and Umax have sold hundreds of models and variations; finding resources for aging computers can be like locating parts for a 1956 Chevy. In our "Old Mac, New Tricks" series, we'll be showing you how to convert older Macs into useful members of your business or household as MP3 jukeboxes, Web servers, and more. (In fact, our guide to using an older Mac to back up the computers on your network is available now at Macworld.com: see "Case Study: Making a Backup Server.") In this, the first installment of our series, we'll discuss what you need to do before you try to make your aging Mac perform new tricks, and we'll tell you where to find the software and hardware you're likely to need. In future "Old Mac, New Tricks" features, we'll propose specific uses for older Macs and show you how to outfit them for their new roles.
Your retired Mac may need to be revived before it can be put to work, and there are several places to which you can turn for help. You can get replacements for missing or damaged accessories from specialty vendors such as Sun Remarketing (800/821-3221, www.sunrem.com ), Shreve Systems (800/227-3971, www.shrevesystems.com ), MacTreasures (408/227-1645, www.mactreasures.com ), and AllMac.com (800/ 933-4962, www.allmac.com ).
If your Mac exhibits any unusual behavior, such as distorted video or frequent crashes, a bit of troubleshooting is in order. Ted Landau's book Sad Macs, Bombs, and Other Disasters (Peachpit Press, 2000) is an excellent resource when you need to find out what's ailing your Mac. A computer that doesn't boot at all may be suffering from something as simple as a dead battery or as serious as a burned-out component on the logic board. Replacing the battery in most Mac models is relatively straightforward-the Macintosh Battery Web Page ( www.academ.com/info/macintosh ) gives specifications and installation instructions for many older models and clones.
If you can't repair the problem yourself, you should probably seek the advice of a certified Apple technician. For a fee, most service cen-ters will provide an estimate of what repairing your Mac will cost. You can find an authorized facility in your local yellow pages or on Apple's Web site ( www.info.apple.com/support/applecare_products/service ).
Decide How to Use It
As you might expect, the most economical way to put an old Mac to work is to use it "as is." If you can't think of a use for your unmodified Mac, you may be able to extend its capabilities by adding software or hardware. But before you add anything to your Mac, make sure that you know its specifications-especially the processor's speed and model and the types of ports and slots-which will determine what upgrades and peripherals the computer can support and what types of new jobs it can do.
To find out what's inside your Mac, consult the Apple Spec database ( www.info.apple.com/applespec/applespec.taf ), an online catalog that lists hardware details and release dates for every Macintosh system ever shipped by Apple. The Low End Mac Web site ( www.lowendmac.com ) provides similar information for many Mac clones. Also be sure to check the first item in the Finder's Apple menu (About This Computer or About This Macintosh, depending on your system software version) to see how much memory is installed in your Mac.
Software upgrades for old Macs are usually painless and relatively inexpensive. Alas, deciding whether to upgrade your hardware isn't usually as straightforward. Although there's no foolproof formula that can tell you whether investing in add-on hardware is worth the cost, some basic math will help you decide if it makes sense to put money into an old computer.
If you're still at a loss about what to do with a retired but functional Mac, consider donating it to a school or a nonprofit organization. Often you can deduct the computer's fair-market value on your tax return. For $10, you can get an estimate of your Mac's worth online at the American Computer Exchange ( www.amcoex.com ). The National Recycling Coalition Web site ( www.nrc-recycle.org ) has information about recycling or donating old computers.
Find the Right Software
Often, you'll have to add or update your old Mac's software to prepare the computer for a new role. If you're missing any applications, you'll need to find compatible replacements-and you'll want to at least consider updating your computer's system software.
Find Compatible Applications 7nbsp;Locating software that runs on older Macs is easier and less expensive than you might expect. Some vendors offer limited versions of current applications that are compatible with old models. For example, Nisus Software's free Nisus Compact (800/ 890-3030, www.nisus.com ) runs under System 6 or later and uses only 512K of memory. Don't forget, you can also find older software versions through online search engines, by browsing on auction sites such as eBay ( www.ebay.com ), or by scavenging at your local Apple store or computer swap meet.
Upgrade Your System Software New Mac OS releases usually incorporate bug fixes and extra features, so you should consider upgrading to a later system software version than the one that originally shipped with your computer. Even the Macintosh 128K supports System 6, so you'll usually be able to choose from System 6 through 9.
Consult the Apple Spec database to see which Mac OS versions your Mac supports. The database doesn't always list the most-recent compatible version, so also check Apple's technical-support site ( www.apple.com/support ) to get the hardware requirements for any system software release you're considering.
Next, find out which system software versions work with the programs you'll be running on your Mac. (You can usually find this information in the application's manual or in a Read Me file on the installer disk.) As a general rule, it's better to choose a recent Mac OS version, but keep in mind that newer software releases usually make more demands on RAM, hard drives, and processors. The fabulous features of a newer OS may not benefit you if your Mac slows to a crawl. If you don't need the features in the most recent system software version compatible with your Mac, upgrade to an earlier version instead.
If your old Mac isn't all that old, you may want to buy Mac OS 9 on CD-ROM; it costs about $100 and is available from Apple, third-party resellers, or your local computer store. Interim updates are generally available for free on Apple's support Web site (ftp://ftp.apple.com/Apple_Support_Area/Apple_Software_Updates), where you'll also find free System 6 and 7 downloads. Apple no longer sells or provides Mac OS 8.
Update Your Applications Macs of relatively recent vintage-released within the past five years or so-may be compatible with the latest versions of application software. As with system software upgrades, however, extra features can take their toll on performance, so jumping to the latest version usually doesn't make sense for older Macs. A prime example of this is Microsoft Word 5.1. It doesn't sport all the whiz-bang features of Word 2001, but it may be the best choice for your system if all you need is a functional word processor. However, be aware that older versions of software may not be able to read files created by newer versions. For instance, if you have Microsoft PowerPoint 4 installed, you won't be able to read PowerPoint 98 files. And keep in mind that PowerPC-only applications won't run on machines with 680X0 processors.
If you have a modem, even an older Mac will get you online. For example, the iCab Web browser needs only 4MB of free memory and runs on any 68020-based Mac with System 7.0.1 or later. You can download the latest public beta from iCab's Web site ( www.iCab.de ) Fetch 3.0.1, a popular FTP client ($25); ZTerm 1.0.1, a simple terminal emulator ($30); and Eudora 4.3, a free e-mail client, work on 680X0-based models from the Mac Plus on up. Find the first two at the Macdownload Web site ( www.zdnet.com/downloads/mac/download.html ) and the third at Eudora's Web site ( www.eudora.com/products/old.html ).
You can stay on top of software updates by consulting VersionTracker ( www.versiontracker.com ), a Web site that keeps tabs on Mac software releases from thousands of companies. If you can't decide whether to get an updated version of a program, pay a visit to the company's Web site to get a detailed description of new features, bug fixes, lists of minimum system requirements, and free demos.
Invest in a New Hardware
Modest hardware upgrades often pay off by allowing you to use software that you couldn't even consider before. For example, for less than $100 you can boost your iMac's memory from 64MB to 128MB, which lets you use memory-hungry applications such as PowerPoint.
The first Macs weren't designed for upgrades-transforming a Mac 128K into a 512K "Fat Mac" required a trip to an Apple dealer and almost $1,000. Happily, newer Macs are far more upgrade-friendly, and installing most hardware enhancements is now well within the capabilities of most users. (For more information, see "The Way It Was," which illustrates important changes to Mac hardware, with an emphasis on features that made upgrades easier to perform.)
Add Memory Adding RAM is usually the most cost-effective way to make an old Mac more capable. And fortunately, RAM prices have been falling. You can check out the asking price of memory chips for PowerPC Macs on the MRP RAMWatch page ( www.macresource.com/mrp/ramwatch.shtml ) or at ramseeker ( www.ramseeker.com ). Online vendor MacResQ (888/ 447-3728, www.macresq.com ) stocks a variety of memory modules for old systems, including 680X0-based Macs, but RAM for some models, such as the Mac IIfx, may be hard to locate.
Get a New Hard Drive Adding a higher-capacity hard drive is another good way to enhance the capabilities of an older Mac. Every Macintosh model from the Mac Plus through the iMac sported a SCSI port that accepted external drives. If you shop around, you can find external 2GB SCSI drives for as little as $100. Many Macs are also compatible with less-expensive internal IDE and SCSI drives, which don't require a separate power supply.
Upgrade the Processor CPU upgrades are a viable option for many models, even those without replaceable processor cards. Though you'll pay $800 or more for the fastest G4 boards, XLR8 (770/ 564-5682, www.xlr8.com ), PowerLogix (877/849-2504, www.powerlogix.com ), and Sonnet Technologies (800/786-6260, www.sonnettech.com ) sell less-expensive upgrades for desktop Macs, clones, and PowerBooks. For about $400, for example, you can swap the 100MHz PowerPC processor in your Power Mac 7500 for a speedy 400MHz G3 and run the latest version of Adobe Photoshop. Before you buy, check the Accelerate Your Mac Web site ( www.xlr8yourmac.com ), which includes a searchable database of user reviews of CPU upgrades, along with hundreds of useful tips and answers to common questions.
If you're planning on running Mac OS X, be aware that Apple hasn't promised to support Macs upgraded with third-party G3 or G4 processor cards, although some vendors have claimed that their upgrades will be compatible with the new OS.
Add Features Add-on boards offer the greatest potential for enhancing the capabilities of old Macs. Depending on the model, options range from adding Ethernet networking to providing USB ports for using input devices that aren't compatible with ADB Macs. To determine what type of cards your computer accepts, find your model in the Apple Spec database and look under the Logic Board section. Most add-on boards come with instructions and are a snap to install. Because they work on both PCs and Macs, PCI cards are usually plentiful and relatively inexpensive. Boards for older, NuBus-based Macs such as the Quadra series are harder to come by, but you may be able to get them from companies that specialize in Mac replacement parts.
Add Peripherals You can often get printers, modems, and other peripherals for older Macs from vendors that specialize in Mac replacement parts. If you don't need a color printer, you can find refurbished Apple LaserWriters, a good choice for pre-USB Macs, for as little as $150. Pre-USB Macs with PCI slots can be expanded with Keyspan's $40 USB Card ( www.keyspan.com ), which adds twin USB ports to let you use the latest inexpensive ink-jet printers. (Before you buy, check the printer vendor's Web site to see which versions of the Mac system software the printer driver requires.)
Change Your PowerBook Power-Book users enjoy fewer upgrade options than owners of desktop Macs, but you can still buy higher-capacity hard drives for many older models. You can also find CPU upgrades for relatively recent PowerBooks such as the 1400 and early G3 models.
The Last Word
An older Mac has plenty to offer, whether you want to use it for surf-ing the Web, writing newsletters, or crunching spreadsheets. If you know where to look for resources, you can coax years of extra life from your old Mac.
[ At last count, Macworld Contributing Editor Franklin N. Tessler had owned ten Macs since 1984. All but three of them are still in use at home or work. ]