New life for old Macs

For its fiscal third-quarter, Apple sold a record number of Macs, the fourth time in five quarters that it had broken its own sales mark. While the company doesn’t break down those sales between new and existing customers, it’s not too big of an assumption to say that some of that new hardware is being snapped up by people ditching their PowerPC-based Macs for newer, more powerful models with Intel-built chips. And within that group, it’s likely that a fair chunk of these Mac buyers are creative pros moved to upgrade now that their favorite applications run natively on Intel-based machines.

So let’s say you’re among the multitude who have bought that shiny new iMac or Mac Pro in recent months. Now what do you with that old G4 or G5 Mac? You could donate, recycle, or sell it, of course, though that last option is unlikely to fetch you a tidy sum in return.

But instead of retiring that old Mac, why not try to squeeze a few more years of service out of it? Macworld has covered this subject before—here are links to the 2007 and 2005 collections of new tricks for old Macs—but I’ve put together a list of things that creative professional can do with their old machines. In some cases, you’ll have to spend some extra money for a new display, and you’ll have to make room somewhere in the home or office for your extra Mac. But in my opinion, it’s worth the effort or few extra bucks.

Set up a font server

If you’re in the graphic design business, you probably have a ton of fonts. If you use more than one Mac (for example, I use a Mac Pro, a MacBook Pro, and an old G5), you’ll certainly need to make sure you have all the same fonts on every machine.

Both Extensis and Insider Software offer font servers which you install on a host Mac for sharing across all the Macs installed on your network.

Extensis just released Universal Type Server Lite, and the font-management application perfect for a small office of 10 Macs or less. At a cost of $1,395, it’s definitely not for the home freelancer, but certainly worth the investment for a small design firm. Insider offers a server product of its own, Font Agent Pro Server; its cost varies based on your needs, so you’ll have to contact Insider for a price quote.

Set up an FTP server

Mac OS X comes with a built-in file and FTP server. You can take advantage of that capability for in-house use, or make files available for clients to download. An FTP server also allows your clients to upload files directly to your computer.

In-house sharing is easy—just turn on the appropriate settings on in the Sharing preferences pane. For sharing your files across the Internet, you can give out the IP address to your clients to connect, but most people have dynamic IP addresses, so you may find that you want a more permanent solution.

Services like no-ip and dynDNS redirect a permanent domain name address to your dynamically assigned IP address.

Running older applications and OS X updates

We all have applications we love, and hate to leave behind with OS updates. Consider keeping an older OS installed on that extra Mac to run some of those older applications that no longer work on newer machines and OSs.

Let’s say you’re not willing to give up using Freehand or older versions of GoLive, both of which have been discontinued. While both those programs will run on newer machines, their performance is less than optimum. Keeping that G4-based Mac around will give you the ability to continue using the programs you know and love without taking the performance hit.

Because a G5 is capable of running Leopard, you can also consider using your older Mac as a test machine for incremental OS updates, as well as third-party software upgrades. Nothing is more annoying than finding out after an upgrade that the newly updated OS breaks a vital application, or that a fantastic piece of shareware doesn’t work properly on the updated OS. With that extra Mac laying around, you can install any OS updates or software upgrades on the spare machine first to make sure you won’t experience any adverse affects on your workflow.

Hook up your hardware

Many times I’ve had to scan a lot of photos or slides, but wanted to continue working on other projects. Having an extra machine around allows you to keep your main Mac’s resources dedicated to your applications, while the extra Mac does the heavy lifting with tasks like scanning, printing, or burning discs.

Scanner and inkjet printer vendors are infamous for having drivers that don’t always work with newer Macs and OS versions. An extra G4 running either OS 9 or an older version of OS X is all you need to continue using the drivers and software provided by the maker of your peripherals. And if you’ve got an older scanner with a SCSI connection, your only option is to keep an older machine around to hook it up to.

I’m no expert in the music-creation field, but I do know that the hardware investment can be fairly substantial. For those not ready to give up on their heavy hardware and software investment such as microphones, keyboards, and older versions of ProTools, a G4 or older G5 is just the ticket to keep that investment running, while still taking advantage of a newer machine to run GarageBand and newer hardware.

Develop for the Web

You don’t need the fastest machine on the planet to develop and test a Web site. A free application like MAMP will simulate a full Web host server running Apache, MySQL, and PHP right on that G4 or G5.

I use MAMP to install Wordpress, Drupal, and other content management systems, testing them before I upload anything to a live server. This can be quite handy if you’re not a CSS guru and need to play around with the design of your blog or Web site.

Running Windows

If your extra Mac is capable of running Leopard, you already have the perfect alternative to buying a PC to run Windows for those few extra applications or games that aren’t available for the Mac.

Fire-up Boot Camp Assistant and install a copy of your favorite flavor of Windows. You can set the machine to boot into Windows, rather than Mac OS X and stay there, so it really couldn’t be simpler. Plus, you’ll have the added bonus of not running any risk whatsoever of getting some kind of virus on your main machine. If something does go terribly wrong, you can just erase the drive and start over with no risk to your important documents.

There are an awful lot of Windows-only Web design and creation software packages. Running them in BootCamp allows you to keep your investment in the older machine, but still take advantage of apps you wouldn’t normally have available to you. Web application developers can take advantage of Adobe’s Cold Fusion, while designers with limited Flash experience can quickly and easily build Flash-based banners, intro movies and more with apps such as Flash Intro Banner Make by Aleo Software. (Edited to Add: I should have noted, of course, that the Boot Camp option is available only if that old Mac you’re retiring is an Intel-based model.)

These are just a few things I’ve thought of that you can do to extend the life of your previous investment. I’m sure I’m missing some, so if you have another great use of that extra Mac, sound-off in the comments.

[James Dempsey runs The Graphic Mac, which offers tips, tricks and opinion on a variety of design and Mac OS X topics.]

  
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