Remembering the long-ago days of upgradeable Macs

A toast to all the cases we've opened, RAM we've installed, and processors we've replaced.

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In college, I built a PC from my friend’s castoff parts. It lived on the floor of my room, wholly without any sort of case or enclosure, except at one point when I tried to keep it all in a shoebox. Because it had no case, that also meant there was no power button: to turn it on, one took a screwdriver and touched it between two pins on the motherboard, and it would whir to life in all of its Frankensteinian glory.

Those days of the shoebox computer are largely behind us now. Instead, our computers often seem to be fully formed widgets, sprung whole from Apple as Athena from the head of Zeus. There’s little ability to upgrade them once you’ve purchased them, and in most cases those upgrades you can do aren’t for the faint of heart.

I sat, contemplating that this past week, with the parts of my Mac mini arrayed on a table before me, like a field-stripped rifle. In the midst of adding new RAM and an additional drive to the mini, I found myself remembering a few of my favorite easily upgradeable Macs of yesteryear.

The Blue & White G3

The first desktop I owned that was utterly and totally mine was the Blue & White Power Macintosh G3. (It was code-named Yosemite—hey, that came around again, didn’t it?) It still sits patiently in my office to this day, a loyal companion waiting for the moment that it will once again be called back into action.

Part of what made the B&W amazing was its easy upgradeability. Open a latch, and one entire side of the case swings down, lending easy access to internal drives, RAM, PCI slots, and so on. The logic board is even mounted on the inside of the door, so it lays flat when the door is open, making it even easier to do any necessary work. When you’re done, you just close the door and you’re good to go.

In the years I used that machine, I upgraded most of the internal components, including the processor, letting me extend the Mac’s life long beyond its projected decline. It is, however, the last pro Mac that I’ve owned to date.

The iMac G5

By contrast, the iMac G5 was the first Mac that was totally my parents’, acquired after I’d flown the coop. The all-white iMac was the first to use the form factor that still persists to this day. But one thing that makes it vastly superior to today’s iMac is its upgradeability.

Opening up the iMac G5 is a smidgen trickier than opening the Power Mac G3. You have to place it, screen down, on a flat surface, and then undo three screws on the underside. But then you can lift the entire back of the machine off, exposing all of the internal components. That makes it easy to swap out the hard drive, add more RAM, or even just clean out the internal fan.

Subsequent models did away with that setup bit by bit. These days, the only user-accessible (read: Apple-approved) upgrade in an iMac is the RAM—and only in the 27-inch model. But hey, at least you can upgrade the RAM in those machines, unlike Apple’s portable Macs.

The PowerBook G3

Speaking of portables, my first Mac laptop was the PowerBook G3 (the bronze keyboard model code-named “Pismo”). That Mac’s two expansion bays let you easily swap drives and batteries, and it’s relatively simple to access the internals by releasing a pair of spring catches on the keyboard and flipping the whole keyboard upside down. That lets you get to the RAM and the internal drives, and even add an AirPort card—this was the first Mac to officially support that. (And indeed, I did add one.)

pismo Roman Loyola

Imagine that! A laptop where it’s easy to do upgrades. I’ve taken apart a MacBook Air several times, including swapping out a dead SSD, and while it isn’t hard, it still requires you to acquire a special screwdriver and keep track of all those screws one you pull them out.

But the RAM? Forget about it. It’s soldered in place, as it is with pretty much all of Apple’s modern laptops.

Trucking along

Look, I admit that I wax a bit nostalgic when it comes to upgradeability. There are tradeoffs, as I remind myself while I marvel at how elegantly and tightly the Mac mini is assembled. One misplaced cable and the whole thing simply doesn’t go back together. I should know, as I’ve had to make several attempts to return it to working condition.

We’ve sacrificed upgradeability in the quest to make our machines smaller, more attractive, and occasionally more efficient. That’s OK, since we mostly just want our machines to work—and when they don’t work anymore, we replace them. In many ways, upgrading is a thing of the past. iOS devices are perhaps the epitome of that mentality.

But, at the same time, I think we’ve lost something. That shoebox computer on the floor wasn’t pretty, but it gave me insight into exactly how the technology that I rely upon every day works, just like when my dad showed me what all those parts under my car’s hood meant: it provided a deeper understanding that sticks with me to this day.

Our Macs, it’s been said, will eventually become trucks, compared to the cars that are our iOS devices. I don’t know for how much longer our Macs will continue to be upgradeable in any way, but so long as I’m still able to work under the hood of my truck—no matter how many screws stand in my way—I’ll remain a relatively happy camper.

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