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  • So You Want to Customize a Mac? Don’t Get Me Started!

    July 26th, 2006

    It’s not uncommon for a PC user to taunt Mac users over the relative inability to customize their computers, except in a limited fashion. After all, you can build a PC from scratch, if you have the free time, a little cash and endless amounts of patience.

    So, for example, you can go online and choose the parts you need from any of a number of vendors. Buy your own case, power supply, logic board, processor, graphics card, hard drive, optical drive and the rest of the pack. In a long evening, you might even get something that works. Oh yes, don’t forget the OEM copy of Windows XP, unless you prefer to give Linux a whirl. I won’t dwell on the possibility of getting a copy of Windows through less-than-legal means.

    There’s nothing wrong, of course, with building your own. In fact, it can be fun. In the old days of electronics, in fact, we had such firms as the Heath Company building kits for you to assemble such gear as radios and even TV sets. Now maybe the product was no better and not much cheaper than the prebuilt variety, but the assembly process, even if the company did some of the heavy lifting for you, gave you a sense of accomplishment.

    So I see nothing wrong, in principle, to building your home-grown PC, and I can see where folks are coming from here. In the end, however, do you really get a superior product if you decide that you can do a better job than, say, Dell or Gateway? Remember, they are all really using the same parts, except that you can optimize the various components for your needs.

    So wouldn’t it be nice to be able to do that on a Mac? Well, that’s the concept of an article from Chris Howard at AppleMatters. In a poll, his options go one better, with one letting you decide whether you’d like the chance to run Mac OS X on any old PC.

    While the idea is interesting from the standpoint of an intellectual exercise, Chris never tells us how he’d like to customize his Mac beyond the options Apple already offers. That’s the fatal flaw of the article, because it doesn’t really spell out valid reasons to demand extra choices, beyond that of Mac OS cloning.

    Let me ditch that idea real fast, though. Apple has learned through bitter experience, which included a cloning program that almost sunk the company, that it can succeed best by building the whole widget, from operating system to hardware. This helped make the iPod such a compelling experience, and a cultural icon, and even Microsoft is trying to emulate the method with its “Zune” media player plans.

    Forget about the disastrous consequences to Apple’s bottom line with a cloning program, what would happen if you had an infinite number of possibilities with which to customize your Mac? First of all, chaos, because Apple would have to expand its Q&A process exponentially to accommodate as many possible system configurations as possible.

    One of the reasons Windows is so chaotic is that there are so many things that can go wrong among thousands of computer variations, and it’s truly beyond Microsoft’s ability to allow for all of them. This is one, among many reasons, that Windows Vista is so late and may even become later.

    The other issue is this: Just what are the benefits, aside from the joy of being able to mix and match, for the end-user? I suppose in the scheme of things, you might argue that using a different logic board design, a different brand or model hard drive, optical drive, and so forth and so on will allow you to eke out a few percentage points of performance. You might be able to measure it with an appropriately accurate stopwatch and testing methodology designed to exploit the impact of such changes.

    On the other hand, in the real world, this all means little to nothing for most personal computer users. Most of you don’t buy them to get a specific logic board, as you might order a specific car to get the kind of engine that excites your senses. You buy the computer to run applications that allow you to perform specific tasks. Maybe it’s just email or Web browsing, in which case none of those differences matter.

    If you’re doing high-end work, such as graphics and 3D animation, well maybe you want more RAM, a speedier graphics card, a larger, faster hard drive. But today’s Power Mac, and its forthcoming successor, already allows you to customize the unit in this fashion. The aftermarket has even more options to choose from, so where’s the upside?

    Now I suppose you could argue for changes in the design of Apple’s professional desktop to allow it to incorporate more internal drives, though there are workarounds even now, in the form of Serial ATA expansion cards that allow you to plug in external devices. That is, if FireWire 800 doesn’t do it for you.

    At the bottom end Apple’s product line, you can even customize your Mac mini in a handful of useful ways, and there are some reports of being able to plug in faster processors, if you’re good at using a putty knife to open the case.

    While there are probably numerous ways you might want to customize a pro Mac in a fashion that Apple doesn’t readily provide, for most of you, some variation of the standard configuration will work just fine. Why complicate things for abstract gains that have little or no advantage in the real world? And, besides, third parties will often step to provide alternatives.

    Do I want to be able to change the graphics processor in a Mac mini? Well, I could buy an iMac if I need more display horsepower. Maybe there’s even a need for a cheaper, smaller variation of the professional desktop that allows for a modicum of configuration.

    But beyond hobbyist considerations, most of the customization choices some folks envision don’t make a whole lot of sense.

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