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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20 Responses to “So You Want to Customize a Mac? Don’t Get Me Started!”

  1. Step says:

    Very nicely put. The argument for “building your own” doesn’t hold much water without some specific examples of what’s not possible and why. Also, the tradeoffs aren’t usually acknowledged by the “build your own” crowd. Anyways, even Microsoft is moving towards certifying certain components and configurations with Vista.

    Oh, and sixth paragraph. “rally” instead of “really”. 🙂

  2. Andrew says:

    The only value I can see in building your own is in things that Apple and many customers don’t care about. I travel a lot and thus own DVDs from different regions. Apple uses Matsushita DVD drives that canot be flashed to RPC-1 Region Free. When I had PowerBooks, the first thing I did was take them to an independant Mac service shop and have the Matsushita drive replaced wtih a Pioneer, which are flashable. As soon as Pioneer or someone else makes a 9.5mm slim DVD drive that is flashable I’ll replace the drive in my MacBook as well.

    I can see a lot of users wanting stronger graphics in a Mac Mini, or to save graphics cost on an iMac (the education iMac). These aren’t things that require the ability to build Macs from parts, just more build-to-order choices on the Apple Store website. I’m sure many people would shave $100 to $150 from the cost of an iMac to move down from ATI to Intel graphics, and that many Mini and MacBook buyers would add that cost to go in the other direction.

  3. gopher says:

    I will say this much, as hard drive and optical drive technology improve, it would be nice to put in a larger hard drive, or better optical drive inside the computer. I upgraded my original iMac G5 to 500 GB internal hard drive recently. Wish it was that easy in an iMac Intel Core Duo to do so. And when Bluray and HD-DVD come along, I’d like to be able to put in an optical drive that does both when Ricoh’s comes out.

  4. Myles says:

    On the other hand, the Mac OS can be customized much easier than Windows. That has been the Apple Way to build a personal computer ever since Woz wrote in the AppleSoft manual “Try it, it won’t break.”

    People used to customize their DOS environments after Borland paved the way with Sidekick. Windows is so sensitive that not many people are game to mess with it once it’s stable.

  5. TomB says:

    Maybe a stick-on bud vase for the side of my monitor!

    Gene: I agree. I n fact, my last 2 Macs were stock configs., bought and hauled same day from the local Apple Store– INSTANT GRATIFICATION!

  6. Pete says:

    I’ve built a number of PCs and it is a great hobby and you can get exactly what you want, which I would argue isn’t the case with any OEM: specific case, motherboard, ram, hard drive, video card, etc. for a very good price: what you build can surpass an OEM machine in price/performance.

    Having said that, picking on the Mac or a Mac user about customization is the dumbest thing ever. I wager that most PC users do not do any sort of customization and never intend to.

  7. Victor Aleksandruk says:

    it’s hard to do these 3 things that a home user would/might need to do, and i am talking about the mac mini:

    1. upgrade internal hard drive

    2. increase ram (memory)

    3. upgrade/replace dvd drive

    when you buy a $500-$600 pc in a tower case, you are free to replace or upgrade parts as you see fit. want that super fast dvd burner that just came out? no problem, egghead has it for under$40. want to add a second dvd burner? no problem, there is an empty bay just waiting for it. want to add a backup internal hard drive? no problem, pick up a 200 GIG from best buy for $80 and put that into an empty bay.

    i love mac os x. but i hate the apple way of making a closed, hard to upgrade system. i hate tha fact that for $799, your mac mini has a 5400rpm hard drive. i hate the fact that it would cost you $500 to upgrade your mini to 2 GIGS of RAM at the apple store. i hate the fact that if my mini’s dvd burner breaks, i cannot go and get an inexpensive replacement, or even a better, faster one, from a competing vendor such as egghead or best buy, etc., and put it in myself…..
    end of rant 🙂

  8. i love mac os x. but i hate the apple way of making a closed, hard to upgrade system. i hate tha fact that for $799, your mac mini has a 5400rpm hard drive. i hate the fact that it would cost you $500 to upgrade your mini to 2 GIGS of RAM at the apple store. i hate the fact that if my mini’s dvd burner breaks, i cannot go and get an inexpensive replacement, or even a better, faster one, from a competing vendor such as egghead or best buy, etc., and put it in myself…..

    You don’t have to buy your RAM from Apple, and there are third parties who will offer to provide upgrades of one sort or another, such as Other World Computing.


  9. gmk says:

    Customization = longevity. I am using 2 macs, neither of which would be as useful to me if I had not been able to upgrade.
    The first is a 7 year old Yikes machine, which now has a 320g hard drive on an ATA 100 bus, rather than a 10g drive on a ATA 33 bus, and a burner
    rather that just a reader. I use the machine as a music server – with the original drives it would be useless to me. I also have a dual 1.25 G4. This machine
    has a Western Digital Raptor on a SATA bus, and 2 other hard drives for storage, plus two recent generation optical drives. I never imagined needing this
    much storage space when I bought this machine, but its expansion capabilities have allowed it to remain my main machine. Also, anyone seriously interested in cd/dvd burning can’t be happy with Apple’s drive choices and lack of firmware updates. Apple used to offer a low end tower machine
    in the $1500 price range that filled the need for customizing without breaking the customer’s bank; I regret they no longer provide that option.

  10. ezflip says:

    It all boils down to cost. Why build your own PC? – best parts for a lot less money then OEM package.

    What I would really like from Apple is to be able to purchase a G5 (or whatever is going to replace it) and deduct the hard drive, the optical drive, the graphic card from the total package. That would make it cheaper. And I would be able to install better, faster, bigger components then what Apple offers.

    Then again, it would come out to the same price anyways. Oh well!

  11. Andrew says:

    Its not only about cost, but also getting what you want. The lat PC I built was about 6-years-ago. It had a small case desgined for quiet running and minimal space (this was before the Mini), and I had the luxury of choosing which processor, board architecture and drives I wanted. My demands for performance were low, so I built my system in a Shuttle case but elected for the cheapest Celeron processor and integrated video.

    My family desktop is a 7-year-old Sawtooth G4 PowerMac that has been upgraded from 400MHz to 1.0GHz, 768MB of RAM and a 200 GB 7200 RPM hard drive. The ancient Rage Pro video was replaced by a GeForce MX that while not Core Image compatible, is Quartz Extreme enabled. Its got a fast Pioneer dual layer burner and a backup 40 GB hard drive.

    This 7-year-old machine is still fast and powerful, and most importantly can still be upgraded to more than double the performance it has today.

    The G4 Mini in my associate’s office is a tiny and beautiful work of art that does everything we ask of it. That said, three or four years from now when we need more performance, the Mini will be easily upgradable.

  12. Max says:

    – ezflip:

    I believe Apple is going to do that, numbers indicate that a hell lot of people wants to swich from PC to Mac. Its the perfect timing for Apple to attack PCs from all the possible sides. Lets believe it will just happens!!

  13. Poster says:

    Customization is the bane of longevity, unless you are very good and very careful. Most PC geeks aren’t either! How do you suppose that the aftermarket stays in business? They sell based on the “it’s easy to replace components” and then get you to buy again once you burn up a part or two in your attempts to upgrade your own box. The Mac can already be customized. I say this as a former PC/Linux guy and now a Mac guy. With PCs, it’s not only the quality of the parts that’s a problem, it’s that because it’s supposed to be configurable, you go and do it. Then you find out that wow, it’s not exactly configurable, is it? Windows barfs on bizarre configuration errors. DLL rot. You name it and it gets in the way of your dream machine actually working. If I wanted all those ills all over again, I’d never have switched to Mac.

  14. cooner says:

    One point not mentioned explicitly in the article is the point of simplicity of ordering at the Apple Store. It’s a very streamlined checklist right now: which model fits your needs, what options would you like for it, pay and go.

    Remember back in the 90s when Apple was selling Mac, Centris, Quadra, Performa, etc. etc. etc., each with dozens of models impossible to tell apart from each other? That was a headache.

    I’m not saying there’s not valid reasons for wanting to customize, or that having two dozen different models of the same machine is quite the same as ‘customization.’ But if Apple ever does decide to allow more customization, I hope they arrange their sales in a way that the current streamlined model, which probably suffices for the majority of their purchasers, remains reasonably intact, and that any potentially confusing customization options are offered in a separate area where only powerusers have to deal with them.

  15. westernworld says:

    there was much more of a point to building your own machine when performance was at a premium. been there done that, a royal pain in the ass requiring extensive research unless your a hardcore hardware nerd or don’t really need a production grade system. nowadays the average current Mac or Pc has more power than 90% of users need.

    having that said apples policy of charging extortionate prices for spare parts and making some machines user-unserviceable should end rather sooner than later.

    when i learnt that the plain vanilla dvd expansion bay unit in my pismo would cost 460€ (that was in 2005) to replace when the third one failed and wasn’t covered anymore by apple-care i went with an external unit. but there are many such examples of parts they grossly overcharge for one can only get through apple, but i digress.

    anyway i think most users would be satisfied with more user serviceability. it can be done they showed it themselves.

  16. Andrew says:

    You can buy a third-party dual layer DVD writer for your Pismo for under $200 US.

  17. Jeff says:

    I upgraded my Pismo to a dual layer burner, G4 550 processor, a high-capacity battery, and 80 GB hard drive. It you really want to upgrade your Mac, it can be done.

    I’ve since gotten a last generation PowerBook, but the Pismo still works great for travel and other uses.

  18. k trout says:

    I don’t agree it takes endless amount of time and patience to assemble a PC. I haven’t bought an OEM PC in years. If you build to the high end, you’ll save money even counting your time if you know what you’re doing. The last PC I built was assembled with XP installed and running in 4 hours. All you need is a phillips screwdriver, and it ain’t rocket science. Knowing the motherboard specifics gives you the knowledge on what your CPU and peripheral upgrades might be. And generally just being familiar with the case layout and how it was put together makes upgrading easier.

    I’ve owned a bunch of Macs too. Staying with the latest and greatest on my PCs is less expensive than with Macs where you’re generally forced to buy a new box.

    As for OS X for the PC. Yea I’d buy it, and it seems Apple’s limitation on this is purely artificial. They need the OS to sell hardware.

  19. Andrew says:

    Upgrading PCs is not difficult or troublesome. Windows might barf if you replace the motherboard, but otherwise its usually a simple matter of installing the new driver for the piece you just put in and then business as usual. I’ve even moved parts back and forth between my Power Mac and PC with ease, and had no Windows issues even with a Mac-specific video card (Rage 128 Pro), for which XP just asked for the driver, and once given, gave me terrific video.

  20. Bill says:

    It is nice to be able to customize with the parts we have on hand.

    e.g., just got a 400MHz Gigabit Ethernet ($75) to replace an aging iMac G3.

    Like most reading this, I’ve got plenty of spare RAM, DVD burners, and hard drives available to upgrade it.

    I won’t bother to upgrade CPU or video, as it will spend all its time in 9.2.2.

    I am spending a little cash to pair it with a new, 19″ LCD monitor ($110 a/r)

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