A Fast Look at the Apple Hardware Upgrade Equation

May 8th, 2008

Way back when, during the nasty 1990s, Apple had so many models, it was doubtful that any single company executive could identify all of them without a cheat sheet at hand. Even salespeople, who earned commissions on the hardware they could move, would have similar difficulties.

But it wasn’t just the hardware proliferation disease that consumed Apple in its efforts to break into consumer electronics chains in those days. Some models, meant for power users, remained downright hostile to upgrade. It wasn’t just fiddling with thin wiring harnesses to add a second hard drive. The actual RAM installation process sometimes required removal of the entire logic board in order to locate the slots placed, of course, in the rear.

I was once told by an Apple sales executive that the people who designed such user-hostile features, particularly in the Quadra 800 and its successors, were no longer with the company. I wonder why.

One day, I attended an Apple meeting where they demoed a new Power Mac with a sort of pop-out chassis arrangement, allowing for relatively simple upgrades. The presenter’s voice was soon drowned out by the resounding cheers and applause from the audience.

Today, upgrading Macs presents a mixed bag. It’s not so difficult on the MacBook and MacBook Pro, since it generally requires removing the battery and a protective cover. You just need the proper screwdriver. The MacBook Air, however, doesn’t have upgradeable memory, and you have to remove the bottom cover to change a battery. It is, in that sense, a close cousin to the equally unfriendly environment of the iPod and iPhone.

Sales, however, do not seem to have suffered as a result of choosing form above function — and, in large part, violating basic logic.

You’d think that the process ought to be simpler on a desktop Mac, but you’d be partly right. The usually forgotten Mac mini requires skills with a putty knife to pry open the case to access the chassis. Upgrading RAM became worse in the transition from Power PC processors to Intel, because now you have to remove the hard drive to reach the RAM slots. Either way, the risk of damaging the case is high, and you have to be really careful and have flexible fingers to avoid making scratches.

But I still wonder why Apple apparently hasn’t considered creating a removable cover for the Mac mini. That, and some judicious chassis design, ought to make the internal upgrade process fairly smooth. But, as I said, Apple ignores the mini and thus it remains a sealed box for most of you.

Today’s iMac isn’t quite so bad, since Apple designed a convenient RAM access door at the bottom of the case, which can be easily opened with a Phillips screwdriver. But don’t think about changing out hard drives and other components. It can be done if you do some online research to locate the correct instructions, but for normal people, it’s a difficult process best left to professional service people.

In the entire Mac desktop lineup, the Mac Pro is an absolute joy to work on. You don’t even need a screwdriver, except for adding and removing peripheral cards. Once you pop off the side of the case, using the rear latch, you’ll find the eight RAM slots split between two slide-out printed circuit cards. Replacing or adding hard drives is essentially a slide out process, and you merely anchor the drive with the four thumb screws provided in each of the four available slide-out carriers. No cables to fiddle with, and I still remember the cuts and bruises I suffered years ago when I had to navigate through the tight pathways of a poorly designed chassis to replace such things.

The vision of a mid-ranged headless Mac desktop — one without a display — would also involve a product that’s essentially as easy to upgrade as the Mac Pro, even though it would probably be less than half the size. That harkens back to the original Mac II and IIx/IIci series, where it was simple to pop off the top cover and have your way with the internal components to add the appropriate hardware.

In those days, though, Apple’s limited warranty seriously discouraged such practices. Later, it was modified to allow you to do what you would, so long as you didn’t damage anything, in which case it would be your responsibility to pay for any resulting damage.

When I look at Apple’s entire lineup nowadays, I do find it unfortunate that they apply the toaster oven approach to so many of their products. You don’t expect to pry apart your small appliance to change things, and Apple apparently doesn’t expect you to do that with your computing appliance either, except for some sharply focused exceptions.

The Mac Pro, naturally, exists in its own universe, since the people who exploit the power of eight cores are the ones who are apt to max out memory, add extra hard drives, and peripheral cards for various types of content creation.

As far as the mystical midrange minitower is concerned, though, it’s an open question just how much expansion you really need. Aside from RAM, most of you probably don’t concern yourselves with adding hard drives or pondering the advantages of a different graphics card. But if Apple does decide to build such a beast, which is by no means certain, I hope they will make upgrading easy, whether you care to exploit that capability or not.

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4 Responses to “A Fast Look at the Apple Hardware Upgrade Equation”

  1. Joe S says:

    The change in design philosophy came between the 9500 and 9600. It was a pure pill to add memory to the 9500. The 9600 started the fold down mother boards with easy access to user upgradable parts.

  2. The change in design philosophy came between the 9500 and 9600. It was a pure pill to add memory to the 9500. The 9600 started the fold down mother boards with easy access to user upgradable parts.

    I remember it well. The 9500 was based on the same foolish design philosophy of the Quadra 800, Power Mac 8100/80, etc.


  3. Tim says:

    A gasket scraper works better for opening minis, it already has a sharpened edge. Silly that it needs to be opened that way in the first place, but I’d consider a new one, if it ever gets a current chipset.

  4. Jim says:

    The upgrade capability is key. Some examples are:
    1. Better graphics card later
    2. Better Sound card later
    3. Maybe an internal HD instead of a external unit later

    If the CPU can be removed, upgrade of the CPU although in my case I would limit myself to 1 through 3. The other piece of a mini tower is cost. It should be inexpensive and in reality take a lesson from the Mini. Use your existing keyboard, mouse, and monitor.

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