The Mac-As-Appliance Dilemma

March 27th, 2012

As many of you recall, the original all-in-one Mac, released in 1984, was meant to be a true computing appliance, with absolutely no provision to upgrade. So if 128K of RAM wasn’t enough for your needs, that was just too bad. External serial ports were your sole enhancement options, and they were limited to peripheral expansion, such as an external drive or printer. Within months, the 512K version, the so-called “Fat Mac,” provided a pretty hefty amount of internal memory for that era.

After Steve Jobs departed, Apple moved away from the strict appliance approach, making it possible — and easy — for you to upgrade such models as the Macintosh II with extra memory, bigger hard drives and other peripherals. I remember when I purchased a Mac IIci (the mid-sized version) in 1990, for an “amazing” discount of $3,500. I had equipped it with a 120MB hard drive, brought over from an older Mac, and I maxed it out with 8MB of RAM. I was almost literally in ecstasy since I had such a powerful personal computer that, I was certain, would deliver years of faithful service.

By the following year, I had upgraded to Mac OS 7.0, meaning I could take advantage of 32-bit addressing and use more than 8MB. Since the OS, all by itself, demanded between 2MB and 3MB of memory, a RAM upgrade was essential to be able to run such high-power apps as QuarkXPress and Microsoft Word simultaneously, while leaving a little extra for the system to process large documents sent to my laser printer.

Are you with me so far?

Now memory upgrades were a trivial process in those days. A single screw held down the cover of the IIci, revealing an open and accessible chassis within. Snap out the old RAM, insert the new chips, and, within minutes, you could restart with your expanded memory. It wasn’t tough to replace the hard drive either, but the biggest single improvement came with the addition of a cache card, good for a sizable performance boost. Extra graphics cards and other peripherals could be installed in one of three available slots (Apple used NuBus in those days). Later on, after Apple introduced models with the Motorola 68040 processor (the IIci had the 68030), you could replace the cache card with one that would upgrade the processor too. Yes, it required special drivers — and it made your Mac a little less stable — but oh the speed!

Before Steve Jobs returned to Apple and began to shut down most expansion options, except for the most powerful Mac towers, you could even replace the CPU on a relatively inexpensive daughter card. A decent-sized cottage industry grew to supply those upgrades. Yes, you can still get affordable processor upgrades for a Power Mac G4, and even for a Mac Pro if you want to pay the price.

These days, when you expand a Mac, it’s usually all about the memory and the hard drive. Although it’s common for owners of Windows PCs to rip apart even a relatively inexpensive tower computer and change everything — even the logic board — with something newer, that’s not Apple’s way. If the simple supported upgrades aren’t sufficient for you, go buy another computer.

Now from the standpoint of support, I suppose it makes sense. By offering a limited number of models and — except for the Mac Pro — a fairly short set of customization options, support is easier. Apple doesn’t have to contend with untold thousands of potential system configurations. And, yes, even if an upgrade is built and sold by a third-party, Apple will often be called upon to help anyway if something goes wrong. Sure, it may be the fault of the add-on or replacement part, but that often involves some troubleshooting before responsibility can be determined.

Yet it’s also true that most people who buy Macs seldom change much inside — other than RAM — during its lifetime. The exception is the Mac Pro, because it’s built with expansion in mind, but, with no upgrade since mid-2010, some believe it’s an endangered species. The increasingly more powerful iMac, despite limited expansion options, has become an ideal and more affordable replacement for many content creators.

A new family of Intel Xeon processors is now available that may end up in a new generation of Apple’s workstation computer. That is, if Apple believes there’s sufficient need for such a product, even though there are no doubt tens of thousands of content creators out there who would never consider an iMac or a lesser model for their workflow. If there’s no new Mac Pro, they might even switch to Windows even if it means key Mac apps, such as Final Cut Pro, are set aside.

From the user standpoint, the relative lack of expandability may not be terribly important. Most Mac users continue to use their computers for years with a high level of satisfaction. When Apple abandons that model, in large part in the hope that you’ll buy a new one, you still have a powerful, reliable computer that can continue to work as before, or be passed on to a coworker or family member. Unlike most PC models, a well-maintained used Mac commands a decently high price on eBay or from a used equipment reseller.

These days, my Mac computing needs are well served by a 27-inch iMac. It is new enough to be fully supported when Mountain Lion comes out. But sometimes I think about that IIci, and the ease with which I kept it up to date for several years; that is, until I bought a Quadra.

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5 Responses to “The Mac-As-Appliance Dilemma”

  1. dfs says:

    Sure, Gene, you’re right concerning normal users, and the current iMac is a jaw-droppingly powerful machine, much more so than the average consumer really needs. The exception is the Mac Pro, which nowadays isn’t even really a Mac needed or wanted by the Enterprise for normal purposes. It’s really evolved into a highly specialized piece of equipment, and its true home is in various kinds of labs, and in outfits that do high-end work in video processing, 3-D modelling, and so forth. And of course anybody with a need to drive multiple monitors (b. t. w., I’m thinking , for example, of a hospital’s radiology unit that helped diagnose me once, not about Al Gore). In comparison to the folks who normally walk into Apple Stores, such people make up a very small percentage of Apple’s user base. But such extra-sophisticated users are a very important kind of customer, and Apple would be very well advised to keep them and their special needs in mind.

  2. Sam says:


    There was actually an upgrade from the IIci to the Quadra 700. Actually I went from the IIcx all the way to the Quadra 700 and that computer lasted me 7 years, always being current.

  3. D.Ray says:

    All this is exactly why I had to build my own Hackintosh. Apple rapes you for the SSD option in the iMac range ($500 Apple, vs a much better OWX Mercury 6GB $359) and if you want to replace the standard mechanical drive with your own SSD, there’s a proprietary (thermal?) sensor preventing you from doing that.

    This means you have to send your iMac to OWC so they can install the SSD and graft this sensor onto their SSD so the system will work correctly. After doing this, however, if you ever need service on the iMac, you can’t bring it into your local apple store b/c they won’t work on it without having the OEM hard drive installed, so you’ll have to ship it to OWC.

    To be fair thought, the article said you could replace the motherboard on even basic PC’s, which is incorrect. You can’t just go out and buy a new Gigabyte motherboard for your basic Dell. At best, the I/O panel won’t line up with the port configuration on the new motherboard, then there’s the problem of the board’s form factor, since Dell/HP/etc. use proprietary designs, just like Apple does.

    • @D.Ray, I said it motherboard replacements on cheap PCs were being done, could be done. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it applies to all models.

      I agree, though, that you can often do better with Mac part replacements, such as hard drives and RAM, from third parties. It’s always been that way, unfortunately, though the disparity is not as high as it use dot be.


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