"The Good Old Days of Computing"

On Low End Mac, Tommy Thomas writes about “The Good Old Days of Computing,” going back to the early ’90s and before. I guess it’s all nostalgia when you look back.

I continue to be troubled by the disposable nature of computer hardware. That’s a lot of stuff to be throwing out, and a lot of expense, too, especially if you’re talking about a current Mac. I don’t think there’s a desktop or laptop under $1,000 in the line now, except for the Mac Mini. (On second reading, the moral of this story is, “Get a Mac Mini already!”) And you can get a bare-bones Windows box from Fry’s for $300 or even less. That’s when “disposable” doesn’t hurt the pocketbook so much.

But still, it would be nice to both get a few more usable years out of a computer and be able to either upgrade its hardware or recycle the whole damn thing.

It all depends on what you want to do with the box. At this point, I have to say that Web browsing is the No. 1 “killer app” for most people. As long as your hardware, operating system and software can handle most of the Web-browsing tasks out there, you can stick with your system. If you’re comfortably running OS X, there’s Safari and Firefox.

OS 9? You can stick with Internet Explorer 5.1 and whatever version of Netscape will work. Not bad, but not ideal. Once you start dipping back to OS 8 and 7, it gets even murkier.

I’m no expert on OS 8 or 9, but for OS 7 (I’m now using 7.6.1), pickings are rather slim. The original IE 5 for Mac still works fairly well, but not on all sites, and you’ll have trouble with Java and Flash. I’ve never gotten iCab to work without crashing fairly often, but I’m willing to try again. And I use Netscape 4.7 for e-mail because I have never been able to get any 7.6.1-compatible e-mail program to work with my POP account.

My Powerbook 1400 already had Office 6 installed (plus Appleworks if I need it). It has a working Powerport Platinum card with 10baseT Ethernet. I can do a little bit on the Web, check my various Web-based e-mail accounts, go on Google Groups, and send e-mail from Netscape if I’m so inclined. But I can write Word-formatted files and e-mail or transfer them out of there, and that’s my killer app. It’s all in the friendly Mac interface. And the hardware cost me nothing.

Let’s be frank, I’d love to have a second iBook. Our current 14-inch iBook G4 has held its value very well over the three years we’ve had it. I can’t see having problems using it for another four or five years, I think (and I hope). It’s running OS X 10.3.9, and we’ve got Firefox and Office on there, too. It burns CDs but not DVDs. (I wish it had the Superdrive, of course.) And it’s a very nice computer to use. Would I acquire another one in a couple of years if I could get it near $200? You bet. Current used prices through dealers are $600-900. Now that’s holding value.

iBook G3s are cheaper, going for $250-$500, but they already can’t run 10.4. Not that I’m running anything past 10.3.9 right now — or need to. If you can get a good one for $300, that could serve you well for a few years.

$300 for three years? How does that differ from $1,000 for six years? Well, it’s cheaper up front AND on a per-year basis. Even if the $300 computer only lasted two years, you’d still be money ahead. You wouldn’t have “enjoyed” the first years of a completely new computer, but you will have saved some money. And if you don’t keep it as your main computer, that $300 laptop could go years longer in limited use.

This may sound a little strange coming from This Old Mac, which champions the continued use of 10-year-old hardware, but I’ve always said that if you’re going to have only one computer, it’s nice to have one that does everything you need it to do. A second, third or even fourth computer can be less powerful — if you need to do something the older box can’t do, you’ve got options. Of course all this depends on whether or not you’ve got the money for a new PC. $1,000 ain’t chicken feed.

While Microsoft is trying to make everybody upgrade to XP and Vista, there’s still a lot of life left in Windows 2000 (which I run on This Old PC) and maybe a bit ‘o life in Windows 98 (though the inability to get Wi-Fi and card readers working in that OS prompted me to upgrade). And you can still run IE 6 and Firefox in both 2000 and 98, providing your hardware can keep up.

The bottom line for old-Mac users (different than old Mac users, no hyphen) is the waning support for the classic Mac OS. Not everybody can (or should) be running OS 9, and even then there are problems. From my browser-centric prospective, there should be a Safari AND a Firefox for — at the very least — OS 9.

It won’t happen.

There’s a lot you can do with older hardware. Do what it does best, don’t spend a lot of money and you’ll be happier.

The questions I am asking myself: What’s the usable life span of a computer? Is that life span changing — getting longer or shorter? And how do you compute the most efficiently for the least amount of money and waste?

While much depends on individual circumstances, configurations and needs, I think the average computer life span is holding steady at eight years. I think you have five good years and three iffy ones. Then it becomes a stealthy game of upgrades, tricks and compromises to keep the machines relevant.

That’s where This Old Mac and This Old PC come in, at least for me. I wouldn’t be subjecting myself to this if I didn’t in many ways enjoy it. It’s the thrill of victory over free hardware, of making something thought useless work — and sometimes work well. And I do get a kick, although sometimes I wonder where, out of actually using these older boxes.

Next: I assume responsibilities for a Power Mac G5, which doesn’t seem old but isn’t exactly new in the wake of Intel Duo Cores and all that. Do I take it to 10.4 or 10.5? What’s the best/cheapest backup solution out there today?

First thing — a Power Mac G5, purchased the same year as an iMac G4, will last longer. Costs more, too.

Second thing — I guess I should start a This New Mac blog, but I won’t. All Power Mac G5 news will remain here. It’ll be old soon enough when the Intel Trio Cores (or whatever they want to call them) and OS XI (or whatever they want to call THAT) rear their respective heads.