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Great Classroom Computer Buys
When the Worst Can Turn Out to be the Best

by Steve Wood
July 11, 2001

 

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A few weeks ago I gave my suggestions on how one could add a number of low-cost computers to their classroom on "a coke and lunch money budget." I confined my recommendations in that piece to 68K, or pre-Power Mac computers, as that is where the rock bottom bargains exist.

This time around you'll probably need a larger coke and lunch money allowance than I get, but there are some truly incredible deals out there on used Power Macs. As with the previous column, I'll confine my observations and recommendations to models I have personal experience in setting up, using, and/or (more often) repairing. I also listed nearly all the 68K Macs in the previous column in order of their introduction by Apple and commented upon most of them. This time I'm just going to tell you about my bargain favorites.

Enough of the preliminaries. You're probably here more because of the teaser line, "the worst Mac ever produced." Well, it's in the list, but you'll have to read on to find it. How could "the worst Mac ever produced" end up in such a list? Easy! Since it was such a dog by design (by Mac standards), it is really cheap.

The Power Mac 7200 is one of my favorite bargain Power Macs. It certainly isn't the worst Mac ever made, but probably deserved Low End Mac Dan Knight's description as a "road Apple." In an exercise in schizophrenia that I share with Dan, he also lists the 7200 as "A Low End Mac Best Buy." Let me tell you first about what was wrong with the 7200.

PM7200The 7200 was part of the first generation of Power Macs with industry standard PCI slots instead of Apple's old proprietary NuBus slot. The 7200 shipped at around $1700 with System 7.5.2 preinstalled. Unfortunately, System 7.5.2 wasn't one of Apple's better system efforts, but a quick make-do until System 7.5.3 was ready. The 7200, 7500, 8500, and 9500 hardware was actually ready for release before a reliable system update for the PCI machines was ready! Users who attempted to stay with the preinstalled system were treated to a variety of woes, including frequent crashes, internet preferences that didn't hold, and various weird behaviors totally unrelated to PCI cards. The system problems are obviously fixable by system updates and upgrades. I found Systems 7.6.1 and 8.1 to run quite well on the 7200.

The 7200's biggest black eye was that it's Power PC 601 chip was soldered to the motherboard. It appeared for years that the machine was not upgradeable. Some of Apple's really excellent design efforts on the 7200 totally worked against any processor upgrades. The 7200's chip, system bus, and video were tightly integrated for maximum performance, but those advantages made the job of processor upgrade makers almost impossible. Sonnet solved those problems with their Crescendo/7200 G3 and G4 processor upgrade cards. Unfortunately, for the budget buyer, that's a problem because the price of 7200's stabilized shortly after the introduction of the upgrade card. There's nothing like putting "Upgradeable to G3" on an auction ad to push the bids higher!

open 7200The 7200 was the first desktop to use the case that eventually was the basis for the G3 desktop. It opens easily for upgrades with almost all parts easily accessible. The second drive bay is the exception, where very small and/or nimble fingers are needed to connect power and SCSI connectors. RAM, PCI, and cache slots are unobstructed for effortless installation or removal of parts.

While picking up a 7200 and upgrading it to a G3 with a Sonnet card may sound exciting, it certain doesn't fit on any coke and lunch money budget. The upgrade cards currently run from $300 to $500. Where the 7200 can prove its worth is in running simple educational applications reliably.

If you get a 7200, clean it carefully. Blow out all the dirt from the vents and from the mother board. Initialize the hard drive with a good disk format utility. Install the best system you can afford (Systems 7.6.1, 8.1, 8.6, or 9.0.4 all work well -- avoid 8.5 and 8.5.1 on the 7200). Feed the 7200 well: Give it all the RAM you can afford, ideally at least 64 MB! Unfortunately, the 7200 uses 168-pin DIMM RAM chips, which are just beginning to experience the incredible price deflation of the PC 100 and 133 SDRAM chips. Despite John H. Farr's recent dire tongue-in-cheek warnings about bargain RAM chips made from recycled milk cartons, I recently bought a 256 MB PC-100 SDRAM chip from OWC for $34.36 shipped. A 128 MB DIMM chip will cost you from $45-360, according to Ramseeker's current listings (7/7/01). Better yet, shop initially for a 7200 with the RAM you need already there.

The good news about prices for the 7200 is that they aren't terribly high. You might get lucky and pick up a good 7200/75 for $25, but something in the $50 price range for any well equipped 7200 -- 75, 90, or 120 MHz -- is more likely and reasonable. Be sure to get one with sufficient RAM and possibly something bigger than the stock 500 MB hard drive if you're paying towards the $50 end of the price range.

How strongly do I recommend the 7200? When it was time several years ago to get my father on the internet, I shopped for and found a good Power Mac 7200/90. Dad's 88 now and still using his first Mac daily! It has a 2.1 gig Seagate 7200 RPM AV hard drive, 80 MB RAM, a 256K Level-2 cache chip, and runs System 9!

7500 gutsThe Power Mac 7500 shares all the advantages of a 7200 and has double the RAM slots, but carries its processor on a removable processor card.601 daughtercard That makes it G3 upgradeable, and even though the 7200 has achieved that status, the 7500 remains a much tougher buy than its less powerful sibling. While my main Mac at work is an upgraded 7500, I can't recommend this one while it continues to draw $80 or more for the base model. I like my 7500, especially its video capabilities, but certainly don't love it.

feet neededOne last quick suggestion on inspecting any 7200 or 7500, or for that matter, any desktop with the same form factor, is to make sure the rubber "feet" are all on the bottom of the box. I inadvertently let one get off my 7500 last summer. It came off the corner where the power supply vents, and I have a nasty bubbled spot on one of my computer tables from the heat!

Many monitors, such as the old AppleColor High-Resolution RGB Monitor, and other CPU's utilize these rubber feet. It's always a good idea to physically inspect the bottom of the box to make sure they're all there. Wow! I just checked under my G3 minitower. It has them, too!

The Power Mac 8500 and 9500 are also both priced out of sight for the budget buyer looking for multiple Macs. With the tower configuration, you also get into a motherboard that is not easily accessible, even for RAM upgrades or battery replacement. If someone makes you a deal (without you displaying a firearm) in the area of $50, grab it! But expect to pay in excess of $100 for one of these. That's a pretty expensive coke and lunch!

What was probably the worst Mac ever produced for around $2000 to education, the LC5200CD (Performa 52xxCD) could very possibly be an incredible used bargain Mac for you. Again, let me tell you what is wrong with the 5200 so you'll know what you're getting into.

LC 5200The LC5200CD bears the infamy of being the Mac with the longest warranty/recall period. These machines experienced such severe video problems that Apple extended the warranty up to 7 years! Even from the beginning, I remember the Mac magazines -- that usually have a knee jerk reaction of if it's from Apple, it's wonderful -- being cautious about the 5200 because of its I/O port limitation. Basically, the I/O port choked off information by funneling it into an 8 MHz port. A comparable 7200 used a 33 MHz port.

The 5200 was susceptible to serious directory damage on the hard drive. I can't count how many corrupted hard drives I've saved and how many more where I've simply delivered the sad news that the user's data was gone. Whenever I get to do preventative maintenance on a 5200, I always update the disk drivers with something newer than the drivers from the System 7.5 CD which shipped with the 5200. That usually seems to do the trick, which would indicate the supplied system software was more at fault than the 5200 hardware.

Networking on a 5200 is subject to abrupt crashes, but can be improved with proper system software, adequate RAM, and a neat SCSI trick listed here.

The 5200 appears to be one of the worst dust magnets Apple ever built. Most of the machines I open up at school are dreadfully filthy, especially the CD and floppy drives under the front bezel. Cleaning this area is relatively easy. The pull-out motherboard is another no brainer for cleaning. Doing serious housekeeping near the analog board and CRT takes one far too close to high voltage areas and is best left to a pro or at least a well experienced Mac user.

My biggest beef with the 5200 really runs along other lines. When our school hired a technology coordinator several years ago, they chose someone with no Mac experience. His introduction to the Macintosh platform was caring for a fleet of 5200's and a smaller number of often troubled 5400's. It left its mark on him and we've never been able to get him to objectively consider Macs since.

With all of the horror stories above, why mess around with or recommend a 5200? The answer is total cost. First, it's a Mac, so your chances of it lasting a while are better than the PC average. Second, the 5200 is an all-in-one Mac, so the cost of the monitor is included with the computer. Finally, because of its justly deserved rotten reputation, the 5200 can be had for around $20! Ignore the resellers featuring refurbished 5200's for $99. That's a rip-off. Yes, the 5200 is powered by a feeble 603 chip (75-120 MHz), but it is a Power Mac capable of running a lot of Power PC apps. It also has a built-in Trinitron monitor and an internal CD. The 5200 has its supporters and its uses.

Classroom MacsI've had a 100 MHz 5200 in my classroom for over a year and have found it acceptable for use, but truly flaky and subject to random crashes. Last year, it ran with System 8.1 with just 24 MB RAM. I suspect I might see somewhat better stability with a bit more RAM (2 72-pin SIMM slots -- do not have to be installed in pairs). While I would not recommend any of the 5200 series as someone's primary computer, they are a good value when one is looking for multiple classroom computers.

The 5400-5500 LC series corrected many of the problems of the 5200's design, but still had a whole set of problems of its own. The hard drive miseries of the 5200 continued at a lesser rate with the 5400. Initially, level-2 cache had to be disabled to just get the machines to start. Motherboards fail in this series at a much higher than normal rate. While I've actually worked on a couple of 5400's that were the 200 MHz screamers they were supposed to be, most seem incredibly sluggish. At $150-200 each, even with a built-in display and CD, I'd expect more from a used computer.

In Rob Reiner's 1987 "instant classic," The Princess Bride, Inigo Montoya quotes Vizzinni as saying, "...go back to the beginning." What turned out to be a good move for the swashbuckling movie hero might also be good advice for those seeking budget Power Macs.

The beginning for the Power PC generation of Macs began in March, 1994 with the introduction of the Power Mac 6100/60, 7100/66, and 8100/80. By November of that year, the 8100 was bumped up to a then incredible 110 MHz. The following January saw the 6100 and 7100 max out at 66 and 80 MHz, respectively.

Any of these machines could make a respectable addition to a classroom environment at the right price. Keep in mind when you get out your checkbook that you will be dealing with hard drives, floppy drives, motherboards, and power supplies that may be as much as 7 years old in these models!

The Power Mac 6100 used the low-slung case known as the Centris 610 form factor. In a break with older LC series, the 6100's PPC chip included an onboard FPU unit. It had a very respectable 30 MHz system bus (33 MHz on the 6100/66).

While the 8100 still commands a fairly respectable price, the 6100 can be had for $10-20. Unfortunately, Apple used only the proprietary HDI-45 video port for the 6100, which is great if you have an AppleVision monitor with the correct plug, but is a pain if you have to spend $20 for a video adapter to use a standard Mac monitor. Both the 6100 and the 8100 are upgradeable to G3's, but I really wouldn't recommend it.

The original Power Macs also used the AAUI-15 Ethernet port which requires an external transceiver. Current prices on these transceivers blow these models right out of any budget buying consideration. However, if you already have such a transceiver or can get one included in the deal cheap, or plan not to network these models via Ethernet, it's not a problem.

My experiences with the original Power Macs have been less than excellent, but I really didn't get ahold of any before they were five years old and just about beaten to death. I found the 6100 case latch tabs in back, like the Quadra and Centris models that share the same box, often brittle and easy to break. The 6100/60's at school almost all require one to push the start button once, unsuccessfully, and then again to get them to boot! Once started, however, the flaw doesn't seem to cause any further problems. Given sufficient RAM, the 6100 in either the 60 or 66 MHz configuration could be a good addition to your classroom stable of Macs. Just be sure to get the video adapter included in the sale price. 

What about 68K machines with PowerPC upgrades?

I'm the proud owner of a Performa 575 with a DayStar 601 PowerCard upgrade. It's a fantastic machine. It's not for sale. I'm still looking for an affordable upgrade card for another 575 I bought and took to school. DayStar 601 PowerCards regularly sell for over $150, leaving you with an old machine with an old power supply that probably maxes out at 36 MB of RAM... Enough said?

If you have an old Mac IIci that you really love, the Power Mac upgrade card for it can be had for considerably less. But to me, the cool factor of a IIci is that with enough RAM and a cache card, it's a real 68K workhorse. If you're going to lay out $50-100 for an upgrade card, why not just look for a good 7200 or better?

But then, I'm still looking for that 100 MHz Daystar 601 PowerCard at a great price for my other Performa 575. Sounds like "Do as I say and not as I do!"

What about the ones you left out?

I'd absolutely love to tell you that a desktop G3 or an Artemis (G3 All-in-one) are great buys. I can't because they aren't. I've tried in vain to find a reasonably priced G3 desktop or Artemis to replace my not-so-gracefully aging PM 7500/G3 at school. What I have found is that the two machines mentioned above simply hold their value too well to be considered. Either one would take almost a year of my lunch money allowance.

I've only worked on one Performa/PowerMac 6400-6500. When working right, it was a real screamer. I never liked it simply because the purchasing agent knew she knew more about Macs than I and bought a 300 MHz Power Mac 6500 instead of the 266 MHz G3 minitower I recommended. The 6400-6500 series can run $200-300+ used. While upgradeable to a G3, the case for the 6500 is a tough one to service. Once you get past the pull-out motherboard, you're going to spend some time getting into the bowels of these machines. There is only one expansion bay for additional drives which seems to defy one of the main purposes of the tower form factor. To me, there seem to be way too many obstructions inside the case for any efficient air flow for cooling. While the only hardware replacement, other than RAM upgrades, I had to make on the 6500 I serviced was to replace the hard drive, it took frequent doses of Norton's Disk Doctor to keep it running right. But then, the user, a graphic artist, insisted on staying with System 8.0 instead of letting me upgrade it to System 8.1.

What about the clones?

Unfortunately, I've never done any serious work with any of the clones. In writing back and forth with Low End Mac's Dan Knight, he gave this general clone advice:

Only buy 'em if you're familiar with 'em. Each has idiosyncrasies. I love my SuperMacs, but there are issues you have to know about that the genuine Apple product doesn't have to deal with.

Dan's pretty much THE EXPERT on the web when it comes to older Macs, so I think I'll leave it to him or one of the gang at Low End to give recommendations on the clones. Dan recommends visiting either his clone pages or one of his many clone email lists.

"Let me explain. No, that is too much. Let me sum up."
(Sorry, The Princess Bride is playing in the background as I write!)

To sum up, I give a strong thumbs up for the Power Mac 7200 and a qualified recommendation for the LC 5200. The oft praised 6100 requires too many expensive adapters and simply doesn't hold up well enough to risk any significant cash. It might merit the risk if the price is right (monitor adapter and Ethernet transceiver included) and you possess the technical skills to mix and match parts from two or three of them (not all that hard, either!).

There may be other bargain Macs that appear for you that aren't on my list. I've tried to be conservative in my recommendations and give you suggestions for machines that probably won't be a major disappointment. If you see another model at a great price, do the research. Check Low End, Apple-History.com, Apple Spec, and generally search the web for any info on the model. If it checks out, give it a try!

Where to get them

It's one of the easiest things in the world to buy a used computer on eBay. It's also about the last place, other than the used resellers, you should look. I've purchased many computers on eBay and rarely have one come in that doesn't have something wrong with it, either cosmetically or functionally. With only two exceptions, none were adequately cleaned. The commercial resellers on eBay appear to simply plug them in and if they run, that's it. I find individual sellers (those selling their old Mac) far more careful of the condition and cleanliness of their wares. Of course, they're parting with an old, dear friend. And, as Bill Brown recently commented in a Low End Mac column, "Some regular sellers make an art form of turning shipping costs into a profit center."

For me, a new arrival with a bad hard drive, floppy drive, etc. simply means a trip to the appropriate parts bin. It's rare that I don't have a spare in stock. I suspect you really don't want to give over a whole room of your house to old computers and parts as I have. (Remember, Annie and I have six kids between us, but we're down to just one at home now and have a bit of extra room.)

Keep an eye on the want ads of your local paper. Watch for school surplus auctions. They often occur during the summer. Also look for private individuals selling their Mac. Do remember that we all love our Macs and accordingly overvalue them. Use eBay to give you some price reference. Search in the Mac section for the possible purchase by keyword or number (IIfx, 5200, 7200). Then click the Search Completed Items link somewhere near the top of the page. You'll then see what that model commands in price.

Odd thoughts while shaving between paragraphs:

This is one of those columns where the publication date started at one point and kept getting pushed further and further into the future. As I sat finishing the last of the links in this column, I realized part of the problem was that I just don't know as much about Power Macs as I do about 68K Macs! While almost all of my serious work is done on a Power Mac, my skills with ferreting out the best buys in Macs have necessarily been limited primarily to the less expensive 68K machines.

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©2001 Steven L. Wood