One man’s trash is another man’s new office machine…

If you’re a long time reader of TME then you  might be aware of a couple of previous articles where I bought half decent Apple Mac machines for less than £25 or £50.

When I wrote those articles I was very much thinking about those who mightn’t have used a Mac before and wanted to test the water without breaking the bank.  In terms of performance, those old machines would out-perform any Windows PC that you could buy at the same price point, but they still left a lot to be desired when it came to actually doing anything useful.

In this article, I’m going to be looking at buying another Mac on a budget.  This time around I’m actually looking to use this as my main office PC for at least the next 3 years, so I’ve allowed myself a little extra budget; £100 for a working, complete and usable Mac computer.

Having had a look on eBay and classified sites, it seems that I’m not going to be able to afford an Intel based Mac at this price point, not unless I want to buy a faulty unit and attempt to fix it, which I don’t have time for.

The £100 budget firmly puts us in the realm of PowerPC based Macs, the last of which was produced around 8 years ago; the Power Mac G5.

Although the last ones rolled off of the production line in 2006, I know full well how well they ran at the time.  I owned one of the early models up until around 2011 and it was still pretty capable at that time.  The later models had a multitude of improvements over the early ones, including dual core processors, DDR2 RAM and PCIe graphics.  If I could lay my hands on one of these later models then it should be able to function as a main office computer without too many issues.

A quick look on eBay showed hundreds of examples of the G5 in circulation, the problem was establishing which model was which and finding one in reasonable cosmetic condition.  I also had to decide whether I was willing to buy an older model and try to upgrade it, or buy a later one at a higher price and hope that it’s got the specs that I need.

Location was also going to be an issue, most of these Macs were listed as collection only due to the size and weight, and driving to the other side of the country was going to cost me more in petrol than the Mac itself.

Searching within a 50 mile radius I managed to find a late example of the G5 Power Mac, with dual 2.3 GHz processors and a whopping 8GB of RAM.  It also came with a clean install of OS X 10.5.6 Leopard, the last OS X release to work on Power PC machines, and original disks and paperwork for OS X 10.4 Tiger.

This might sound good, but an alarm went off in my head.  Historically the cheap Macs I’ve bought had come with a whole bunch of software pre-installed on the hard disk, but this Mac came only with the OS, no other software packages were installed.  This meant I’d have to factor in the cost of buying software into my budget.

Still, this was one of the “newest” machines that I’d seen within my price range, so I took a gamble and bid £90 with a couple of minutes to go.  Straight away I became the highest bidder at £36, then £58 with less than a minute to go.  I was practically out of my chair as the seconds counted down, but as the counter hit zero I saw a quick flash of the price changing, someone had used sniping software to try and get a bargain.  Had they stolen this Mac away from me at the last second?

No!  I managed to get the Mac for £82.  Admittedly a little higher than I wanted to go, I’d only left myself £18 for buying software and any upgrades I wanted, which isn’t a lot.  Still, I was planning on using an existing monitor so I might be able to pull this off.

After a bit of communication with the seller I arranged to go and collect the Mac straight from work, I handed over £82 and walked away with one of the best looking Macs I’d ever seen.

Ok, so it had a little scratch near the bottom, but it’s still a beautiful piece.  The Power Mac G5 was Apple’s first design step away from the clear acrylics they’d been using since about ’98.  Instead the chassis of the G5 is beautifully machined aluminium throughout, with a much more refined overall look to it.

It’s a look that Apple kept with the later Mac Pro machines, only replacing it with the new “Trash Can” design in late 2013.  Now, I don’t often have people around to look at my hardware, but at least now I could try and blag that it wasn’t an 8 year old machine.

Unfortunately, I was immediately met with a couple of issues with this machine that pretty much scuppered my plans for getting a usable machine for less than £100.

Firstly, when I picked up the machine there was the notable absence of a keyboard and mouse.  Through looking at so many different Macs on eBay I’d fooled myself in to thinking that this one included a Bluetooth keyboard and Mighty Mouse, but upon checking I realised that no peripherals were included at all.  I was going to have to find myself some cheap units in order to stay within my budget.

The other problems came when I got the Mac home and powered it on.  Straight away my senses of smell and hearing sent me in to panic mode.  Hearing because the hard disk sounded like it was about to fall apart, and smell because the air inside the mac smelt much like I imagine the board room of Marlboro smelt in the 1970′s – the previous owner had clearly smoked at his desk.

The hard disk problem I might be able to do something about in time, and at least it was working for now, but the smoke smell was going to be a lot more difficult to deal with; it’s almost impossible to get the smell of smoke out of a computer once it’s in there.

Not wanting to upset the other half I decided to turn the Mac off until I could get it to an air line and give it a good blow.  That would at least clear some of the dust out and hopefully minimise the odour.  I also gave all of the internal surfaces a quick wipe over with an alcohol wipe, which promptly turned yellow and then brown as it picked up years of tar and gunk.

In the meantime, I started to take a look online to see how much a keyboard was going to cost me.  I’d managed to find a usable 2-button mouse in a drawer at home, but with hopes of this being my main office PC I was going to need a decent keyboard.  An official Apple unit was going to set me back around £20 on eBay, pushing me over my budget.  Instead I reluctantly ordered a used Cherry Mac keyboard on Amazon for £8.99.

Cherry Keyboard

True, it’s not as pretty as the aluminium offering from Apple, but Cherry are renowned for producing decent keyboards for career typists, so it should at least be usable.

In the time between the auction for the Mac ending and me eventually collecting it, I’d started watching a few different auctions for Mac software, hoping to grab a bargain.

As a bare minimum I was hoping to lay my hands on a copy of the iLife bundle of programs as well as some sort of productivity suite.  It’s almost a blessing that the latest versions of popular software won’t run on Power PC systems, as it meant I’d have to look at older versions which should be a little bit cheaper.

Still, with now only £9.01 to work with it was going to be tough.  My initial efforts were thwarted by other bidders who just had more money to spend than I did.  Copies of Microsoft Office 2008 were going for £20-30, and I couldn’t go that high if I was going to stay within my £100 budget.

I decided to compromise and go for an earlier copy of Office, the 2004 edition.  This still includes full copies of Word, Excel, Powerpoint and Entourage (the Mac equivalent of Outlook), but lacks some of the features included in the 2008 version.  Still, this meant that I should be able to pick it up cheaper, I entered a maximum bid of £8, still clinging to the hope of picking up iLife as well.

At the end of the auction the screen read £7.50, I still had £1.51 to play with.  Wanting this whole thing to be over, I quickly did a search for iLife and found a 2009 edition finishing in less than an hour with no bids, just a starting price of 99p.  I entered my maximum and walked away to make a coffee.  When I came back, I was shocked to see that I’d outbid the only other bidder by a single penny and picked up iLife ’09 for exactly £1.51, meaning my grand total came to exactly £100.

A couple more hours of work installing free and purchased software and the Power Mac was ready to go.  The Mail app, iCal and Address Book were all populated with my TME and Google accounts, and a quick search online provided me with some excellent lists of free software designed to work on the Mac’s G5 processor.

In the end I’ve wound up with a pretty impressive Mac with some pretty awesome specs and applications:

  • Dual core PowerPC G5 processor – 2.3 GHz
  • 8GB DDR2 RAM
  • 250GB Hard disk
  • Apple Superdrive (DVD reader, CD-RW)
  • Nvidia Geforce 6600 256MB Graphics card
  • Dual Gigabit Ethernet ports
  • Digital (TOS-LINK) and analogue (3.5mm) audio ports
  • OS X 10.5.8 Leopard
  • iLife 09 – Including iPhoto, iMovie, Garageband, iWeb and iDVD
  • Microsoft Office 2004 – Including Word, Excel and PowerPoint
  • TenFourFox Web browser
  • Google Earth
  • Dropbox
  • iShowU HD (already owned the license)

So how does it run?  Pretty well actually.  In honesty I’m surprised at just how usable this £100 Mac is.  The iLife suite runs flawlessly, which is great considering that I plan on using this machine for video editing and music production.  Microsoft Office also works pretty well, though admittedly some of the features present in later versions are sorely missed.

General web browsing is also perfectly acceptable, although embedded videos (YouTube and the like) don’t tend to play back too well when you venture past 720p quality.

The only downside that I’ll have to address in the near future is that flaky sounding hard disk.  Even if it doesn’t fail, 250GB is going to become full pretty fast, especially as I start to produce videos using this machine.  Swapping out the drive should prove easy enough, though, and a 2TB drive is only going to set me back about £50 on eBay.  It’s also incredibly easy to migrate all of the data from the original disk on to a new one using SuperDuper! which will copy the OS, apps and files onto my new drive

In conclusion, although I’ve spent more than double what I’ve spent on budget Mac’s previously, I’ve definitely got a machine that I can continue to use for at least the next three years.  Getting replacement hardware out to Nigeria is going to be a difficult task, so it’s important that this machine can stand up to the task.  Given that this machine is just as upgradable/repairable as a PC, it shouldn’t prove too difficult to swap out most parts if something does go wrong.

A quick look on eBay shows that the same budget will get you a Windows XP or 7 machine with pretty modest spec:  early dual core processors, 2GB of RAM, 80-160GB of hard disk space and integrated graphics.  Of course, a Windows machine will allow you to install more of the latest software compared to the G5 Mac, but if you’re looking for a machine to fulfil a specific role then something like the G5 Power Mac may well be worth your while.

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