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Comparing Upgrades: 1995 to 1998
A tale of two systems: the truth about PC's and Macs

By:David K. Every
©Copyright 1999

I've often heard PC advocates tell me how much more upgradable PC's are than Macs. I'm on my 4th or 5th upgrade of my PowerMac 7500, which has changed processors a few times, and I thought about how difficult this would have been in the PC world. I keep coming back the total audacity of their statements and think, "what in the world are they talking about?" Let's look at a little history of my machines upgrades and compare it to PC's of the same time.

1995 - First Generation Chips

In 1995, I bought my PowerMac 7500 which came with a first generation PowerPC (601 @ 100 MHz). At this time, you could still only buy the first Generation Pentiums (the P5 at 66 MHz). Intel claims you could get the P54C flavor of the Pentium (the Pentium 90's), but it wasn't available in any volume, the I/O chips were hard to find for it -- if you bought a machine at this time, it was likely to be the P5/66.

The Pentium (P5) was big, hot, slow, and it had a nasty floating point bug, so you couldn't even trust its math. Around this time, Intel was finally replacing the bad chips for all the early adopters who had floating point bugs on their Pentiums -- but Intel did that only after they hid the bug from the public for a good part of a year, and then tried to minimize the problem by lying about its severity.

The Mac came with 3 free PCI slots, but it had everything I needed on the motherboard; Video, Sound, SCSI, Ethernet, ADB, high speed serial ports and so on. The PC's of that time didn't have nearly as much on the motherboard but they did have a few more slots -- yet you filled those slots if you added the same features as the Mac, like sound, SCSI, Video, Ethernet and they didn't even have anything close to ADB. You could upgrade the PC's serial ports to get closer to the Mac's speed, but that was extra, and they would be incompatible, and they were still slower than the Mac (just faster than the norm for PC's).

On most PC's, once you added the features that the Mac had standard, you were left with less expansion slots free, with only one or two slots open, if you were lucky. Most of the time it was left to you to integrate all that hardware, and that was before Plug & Play. Those hours, days, weeks of pain were your problem. You got to play "ring around the companies", trying to find who would support you -- usually they just each said that it was the other companies fault.

RAM of that era, the Mac could expand to 512 Meg (or more), and most PC's couldn't cross either a 32 Meg or 64 Meg barrier (this was the hardware chipsets of the time). Hard Drives, the Macs could basically handle 4 Gigabytes per partition, and you could connect dozens of drives with dozens of partitions each to a Mac (if you wanted) and the PC runs out of letters pretty quick. Lastly, if my memory serves me correct, that was the time PC's were trying to solve their 500 Megabyte per partition maximum limit as well.

The Mac of mid 1995 was better in every way that I can remember, but I remember people were telling others how much more expandable PC's were then Macs back then (just like today).

End of 1995 - Second Generation Chips

By the end of 1995 the Second Generation Processors were coming out for both platforms.

For the PowerPC's it was the 604 chips.
For the Pentiums it was the P54C (the Pentium 90's).

Intel was also starting to show the Pentium Pro's, but the Pentium Pro's were very hard to get, way expensive and really slow on most apps (all the 16 bit Apps of the time), so the Pentium Pro didn't really take off for another year or so. Also the early Pentium Pro's worked with only one I/O chip set, and that Orion chip set had a bug which made your I/O performance really poor -- but people didn't find out about that nasty surprise for nearly a year. There were many companies that did not offer "upgrades" to a working motherboard, you were one your own.

I went out and bought a 604 @ 132 MHz upgrade (I got it for like $795), which was on a little daughter card. I popped out my old processor, and popped in the new one, everything worked, and I was off and running in like 5 Minutes -- it took that long because I dawdled, admiring my easy open case, and the clean innards of my machine. Quite a contrast to the razor sharp stamped sheet-metal, hunk-o-junk, case that was held together by dozens of screws, that was the average PC case.

PC upgrading was not so easy. I don't mean just that it takes a lot longer to open one up, and your hand usually ends up looking like hamburger from all the sharp edges (though that is true). The problem was that the P54C (upgraded Pentium) ran at a different voltage, and had a different socket than the original P5 Pentium. To upgrade, you had to replace the entire motherboard, not just the processor. Now granted the actual cost of the motherboard was fairly cheap (a few hundred dollars) -- but to upgrade the PC you were likely to spend $300 - $500 on the motherboard, $600 - 800 on the Processor, you were likely to have to change memory types (from FPM to EDO), and likely you got a few different things on the motherboard than you had before, so you usually threw some of your old cards away (1). You would easily spend twice as much on the hardware for the upgrade as the Mac people, but the processor upgrade itself may have been $100 cheaper, so the PC people thought they were getting a bargain. The cheaper you were on the initial hardware purchases for the PC, the more likely you were to throw away those parts, or even the whole machine and start over completely.

(1) Later you found out that on the PC the onboard function of whatever used to be on a card, SCSI, Sound, Video, whatever, didn't work quite right -- so many people had to go out and buy a new card or try to stuff their old ones back in again, and hoped they worked with the new motherboard, BIOS and so on.

Of course PC people could have waited until there was a version of processor that was compatible with the old socket -- but Intel was 3 years late with the P54T (the "Overdrive" Pentium that went in the old 486 socket), so no one was holding their breath that Intel would ever come out with one for the P5 socket. And if you waited for clone chips, that could also be 3 years as well. So the choice was upgrade the expensive way, or wait years to upgrade, and you'd still be a lot slower than whatever the "new" cutting edge was.

The real costs on the PC wasn't the hardware costs (thought they were substantial), it was the time. When you replace a motherboard on a PC, often your old Windows installation wouldn't work right, so you had to reinstall the whole OS, and reconfigure for all the new hardware. This is not an easy task -- especially back then -- Plug & Play wasn't working right (but it is almost working right today), besides P & P cards were still the exception back then. In fact, P&P was so new it would just cause more conflicts than it cured. So this "little" upgrade would easily cost you 5 to 80 hours -- most people could get by on the lower end of the scale (say a full day), but there were quite a few that got themselves weeks of downtime.

This was also the time when Windows95 had just come out, so many people upgraded to Windows 95 along with their hardware upgrades. This showed many conflicts, and had many people calling in to tech support at Microsoft and other hardware and I/O card companies, with pleas of how to get things to work. It could take hours (days) on hold, and many support groups were buckling under the pressure. Tech support people still remember the pain of late '95 -- sadly users have shorter memories. Early Win95 adopters were not a happy lot.

But lets assume that the PC people finally got everything working, and didn't go back to their old machines in disgust (like many did). It was also around this time that users could finally get past the 500 Megabytes per partition limitation on the PC (my then 1 Gigabyte hard drive on the Mac could be a single partition). Windows95 was a big improvement over Windows3.1. Of course if they did upgrade they also had lots of other software upgrade costs (since many 16 bit Windows apps didn't quite work right on Windows95, Windows users were forced to upgrade their software -- but this is common, Windows upgrades are far more often "mandatory" than on Macs). We really should factor in those fees as well -- think of 3 or 4 upgrades at $100 to $200 each, twice as common and required about twice as often as Macs.

I remember all during that time, chuckling to myself, when one of the many Windows advocates would talk about how they had upgraded their machine to a P54C/100 (or a few month later to the P54C/120's), and how much less expensive their machines were than Macs. If they bought the PC without all the features of the Macs, the PC's were a couple hundred dollars less. Feature for feature, the PC's were often more. These same PC users had just wasted 3 times as much money upgrading as I had if you aren't putting any value on their time. If you factor in their time, they could have already bought two Macs -- but most PC users don't think of their time costs, but I value my time. I would ask the PC users how long it took them to upgrade, compare to my experience and point out the realities of the situation (costs) and the PC users would storm away angry with me -- and tell me I was biased and full of it. Then like today, they just didn't want to face the math.

The 601 had been faster than the P5 at the same clock rate, and the 601 was available at faster MHz. But the upgrade was worse (for Pentiums). The P54C wasn't even as fast (MHz to MHz) as the 601, the 604 was like 40-50% faster at the same clock rate, and was available (for a while) at higher clock rates. The 604 was more comparable to P6 (Pentium Pro) which wasn't really common for many more months (couple of years). Of course that didn't stop the PC people from telling me how much faster PC's were than Macs, despite the facts, all during that time.

Early 1997 - Speed bump

In 1996 and 1997 we had speed bumps, and slightly improved versions of the respective processors. By 1997 the Pentiums had gone from the 100-120 MHz P54C, to the 166-200 MHz P55C (the Pentium with MMX). Now MMX didn't give users a big performance boost, but those dancing guys in iridescent bunny suits looked cool -- so people ran out and upgraded. Of course, Mac people upgrade as well -- and my Mac had gone from the 604 @ 132 to the 604e (enhanced) @ 200 MHz (2). Again, for the Mac it was plug it in, reboot, and everything just worked -- it is a Mac. The PC is never that easy.

(2) I actually waited a few months longer, and bought my 604e/200 for $199 right after the G3's came out, but I could have upgraded at this time for about $800.


Now there were two paths to upgrading the PC of the time. They could chose either the PentiumPro (P6) or go with the Pentium with MMX (P55C).

PentiumPro -- a few people chose to upgrade at this time to the Pentium Pro (P6) processor. It was quite a bit faster than the Pentium with MMX at 32 bit apps, but slower it was slower at 16 bit apps (all the legacy apps and most games), and it didn't have MMX. The Pentium Pro required a motherboard change, and usally a new case with a larger power supply, and so on. But the P6 was a better processor than the Pentium, and its performance was far closer to that of a 604e -- so those that needed performance as good as a Mac took this path. If you were going to the Pentium Pro, you really would have wanted to install NT to actually get the processor performance you paid for (Win95 has a big performance hit on Pentium Pro's since it is a giant 16 bit App) -- but upgrading to NT meant that you sacrificed compatibility with a lot of legacy Application and that you can't run many games. So both P6 and NT made legacy app and game performance slower and less reliable -- the deadly duo. NT also is very incompatible with a lot of hardware, so usually you had to replace some cards to get it to work as well. This was a painful path, and so most people just avoided it.

The rest bought a Pentium with MMX and thought it was as good as a PowerMac -- in reality it was still quite a bit slower than the Macs (and PentiumPro's). Even with only upgrading to the P55C (Pentium with MMX) you would probably want another motherboard swap. You could actually stuff a P55C in a P54C socket, but there were some other things that changed that made it better to upgrade. So again there was another few hundred extra dollars for a motherboard replacement. Hopefully that would give them year 2000 fixes (the Mac never had a Y2K problem), and they could make sure the BIOS was Plug & Play (something the Mac always was), and they could get SCSI on the motherboard (like the Mac had), and so on. Around this time, the ATX form factor was finally catching on, so if you upgraded your case, along with your motherboard, you could get soft-power (a software controlled power supply). That meant that your computer could turn itself off (instead of telling you that it was time for you to do so for it) -- this was another PC feature that happened only 10 years after the Mac. Of course the Macs soft-power is still better as I can have the machine turn itself on at a predefined times, and Mac power-supply also controlled the pass-thru power (unlike the PC) so it could turn on and off the monitor or peripherals as well as itself, but the PC people thought ATX was "as good as a Mac". Since even the MMX upgrade path likely had a motherboard, case, powersupply and processor upgrade, it was also a good idea to update the OS as well. Win95was getting OSR2 (Revision 2), which fixed some bugs, and allowed PC's to address more space on the hard drive. Actually, with a motherboard and Processor swap it wasn't like an OS install was optional.

There are lots of little "either/or's" like this in the PC world -- choose the lesser of the two evils, or buy a Mac. Did you want good performance like the PowerMac -- then choose NT and P6, but then you don't get games, and loose a lot of hardware compatibility. If you wanted game, hardware and legacy Appliation compatibility then you should get Win95 -- but that runs slow on a PentiumPro. Fun choices.

Either path you chose, you were likely to do another system install. So again, expect days of downtime while you totally recreate your system. Usually the install only wastes a day (or most of one), but it is easy to have something not work right. I've had WinNT installs that took a week to resolve, and often required changing hardware. Win95 is a little better, but not that much. As long as you were upgrading processor, case, motherboard, and Operating System, you might as well have upgraded a few cards too -- that way you get more Plug & Play functionality. Basically you replaced most of your system by the time you are done -- but don't tell a PC advocate that, they tend to get annoyed at themselves and take it out on you.

Drive Upgrade

During this upgrade, I also upgraded my hard drive. I dropped in a 4 Gigabyte SCSI drive, drag-copied all my files over (reorganizing along the way). Then I pointed to the new drive as the "startup disk" and rebooted. I bought the 4 Gigabyte drive as an external, and then swapped my internal drive into the external case (and vise versa) -- that way I can drag my 1 Gigabyte drive to work or friends houses, and just plug it in to exchange data. Very easy stuff.

This upgrade would have been far harder on the PC -- far, far harder. Just copying the system to another drive on a PC is not a good idea (and won't usually work) -- moving Application around is almost always guaranteed to break things. In the PC world, when you get a new primary drive, you usually reinstall everything from scratch (which is a far bigger, and time consuming process). A lot of people just use the new drive as a slave drive, but then their data is spread out over two drives (intuitively labeled C: and D:) -- so this is an organizational mess. Far better to take the time and do it right. But it gets worse -- most PC people also use IDE instead of SCSI, so they get slower performance and can't just pop their old drive in a case and use it as an external drive (and move data around). So usually they always have crap spread across two drives (or more). IDE also has a nasty habit of working at the lowest common denominator -- so if you get a new fast drive, it will talk at the old slower drives rate (or worse, the rate of the CD-ROM) if they are sharing a IDE Bus (like most are). Most PC users don't know that -- but that is the point, there are dozens of things you should know when upgrading a PC.

End of 98 (another generation of processor)

It is now the end of 1998, and I got a new machine. My primary machine is now a G3 with a 366 MHz processor. To install it, I just networked my two machines (via their built in Ethernet connectors), and I copy dragged all my files (including the system) over to the new machine. Too bad most PC's don't come with built in ethernet so they can't do that. Again, I rearranged the data as I moved -- and again, too bad PC's can't do that and still work. I had dual monitors on the older 7500 (a video card as well as internal video), but I got the G3 with dual video as well (on board as well as a card). So I moved the older video card from the 7500 to the G3, so now I'm running 3 different monitors at once on my G3 -- it just worked, it doesn't matter that the card is older and I'm running 3 different resolutions and bit depths, it is a Mac. Just plugging the card in was enough to make it work (installing the driver is only necessary if I want to take advantage of extra features). Everything still runs. This is a pipe dream on the PC, and would take at least twice as long to do this migration, if you could do it at all.

So it is time to retire the ol' 7500 who has served me well for 4 years, right? (This is well beyond the lifespan of the average PC). Well, I also got the opportunity to upgrade my old 7500 to a G3 as well. So I'm dropping a G3 into it (which take the usual 5 minutes), and it is going to become the MacKiDo web server, and my own Internet file, FTP and Mail server. It is mostly set up already (I spent an hour on it the other day installing AppleShare IP and WebTen) -- I'll probably convert to using it early next year (or later this year).

The 604e/200 was certainly high enough performance for this stuff, but the G3 was inexpensive, gives me better performance, and will give the machine a few more years of life near the cutting edge.

Again, this upgrade was just dropping in a new processor card, rebooting, and viola -- I'm finished. Again, lets compare the process of upgrading a PC.

Whether someone had gone with a Pentium with MMX or a Pentium Pro they would probably have to replace the motherboard again. The Pentium II is a totally different connector than both, and requires a totally different motherboard -- and case, and Power supply. Since you are replacing the motherboard (or entire System) you probably want to go from the older EDO RAM to SDRAM, and you probably won't have a choice but to upgrade (unless you buy an off brand motherboard). Which means that the only thing you kept from your old system (again), are a few semi-out-dated cards. Since almost everything else in the machine is getting changed, it might be a good idea to upgrade some cards (maybe move from ISA to all PCI -- like the Mac has had for the past 4 years), or maybe you should upgrade the cards to make sure they ar Plug & Play or NT compatible. I find it ironic when the PC people criticize Mac upgrades as requiring replacing your entire system (when they don't), then PC types are always replacing systems (except for a few of the cheapest parts).

At the end of 1998 Intel did come out with a PentiumII OverDrive for the PPro (Socket 8), so if you had a PPro you could update. But since the OverDrive path doesn't usually keep up with the "current" processor paths (usually a delay of a few months to quite a few months), it wouldn't get you the latest. They sell overdrives at like 333 MHz when they've moved up to 550 MHz PIII's for the regular line. PC types usually opt to upgrade their motherboards to have the latest connectors if they want to stay up to date. There is also the issue of having to upgrade the BIOS as well, and so on.

Upgrading the processor always makes it a good idea (see mandatory) to reinstall Windows (again) -- when you are changing the motherboard there is no doubt. Since you already have to reinstall the OS, you might as well upgrade to Win98 or WinNT anyway . So once again, you have to start over and install your OS, all your Applications, and your data. (Remember, on the Mac it can survive in-place upgrades much better than the PC). As long as you are reinstalling your apps, you should probably be upgrading them to their latest version (to make sure they work on the new version of the OS). Say goodbye to thousands of dollars, again. Plan on at least a day, that may extend to a week or more.

There is another path on the PC. You could go with a non-Intel chip that will still fit in the older socket design and power budget. AMD, Cyrix, and others make good alternatives to the Pentium chips -- and the compatibility problems that plagued them for a few years are finally all-but-gone. This would reduce the pain of the PC upgrade substantially, but you would get lower performance. The K6 has their 3D-Now technology which is a direct competitor (and incompatible) with Katmai and KNI from Intel -- and you are gambling that software companies will keep supporting (or more will start supporting) 3D-Now despite Intel's incompatible and proprietary solution. A big gamble indeed. For a home user, I would probably take that bet, and buy the cheaper path (AMD), but most businesses will play it safe, spend far more on the Pentium II upgrade, and pay the IS deptartment thousands of dollars (in time) and thousands more in hardware to get the upgrade completed. That is more than most home users can bear, and the AMD choice would be smarter for them -- but many home users are afraid to not have "Intel Inside". So for most users see it as a lose-lose situation do you want to save time and money but be incompatible, or do you want compatibility and basically have to replace your entire system and spend days upgrading?


The points should be obvious -- there are smart ways and dumb ways to upgrade.

If you really want to be near the cutting edge, and to be able to upgrade with less pain, the Mac is by far the better way to go. Mac people generally upgrade less, because they don't have to as often -- but it is far more cost effective for Mac user to upgrade than for PC users.

If you are self supporting, and don't want all the pain, the Mac is the better way to go.If you have an IS department doing the upgrades for you, it shouldn't matter as much, to you -- other than your added downtime, and long wait to actually get IS to do your upgrade But it matters a lot to companies -- they are going to spend far more upgrading and maintaining PC's (as compared to Macs), which has been proven time and time again with many ROI (Return on Investment) and TCO (Total Cost of Ownership) studies which all conclude the Mac is the better choice, despite not being the most popular one.

Not everyone has to be on the cutting edge -- on PC's it is smart not to try, so many people ignore wisdom and try to anyway. But if you don't want to be near the cutting edge, and just use your machine without upgrades, the Mac is still the better choice. The software lasts longer and can survive System upgrades more often. The software runs on older hardware. In general people leverage their Macs for a lot more time than PC's.

I could easily turn a non-upgraded 7500/100 into a nice file and web server and it would handle the stress of my relatively high volume site (higher than most businesses site) just fine -- my 7500/G3 is really way overpowered for the task at hand. Many people are still using vanilla 7500's for doing lots of work -- more (in percentage) than are still using P5/66's or P54C's. At work a couple years ago, I tried to install WinNT on a P5/66 to use as a server, it informed me that this one still had the floating point bug, and I should disable the entire floating point side of the processor (which makes it perform like an older 486 processor). Even after that I could never get NT to run, and neither could the qualified IS staff, and it was an old name-brand Compaq machine -- a no-named clone would have been worse.

Of course the point is not that PC's are un-upgradable, nor is it to imply that you can't leverage them for long life spans -- you can. But like most things on a PC, it is just far more work than it would be on Macs. I expect to get 10 years and 5 generations of upgrades out of my old 7500, which is just unheard of on Intel PC's. PC's are lucky to survive a single generation of processor upgrade, and they are always getting hit with incompatibilities and forced upgrades (which is a major part of what drives their cost of ownership so high).

If you time has value, then the first time you have to upgrade a PC you usually make up for any cost differential among Macs and PC's (and then some). By the 3rd or 4th upgrade, the PC have usually cost 3 to 4 times as much as the Mac. Mac people understand this (especially the ones who've owned PC's before), but many PC people do not.

I estimate, that for me, a PC would have easily cost me over three times as much over the life of the machine as my Mac -- or I wouldn't have upgraded as ofen, and had even more frustration and more lost productivity than the worse interface of Windows itself gives me. Mac people that know this, and when they try to teach others about these savings they are called "bias", "zealots" or "fanatics".

IS people have a vested interest in PC's (and job security by upgrade) so they are not telling management and home users about all this stuff. I am not an IS person who gets kickbacks and spiffs from Microsoft or other companies for using their time wasting software. I don't get the my company to drive up my earning potential by sending me to MSEE or CNE training or all that other stuff required to support PC's -- so I have no built-in bias towards Microsoft and Windows like most of them. That is why I am telling you the truth, and many of them will not.

The truth is that for the last decade, Macs have been far more upgradable, needed upgrades less often, offered more features (for dollar) and been cheaper over the life of a machine than PC's.

Created: 11/21/98
Updated: 11/09/02

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