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What's expandability, and what can't be done on a Mac?

By:David K. Every
©Copyright 1999

Mac users get constantly bombarded with falsehoods about expansion. Especially by those that haven't used Macs or don't understand the issues. Some are so off the mark as to be funny - in an ironic sort of way - like when a rural southerner tells me with a drawl - "Damn, califOrnIans sure do talk funny".


I taught martial arts for 10 years, and used to teach my students that the best block (for a punch or kick) was to not be there. Well the same is true about expandability - the most expandable computer is the one you don't ever have to expand (because it comes with enough the first time). That is the most important part of the Mac expansion philosophy.

PC's seem to be sold like cars - some slick talker comes up and sells you on a model and then after making the sale says "Now, would you like some RAM with that". Uh, excuse me, but is a computer any good without RAM? No... then of course I would like RAM with that!

Now it has gotten much better than in the past since companies like Compaq and IBM started copying Apples pre-configured system marketing -- started with the Mac Performas, and now mimicked with the Presario's, Aptiva's and others. However, PC's are still not up to the Macs standards, and many PC's are not the pre-configured kind, but instead the kind people buy in chop-shops (garage clone assemblers) or bought from someone else, etc. -- and those users need to know what they want ahead of time. Of course many users don't know what they will need in the future - and so must expand later - at more cost, time and aggravation than if they had just bought it properly bundled in the first place.

In other cases the Mac just has more capabilities. Some examples of Macs superior expandability include -

  • Sound - Macs come with sound input and output - PC's often come with sound output, rarely input, and the PC's have some fundamental issues with moving sound around so that no one wants to used sampled sounds (which sound superior but don't work as well on PC's as Macs) - they instead need wave table sound to make up for sound-system design flaws. But then different sound cards behave differently, and I've seen more than a few cases of users have to disable the on-board sound and instead add a different sound card. (Macs don't have these problems).
  • Networking - Macs have come with built-in networking since the Mac128K (circa 1984). Most new Macs include the ability to hook up to both AppleTalk and Ethernet. PC's almost never have built-in Networking. Of course you can add them to PC's - but that is cost, time, potential conflict, etc.
  • SCSI - Macs have at least one SCSI port (a high speed port than allows users to connect up to 7 devices, like printers, scanners, hard-drives, CD-ROM's and more). Many Macs have 2 of these ports - for 14 total devices. PC users can add them for a cost, and potential headaches.
  • ADB - Apple Desktop Bus. This is a connector that allow a user to plug in multiple keyboards, track balls, joysticks, mice, tablets, track-pads, I/O devices and even modems. PC-users have to add each individually, often with their own cards (and potential problems) or they can fight for one of the ports that may be left open. Intel is copying Apple (13 years later) and coming out with USB (universal serial bus) to add a similar capability to ADB - but it is not common yet - and so is just another option that PC-users must buy (and because its not common, the likelihood of it not working with Everything is much higher).
  • On-Board Video - for years Macs have come with on-board video. So users don't have to buy a video card, or waste an expansion slot on one. Some PC's have started copying Macs on this - most do not. So they get a card bundled in with their machine, but it often fills up a slot - so they have less slots than they think they did.
  • Monitors - well both support monitors, but Macs support multiple monitors. On a Mac if I need more monitor space or want to run another monitor, I can plug in ANY video card and run a second monitor - in fact many Macs came with dual monitor support right out of the box. On PC's this can be done (though it doesn't work as well) - but you have to buy a replacement video card(s) that will drive two monitors, and it may even work with your Software or Hardware, and all monitors must be at the same resolution and depth. On the Mac I can have, 2, 3 or 10 monitors - all with different resolutions and depths and different cards driving them. (I use 3 monitors at work and 2 at home - it is a very nice way to work).
  • CPU's - many Macs come with CPU's on a special "processor" card. This allows users to replace a single processor easily, to change the entire family of processor (like going from a 603 to a 604), or to replace the single processor with 2 or 4 processors. PC's can not do this unless you replace the whole motherboard -- which requires reconfiguring BIOS, sometimes replacing RAM, and fighting all the compatibility nightmares of PC's all over again.
  • ROM - Macs have 4 megabytes or more of ROM built in, PC's have 16K - 64K of ROM. This means that the Mac can use that much less RAM than PC's.
  • RAM - PC's usually have less RAM expansion capabilities of the Mac (capping out at some fraction of what the Macs can do). PC's are also less RAM efficient in many cases. (Win95 is a RAM pig compared to the Mac, and WinNT is even more a pig -- though the PPC's are not quite as space efficient as the 68K Macs).
  • No IRQ's - the Mac does not use an archaic IRQ-scheme that means that people that want to push their PC's a little bit (and actually use all that expansion they think they have) find out that they can't actually do what they want, or have to waste hours, days or give up in frustration - all while trying to get the devices they have to work. Sometimes they find that two Expansion cards just will not work with each other <period>, and so they have to chuck one in the garbage - they can not buy more IRQ's. Macs have nothing close to this problem.
  • Serial Ports - Macs have 2 serial ports - PC's often have 2 serial ports. 1 of the PC's serial ports is usually tied up for the mouse. PC's also have COM-ports that limit their total to 2 that really work. as serial ports without special drivers, patches and other "fun" causing conflicts. Macs have no such problems and you can add as many serial ports as you want, and they will work. PC serial ports often run at slower speeds like 56kb, Macs run at 2,048kb - so PC users often have to replace their serial ports if they want to use them for modern modems or any sort of fast device (like ISDN, scanners, etc.).
  • Speech Recognition - Macs do speech recognition. PC's can too - but it requires extra hardware or software, and is not as compatible with as many applications as the Macs.
  • BIOS - Macs have a universal BIOS that just works and can basically update itself at boot time. PC's have some Memory dedicated to it, and often are forced to upgrade it to get the features that they want (like PnP, or the system to actually work). Now BIOS problems are becoming more rare now days, and they can often be updated via software (now), but many people have gotten surprised by having to upgrade their BIOS.
  • CD-ROM's - now most PC's come with CD-ROM's - NOW. But many still do not. All Macs come with CD-ROM's (and were coming with CD-ROM's before PC's). This means that Mac software companies can ship their software on CD's and not have to worry about users having a drive to read it or not. This is why more PC software comes on floppy disks. PC's also have a lot more problems with their CD-ROMs not being able to do things like Mac (like being bootable, or the user being able to turn on or off an "auto-execute" function). PC's also have many more problems with just getting CD-ROM's to work. (This is less of a problem now because most PC's now come with CD-Drives, and they fixed most of the compatibility issues - but there are many PC-users that have been burned trying to upgrade their PC's to have the same functionality as a Mac).
  • Parallel ports - Many Macs come with IDE (actually EIDE) and PC's do as well - but Macs also come with SCSI so they can hook up external devices. When PC's need to go to external devices they often resort to Parallel ports - which are much slower than IDE or SCSI. To make matters worse, Parallel ports were designed to have only one device on them. If you have two - then they try to share a port that was not designed to share. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't - its like tap-dancing in a mine field - you may pull it off, but its never smart. Parallel ports are also sometimes only unidirectional (they can send to a printer, but see if the printer has paper or whether it is even on). So sometimes PC people have to upgrade their parallel ports just to get them to work right (bidirectional). Macs have bidirectional serial ports (and some new machines - PPCP - have bi-di parallel ports).
  • Power - Macs have software controlled power-supplies. I can not only turn my Mac on or off from the keyboard, I can also schedule my Mac to turn itself on or off at preset times. PC's can add this type of functionality to PC's - through expensive external devices. And then the PC has to add special software to control this device - and it may or may not cause other conflicts. Also the Macs have energy saving extensions so the machine can turn off its monitor, spin down its hard drives, and put itself to sleep (low power). PC desktops can not usually do this (Mac desktops can) - but some PC laptops can.
  • Multimedia - PC's are now adding MMX. Why? Because it turns out that PC's weren't as good as older Macs for doing fun stuff like Video, Sound, 3D and other processor intensive stuff. So Intel added MMX to make it almost as good as a Mac. Of course PC users now have to add something (a new processor) or replace their entire computer to get something that works as good as the Mac has all along.

The argument about being "pre-configured" is the least addressed by PC advocates -- they want to talk about how it is cheap to replace a motherboard -- then dodge the issue of the time costs and that often they have to replace some other component (or two) to make things work. Trying to worm the argument into cost of those component parts (but I can get $15 serial cards and make it work) -- eventually. They talk about how they have Plug&Play -- but then you can get most of them to admit they hate it because it conflicts with non PnP cards and likes to put two or more cards at the same address (which means a failure to work and another visit to Configuration Hell). They talk about all that you CAN add to make it almost as good as a Mac, but then when you point out that it'd require 14 slots to do so, and the time required, they change the subject or talk about best cases scenarios, "Well I had a friend that once got all this stuff to work in one box in only 2 weeks!".


So you can see that the Mac has a dramatically different and (in my opinion) superior approach to expansion. Sure with PC's you can often expand them to get the features you already have with the Mac, and often it will even work (with a breif visit to, and a little suffering in, configuration hell). PC users often want to count slots and call that expansion - but then they want to ignore the fact that they have too fill all of those slots just to get the PC to give them the same functionality as the Mac.

As a long time user of both, I not only find that I have to expand my Macs a fraction as often, but that when I do need to do so, I can expand it more, and it works better. This is one of the reasons why people still use 5 or 10 year old Macs, and PC people are constantly be forced to upgrade to the latest. Then they try to twist that "latest machine" comparison as something cool, "Yeah, well I just replaced my motherboard last weekend". My response, "Yeah, well I didn't have to!"

Created: 02/04/97
Updated: 11/09/02

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