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ATPM 11.02
February 2005


How To



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How To

by Sylvester Roque,

What to Do With Older Macs, Part 2

Last month, I talked about some ways to get rid of an older Mac that is no longer your primary machine. Recycling, donating to charity, or passing them on to relatives are all good things to do with older Macs. But maybe you have decided to keep yours a bit longer. If so, this month’s column is for you.

If you are looking for case mods, or directions for creating an aquarium from an all-in-one unit, that’s not what this is about. I’m talking about relatively simple projects that can extend the useful life of an older Mac. If this sounds like it’s for you, read on.

I realize that faster processors and a more stable multi-user operating system might lead some people, particularly home users, to conclude that they have no need for multiple Macs in the same household. Maybe, after reading this article, you will conclude that there’s a place for older Macs in your computing family. Here are some of the ideas that have occurred to me.

Create a “Banger”

If you’ve just gotten a new Mac, you might be afraid of some younger users touching the system. Setting up multiple user accounts might keep little ones from deleting important information, but it won’t prevent keyboard and other hardware damage from spills. This might be just the thing for older systems. Little ones can bang away to their hearts’ content without fear of damaging your new machine.

Even if the children in your home are a little older and you aren’t worried about physical damage, older machines are still useful. OS X does a pretty good job of running older software under Classic, but some software actually runs better on older machines. Several years ago, for example, I owned a game that did not play well on an LC II. The machine was just too slow. On a 300 MHz Blue and White G3, the game was a little too fast. A machine somewhere in the middle would have been just right for the game, but too slow to be useful as my primary machine. There’s a lot of good software out there that should run well on older machines.

Create an Education Station

As the kids get a little older and more comfortable with computers, an extra computer may become an important part of doing homework. It doesn’t take the most recent, ultra-powerful, word processor to crank out a book report. Older software often works well for this type of task. Depending upon the age of your children and their level of computer skill you could either use software you already own or purchase a title specifically crafted with children in mind.

When you are setting up an education station, don’t limit yourself to just word processing. I can think of many instances where a young student might need to do Web-based research or run some educational software. There is an additional benefit. You will be exposing your children to positive uses of technology. Some states have included exposure to technology as a component of their educational curriculum. These standards often begin in elementary school and require gradually exposing students to increasingly more sophisticated uses of technology.

Get Dedicated

Do you often find that your creative projects that require high-powered processing are interrupted because someone else needs to check e-mail, surf the Web, or chat with friends? If so, set up an older machine dedicated to those tasks. If you don’t need the latest e-mail, Web, or chat features an older machine might be a perfect fit. Whether it’s DVD burning, scanning, or playing back music, almost any basic task that you do frequently is a good candidate for a dedicated setup. This can be especially helpful if the task requires making frequent changes to the system configuration.

With a little more horsepower and a little thought, you can also do some more creative things. Several months ago, when my VCR stopped working suddenly, I seriously considered using Eye TV to turn a Mac into a hard drive-based video recording system. At that time, I didn’t have a machine that I could dedicate to that purpose so I didn’t give it a try, but given that I wanted to archive some things to DVD it would have been a good idea.

It’s Your Serve

Believe it or not, there are many instances where home users might want to set up a server. Given all the possible hardware and software combinations we can’t touch on all the specifics here, but it’s not that difficult. If you happen to be running OS X you may already have all the server software you need without adding OS X Server. Here are some server ideas to consider.

Setup a Backup Server

If you have multiple machines around, such basic tasks as backups may not get performed regularly. This is the perfect task for a backup server. Once you get the system networked and appropriate software installed, you’re ready to go. In this case, you are not terribly concerned about the speed of the server because most modern software permits scheduling the backup at times that are convenient for you. Even if you have large enough volumes of data to require backing up a different system each night, at least you have a reliable system that preserves your data.

Setup a File Server

Several years ago, I set up a home network with multiple Macs and a Windows 98 machine. One Mac was set up as a file server. With file sharing turned on, this arrangement permitted us to put much of our data files on one machine and access that data from any of the other machines. This was really helpful for files that tended to be large and common to both platforms, such as JPEGs. Since this was done under OS 9, we did have to use PCMacLan to allow the machines to “see” each other. Although two machines couldn’t access the same file simultaneously, at least we had a consistent storage space. We didn’t have to search multiple machines to find the most recent version of a file.

Server as Digital Hub

With a reasonably modern Mac, you could set up a media server that passes multimedia content to either other Macs or to a connected stereo. With a little more work, you could set up a server that allows family from across the country or the world to access the pictures or video that you took on your last vacation.

Setup an Emergency System

Let’s face it: even our beloved Macs foul up once in a while. In those cases an “emergency” system might be a good idea. Take an older system and load it with “mission critical” software. If your primary system goes down, you have the option of repairing the primary system immediately or working form the backup system until it’s convenient to troubleshoot your primary system.

If you have a notebook that supports FireWire target disk mode, you have a great option for repairing damaged systems. Think of it as a sort of computer medical bag. Load the laptop with appropriate utilities and keep them up-to-date. The next time there’s a problem, connect the machines with a FireWire cable and turn on the laptop. Turn on the “damaged” system, holding down the T key to put it in target disk mode. With a little luck, the damaged hard drive will appear on the desktop.

Getting Started

Hopefully this has given you a few ideas. Even a cursory Web search will yield a wide variety of options and possible projects. Here are some things to consider for any project that is going to use an older Mac.

Make a serious assessment of the hardware and software available to you. Make sure that you are aware of any problems the system might have. You want this to work reliably. No one wants a high-maintenance setup.

Don’t skimp on the advance preparation. Find out the system requirements for software that you are planning to use. Make sure that your older Mac exceeds these requirements. If one of the pieces of software you want to run pushes the limit of the target system, you’re likely to be frustrated by a lack of performance each time you try the task you are trying to complete.

Consider loading a clean copy of the OS with just the components needed for the tasks at hand. The more software you load, the more likely it is that software incompatibilities will arise. Test everything and make sure it’s stable.

If you are setting up a server to be accessed by people outside of your home, talk to your Internet Service Provider. Some Internet providers have policies that only permit you to run a server with certain types of accounts.

If you’re going to set up a server, especially a backup server, consider using external hard drives. Should your trusty server finally be declared unfit for continued use, unplug the drives and connect them to a newer machine.

• • •

Hopefully these suggestions will stimulate some thought and creativity. Until next time, the door to the lab is open. Enter at your own risk.

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Reader Comments (4)

John Hinds · February 16, 2005 - 16:44 EST #1
In my school distict teachers scavenge old Macs. They use them to run old reliable programs like Fraction Munchers and Micro Type, and games for free time. We have a children's museum in town and a nature center where they also have several old Macs for student use. Seems that I saw some being used at the Exploritorium in San Francisco, too.
Cheryl Lloyd · October 28, 2006 - 23:32 EST #2
I have several backup Macs, a 6100, a 7500 and an ancient Apple IIc. If all else fails, the kids have someplace to write their school reports and I my stories. Appleworks hasn't changed all *that* much. The basics still work.
Sylvester Roque (ATPM Staff) · October 28, 2006 - 23:54 EST #3
I'm always glad to hear about projects that make use of aging computer gear. Not only does that keep the equipment out of the landfill a bit longer it stretches the tech dollar as far as possible. Just imagine how much runtime that IIc has on it by now.
msbob · May 4, 2007 - 12:11 EST #4
Calendar server. Contact server.

NUTD&C can be setup on the server with very low overhead allowing anyone on the network (mac or pc) to share the same calendar and contacts.'s not free.

There are some freeware and shareware programs out for shared Apple Address Books and iCal calendars. An LDAP server can be setup on the mac "server" to act as a shared contact database.

I have not yet sussed out the best programs to use for my setup. I have tried a few of the free apps, but they weren't as stable and pain-free as I would like - so I can't recommend any software just yet.

The old iBooks (300Mhz) would be great for a calendar/contacts server. They are very cheap on ebay/craigslist. Get one with a screen in poor condition, since you don't need to see it, except to set it up. Use XpostFacto ( to install Tiger and be completely up to date.

In 1998 I had three machines to serve an entire office. They were used for file serving, backup, contacts/calendar, web serving/intranet. The machines were 266-300Mhz G3 Powermacs. At the time they were considered to be decent speed. So a 266-466 iBook could work out just fine for a couple of people in a home network.

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