After the Mac Mini, is there still a market for used Macs?

In a recent Podcast, editor Tim Robertson mentioned the fact that the introduction of the Mac Mini might well have made my recent Scroll Down Book “Buying Used Macs” somewhat obsolete. The argument boils down to this: with the Mac Mini offering Internet connectivity, enough horsepower to run most home and office software, and support for all the modern USB and FireWire peripherals, is there really any need to buy a used Mac at all? After all, for $500 you not only get a fast, modern Mac that should work well with the keyboard, mouse, and monitor you already have, but you also get peace of mind knowing your purchase comes with a twelve month warranty and compatibility with the Mac OS for at least the next couple of years.

Bolstering Tim’s argument was his observation that sales of used Macs on eBay seem to have been depressed for a while, with Macs that might have sold briskly a year ago now sitting around for days without being bid on. But is this observation really to do with the Mac Mini? Is this really the end of used Mac market?

I don’t think so.

There are indeed lots of good reasons to go buy a Mac Mini if you need a low-cost Macintosh for your home, classroom, or office. For the small office in particular, it offers an exceptionally cost effective way to upgrade your hardware, in part because it is intrinsically inexpensive, but also because you can re-use your existing keyboards, mice, monitors, network connections, and printers. But there are problems with the Mac Mini as well, and these are substantial enough to keep the used Mac market alive for some time yet — not to mention make my book a useful read for anyone wanting to buy a used Macintosh!

1. It’s not a portable.

A big chunk of the used Mac market is based around iBooks and PowerBooks, and as a long time PowerBook user this was one of the chapters in my book I enjoyed writing the most. An argument that I often put to prospective purchasers of used PowerBooks is that if all you want is a machine for doing e-mails, surfing the web, presenting PowerPoint slide shows, and editing word processor documents, then a two or three year old PowerBook can actually represent compelling value for money compared to a new one. Whereas desktop Macs need to earn their keep 24/7, most PowerBook users use their machines as satellite systems to their desktops. Even a relatively old PowerBook, like a PowerBook 3400 or ‘Wall Street’ G3, can easily earn its keep without costing you more than two to three hundred dollars.

2. Gamers take note: it has limited expansion.

If you’re a user that needs things that only come on PCI expansion cards (or heaven forbid, a NuBus expansion card) then the Mac Mini isn’t for you. For all practical purposes, only Macs equipped with PCI (or NuBus) slots can accept these cards, and such cards include ones for running frame grabbers, connecting to SCSI devices, and providing non-standard networking interfaces. Admittedly, these are all fairly limited services used by only a small minority of Mac users, but for those who use these things they are essential.

Much more mainstream are users who like to add faster Ethernet and graphics cards to their Macs; the ability to upgrade the graphics cards on PowerMacs is one of the reasons that these machines are favoured by serious gamers. Most of the PowerMacs can also have “brain transplants” as well: a more powerful processor can replace the original one relatively inexpensively, giving an older PowerMac a terrific new lease of life. In contrast, the high-end iMacs and PowerBooks tend to have somewhat mediocre graphics performance out of the box, and neither the processor nor the graphics card can be upgraded in any way afterwards. Consequently, an important part of my book was explaining which PowerMacs had PCI and which ones didn’t: if you’re a gamer, a used G4 PowerMac tower makes a lot more sense than a Mac Mini.

3. Really, it costs more than $500.

The Mac Mini sells for $500, in the US at least. But that includes only 256 MB of memory, and to run OS X along with applications such as Office and Photoshop, you’re really going to need to upgrade that (at least $50 for another 256 MB). You’ll also need a monitor (around $250 for a large CRT or small LCD display) and then a keyboard a mouse (together around $100). All told, that will easily take the price to a good $900 or so. Upgrade the 40 GB hard drive and add an Airport card, and you can easily stick another $150 on top of that.

The Mac Mini is a bargain if you already have all this stuff, but if you don’t and need to buy everything new, it’s arguably less attractive than a G5 iMac, which has a much faster processor and graphics card and comes with the keyboard, mouse, and monitor in the box, all for around $900. For someone needing a complete computer system on a budget, a used G4 iMac can easily work out more cost effective than either the Mac Mini or a the G5 iMac.

4. It isn’t collectible (yet).

Lots of people buy used Macs not because they need one, but because they like them. The Mac Plus, the PowerBook 540, and the Color Classic are all examples of Macs that are vigorously sought after by collectors on eBay and elsewhere. A major reason for writing my book was to introduce the people who would like to find try their hand at buying and restoring a “classic” Mac to the pleasures and pitfalls of this hobby. Done right, this is a cheap way to get some geeky fun, but it’s also very easy to waste money on a machine that won’t run and thus give you know enjoyment at all.

Since the Mac Mini isn’t a collectible, the people who like to clean up an old Mac SE and then use it as a web server or something aren’t going to be bothered by the Mac Mini at all.

The bottom line…

Tim’s probably right that there will be lots of people who will do the maths and figure out that a new Mac Mini makes more financial sense than getting a used iMac or PowerMac. But there will also be lots of people for whom the Mac Mini simply isn’t the best option, and who can probably get 90% of what they need at 50% of the cost by looking at a used Mac from a reputable supplier.

If it has any effect on the market, what the Mac Mini probably will do is moderate the costs. The prices of used Macs have often been relatively high compared with Windows PCs of similar age; this never really made much sense to me, and what’s happening now is a “market adjustment” as prices drop to a more realistic level. There’s no reason, for example, why a used G4 iMac should cost more than, say, $600 when a new G5 iMac can be picked up for only 30% more, and yet you’ll often see people selling these machines at these sorts of prices. What I call in my book “Mesozoic Era” Macs, the earlier, pre-G3 PowerMacs, have also often been over-priced, and the Mac Mini will probably put paid to this as well. On the other hand, I doubt the prices of portables and collectible Macs will change much, since the people looking for these machines aren’t interested in the Mac Mini.

Tim, there remain lots of reasons to buy used Macs, and lots of reasons to read my book!

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