Should I spend the extra money?
March 24, 2006 7:37 AM   Subscribe

Computer geeks: is ECC memory worth it?

The time has come to upgrade my 7 year old G4 Mac (before the Intel machines come out). I am planning on getting the quad core G5 witha cinema HD display, so am planning on laying out some cash. On the Apple web site there is the option of choosing ECC DIMMs for $180 more for 2 GB or $360 more for 4GB. I use the computer at home for web surfing, finances, photoshop, word processing and powerpoint. I will probably keep it for another seven years with minimal upgrades. Is the extra protection of ECC worth it?
posted by TedW to Computers & Internet (27 answers total)
Best answer: For commercial production servers, yes. For your use, no (and at those prices, hell no.)
posted by Zed_Lopez at 7:46 AM on March 24, 2006

Best answer: What Zed said. Pointless.
posted by selfnoise at 7:53 AM on March 24, 2006

Also, you're going to keep a computer for seven years? That seems like a remarkably long time.
posted by bshort at 7:54 AM on March 24, 2006

Response by poster: That's why I generally buy the most advanced machine I can. I bought my first computer in 1984 and have pretty consistently upgraded on a 7 year cycle since then. I am already getting the feeling I can save a little money by going with standard memory, which I understand is slightly faster anyway. I just wonder if over the long haul ECC would have any edge in reliability.
posted by TedW at 8:00 AM on March 24, 2006

Best answer: Actually, ECC RAM is usually (ridiculously marginally and only allegedly) slower than regular RAM.

Furthermore, it will offer you absolutely no protection. ECC is used to ensure data is stored meticulously on servers where millions of read/writes are being carried through and where even the slightest misstep in the memory could cause problems. Fortunately, consumer-level (anything under "datacenter," honestly) systems have absolutely no need for this protection and the added cost will in NO way benefit you in any sense you would be able to detect. The difference between CAS3 and CAS2 memory is more noticeable, since there is an actual clock difference, but ECC provides no benefit to normal end-users.

(True story: I HIGHLY doubt Google's servers use ECC RAM, based on their "off-the-shelf, cheap-as-dirt" premise. Just sayin'.)
posted by disillusioned at 8:05 AM on March 24, 2006

Can I recommend not buying your RAM from Apple if it can be avoided (and if you're comfortable installing it yourself)?

They charge FAR more than the going rate. You can get certified RAM that won't void your AppleCare for a lot less from a third party vendor.

I use TechWorks RAM and I often buy it from OWC Computing. They have a lifetime guarantee etc etc etc.

(I feel like I've mentioned this in the last three or for AskMe answers I've given about Macs so as a disclaimer: I'm just a happy customer, I don't work for them, I don't get a commission, YMMV, do your homework, etc.)
posted by bcwinters at 8:06 AM on March 24, 2006

I realize this is moving outside the scope of your original question, but I'm curious.

Is there a reason why you're going with a PowerPC-based machine when PowerIntels are on the horizon? Most Mac software is going to be packaged as Universal Binaries for many years to come, but the Intel line is the future for Apple, and at some point (within 7 years), they're going to move to Intel-only software packaging.

If you're dropping something north of seven grand on a new computer, why get soon-to-be-obsolete technology?
posted by bshort at 8:07 AM on March 24, 2006

Yeah. If you want the machine to last another 7 years, wait for an Intel Mac. Good call, bshort.
posted by selfnoise at 8:11 AM on March 24, 2006

Response by poster: On the Techworks website 4 1 GB DIMMs are $676; if I have the computer shipped with 4 1 GB DIMMs installed it is a $630 option, so the choice is obvious even before I consider the additional shipping and handling, etc. I get the Apple educational discount, so that may be helping me some. I have upgraded the RAM on the last 2 computers I have owned, and will probably do so with this one. At that point I wil most likely go with a non-Apple vendor like Techworks.
posted by TedW at 8:20 AM on March 24, 2006

I agree with bshort, you're talking about buying a top-end machine with an architecture that's going to be obsolete within nine months

Now, Apple are okay at supporting their hardware, but do you believe that the folks that develop the other software you use (you mention "finances, photoshop, word processing and powerpoint", so Quicken(?), Adobe and Microsoft) will be as accomodating? Personally, I doubt it.

Hell, the new pro-level desktop mac will probably be a dual-proc dual-core, so the speed difference will be minimal, it may even be faster than the rig you're talking about.
posted by lowlife at 8:45 AM on March 24, 2006

I also agree. You should hold off a few more months on your purchase, until there is an Intel-based tower. If you a buy a G5, you will be stranded.

You may take a small speed hit at first... a dual proc/dual core Intel desktop, running the translation layer, probably will run your PPC code a shade slower than what you have now. However, once universal binaries start to ship (and everything will be universal within a year), the machine will take off like greased lightning, and will make a G5 look rather pokey in most regards.
posted by Malor at 9:05 AM on March 24, 2006

"Special" hardware targeted towards Macs like Techworks RAM is usually also overpriced. I guess they figure Mac people are used to getting overcharged. 4x1GB at Crucial is $498, and 4x1GB of ECC is $593. Crucial has a no-nonsense lifetime warranty.

Anyway, let me join the chorus of those saying "wait for Intel" -- buying a G5 now is like buying a 68k based Mac after the PowerPCs came out 12 years ago (ok, it's not as bad, the 68ks were slooooow).
posted by zsazsa at 9:07 AM on March 24, 2006

Response by poster: It's not what I asked, but since so many of you wonder about my choice of PowerPC over Intel I am happy to share my thinking with you. The three programs I use the most are Office, Quicken and Photoshop. The first two will run fine on anything as they are not resource hogs, but Photoshop is the main reason I am upgrading (that and the fact that a seven year old machine is burdened with a lot of things that slow it down and make it act up in general). I am currently using Photoshop CS2 which is native to the current chips; my experience with upgrading to OSX and running older programs under Classic makes me think that whatever emulator for PowerPC is bundled with the Intel machines will be a pain to use. I could wait until Photoshop CS3 comes out, as it is supposed to be Intel-native, but I take the same approach to software upgrades as I do to computer upgrades: buy something that does what I need it to do, then wait several generations for a major upgrade all at once. THe new Intel Macs will certainly be faster than the one I am looking at, but will likely be slower when running non-Intel applications. Also, I am hesitant buy a Mac with new architecture until they have had a couple of upgrade cycles to work the bugs out. Apple is pretty good about not shipping buggy products, but this is the biggest change ever for the Mac line. So if I wait for the Intel Macs to come out, then wait for new software, we are potentially talking a minimum of a year or so. By that time there will be some other reason to wait; there is always something better in the pipeline. In short, I realize my computer will be obsolete in some sense soon after I buy it, but I am less concerned about that than wanting it to do what I need it to do and do it well. My current machine is simply too slow to handle large RAW files (especially with 12-bit color) in Photoshop and it is really limiting what I can do. I hope this makes some sense to those who are concerned about my choice of machines.
posted by TedW at 9:32 AM on March 24, 2006

If your goal is to keep the machine a long time, DO NOT buy the G5. If you're in too much metaphorical pain with your G4 and have to do an upgrade now, DO NOT go that high end... buy the cheapest G5 you can get away with.

As you yourself are observing, this is the biggest change at Apple probably _ever_... certainly since the 68K to PPC transition. So buying the old stuff, and paying top dollar for it, is likely to give you a very poor return on investment.

So if you MUST have something now, buy a cheapie, use it a year, and THEN buy your monster machine.

Don't sink that huge amount of money into a dying architecture.
posted by Malor at 9:42 AM on March 24, 2006

Here's an eBay auction for a G5 iMac, 20", with a 2.1Ghz processor and 1.5GB of RAM. This would be able to handle your workflow just fine. 6.5 hours left, the current bid is $1225.

In a year, you can resell it for 8 or 9 hundred, and then buy yourself a beast. And if you don't win this specific one, there are many others.
posted by Malor at 9:50 AM on March 24, 2006

Not only that buy why do you want a computer that will last you seven years?

You're much, much better off spending a few hundred each year to stay mid-range then spending mad bank for something top of the line that will be midrange in a year, and low end the year after that.

The nice thing about PCs is that you can do this relatively easily, just popping in a new motherboard/CPU (sometimes just the CPU) every year or so for $100 for midrange or upwards of $200 for near the top and (and of course you can spend much more if you want to stay super high end).

Hell, if you spend $7k over $7 years, a new $1,000 computer every year would be a much better deal.
posted by delmoi at 10:08 AM on March 24, 2006

I use the computer at home for web surfing, finances, Photoshop, word processing and PowerPoint.

Photoshop is the only performance-limited program you'll be running, and most of the filters, etc, are probably single threaded, so it won't do you all that much good to have more then one CPU.

In other words, running Photoshop on a quad-core box probably won't be that much different then running it on a single core box.
posted by delmoi at 10:10 AM on March 24, 2006

I am currently using Photoshop CS2 which is native to the current chips; my experience with upgrading to OSX and running older programs under Classic makes me think that whatever emulator for PowerPC is bundled with the Intel machines will be a pain to use.

Right, but like I said, a quad core probably won't be much faster for Photoshop then a single core. You should really look into it before dropping that much bank.
posted by delmoi at 10:16 AM on March 24, 2006

Also, DELL monitors use the exact same panels as apple cinema displays, but cost far less.
posted by delmoi at 10:19 AM on March 24, 2006

a quad core probably won't be much faster for Photoshop then a single core

That's not even close to being so, actually. Photoshop and most of the most frequently-used filters are multithreaded. (Third-party filters may or may not be.)
posted by kindall at 11:10 AM on March 24, 2006

I hate to echo previous comments, but since Apple is leaving the G5 architecture, this isn't a good 7-year investment. And I agree on the ECC, it's a waste of money.

I'm not an IT guy but I do study computational science, for what it's worth.
posted by onalark at 11:41 AM on March 24, 2006

As the ECC question has already been answered, I will do as the Romans do and address the underlying issue behind the upgrade.

I read a well-written blog post from someone in your exact situation: needs to upgrade, needs to keep using Photoshop, concerned about IntelMac performance. Their solution was to buy a dirt-cheap iMac G5 and hold off on an Intel Mac until CS3. I think it's too late to pick a new one up from Apple directly, but you'd probably have some luck cruising your local Mac dealer if you're skeeved out by eBay.

You will also find this AskMe thread informative, especially the Ars Technica shootout linked within. Chances are Photoshop CS2 will be about as fast on a Core Duo as on the G4 you have now, with the additional benefit of more RAM, a faster operating system and other trinkets, and a guaranteed massive improvement in speed with CS3. How often can you say that the next version of a product will be a quantum leap faster than the last?
posted by chrominance at 12:44 PM on March 24, 2006

I have a 20" Intel iMac, and find photoshop works quite well within it. I edit photos from my Digital SLR (which are quite large) with no trouble. I should note that I am moving from an iBook G3 though, so most anything this new computer does feels like God is working through the machine.

Also, back on topic, you can get a slight performance boost by pairing RAM with the exact same specs. If I recall correctly it's called running in Dual Channel Mode. That would be better than paying a lot for ECC Ram.
posted by chunking express at 12:54 PM on March 24, 2006

To answer the comment about this being a totally new architecture for Apple: yes and no. Yes, they haven't sold Intel-based computers before. However, if you Believe The Steve, Apple has been cross-compiling OS X on Intel hardware for years now.

The hardware itself is "just" a PC, but with EFI instead of BIOS. The vast majority of the system is well-proven tech.

I'm willing to bet a lot more than you want to pay for your G5 setup that Apple had a lot of Intel support to get hardware out the door, still have that support, and will continue to do so for some time yet.
posted by lowlife at 1:14 PM on March 24, 2006

Chrominance, while I agree that picking up a used (or refurb) G5 to tide-over until CS3 comes out is a good cheap way to get a nice performance boost now without shelling out big money for something that is charging towards obsolescense at an accelerated clip, I'm not convinced about the CoreDuo option.

If it's going to run PShop about as fast as his current system until he can upgrade to CS3, then why not just wait to buy an Intel mac until CS3 comes out? Then he can get an even faster system Intel for the same outlay.
posted by Good Brain at 1:17 PM on March 24, 2006

No, Dell doesn't use the same panels as Apple, but the Dell units are often just as good, and much cheaper.

Yes they do.
posted by bshort at 1:57 PM on March 24, 2006

I've been buying macs for a dog's age, and I don't buy RAM from them, because Apple marks the RAM up so much. I get the minimum configuration of RAM, then go to the Chip Merchant and buy the right kind of RAM for the box. Occasionally I call them if I'm not sure what kind of RAM I need.

They're really good about shipping me the correct RAM for my Mac, instead of the wrong RAM I mistakenly ordered - they've done this on more than one occasion.

No affiliation - just sayin'.
posted by ikkyu2 at 6:36 PM on March 24, 2006

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