Cheap Mac
February 16, 2008 1:54 AM   Subscribe

My mom wants a simple Mac on the cheap. I'm a nerd and willing to get my hands dirty. What's the best option for us? Handicap: I'm away for weeks at a time at college.

Today at lunch, my mom and I were talking about the five year old computer I build for her back when I was in middle school. I built it for around $600, and it's been great to us so far, but power surges in the house seem to be making either the motherboard or power supply act flakey, so we're thinking about getting a new computer in the near future if need be. For college, I bought a Mac laptop and I'm in love with it.

My mom is on a practically fixed income and would like to get a barebones, internet surfing, text editing Mac. What would you guys recommend? I'm fairly handy with computers, so I don't mind some basic hacks.

A Mac Mini seems to serve her needs best, but they're pretty expensive for what they are hardware-wise, relative to a bargain PC. Would a practical solution be to get an Apple TV, set it up with a USB hub for the mouse, keyboard, CD drive, etc, and a DVI adapter and install a full version of OSX (preferably Leopard) to the machine? What matters most here is that the machine needs to be able to run just fine without me coming over to do routine tweaks weekly. Also, would the OS update itself properly like my laptop does, or would the "illegitimate" machine need manual updates?

If that's not a good option, I could go for a Hackintosh. How are those in terms of reliability? Is there any site that has a list of hardware known to work properly with OSX? Ideally, I could simply keep the case, hard drive, DVD burners, and other hardware from her current setup (an Athlon XP 2500+ based machine with a few updates over the years) while replacing the motherboard, ram, CPU, and power supply. Is there any chance Apple would "break" a Leopard install on a Hackintosh without warning? If that's true, I assume I could just disable the updates, keep up a good firewall on the router at home so that most exploits, discovered or otherwise, are out of reach to begin with, and leave things be?

I also see a few Mac Minis for sale on Ebay that look like decent deals. Some are selling for about $300 and have 1 GB of RAM and an Intel processor. However, I really am not comfortable with the uncertainty of online auctions. Obviously, this is the only one the Apple store would likely help her with.

What do you recommend I do? Please don't recommend that I install Linux or go for a cheap Dell, as I want a computer my mom can use and keep safe without too much effort. She uses it for her part-time job and my sister uses it for her homework.
posted by mccarty.tim to Computers & Internet (36 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: PS: I just did a quick preliminary build in my head, and I found out that I could get the parts for the hackintosh that I don't already have in her PC for about $250 from NewEgg, which actually would be slightly faster than the eBay Mac Minis. I already have an OSX Leopard license that I bought using my student discount, so I think I'm ethically in the clear to use one of my 5 installs on my mom's computer, so the hackintosh method looks like the cheapest method.

Also: How hard would it be to dual boot a copy of Windows XP with that OSX install? Would it work best with the OSX bootloader in Boot Camp, or would I be smarter to use something like Lilo or Grub?
posted by mccarty.tim at 2:04 AM on February 16, 2008

The possible "uncertainty" of online auctions would seem to be far outweighed by the definite uncertainty of updates to 10.5.x breaking on unsupported hardware. I would vote for the real article, new or used. Beware however of inflated prices for used Mac Minis -- the newest Core2Duo at 1.8ghz is only $579 with educational discount and comes with a full warranty. I'm not sure the used Mac market has quite come to terms with the new depreciation reality of an update cycle based on Intel's product lifecycle.

The AppleTV idea is an interesting one, but the device's 256MB RAM is non-upgradable (soldered).

When you say you have a Leopard license, do you mean you have the family pack?
posted by squid patrol at 2:15 AM on February 16, 2008

OK, I know you totally said not to recommend this, but it worked out really well for me, so:

Is there a particular reason she needs OS X, or just she just like the look and feel? If it's the latter, I turned an ancient Compaq into a "Mac" for my nieces: install Ubuntu, then Mac-ify it.

Seriously, by the time you update the icons, window elements and wallpaper and add a functioning dock, it's pretty much the same. It's got, like 200+ days of uptime - virus and spyware free, all their peripherals (camera, all-in-one printer, various flavours of iPod) work fine. They don't even know they're not using Word or Internet Explorer - it's just "writing documents" and "using the net". Unlike when the same box was running Windows, I've never, ever had to do anything with it. It just goes.

Otherwise, does it have to be an Intel Mac? You can get G4s for next to nothing through newspaper classifieds or at computer fairs.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 2:25 AM on February 16, 2008 [3 favorites]

Keep in mind that you can get a refurbished Intel Core 2 Duo Mini from Apple for $499 while they're in stock. Is this preferable to hacking an AppleTV? I don't know. An AppleTV will run you $229, ($199 refurb), have a 40 gig drive, some kind of weird low power chip, need a CD/DVD drive, and other trimmings, and have a very uncertain future as a hacked OS X machine. I haven't had occasion to use a hacked AppleTV, so I can't speak to its performance, but from what I've read they update just fine. So far. How much is hands-off just-working worth to you, though? 'Cos if it has to work, the AppleTV might not be for her (or you). Really instead of doing this as cheaply as possible, you should decide on a price not to exceed. That'll help make the tough decisions, where otherwise there's always going to be a way to maybe accomplish it for even less...maybe.

And I'm probably preaching to the choir, but an investment in a whole-house surge protector wired into the panel, while expensive upfront, could save you repeated pain in the future, if you think your electronics are dying due to surges.
posted by mumkin at 3:15 AM on February 16, 2008

Why not one of the old, old generation iMacs, with the swivel head screen or something? If your mom is just going to be emailing and using Word, there's no reason to spend money on the latest thing. And if you're buying from a reputable person on EBay with lots of good feedback and ask lots of questions, odds are you'll be fine. Much cheaper and less time consuming than all your hacks.
posted by gramcracker at 4:39 AM on February 16, 2008

I also see a few Mac Minis for sale on Ebay that look like decent deals. Some are selling for about $300 and have 1 GB of RAM and an Intel processor.

My husband and I have been following these low price Mac Minis auctions for a while. What seems to be happening is these sellers start out great. They sell a ton of Minis and are flooded with positive feedback. Then they are peppered with a few negatives because people are not receiving their Minis. Finally they have a ton of consistent negative feedback because the seller didn't deliver and never intended to deliver. It's a scam. A Ponzi scheme. I would be extremely wary of buying a dream deal Mini on ebay. Watch the feedback closely. Also, take note if the seller has been in business for a while versus a brand new seller.
posted by LoriFLA at 4:46 AM on February 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'm tempted to agree with gramcracker. If money is an issue, go with something old. My parents still use an old G4 "desklamp" style iMac that they bought brand new whenever it came out x number of years ago. I find it a bit annoying to use when I go visit them since I am used to my Macbook, but they are perfectly content. They surf the web and use MS Word. That's it. It does all those things just fine and never breaks. I dunno how much they go for used, but it can't be much.
posted by modernnomad at 4:51 AM on February 16, 2008

I'm typing this on a G4 800 MHz iMac. Because of my job, I've got access to all the hardware I'd ever need, but this is the machine that I use most. I recently disassembled it, cleaned it thoroughly, replaced the hard drive and increased the RAM to 768MB. I expect to get at least 2 more years of use from it.

It doesn't run 10.5, but it doesn't need to. I use it for email, web surfing and connecting to work. My wife uses it to make family movies. We're both quite happy with it. My >70 years old parents have the same machine and though I'm their primary support, I don't get a significant number of calls. The most common call is that, somehow (and I wish I knew how) they've screwed up the wireless connection from their laptop. Again.

The biggest potential downside of the iMac is that if the screen goes, you'll have to do some significant surgery to replace it. I've never seen it happen.

If you're uncomfortable with ebay, use craigslist or the local classifieds. Be aware that you may be purchasing a gray market computer, which will have absolutely no warranty from Apple.

All that said, if you want to minimize the support problems, I'd get a refurbished Mac Mini. It may not be the most hardware bang for the buck, but it's probably the best deal in terms of dollars to support problems. Use the money you save to buy the AppleCare for 3 years total of warranty. You can wait up to a year from the date of purchase to buy the AppleCare.

I don't know where you live, but if you're in Vermont or New Hampshire, you might consider talking to Small Dog Electronics. I've never had a negative experience with them.
posted by donpardo at 5:47 AM on February 16, 2008

What works in my family is a refurb iMac or eMac depending on how much work you want to do to it and what your family needs. I'm running an old Blueberry iMac with a replaced motherboard in my house as a jukebox and internet machine running 10.2 and it's great. It's probably a $150 machine. However it won't run the latest version of iTunes and probably has many other defencts, but as a stand alone machine [and one with USB ports so I can move documents around] it's great. My landlady was running an eMac which was a bit of a pain because it was so HEAVY but otherwise it's an all-in-one, everything's built in, it runs the almost-latest OS [10.4, I don't know if I could install 10.5 on it, havent' seen a need to] and Just Works.

You can get refurbished ones for pretty damned cheap. I sort of like these as solutions because it's one *thing* pretty much, they're very cheap even not from eBay and they actually look decent and have a good footprint. Also if she needs to move it form one place to another there's not a lot of "what goes where?" cords to deal with. I don't think you have to get very hacky with this at all.
posted by jessamyn at 5:51 AM on February 16, 2008

There are a couple of decent sites like "Mac of All Trades"--- more expensive than Ebay, but more reliable. There are a few local Mac repair shops where I can pick up G3 iMacs for between $50 and $90.

For various reasons (software compatibility, lack of bundles, etc) I don't recommend making Ubuntu imitate a Mac. Ubuntu's fine, but let it be itself, especially for a computer novice.
posted by yesno at 6:42 AM on February 16, 2008

I'd definitely also recommend refurbished from Apple. When you buy these you're essentially getting a new computer, minus all the fancy packaging. And the upside is that the refurbished ones are actually tested much more rigorously than new ones, so you won't get a dud.

The 1.83GHz Core 2 Duo mini with 1GB of RAM is running for $499 right now on Apple's refurb site. I'd call that a pretty good deal. If you miss that deal, check out They keep up with the Apple refurb stores like crazy.
posted by joshrholloway at 6:45 AM on February 16, 2008

Yep, one of the old rainbow or graphite iMacs, of the later generations (slot loading cd tray is a sure sign that it isn't TOO old).. I use one in the basement to share a printer on the network, has an airport card, uses osx 10.4.x, runs firefox just fine.. you could probably fine one for less than $50.

As for the swivel head iMacs..heck, those are still great machines, that's my primary office computer at work, I can't imagine why I would give it up...
posted by HuronBob at 6:48 AM on February 16, 2008

If you're your mom's support guy, you might want to get a machine that can run Leopard, because of the built-in screen-sharing. I've never played with this myself, but it will run over VNC, and would make support calls a lot easier.

I nth the advice to avoid a hackintosh or hacked Apple TV and get something kosher. A G4 mini or iMac will run Leopard fine, wouldn't be too expensive, and would be a nice setup. Check Craigslist.
posted by adamrice at 7:01 AM on February 16, 2008

A used G4 desktop machine (like a Sawtooth or Yosemite) can be had for less than $200, or frequently can be found in the trash in college towns. I've got 2 old Sawtooths running OS X (Tiger) flawlessly (1GB RAM in each) as file servers in my lab. They are ancient but they run like tops.

Here's a listing

posted by fourcheesemac at 7:04 AM on February 16, 2008

If money is an issue, go with something old. My parents still use an old G4 "desklamp" style iMac

My teen daughter still uses one I bought when they came out. She has no complaints. Uses it for everything including Photoshop. I offered to buy her a new aluminum iMac, but she said this one was still fine. (What a well-raised daughter I have!) Max out the RAM and it will do everything you need, for around $300.
posted by The Deej at 7:07 AM on February 16, 2008

Nthing used or refurb. I'm writing this on the first model PowerBook (Ti G4 400). I've maxed the RAM and upgraded the HD with little challenge to my nerd skills. Works great for all but the "flash"iest of sites, email and word processing.

Steep depreciation stinks - unless you're a cheap bastard like me and don't have to have the glitzy new thing.
posted by GPF at 7:17 AM on February 16, 2008

Adamrice made a good point. I use screen sharing with my mom 1000 miles away every couple of weeks and it's wonderful. She just sits back and watches me. I get her system working the way she wants it and she learns a little every time. Don't think any VNC setup will be as good, either. I've tried many, and Leopard's screen sharing is the absolute best. It's fast, pretty, and there's no IP issues to deal with.
posted by monkeymadness at 7:19 AM on February 16, 2008

She just needs it for word processing and internet? In that case, get her a used eMac. I'm typing this on exactly that, a used 800 MHz G4 I picked up for $200. Haven't had to do anything in terms of maintenance in the couple years I've had it, other than software updates - and those practically install themselves.

Absolutely the most trouble-free machine I've ever had in my 15+ years of computing.
posted by chez shoes at 7:25 AM on February 16, 2008

Going along with everybody on a used G4. We have a much newer PC, but the old G4 is still the one grabbed first.
posted by francesca too at 7:57 AM on February 16, 2008

Hackintosh install guide. Just make sure you get a mb that does ahci and disable sata.
posted by damn dirty ape at 8:17 AM on February 16, 2008

I have an original G4 mini that I use for web surfing and iTunes. It's perfectly adequate for those tasks. A little slow on Flash pages is the only drawback. I'm not sure what the value is but it couldn't be that high since it was only a $499 machine. Just make sure that any of these old machines has at least 1GB of RAM.

OTOH, I did just buy one of those refurb Mac minis from Apple. Advantages over an old mini are much improved speed for photo editing and such, Front Row with the Apple remote, and more USB ports. Much snappier.
posted by smackfu at 8:25 AM on February 16, 2008

Consider getting an emac on ebay. They look awesome and they're cheap. If you get the most recent model then you should be fine for a while.
posted by stackhaus23 at 8:30 AM on February 16, 2008

Pick up a refurb iMac or Mac Mini that fits into your price range, drop Leopard onto it, and you're done. Don't try to improve on something that's already quite good - there's no need to get your fingers dirty. Disclaimer: I have a refurb Mini and am completely happy with it.

re: ebay auctions: What seems to be happening is these sellers start out great. They sell a ton of Minis and are flooded with positive feedback to their own sockpuppets and award themselves positive feedback.

Fixed that for you.
posted by ikkyu2 at 9:51 AM on February 16, 2008

Response by poster: My mom already has a monitor, so I think I'm going to avoid getting her an iMac. I kind of want to get her an Intel based Mac for virtualization and boot camp if need be. My little sister is autistic, and sometimes my mom wants to try out therapy software, but the problem is that that software tends to be for PCs. Of course, it is so simple it runs under Parallels just fine, and I'm sure she could figure out how to use Boot Camp if I show her how and set up Windows for her.
posted by mccarty.tim at 9:52 AM on February 16, 2008

Response by poster: Looking over my options, I think I'm torn between either a refurb Mac Mini or a Hackintosh. I'd stay away from something like the Hackintosh usually, but the fact that Lifehacker is posting tutorials on it makes it seem easy. Plus, it really is a big incentive to keep using a lot of the perfectly good hardware still inside my PC. Out of curiosity, does anyone know if 10.5.2 breaks current hackintosh installs? I want a benchmark of how fragile that setup is.
posted by mccarty.tim at 10:02 AM on February 16, 2008

Ditto jessamyn. I sold this G3 iMac to some friends years ago. They still use it daily as their main computer, for exactly the "mom" type purposes you describe. They are not computer people at all, but they have never had a single problem with it. 350 MHz and with 1 gig of RAM, it will run OS 10.3.9 very smoothly, which is a fine OS. Bulletproof and solid. (You can hack it to run 10.4 if needed). It's almost 10 years old now.

You can get a higher spec G3 iMac PLUS a boxed 10.3 for under $150.00 on eBay.

Add a couple bucks and get a used G4 and run 10.4, even better.
posted by quarterframer at 10:03 AM on February 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: PS: Thanks for the heads-up on the unscrupulous Mini dealers and the anemic 256MB of RAM in the TV. I could swear I read it had at least 512MB... Looking at eBay, the Mac Mini deals aren't much better than the refurb store deals. Plus, I do like that the mini is small enough she could probably take it to the TV room and hook it up without too much fuss if she ever wants to listen to her iTunes library there.
posted by mccarty.tim at 10:06 AM on February 16, 2008

barebones, internet surfing, text editing Mac.... a Mac Mini seems to serve her needs best, but they're pretty expensive for what they are hardware-wise...

A Mac Mini is about 10x the machine you need for internet surfing and text-editing.
posted by rokusan at 10:09 AM on February 16, 2008

Just in case it's clear DO NOT go with the Hackintosh. Yes, the scene is moving rapidly but it still would be a crazy computer for a mom or anyone else but you. If you're set on the idea, give her your laptop and build the Hackintosh for yourself.

Don't hack the Apple TV, either.

Honestly, it seems like you're working at cross purposes with yourself. You want "a computer my mom can use and keep safe without too much effort" and "that the machine needs to be able to run just fine without me coming over to do routine tweaks weekly" because you're "away weeks at a time at college." Then you throw out ideas like Hackintoshes and hacked Apple TVs and dual booting OSes.

My recommendation, and inline with many of the above: get a used iMac, Mac mini, or eMac (successor to the original CRT iMacs) and max out the RAM. As long as the machine has an 867MHz or faster G4 processor it is officially supported by Leopard. Those machines would be fine for someone doing internet, word processing, listening to music, and general work. Spring a little more for a refurbed Mini for a faster system.

If those options exceed the budget then a cheap PC running Ubuntu Linux is the best choice. Linux has come a long way in the past few years and Ubuntu is a stable, modern OS that will work fine for the described uses and will not require much in the way of support from you ever. They say Macs just work. Well so does Ubuntu and it's what I run on my desktop (OS X on the laptop). I wouldn't recommend trying to make Ubuntu look like OS X, either.

Your best bet is to figure out a realistic budget (ie, $100 probably won't buy you much beyond the old G3 iMacs, most of which aren't supported by Tiger). Then poke around eBay's completed listings for Macs in that price range and take a look on Craig's List. The huge advantage with CL is you can actually verify that the computer is as described and functions. As an example, I see a 1GHz (G4) eMac on my local CL for $250. It needs more RAM (256MB) but it's running the latest updated Tiger and would run Leopard as well. If that doesn't pan out, check out places like TigerDirect and CompUSA. You can find new barebones (no OS) systems starting at $100 (some need a HD). Install Ubuntu and you're good to go. You can't build entry-level systems for those prices.
posted by 6550 at 10:19 AM on February 16, 2008

Yeah, but then he came back and mentioned needing an Intel Mac for running windows a few comments above.

If that is really what you need to do, then buy a late model Mac Mini. But don't expect Windows to really clip along even on that. If you seriously want a dual-OS machine, you need to spend more money for any real functionality, have at least 1GB (ideally at least 2GB) of RAM, and the most recent Intel chip you can afford to get.

But this will be multiplying your tech support duties by a factor of 10 or so. I highly recommend against having a newbie/non-techie trying to run a dual-OS machine, especially one you put together on the cheap or from mixed parts. If all your mom does is email , websurf, and write text, or really almost anything else anyone's mom does, you do not need to be able to run Windows on your Mac. Unless she's an AUTOCAD master or a gamer.
posted by fourcheesemac at 10:21 AM on February 16, 2008

I have an almost-brand-new Macbook Pro that I use as a mobile desktop -- I have an external KVM at home and an external KVM in my office, and it usually lives on the desk in one of those places. If I'm feeling lazy and want to surf in bed, I grab my 500 Mhz / 256mb RAM G3 pismo. It won't do anything other than run Adium, Firefox and Terminal (I <3 the ssh..) but it meets my needs in that context fine. I don't recommend you go this low-end because there are definitely higher-end low-end options within your pricerange, but I think everyone's right about the potential of a refurb G4 or G5 imac to do just about everything you want more stable-ly than a hacked iTV (it'll certainly be faster). Until I upgraded in December, I was doing 3d graphics, some light software dev in Java/Ruby, and limited gaming on a 1.33ghz Powerbook G4 (with the RAM maxed out, admittedly, but that only cost me $90).
posted by Alterscape at 10:22 AM on February 16, 2008

And of course I missed the Windows requirement comment above while skimming the thread! Sorry! If that's the case, I'd go with a refurb Mini, but the other posters are right re: the added complexity of dualbooting. Sorry for the doublepost!
posted by Alterscape at 10:26 AM on February 16, 2008

I run XP in Parallels on a refurb Mini. It has 1 GB of RAM but it is too slow when Parallels and anything else is open. Parallels is excellent but it is much more excellent with at least 2G of RAM.
posted by ikkyu2 at 6:39 PM on February 16, 2008

If you're in the SF Bay Area, you might check out Weird Stuff. They had a lot of G4 towers when I stopped by their store a few weeks ago.
posted by zippy at 12:30 AM on February 17, 2008

the G4 towers are still there... i was at weird stuff on friday.
posted by joeblough at 8:48 PM on February 17, 2008

I already have an OSX Leopard license that I bought using my student discount, so I think I'm ethically in the clear to use one of my 5 installs on my mom's computer, so the hackintosh method looks like the cheapest method.

Check your fine print, if you're concerned about legality.

B. Family Pack. If you have purchased a Mac OS X Family Pack, this License allows you to install and use one (1) copy of the Apple Software on up to a maximum of five (5) Apple-labeled computers at a time as long as those computers are located in the same household and used by persons who occupy that same household.
posted by jeversol at 12:47 PM on February 19, 2008

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