Waiting For Apple

“I often wonder what the world would be like if more companies were like Apple.”
    Daniel Lyons

I made a living for a couple of decades thanks to Bill Gates, back when he ran Microsoft. I knew a lot about Windows, what made it work, and how to fix things when it (randomly and too often) didn’t. I spent a lot of time fixing things, and performing updates, and fighting with drivers, and chasing malware and the software that's supposed to detect it. As soon as I didn’t have to do that anymore I got a Mac. I’d had some history with them back in the ‘80s when they were expensive beige or gray boxes largely closed against modifications and hardware upgrades. But I’d been away, immersed in Windows software development and other engineering fun, and had no idea what Apple was up to. Windows cruised along OK with the stable XP and NT and one could get powerful hardware at reasonable prices. Then came the ugly days of Vista, right at the time my aging PC needed replacing. Maybe I could have tolerated Vista but I didn’t want to, and if one wanted to run Photoshop that left Apple’s Macintosh as the only real alternative. I’d delayed a number of months, but when Apple finally released the first “Intel Inside” Mac Pro workstation, I bought one, for about $3000, and then loaded it with fast (for 2008) hard drives and lots of ram. That amazing machine served me wonderfully well for nearly 12 years, until November, 2019, when I finally replaced it.

I started thinking about replacing the Mac Pro toward the end of 2015. I had, and still have, only one criterion—the machine must run the Mac operating system (currently called macOS). OK, maybe a second one—I don’t want to have to tinker too much. I don’t want to mess with the thing. I just want it to work so I can concentrate on work. I’m willing to put time into setting up a new machine, to getting things exactly the way I want them. Beyond that I’d prefer the thing be invisible, out of sight and out of mind. The best computer, in my opinion, is like the best hi-fi system: invisible.

With those things in mind, what did Apple make for me? Not much, as it turned out. I don’t want another laptop computer, and the cylindrical Mac Pro of 2013 is simply ridiculous, aging technology and packaging priced as if it were the current state of the art. The Mac mini is, uh, mini, perhaps in too many ways. iMacs are overpriced monitors with computers (made mainly of laptop components) attached to the back. I already have monitors, a pricey and quite wonderful NEC MultiSync PA272W and an adequate secondary monitor. The iMac isn’t for me.

In 2016 Apple promised a new Mac Pro, but made it clear the new Pro wouldn’t be ready for a couple of years. Since my old Pro still did everything I wanted it to do, running the current operating system and Adobe products with little complaint and reasonable if no longer stellar performance, I decided to wait. Then Apple announced the new machine wouldn’t appear until the fall of 2019, which, technically, could mean sometime between late September and late December. Could I wait another year-plus? Yes, but I surely didn’t want to. When Apple released pricing for the upcoming Pro would start at $6000 I started looking into Windows systems and found some darned nice hardware. Interestingly, if one outfits a well-made Windows tower, perhaps in the workstation class, it’s pretty easy to spend what a similarly-performing Mac costs, but it's also possible to spend less. People can (and do) whine about the high cost of Apple products, and in some cases that’s justified, but this isn’t one of those cases. And in the end that powerful PC still runs Windows, a deal-killer for me. I simply don't want to retrain years of Mac “muscle memory” and learn Windows all over again.

Maybe a Mini

Mac Mini (left) and Mac Pro, and Mini with peripheral boxes. Click or tap the picture to toggle between the two.

In the fall of 2018 Apple released a new Mac Mini. The Mini is one of only two computers Apple sells that doesn't include a monitor. Apple offered several processor choices, SSD (storage) capacities, and memory configurations. For my needs the specs looked good; Intel Core i7 processor, a terabyte of m.2 NVMe (very fast) storage, and user-expandable (against Apple's recommendation) memory. This last is especially nice considering the outrageous prices Apple charges to increase RAM beyond its minimum of 8 Gb. I don't care about the tiny form factor, but it's fine—I don't mind saving some desk/floor space. OK, not bad. Except for the inevitable “one thing,” that being weak graphics hardware. This worried me a little bit because of Adobe's increasing use of the GPU (graphics processing chip) to improve the performance of some functions. I did my usual research but found few reports about the Mini's performance with Photoshop. Except for increasing memory one can add nothing internally to the Mac Mini. All additional storage, expansion ports, etc. must be added via external boxes, which means interconnect cables all over the place. Typical Apple: create a beautiful piece of hardware, the appearance of which will be made a mess with all the cables, dongles, and other external-ness required to make it function as needed. My final concern; Apple released this computer in the fall of 2018, making the technology a year old at the time I'm looking to buy.

With all of that, a good choice, or not?

I don't want to build a Hackintosh. I don't want to run Microsoft Windows, at least, not as my everyday working operating system. I don't want more than the two monitors I already have on my desk. I don't want to spend anywhere near $6000 for the 2019 Mac Pro. I don't want to buy a used machine or (very) outdated hardware like the 2013 Mac Pro. All those “don't wannas” limit my options. The 2018 Mac Mini is an odd duck; I'm not sure who, exactly, it's for, who Apple, when making the marketing and technical decisions leading to the Mini's development, expected would be buying it. I'm not sure that's me, but I bought one, so I'll find out.

Comparing Apples to Apples, the physical differences between the Mini and the old Pro are striking. See the photo above; click or tap the photo to toggle between before-and-after views. The “cheese grater” Mac Pro weighs nearly 45 pounds (20 kg) and is 20 inches high x 8 wide x 19 deep ( 51 x 21 x 48 cm). The Mini is a bit under eight inches square and and inch and a half high (20 x 20 x 3.8 cm) and weighs under three pounds (1.4 kg). Even with the external boxes to provide the additional storage and ports I need the Mini really is mini.

The Best of Limited Options

Mac Mini and the cable mess.

The cable mess: the Mini is at the top, the USB hub is next, with the 2-bay drive box (with a Seagate USB drive sitting on top) is at the bottom. This tangle of wire does NOT include the cables to my two scanners. Fortunately the final installation cleaned up nicely with all of the cables out of sight.

I ordered the Mini as described above, with the 3.2 GHz Core i7 six-core processor, a terabyte of m.2 storage, and the minimum-available ram (8 Gb). At the same time I ordered 32 Gb of ram. When the machine arrived I started setting it up, configuring things, and installing just about the same set of applications I had on the old Mac Pro. Naturally I installed the latest versions of Photoshop (2020) and Bridge. After some testing to verify all worked as expected I opened the Mini and installed the 32 Gb of memory. I could use only my NEC monitor, and only via HDMI, as that's the only cable I had for that purpose that the Mini would accept. After years of working with two monitors I found this a real handicap, but a temporary one.

Next I ordered the external bits I'd need to make the Mini's setup more like the old Mac Pro's. In addition to appropriate cables for connecting both monitors this included a 2-bay hard drive enclosure and a multi-port hub with several USB connections (along with audio output, HDMI video, and network connections, which I don't really need). Cabling all of this together, along with my Epson and Nikon scanners, Wacom tablet, and another external hard drive created quite a tangle, which I eventually wrangled into a tidier jumble that's tied up behind my desk.

Mac Mini final installation.

Looking down on the Mini tucked behind my main monitor. From left to right: film scanner (partial view); USB hard drive; 2-bay drive enclosure under the USB hub; Mac Mini.

Back to the original question: good choice, or not? As I write this I've had the Mini for a little over a month. So far I'm happy. It's nearly silent (its internal fan rarely ramps up, but can be heard as a whisper when it does), it's nearly invisible, and compared to the old Mac Pro it seems very fast in all of the Photoshop tasks I routinely put to it. I miss a few things about the old Mac Pro, perhaps most the front-panel “heartbeat” LED. I hadn't realized the significance of a simple white light; it's off when the computer is powered down (which is rare), on when the Mac is running/awake, and slowly pulses on/off when the Mac is in standby (sleep) mode. The front LED on the Mini is off when powered down, and otherwise always on. Because the machine is silent I don't know whether it's awake or sleeping. While it hasn't happened yet, if the Mini crashes or locks up I wouldn't be able to tell until I try waking it. It sounds silly, but I miss that pulsing LED.

The other issue is a long-standing bug Apple has so far showed no interest in addressing: there's a problem with HDMI video, and that's how I connect my secondary monitor. If the computer is rebooted or powered down and then restarted, the second monitor remains dark, with no video signal from the computer. It's necessary to remove and then reattach the HDMI cable. Not difficult, but annoying. There have been thousands of reports on various forums (including Apple's own) and blogs about the problem with the 2018 Mini and with some older models, and also with some of Apple's MacBook Pro laptops. Fortunately for me I rarely reboot, instead letting the computer sleep after 15 minutes of inactivity. Still, I wish Apple would fix the bug.

I doubt my new Mini is a computer I'll use for a decade or more. But assuming the hardware is as reliable as the old Pro (I suspect that's not a good assumption, given the small form-factor and the inherent thermal issues of such a tiny case) its performance should follow the typical curve: it'll be great for a while, gradually taper off to acceptable as the software I use becomes ever more demanding, and someday become challenging to use. For today it's great, I'm getting things done efficiently, and the purchase didn't break the bank. What's not to like?

December, 2019

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