My New Mac: Why I’m Downgrading from a Mac Pro to a Mac mini

Almost 8 months ago, I wrote about how my Mac was fast enough, and how I wasn’t planning to buy a new Mac for a while. Well, my Mac Pro is now within a few months of the end of its AppleCare contract – the one thing that will get me to buy a new Mac – and I’ve decided to buy a new one. This time, I’ve opted for a Mac mini.

It all started as the weather got warmer. My Mac Pro gives off a lot of heat, and not having air conditioning (here in France, with “French windows”, you can’t just stick an air conditioner in a window) means that this computer heats up my office too much in the summer. I wanted to consider replacing it, in part because of the heat, but also because of that looming AppleCare deadline. Knowing that it’s easier to sell a used Mac if it has AppleCare – even a few months – meant that my upgrade window was fast closing.

My first consideration was an iMac. But Apple only sells iMacs with glossy screens, and, looking at my son’s iMac, I realized that I couldn’t work if I saw myself on the screen all day. In addition, I already have a 24″ Dell monitor, so buying an iMac would mean either using two monitors (nice, but I don’t have the desktop space), or putting the Dell in the basement.

I actually hadn’t considered the Mac mini at all, until my fellow Macworld author Rob Griffiths suggested it. There always seemed to be something missing in the Mac mini; it seemed to be a stopgap designed for switchers who didn’t want much in a Mac. But looking more closely at the specs, and comparing its speed with my MacBook Air, I realized it would be more than fast enough for what I do. As I said when I wrote about my Mac being fast enough, the only time I really use its processors is when I rip CDs or convert music. I do these things often, but not that much that it would change my life if they were slower. Another thing I liked about the Mac Pro was the ability to have four internal hard disks. But as the Mac mini has FireWire 800, I could daisy chain two big externals (1 TB each), and have all the disk space I need.

I ordered the maxed-out model of the Mac mini: 4 GB RAM, a 320 GB hard disk, and the faster 2.26 GHz processor. It will be faster than my MacBook Air (2 x 1.8 GHz), which is more than sufficient for most of what I do. I could have tried to upgrade the RAM and hard disk myself, as Dan Frakes recently wrote about in Macworld, but I didn’t want to bother with it, and didn’t want any worries about my warranty.


The more I thought about the Mac mini, the more it made sense. It’s basically a MacBook in a brick, as Rob Griffiths pointed out. Fast enough for most everything I need, and with 4 GB RAM, the only time I’ll not have an ideal amount of RAM is when running Windows. But it’s smaller, quieter and cooler than my Mac Pro, and uses less electricity. After all these years of technical progress in computers, it seems almost illogical to use a huge tower instead of a tiny box. Granted, when I bought the Mac Pro, I wanted, for the first time, to have the fastest Mac, but now I just don’t care any more. As I have said before, my Mac is more than fast enough for everything I need, and the Mac mini will be sufficient for most tasks.

The only thing I’ll miss, however, is a fast CD drive. The Mac mini comes with a 24x SuperDrive, which is about the same as the stock drive in the Mac Pro I have. However, with the second optical drive bay available, I installed a 52X CD-only drive. Since I rip a lot of CDs, it saved me a lot of time. I haven’t found any external CD drives that run at that speed.

So I await delivery of my Mac mini, which should be here in a few days. At the same time, I’ve ordered a couple of additional 1 TB hard disks and an enclosure, so I can set up two external disks to use with the mini. It has been suggested that, to improve speed a bit, one can boot off an external drive using FireWire 800. This allows you to use a 7200 RPM disk, instead of the internal 5400 RPM disk. While this may make a difference in the time required to open applications or start up the mini, I don’t think it will have much of an overall effect on the mini’s speed. I may try it, but as I’m looking for simplicity, I will probably not go that route. I’ll post another article after I’ve got the mini up and running, and tell you how everything’s going.

P. S.: In response to a reader question as to why I need a new Mac just because my AppleCare is running out, I’ll copy and paste this paragraph from the article I wrote 8 months ago:

One possible consideration for buying a new Mac will be when my three-year AppleCare contract runs out. Since I use my computer for my professional activities, I can’t be without a working computer, and I need to have a service contract. Living in a rural area, only AppleCare can help me: the nearest Mac repair center is a 2-3 hour drive. (Fortunately, AppleCare includes on-site repairs; a technician replaced my motherboard after about a year, when the front USB plugs stopped working. He drove the 3 hours to come here and do it in my home.) In addition, accounting rules here in France make me amortize my computer over a three-year period. Not that accounting would make me buy a new computer, but financially it makes sense to buy one every three years.

Check out the Mac mini at Amazon.com

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23 thoughts on “My New Mac: Why I’m Downgrading from a Mac Pro to a Mac mini

  1. Hi

    I have been using the Mac mini since 2006, one of the things I learned is that you can boot up with The USB port connected to a external SATA HDD.

    I am presently using an external SATA HDD as my start up drive and it is working beautifully and the Intel CPU makes the Mac mini a pretty fast computer.

  2. Yes, I mention that in my article. I’d boot via FW 800, though, as it’s much faster. I’m not sure I’ll do that, but I’m planning to try it out, and have bought an extra new disk and enclosure to do so.

  3. I’m curious… it sounds like you have a MacBook Air, as well as a Mac Pro, so couldn’t you use a MB Air as your “backup”? Why would you need an additional desktop computer as a secondary backup? At the moment I only have my MacBook Pro (with a just expired AppleCare Protection Plan), and I’m about to get a Mac mini for similar reasons, but I’m going to wait to get it with Snow Leopard, due out next month. I use my MacBook Pro for professional reasons, and like you couldn’t go a day without it if for some reason it needed repair. After getting the mini I’ll use it with my Apple Cinema Display and Apple Bluetooth keyboard/mouse, as I’ve done with my MB Pro when I need a more “desktop” experience. On the other hand, unlike your situation I would find it difficult not having a laptop as my main machine if I were forced to use the Mac mini as my only machine.

  4. The Air is my backup. I’m going to sell the Mac Pro, while there’s still a few months of AppleCare on it.

    Snow Leopard won’t be out next month; at best, Apple will announce a shipping date, and that looks to be some time in the fall.

  5. If Apple delays shipping until the fall it would be unusual to slip their release date that much. The tech publishers, Peachpit et al, have release dates for their Snow Leopard books beginning the middle of July, which fits with Apple’s timetable of releasing it a year after WWDC 2008. I know that Apple keeps its cards close to its chest, but it would surprise me if Apple and its core tech publishers would be so off in coordinating the release of their respective products.

  6. I’ve written a dozen computer books, most about earlier versions of Mac OS X. Publishers always put pub dates that correspond to their hopes, not to reality – they don’t know anything special.

  7. I agree the Mac Mini is plenty powerful for almost everyone.

    If you need a lot of storage though, I would buy a drobo and attach that rather than just a simple external drive.

  8. The Drobo’s noisy, isn’t it? I can attach two fanless drive enclosures easily, each with a 1 TB disk, and it’ll be quiet.

  9. Kirk,

    I’ve had to boot my system from an external 7200rpm-1TB-drive before when my MBP was in repair and it’s no fun.

    Wouldn’t the internal drive always be faster due to the limitations of a FireWire interface?

    Also: Thanks for the insight! Downgrading CAN be the logical choice…

    Cheers,
    D.

  10. Dan Frakes, in his Macworld article, says that performance is slightly better using an external 7200 RPM drive instead of the internal. Frankly, I’m not convinced; I tend to agree that it’s a pain, but I have often booted from external drives, when needing to work on an untweaked system, for example, or when writing about new pre-release versions of Mac OS X. It’s no real problem for me.

  11. The biggest concern for me was the tender connection of the FireWire cable in the external drive.
    Carelessly flipping the light switch on a cable that was lightly touching the FW cable cut the connection and unsaved work was perdu…
    Not something you’d want to happen at night, when loud swearing is not an option ;)

  12. Well a Drobo shouldn’t be any noisier than any enclosure with a fan. You can stick in a drawer or if really bothers you get a Droboshare and put it in another room. I think one site was throwing those in for free when you get a Drobo. The gigabit ethernet interface is the fastest anyway. Or if you wanted to go the whole hog a DroboPro natively can connect via ethernet, with or without a router in the middle.

  13. If speed matters, I would suggest to upgrade the Mac Mini with a OCZ Vertex SSD. Then you can see a Mac in flight mode ;-)
    When you store your mass data on external HDDs, you can choose a 120GB SSD which is affordable (round 350 EUR).

    As external Cases for your HDD I would suugest the RaidSonic Icy Dock (http://geizhals.at/deutschland/a251586.html). It’s a fanless one. I use one on my desk and with a silent HDD you have virtually no noise.

  14. I’ve thought of the SSD; I have one in my MacBook Air, and it’s a delight. I’ve found them even cheaper than the price you mention. While I’m hesitant to crack open the mini, it’s something I may eventually do.

    As for cases, I get mine from a French reseller who has a few fanless models; all me externals have been fanless for years now.

  15. You may found cheaper SSD, but the OCZ Vertex is close to the Intel SSD and most of the cheaper models are way slower. There was a good article on the speed of SSDs in one of the last c’t (german computer magazine). The OCZ and one Samsung model are the only one’s that can up the speed of the Intel SSD’s.

  16. Hello

    I have a classical CD collection of about 1500 CDs. I’d like to transfer a lot of them to my new IPod, but haven’t a clue how to get the best quality: I have a fairly discriminating set of ears! I have also been looking into a Brennan(co.uk) system, essentially a hard-drive set up, but don’t know if I should use Lossless, 192, etc. All Greek to me!

    I’m a charter Apple user, compliments of my university in the early 1980s and haven’t switched. I’m just now, though, exploring the way to use my music on Apple equipment. Thank you.

  17. Well, that’s slightly off-topic, but here’s what I did. Many years ago, I ripped some music at different bit rates and did some blind tests. I found I could pretty easily tell the difference between originals and files at 96 kbps, and sometimes 128, but not 160. So, since then, I’ve ripped everything at 160. I suggest you do the same: do a test, and if you find that a higher bit rate suits you, use that.

    I recently did a test with a group of classical music reviewers, with “discriminating ears” and high-end equipment. They couldn’t tell the difference between originals and 128 kbps files or anything in between…

  18. Thank you Kirk. I’ll go with 160!

    As for the ontopic post, I feel the same about those monitors which reflect me all day. What monitor do you use? As far as I can see, Apple doesn’t have anymore a non-reflecting display.

  19. If I had a choice I would go with a glossy display, no question. I recently was able to compare two Macs side-by-side, one with a glossy display and the other matte. The differences in brightness and contrast were striking, with the glossy I could read text without my glasses, which was not the case with the matte display.

    I can see why Apple has gone with glossy displays on their computers, they’re so much sharper and crisper than the older matte displays, which seem like impressionistic paintings in comparison. I like my older 23″ Cinema Display, but I would replace it with the new LED display in a heartbeat if I could afford it.

    And with the glossy displays I don’t have the problem with glare that others seem to be having, it seems pretty easy for me to control it by adjusting the lighting and angle.

  20. I’ve got a super-glossy new MBP, and I’ve never seen any reflection. Especially these new ones are so bright they drown out any reflection. The only time I see a reflection is when it is turned off.

  21. Just caught your Mini discussion on Tech Night Owl Radio. Coincidentally, just bought a 2.0 core duo Mini for home, to replace aging PC, (son’s hand-me-down, of course); from Apple Refurb.(Australia). 320GB/2GB. I use a PPC tower at work for prepress, am soldiering on with it, as long as they make me.
    On displays, I had my derriere burned 2 years ago, purchasing for work. I have boned up in the meantime. Glossy displays look “good”, but over-saturate colors, (espec. for prepress work).
    My preferred “affordable” currently is, of all things, a DELL. It’s the new e-IPS panel technology, 16.7mill cols/true 8-bit. Model is 2209WA. Worth a look for anyone thinking about purchasing.
    thanks for your site, Kirk. Now bookmarked.
    Oh, and the Java vulnerability, thanks again for the reminder!

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