Buying a Mac

I’ve been a Mac user for nearly two decades.

Say what you will about Steve Jobs’ Reality Distortion Field. I’ve written code, worked, and played on machines running Windows, Mac, Linux, DOS, ChromeOS, and even some totally obscure operating systems like BeOS. Hands down, Mac has been the biggest joy to use.

I’m not going to get into all the reasons I love Mac right now. (Perhaps such a post will come later.) But suffice it to say, for better or for worse, if I’m spending my own money, I will not spend it on a computer incapable of running macOS. (Notice I didn’t actually say “a non-Apple computer.” More on that in a moment.)

So that brings me to a few months ago, when I decided it was finally time to upgrade my sevenish-year-old desktop. I’ve never been much of a laptop guy, so this machine had been my workhorse. It was the first computer that I built from scratch by myself, and for that reason in particular, I had quite a bit of affection for it.

Hacking It Together

An important detail that I hinted at earlier: the old machine was a “Hackintosh.” When I built this machine, it was with the specific intent of dipping my toes into the nebulous world of custom-built (read: hacked together) Macintosh computers. For various reasons (primarily legal), I won’t get into how to do it (Google is your friend), but it is certainly possible. Moreover, you can use a Hackintosh as your main day-to-day computing device—so long as you don’t have a debilitating fear of Apple’s lawyers.

That said, doing so is not without compromises (besides the ethical concerns and clear violation of Apple’s End User License Agreement). While there is an incredible community of hard-core Hackintoshers out there who have figured out how to get most standard hardware to work almost out-of-the-box, I just got tired somewhere along the way of experimenting with tedious configuration tools, dealing with all the random operational quirks, and having to hold my breath each time I installed an update,

It was time to move on.

Which meant…buying myself a real Mac for only the second time in my life. (The first was an iBook in 2004; every other real Mac I’ve owned has been a hand-me-down.)

What I Need in a Machine

I’m a tinkerer at heart. When it comes to computers especially, I like to break things so I can learn how they work and put them back together. This means installing alternate operating systems, experimenting with hard drive formats, running servers and virtual machines, and just generally seeing what’s possible.

That’s the thing that puts me at odds with Apple’s general philosophy. Perhaps the biggest concern—and arguably among the more legitimate criticisms—that gets lobbed Apple’s way is that they only ever have one way of doing things: namely, Apple’s way. You want a laptop? Great! Just don’t plan to ever replace the battery, upgrade the solid state drive, or even (in some cases) install additional memory. You want a desktop? Cool! Here’s an iMac. It’s an all-in-one machine, which means “Don’t you dare open it!” You get the picture…

It wasn’t always like this. The iMac G4 (the very first LCD model) was eminently user-repairable/upgradeable. (I had one once—and repaired it…except when I couldn’t and Apple actually sent a technician to my dorm!) The old MacBook Pro I inherited from my sister was also quite user-friendly once you popped open the case. But these days, in the interest of miniaturization, simplification, and one-way-ification, most Apple machines are intended to seen as black boxes. You turn them on, they do what they’re supposed to do, and you just don’t worry about what’s going on inside. If something goes wrong, take it to the Genius Bar.

As you probably get by now, that’s not my relationship with computers. So if I was going to spend good money on a new one, I wanted a system that I could build and rebuild as needed. And while the Geinus Bar is great, and AppleCare (the three-year extended warranty you should never do without) is even greater, I wanted some level of user-repairability as well.

What I really needed (okay, wanted) was something like the “modular” Mac Pro that Apple finally announced a few months ago—except that it hasn’t even been released yet and costs a minimum of $6,000! (I operate on a teacher’s salary, after all.)

The Next Best Thing

So is there a solution to this dilemma? Can one get a real Mac with the flexibility of a traditional PC but without the insane price tag of the Mac Pro or the near-complete lack of upgradeability of the all-in-one iMac?

Well, that’s where the oft-forgotten Mac mini comes in!

Much to everyone’s surprise, Apple upgraded the long-languishing machine in late 2018 with some pretty decent specs: 8th-generation Intel Core processors, a bunch of Thunderbolt 3 ports, and (astonishingly) user-upgradeable RAM—though Apple would prefer you didn’t know that last part.

Obviously, the ability to swap out the memory on my own is nice, but that seems pretty small in comparison to, say, a fully custom-built computer. But the real magic of the Mac mini, in my opinion, is those Thunderbolt 3 ports.

If you’re wiling to think a little outside the box—literally—and consider that a modern, modular, upgradeable computer need not be completely self-contained, then suddenly the Mac mini seems like a really great deal.

Think of if this way: for about $1,000 you have a solid CPU with some basic graphics capability to boot, modern WiFi, and some basic (albeit minimal) flash storage. In a few years, assuming Apple still makes this machine, you can replace the unit with a new box with better CPU, perhaps 5G connectivity, and whatever else is new and cool.

Meanwhile, you keep your investment in any higher-end peripherals. In my case, I added on a 6TB external hard drive for my primary storage instead of investing a ton of money in extra internal storage. If and when I replace the mini, I can keep that storage.

I also invested in an external graphics card enclosure and a lower-end but decent graphics card to put inside it (since the mini has no discrete graphics chip). The substantial speed of the Thunderbolt interface makes this possible, and Apple finally decided to officially support the use of external GPUs, as they’re called, last year. Not only can I upgrade to a better graphics card in the future, if I so choose; I can also keep this investment if I replace the main machine.

And finally, I already have a mouse, keyboard, 4K monitor, and pair of speakers that I liked, so I can keep these too. And if I decide to upgrade to a 5K monitor some day (or 6K or whatever comes next), I can do that. If I had bought an iMac, I’d be stuck with its built-in monitor for the life of the machine.

For all intents and purposes, I feel like I have built a computer—not a single, self-contained box, but a complete computer system. And I think that’s the key takeaway. If you’re willing to re-envision the concept of a computer as a full system rather than a device, there is no need to stick to the confines of a box.

And best of all, by “building” this system myself and using some parts that I already had, I ended up saving money. (It also helped that I bought my own RAM to add to the machine rather than paying for one of Apple’s notoriously overpriced first-party upgrades.)

So if you’re the type who wants to tinker but finds the usual crop of Apple desktops (namely, the iMac) too restricting, consider the Mac mini. I’ve read complaints about thermal throttling, and I’ve admittedly experienced some bugginess with the external graphics, but in the absence of thousands upon thousands of dollars to spend on a not-yet-released Mac Pro, this still feels like it was the right choice.

The Details (If You’d Like to Build This Yourself)

The build…

  • Computer: Mac mini 2018 configured with 3.0Ghz 6-core 8th-generation Intel Core i5 processor, 8GB of RAM, and 256GB of SSD storage (this is the higher-end of the two base models)
  • RAM: 16GB (two 8GB modules) from Other World Computing
  • External Graphics Enclosure: Sonnet eGFX Breakaway Box 550W
  • Graphics Card: Sapphire Pulse Radeon RX 570
  • External Storage: 6TB LaCie d2 Thunderbolt 3
  • Extras: Kingwin multi-format card reader with additional USB 3 ports, 6-ft. Thunderbolt 3 cord (so I could hide the graphics box, which is quite large, under the table)

Stuff I already had…

  • Display: LG 27UD58-B 27″ IPS 4K UHD LED Monitor
  • Keyboard: Microsoft Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000 (I don’t know if they still make this, but I’ve had it forever)
  • Mouse: Adesso iMouse E20 (an ergonomic, vertical mouse)
  • Camera: I’m not sure of the model, but it’s Logitech and claims to be 720p resolution—though the quality is admittedly questionable. I use it for FaceTime with my family and occasional video conferencing with colleagues)
  • Speakers: I don’t know the model of these either, but they’re from Klipsch. It’s a 2.1-channel speaker system that’s still going strong after 16 years.