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Puzzling Through Mac Replacement Possibilities

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There I was at school, patrolling the playing fields as we teachers are required to do a couple of times a week, when a few high school girls who’d had me for Japanese last year asked to me to show them Siri on my iPhone. Oohs and aahs duly delivered, one of them asked why I had an iPhone, given how terrifyingly expensive they are.

I gave my well-rehearsed answer, the one that explains how an international tech megastar like her Japanese and physics teacher (it’s important to maintain professorial reputation) must keep up with the latest kit in order to be able to speak authoritatively, and she was satisfied with this answer.

But I knew I was prevaricating. Staying current with the tech world requires continual investment, which has become a problem for me, given that, as a teacher in New Zealand, I’m not as flush as once I was.

I got into computers, and tech, and Apple in particular, back in the 1990s, when I lived near Tokyo and made a rather generous Japanese salary. When the tech itch needed scratching, a quick trip took me to the famed Akihabara electronics shopping district.

But now I’m in New Zealand, making a Kiwi teacher’s wage, and while I’d not give up the life here for anything, maintaining familiarity with Apple’s latest products has become increasingly challenging. Especially now. I find myself in something of a tech crunch, and I don’t know what the correct path is. Let me explain, and perhaps my ponderation can help you with any similar decisions you may have.

When I moved to New Zealand in 2009, I brought with me three Macs. My 20-inch iMac, an original Intel Core Duo model, is the oldest, dating back to 2006. I purchased it with the payment from my first paid FileMaker job, so it has some sentimental value. My Mac mini was bought in 2007, partly with the refund check that Apple issued to early iPhone adopters like me. Then there was the MacBook Pro that I bought in 2008 and donated to a friend’s daughter last year when she went away to boarding school. It was replaced with a new Thunderbolt-equipped 15-inch MacBook Pro, leased for three years under the New Zealand Ministry of Education’s excellent Laptops for Teachers program.

(The MacBook Pro I lease from my school for the entirely reasonable price of NZ$52 per month over a three-year period has enabled me to use a high-end laptop for an affordable price, one I likely would have struggled to justify otherwise. The lease payments work out to NZ$1,876, whereas buying that Mac outright would cost NZ$2,999. I don’t get to keep the Mac after the three years are up, but I hope I’ll be able to lease another one at that point.)

Apart from a hard disk failure about two years into its run, the iMac has served me well until recently. However, due to a power supply that has developed the disconcerting habit of turning off randomly, the iMac has become increasingly unusable as a working computer.

And so I find myself, for the first time in several years, seriously considering a major overhaul of my computer systems. Budget is the primary consideration, of course, but I would prefer not to give up having a desktop Mac for serious work, a laptop Mac for portability, and my own server for my Internet presence. How might I best juggle all the possibilities?

Replace the iMac -- If money were no object, the answer would be simple. A new iMac, preferably a 27-inch model, would be arriving from the online Apple Store tomorrow. But relax, Courier Post, I’m a teacher, so you won’t be making that delivery.

I have toyed with the idea of a second-hand Mac. My first two Macs were a IIsi that was given to me by a relative who couldn’t be bothered to get it to work properly (I fixed it up in an afternoon) and a IIvx I bought used in Japan. That might well be the route I take if I decide to replace my iMac. Certainly the second-hand market here in New Zealand is healthy enough to offer some attractive deals.

Repair the iMac -- If my iMac were a more recent machine, I would be taking it in to the nearest Apple Store for repair. But it’s an old computer, and my nearest Apple Store isn’t even an Apple Store. Apple has no retail presence here in New Zealand, putting my nearest genuine Apple Store in Sydney, Australia, 2,100 kilometers away across the Tasman Sea.

Instead, the inexplicably named YooBee, the main chain of Apple-authorised resellers here, charges what I consider to be unreasonable sums, including a fee simply for taking a look at an ailing computer. It’s simply not realistic to consider a repair to an old iMac under such terms.

What’s more likely is that I’ll self-diagnose the power supply problem and then buy and install the necessary parts to keep the iMac running a little longer (iFixit has instructions, though they don’t look easy). Then I can consider the next possible strategy.

Repurpose the iMac as a Server -- It would be heartless, not to mention extravagant, to retire the iMac while it could still be useful. Perhaps I could put it to some other use.

My Mac mini is my Internet server, dishing up Web pages and managing email from my various blogs and domains. It’s also the newest computer I own, and there is a degree to which it’s not really pulling its weight. While I am proud of each of the dozens of page views my blogs receive on a normal day, my Moving to New Zealand blog doesn’t require significant processing power. If that’s the main task of my most powerful desktop computer, maybe it’s time to put the Mac mini to work as my main production machine and repurpose the iMac as my server.

But it’s not quite that simple. While the Mac mini has an Intel Core 2 Duo processor and runs Lion Server, my iMac has only an Intel Core Duo, without that magic number 2. While the iMac still has all the processing oomph that I need for my Web design and FileMaker work, Apple has decreed it is unworthy of Lion, so using the iMac as a server would force me to revert to Snow Leopard Server, which I find lacking in some areas, virtual mail hosting in particular. So I could step back down to Snow Leopard Server, but I’d prefer not to.

I’d also prefer not to outsource my Web hosting and email server needs. While I’m fully aware that relying on something like Google Apps might give me similar functionality for less money, I’m not yet willing to hand my Web and email serving over to someone else.

That leads into the next possibility.

No Desktop Mac -- There was a time when a laptop was a lesser computer, a compromise in a clamshell case. But no longer — my Thunderbolt-equipped MacBook Pro is, without doubt, the most powerful computer I’ve ever used. So do I really need a desktop computer any longer? I like the larger screen, and find having a mouse or trackpad next to a full-sized keyboard a convenient and comfortable way to work. So why not sell the iMac for parts, and make the MacBook Pro my main computer?

Apple’s new 27-inch Thunderbolt Display offers an interesting possibility. For a decent chunk of cash (NZ$1,649), albeit less than the cost of a new iMac (NZ$2,799), I could buy a new display and use it as a docking station for the MacBook Pro. I’d have access to my couple of terabytes of external storage when I was working at my desk, and still have a laptop to work on at school or whenever I was away from my office.

Realistically, do I need two computers, a laptop and a desktop? For years, I had only one or the other; it’s only since 2008 that I’ve had the luxury of both. The power of my laptop, when I’m using it as a laptop, is largely redundant — Microsoft Word, Safari, Mail, and QuickTime Player are its main duties, with the odd bit of Skype to talk with my family back in England.

So maybe the Thunderbolt Display is a viable option. I get a screen roughly the size of Liechtenstein, a simple one-cable docking solution, and the productivity boost of dual monitors, a feature I first came to love in the mid-1990s when I wrote my master’s dissertation (about the linguistic features of email, with one Adam Engst among the primary sources) on a PowerBook 1400 connected to the 13-inch AppleColor RGB display.

However, the approach isn’t without its flaws, not the least of which is that NZ$1,649 I’d have to cough up for the Thunderbolt Display. Plus, although I’m sure I’d adapt, it feels fussy to have to plug the MacBook Pro into the Thunderbolt Display regularly, at least in comparison to just sitting down at the iMac. One possible workaround that I might try is using software like ScreenRecycler or Air Display to turn my iMac into an external monitor for the MacBook Pro. It would still be annoying if its power supply shut off while it was acting as a display, but at least I wouldn’t lose any work.

Next Steps -- Buying a new Mac is not a decision one makes without a significant degree of contemplation and consideration. My days of near-unlimited tech funds are long gone, and so I have to weigh no end of issues. I’ve managed to whittle them down to two possible paths.

Financial constraints tell me that the smart move is to connect an old display to my Mac mini, and use it as my desktop machine, repurposing the iMac as my server (it could even double as a second monitor for the Mac mini while it was serving Web pages). Or, if the iMac proved unfixable, the Mac mini could probably continue to act as my server even as I was using it as my main desktop Mac. As long as the Ministry of Education is willing to let me lease my MacBook Pro, I have my portability requirements sorted, too.

On the other hand, my iMac, at six years old (that’s almost a hundred in human years) really is nearing the end of its useful life, especially if I don’t devote more time and money to repairing its dodgy power supply. So perhaps I can justify replacing it, at which point putting the Mac mini on TradeMe (a New Zealand version of eBay) might be a good way of subsidising the purchase. This would, of course, leave me without the full trio of desktop, laptop, and server that I’ve so enjoyed having these many years. And that in turn might be addressable by having a new iMac do double duty as a desktop and server. Or by winning the lottery.

All that said, I can’t ignore the allure of an elegant and inexpensive repurposing of the machines I have, and bringing the Mac mini into service as my desktop Mac currently feels like the best option. But I’ve had so much fun contemplating all the possibilities that I wanted to throw the entire puzzle open to others as well. What would you do if you were in my shoes, with my needs and limited budget?

[Steve McCabe is a Mac consultant, tech writer, and teacher in New Zealand. He writes about his adventures in New Zealand, he blogs about technology, and he has just finished rebuilding his personal Web site.]

 

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Comments about Puzzling Through Mac Replacement Possibilities

Are you sure it's a power supply problem with your iMac? I remember when I upgraded a computer to Leopard it started randomly and suddenly shutting down. Turned out to be a problem with Microsoft Office under Leopard. Too much time has now passed to remember what the fix was, but it was relatively simple.
Great article. Timely, too, in my case, as I have a working but sluggish old iMac that runs Lion but has a hard time doing heavy lifting.

In my opinion, there is nothing like a desktop, especially if you work at a desk. Mice and full-size keyboards are great. Big screens are great. A computer just sitting there, as you say, waiting for a key press to jump to life is great. Hunching over a laptop is not so great for long hours (though I know many do it), or for projects that require lots of balls (and therefore windows) in the air at the same time.

I'd get a new iMac if I were you. That's my plan, anyway.
Hi Steve

FYI, the adventures and tech blog links at the end of your article result in "Safari can't open the page because the server where this page is located isn't responding"

Cheers, Gobit
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2012-02-27 10:56
Clearly Steve needs a new server. :-)
Steve McCabe  2012-02-27 23:34
Thanks for letting me know. My mini does have a configuration problem that I'm in the process of fixing; I didn't bother to mention it in this article simply because it's obscure, fixable, and very specific to my situation.

But in case you're interested, I believe my blogs are again up and running.
Rob Russell  2012-02-27 11:33
Don't forget to look at Apple's refurbished pages:

http://store.apple.com/nz/browse/home/specialdeals/mac (insert appropriate country code if not nz).

I've picked up a couple of very good deals that way - including a MacBook Pro where I saved NZD800 - nothing to be sneezed at.

There has been nothing wrong with the computers, short of the bland packaging they arrive in!
Steve McCabe  2012-02-27 23:36
I absolutely agree. I've looked carefully, but selection is often a bit of a problem; obviously, they only sell what they happen to have available, and last time I looked they didn't have any deals that spoke to me.

I shall have to revisit this possibility, though; it's certainly an intriguing one.
Sean McGrath  2012-02-27 13:32
VirtualBox and Linux give options a for server solution
that is reliable, efficient and zero cost, using your existing hardware and the same server software that Apple uses. If you miss the Apple server GUI, add Webmin for a web based GUI.
Kevin Patfield  An apple icon for a TidBITS Contributor 2012-02-27 15:14
Great article, thanks for sharing your thought process.

Two comments (not the most important but there are several ahead of me!)

If you're pushed into using Snow Leopard Server, bear in mind that it's MUCH more expensive than Lion Server.

I don't really see why you need a server at all. Virtually everyone uses a hosting service for the sort of volumes you mentioned. It's cool you be running your own "IT department" but difficult to justify the hardware cost. Your domain registrar will invisibly forward URL GETs and email anywhere.
Curtis Wilcox  An apple icon for a Friend of TidBITS 2012-02-27 15:45
That's my feeling. Shared hosting accounts are inexpensive and perfectly fine for such personal sites and email. I could see using a box at home if you're hosting something that would require a VPS hosting or dedicated server account, those cost much more.

I also wonder about the cost of the electricity to run the mini server and the additional cost of using the iMac as a server instead.
Steve McCabe  2012-02-27 23:39
You're both right, of course. Running my own server is simply a vanity project, really; i've been hosting my own websites since I decided, a few years ago, that I wanted to learn about servers, and it just feels, well, the right thing to do.

As for cost, my mini has an 80W power supply, so, even if it were running at maximum power all day and all night, it would consume less than 2KWh of electricity per day, which, even at crazy NZ rates, costs less than 50¢. My solar panels can handle it.
Curtis Wilcox  An apple icon for a Friend of TidBITS 2012-02-27 15:32
Connecting two cables, power and Thunderbolt, is fussy? Boy, you're demanding. The Thunderbolt Display is awesome and about as close to a real docking solution as you're going to get but it is pricey. I'm all for giving up on having both a desktop and a laptop but without reason to justify a display of that size and quality, I'd go with an even fussier setup. In fact, I have. Every morning at work I connect power, Ethernet, mini DisplayPort, and USB to my MacBook Pro. Almost every night at home I connect it to power, mini DisplayPort, USB, and FireWire. Four connections is twice as fussy as two but considering you can get a perfectly good LCD for about US$200 (more like US$400 for one more comparable to Apple's 24" display), that's a significant savings. Even if you buy a mini DisplayPort to DVI adapter and another AC Power Adapter to keep at your desk, it's still a lot less than the Thunderbolt Display.
Steve McCabe  2012-02-27 23:40
You're right. Maybe "fussy" isn't the ideal word. And, really, it's not so much the connecting that's the issue; it's more the disconnecting. I keep a lot of my work on external hard discs that are USBed into my desktop machine; if I had to unmount those volumes every time I wanted to disconnect from my docking station, I'd likely get a little fed up. But yes, otherwise it looks like a *very* easy system.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2012-02-28 07:52
To be fair to Steve, that was my addition (though extrapolating a little from what I knew his system looked like) with the external drives. It's not a huge deal, but I have two Macs, a Mac Pro and a MacBook with an external monitor, and when faced with having to connect the power, monitor, and Ethernet cables to the MacBook (and then deal with all the windows that aren't the right size or in the right position), I find it fussier than just touching a key on the Mac Pro to wake it up.
Bill King  2012-02-27 16:54
I have a MacBook Pro hooked up to a very inexpensive HP L1908w monitor with a Logitech keyboard and Apple mouse. I love this functionality and rarely use the MBP's screen. It truly functions as a hard drive, but it's there as a second monitor if I need. When I need its portability, I simply unplug the wires and carry it off.
DanRobinson  2012-02-27 17:04
Through retirement as a Mac Consultant, I find myself in exactly the same situation.

About to go:
• an aging Mac Pro, stuffed to the gills with RAM and six terabytes of hard drive
• 2 ViewSonic 22" monitors
• a slightly newer 15" MacBook Pro
• a B&W LaserWriter
• a color LaserWriter
• a scanner.

I'll be buying:
• a new 15" MacBook pro driving a single 22' monitor. (It's nice having 2 monitors, but I don't NEED two monitors.)
• a color laser all-in-one.

In effect, I've whittled seven 'positions' down to two. (The computer and monitor counting as one since the MacBook pro is behind the monitor and doesn't need to be 'seen.')
David Slone  2012-02-27 17:08
I am going to put in a plug for using the laptop with a docking station. I have two different laptops, and hence two docking stations, which I got from BookEndz (http://www.bookendzdocks.com/). The docking stations eliminate the need to connect and disconnect a multitude of cables.

I have a mid-2008 MacBook Pro at work with a 30” Cinema Display and a 2005 G4 PowerBook at home with an original 22” Cinema Display. I had to get an ADC-DVI adapter for the old Cinema Display and opted for the last non-unibody MBP since it didn’t need a DVI-DP adapter (which it turns out didn’t ship for several months after the unibody MBPs came out).

You would have to check that BookEndz has a dock for your model of MBP since Apple keeps changing the port locations. I use old Extended keyboards that came with earlier desktop machines and Kensington trackballs (my primary pointing devices since 1991). Good luck with your quest.
Dennis B. Swaney  2012-02-28 08:07
Mike van Lammeren  2012-02-27 17:59
Teachers in New Zealand seem to be doing OK: http://www.minedu.govt.nz/NZEducation/EducationPolicies/Schools/SchoolOperations/EmploymentConditionsAndEvaluation/TeacherPayAndConditions/TeachersAveragePay.aspx
Steve McCabe  2012-02-27 23:47
The Ministry have long been, in my opinion, most disingenuous in this regard. The cite a figure of $71,110 as an "average" salary for secondary teachers, even though the highest pay grade on the teachers' salary scale is $71,000.

The discrepancy is due to the fact that some teachers — heads of department, assistant principals, those with other additional specific duties — get management allowances in addition to their salaries. I don't.

http://www.ppta.org.nz/index.php/collective-agreements/stca/90-part-four?start=1
Peter Hopkins  2012-02-27 21:50
Hi Steve. In 2009 I went from a "base station" iMac in my office with Macbook for portability to a MacBook Pro with an Apple LED Cinema Display 24 as my base. The plug in each day is a doddle and I have a cheap 22in display at home creating two "base" desktops for the price of one and no more synching headaches. I plug in a keyboard and use a bluetooth mousepad at each "base" plus external hard drive backup at each. Everything on one machine with 2 separate backups with the Macbook providing extra screen real estate. Plenty of processing power but souped up 6 mths ago with an SSD which gives almost instant response on start up and great processing. I strongly recommend this combo.
I will add my voice to the call to just use the MBP as a desktop replacement. That is what I use, although I admit that I don't use my MBP as a portable computer anymore since getting my 11" Air a year or so go.

This option works rather well. I actually use two external monitors usually with it...one by the miniDisplay port (it is a pre-Thunderbolt MBP) and another by way of a USB graphics adapter. This gives me three displays when you include the build-in one. I use an Apple Extended keyboard and a wired mouse.

Now, I will admit that I don't need to disconnect too much, but when I do, it is not that much of a hassle to unplug the power, monitor, ethernet, and USB/Firewire cables. The big bonus for me is that I can have "matte" finish monitor's rather than the glossy screens that come on an iMac...and I can take my computer with me if I need to.

At worst, treat it as a temp solution while you save up money to buy a new iMac.
Since I ran out of space...

As I was saying, you could treat using the MBP as a temp solution, especially if you found it was a hassle to plug/unplug stuff.

With that approach, you could leave the Mini as the server. Then rather than get a Thunderbolt display with its rather high cost, just get a typical DVI monitor that will cost on the order of $200 to $400 (US). You can use the keyboard and mouse you already have for the iMac with the MBP. Then put the money you save into the "new Mac fund"...and if you find you don't like using the MBP as your desktop replacement, then get a new iMac or maybe a new Mini for your desktop at some point in the future.
Sebastian Bernhardt  2012-02-28 01:54
The big question "can a portable Mac serve as a desktop replacement" has hit me too a couple of times in my Apple life.
In 2006, I decided that my old desire for a real desktop computer was now oldfashioned and that a new MBP would do. It really wasn't a bad computer and it was nice having everything with me then, because I was traveling a lot. But I did not love the cable hassle when I put it on my desktop and upgrading hardware (RAM/HD/DVD) was always an ugly experience.
Last year it was time again for my Mac household renovation. I used the wonderful "Worksheet for Choosing between a Desktop and a Laptop" from Adam's book "Take Control of Buying a Mac" and it totally opened my eyes: Yes, I am a dinosaur and I need a desktop computer. I need a laptop too, but there is no way I would want to replace my desktop.
My proposal: Leave the Mini where it is, get a used or refurbished desktop mac (why not a MacPro with a DVI display) and exchange the MBP to a Macbook Air as soon as possible.
Dennis B. Swaney  2012-02-28 08:03
My iMac G5 ALS is still running strong and doing 99.99% of what I need. If something goes wrong, like your power supply, then I will just replace the power supply (and then see if I can fix the broken one) and soldier on. However, I don't intend on replacing my AL PowerBook with a MacBook; my iPad has pretty much done that.

So, I'd say, in order of preference:
1. Repair the iMac
2. Replace it with a Mac Mini and a Thunderbolt display.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2012-02-28 13:02
Just a quick reminder that you can listen to this article by clicking the Listen link at the top (of course, you've probably already read it if you're down here). I mention this because Steve recorded his own article, and with his thoroughly British accent, its a particularly enjoyable listen.
Mark H. Anbinder  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2012-02-28 15:02
Steve, there's lots of good content in what you've written, and some good discussion. I'd just like to comment that I find it odd you consider charging to evaluate a hardware problem an "unreasonable" fee. "Simply" taking a look at an ailing computer probably actually means providing an expert diagnosis. If you were to decide you didn't to proceed with a repair, how would the tech get paid for his or her time?
Steve McCabe  2012-02-28 23:40
I've obviously been spoiled rotten by Genius Bars.

This practice is increasingly widespread in New Zealand, although I can't speak about other countries. The practice here is to hold the threat of a diagnosis fee over the head of a warranty-holding customer. A friend's mobile phone recently stopped working properly, and he took it back to the shop where he bought it. He was told that, if, in the judgement of the shop's technician, the repair wasn't covered under warranty, they would charge a $70 fee for inspecting it. This feels, to me, like an attempt to discourage customers from taking advantage of their products' warranties.
Fix the problem if it costs les than half of what a Mini costs. Otherwise just stay with the laptop and buy a good and big monitor for the laptop. And a wireless keyboard and mouse (they're terrific!!)
Bruce H  2012-03-01 09:06
When the lease comes to an end on the school Mac will you get the option to buy it? If so that might be an incentive to hold on a couple of years by repairing/making do?
Tarik E Sivonen  An apple icon for a TidBITS Contributor 2012-03-01 20:02
Good Day Steve,

Use the Mac mini. SSD drives are the present and future. Install one and you will be stylin. Desktop and server in one tiny box.

I have a Core 2 Duo 1.83 GHz Mac mini that I have supped up with 4 Gigs of RAM (yes it can only use 3, but I swear [politely of course] that the video RAM the Intel 950 steals is from the extra Gig) and a 80 Gig SSD. Naturally it is running Lion dot three and will not run my Mountain Lion developer's preview (wink-wink).

A cold start up takes all of 16 seconds to the Log In screen. From Log In to "using it" takes about 6 seconds. Yes I have the majority of my Documents folder "moved" to an external Firewire 400 1.5 Tb drive. I can read email and browse the web in perfect silence (except for that Flashy stuff might start the fan up). Netflix of course does get the fan going but all in all it is much faster and quieter than with the 80 Gig 5400 RPM disk drive it came with.

There are many SATA 3 SSD drives that are near or under $100 US now.
Tommy Weir  2012-03-05 13:17
In a similar spot and time… My 2¢...

I was surprised at no mention of the iPad. I have been, since the late eighties a laptop guy. It was always "whats the best Mac laptop I can afford" and the answer to that was my answer.

I think now after owning an iPad 2 for just over a year that I'm looking at a desktop as my main machine and the iPad to answer my mobile needs. I'm jumping on the 3 when it launches. I have adaptors for teaching, hooking up to projectors etc.

It looks like a Mac Mini for the desktop. I have amassed peripherals over the years, I've two monitors to hook on and a keyboard/trackpad. I'll swing my FW800 drives off that and be done.

I am also looking at a WD Live Duo NAS to take care of our ever expanding iTunes library and shared data.

I'll strip my MBPRo to the minimum and reposition it in a leaner configuration for those times I need to have a laptop.

I figure I'll be saving money on a new MBPro even with all that.
Steve L'Heureux  2012-03-08 07:46
I would forget about that old iMac, it could also be one of those early models that had bad capacitors. So if you dump money into the power supply and then still have issues you're going to be very unhappy. Even the Mini is getting kinda old, but it would be nice to have a backup to your MBP in case it goes down. I would look into hosting my web and mail on a commercial server, costs are very reasonable. You don't "need" an Apple Display, NEC and Viewsonic make some very nice LCD for a very reasonable cost.
Steve2  2012-04-04 20:14
Also have a mini server but with a drobo for data. Several mbps and a couple pcs in the family. Consider an iPad running iSSH back to your mini as your portable and easier on your solar panels. Put a cheap monitor on your mini for the desk when necessary and still use it as a server. Basically your own cloud and not expensive.