This article originally appeared in TidBITS on 2012-02-27 at 8:01 a.m.
The permanent URL for this article is:
Include images: Off

Puzzling Through Mac Replacement Possibilities

by Steve McCabe

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 [1] 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 [2], 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 [3] 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 [4] or Air Display [5] 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 [6] (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 [7], he blogs about technology [8], and he has just finished rebuilding his personal Web site [9].]