The Efficient Mac User

Picking a Mac mini, Consumer Reports' Mac Coverage, and the Power of Mac Mail

- 2005.12.23 - Tip Jar

The past four Efficient Mac User columns have generated a good bit of feedback, questions, and complementary ideas to those in my articles. Thanks, everyone, for your responses!

As we close out 2005, I want to reflect back on that correspondence and respond to some of it.

A Big Decision

A handful of readers wrote to encourage me that we had made the right decision (see A Big Decision: Fix the Old iMac or Buy a Mac mini?) - they, too, had found themselves in the same position recently. (Is there a pattern here? Could it be that the CRT iMacs have a life cycle of about five years?)

Gerald J. writes:

I went through something similar and decided to get a Mac mini to replace the B & W G3. My comment on the purchase of the Mac mini would be mostly positive. However, the biggest drawback was the monitor.

I salvaged the 17" ViewSonic from the G3 with disappointing results. The mini was not happy with the monitor - not so much that it didn't work, but that the image was so dim as to be impossible for my aging eyes. I eventually had to bite the bullet and purchased an LCD screen.

This was the second best purchase in my upgrade path (but let me tell you, I did not buy the digital cable, since those babies are pricey!). You may run into the problem of a dim screen with an older monitor. I hope you don't have this issue.

Thanks for the comment, Gerald. That's a good warning - especially because older CRTs tend to grow dimmer with age anyway. It would be interesting to learn if the Mac Mini's video card is geared toward newer equipment in expecting better, brighter display properties.

New CRTs, though cumbersome compared to the sleekness and form factor of an LCD, are very affordable - you can get a 17" for well under $100 if you shop carefully. In upgrading from a G3 iMac, going to a 17" CRT (which, you'll recall, we already had) resulted in no loss of desktop space - in fact, Marcie regained a little from the footprint of the new setup - so there was no substantial detriment to sticking with a CRT in our case.

Denny P. writes:

We recently went through the same process and got a refurbished G5 iMac in the end. My wife, a writer-editor, loves the computer, but she has no patience for learning the inner workings. Therefore the role of computer geek falls to me, which is okay.

What I found interesting is that while the Mac was a cinch to get started, tweaking it to a user's tastes - in this case my wife's - can be fairly time consuming. Just one example is that AppleWorks documents were too small on the screen in the computer's default setup. I tried changing the screen resolution (which made it too blurry), trolling the Apple discussions, trying the MS Word demo, but nothing was really working and she was getting a little perturbed (and I was chagrined as well). Finally it hit me that I could just change the document size - blow it up to 130 percent - duh! So I made a template of it, set the fonts she wanted, etc., and put it in the Dock. I was saved.

Tweaking Mail - showing her how to use the Rules and that kind of thing is another example.

The point gets back to yours - about efficiency. I think Macs are perfect for someone who doesn't want to "deal" with the computer - they just want it to work. But even with a Mac, it seems like having a partner willing to be the computer geek is the best way to go.

Good points, Denny. You're right - I found myself tinkering with Marcie's mini here and there for weeks after we first got it. My guess is that I would have done the same had I reinstalled onto the iMac, but the point is the same: It's important to factor the tweaking into the time-cost equation.

David W. writes:

Some things to think about:

  • Tiger requires 256 min RAM. Panther only 128.
  • A 7200 speed hard drive wakes up these little iMacs! 2 MB buffer is good, 8 meg is better!
  • Don't pay someone to put your HD in. You can do this. It's easy: http://www.macworld.com/2001/10/bc/howtoimac/
  • I'm going to order one of these [80 GB Seagate Barracuda for US$59.31] for a Power Mac, but it will fit in an iMac, too. (Just make sure the firmware has been upgraded before you start.)

Thanks David - good thoughts. Panther might be a good workaround for a slowing machine. However, check out what another reader wrote in:

Jeremy K. writes:

Ed, after thinking over your theory about Windows XP overtaxing your drive, I'd suggest that this wasn't the problem. If it was a 7200 RPM drive, it probably overheated and wore out because of that. The CRT iMacs don't have an internal fan, and the 7200 RPM drive creates a lot of heat. That would easily contribute to a drive's early death.

Good thinking, Jeremy (though I don't believe this totally disproves my theory!). This is certainly an important consideration for others with CRT iMacs to consider - perhaps a 5400 RPM drive is the fastest they should go with.

Consumer Reports

Many, many emails came in with warm and wholehearted agreement about Consumer Reports Just Doesn't Get Macs and How Consumer Reports Could Compare Macs Fairly. Several, in fact, suggested that I also send these to Consumer Reports as a letter to the editor or as a suggestion for changes.

Unfortunately, Consumer Reports doesn't make this very easy. A thorough search of their website turns up no contact information whatsoever, and a quick glance at the magazine offers little help. I plan to dig deeper into the print magazine to find the contact information needed.

This article also generated some discussion over at MacBytes - check out the forum. (Thanks, by the way, to the guy who hopes I get a Dell for Christmas...)

Matt R. writes:

I, too, have found myself both amused and concerned by their somewhat dichotomous information about Macs. I have had a lot of trouble convincing friends and family that Macs are not strange computers for special people, and the way CR divides them into a whole separate class of computers does not help this. However, I have at the same time found their information about reliability and technical support a very valuable tool in showing people that there is more to computers than "marketing numbers" like RAM and screen size.

That's true, Matt. CR offers a mixed bag in terms of the usefulness of their information - which is why I'm reluctant to write them off completely.

An anonymous reader writes:

I've occasionally glanced at the CR computer reviews and sometimes questioned their coverage of alternatives to Windows. I've also talked to real and potential "switchers" and have some understanding of their perceptions of the Mac as outsiders.

Mac users see a machine like the iMac G5 as a nice, midrange box. Something more capable than a Mac mini but not as fearsome as a G5 Tower.

Switchers see the iMac G5 as something akin to a Lexus - a luxury computer for those with means. They're vaguely aware that some people pay more than $2,000 for exotic Bentley/Lamborghini/Rolls Royce monster systems. They do their daily work on a Compaq they paid $1,200 for three years ago and are happy to have finally finished making Visa payments for the darned thing.

It's these people that read Consumer Reports when picking a computer. They look at the price tag first, then check their balance before looking at the feature set. Or at the very least, that the Mac experience is worth any shortcomings. A $2,500 G5 tower isn't a serious option for most people; putting one alongside $1,500 PCs is just a waste of ink.

And if we were striving for fairness, why not include a $2,500 dual-core PC from Dell?

I'm not sure how to make a fair comparison between a Mac and a PC. There are too many intangible and subjective aspects to try to make a nice ranked table. I'd rather have separate tables, with separate criteria, and a detailed textual explanation of the differences.

These are very good points, especially in light of the fact that hardware, which used to be so distinct, is getting more and more similar. For example, for a while Macs were the only "dual" game in town, but now many machines offer them. The switch to Intel processors will make this even more the case. Yet the way that the hardware is put together and used is quite different, and it does make for a very difficult comparison.

I don't believe this justifies the poor comparisons that CR offers, however. If the "detailed explanation" you mentioned were offered, that would be one thing; as it is, CR needs to do some work in improving their system of comparison.

For example, the CR reader who thinks of the iMac G5 as a Lexus-like machine (based on the CR reports and provided specs) may consider it a bargain if he learns that it includes a substantial LCD display and a built-in (and high-end) video webcam in the price. Factor out the $300+ cost of a 17" LCD monitor and roughly $75 for a good webcam, and the iMac's $1,299 price is now a good bit less than $1,000. That's still pricey compared to many desktop systems, but spec-for-spec you won't find a lot of PCs that make the iMac seem overpriced (as has historically been the complaint about Macs).

Making Mac Mail Work for You

The timing for Making Mac Mail Work for You one was just right, since the day before Low End Mac published Michel Munger's article on Entourage! Of course, my goal was not to dissuade users from choosing Entourage, but merely to suggest that, if you preferred not to spend the dough on Microsoft's suite just for an email client ($149 at student price), you may find Apple's Mail surprisingly powerful. It seems that, in spite of Michael's insistence, a number of readers agree that Mail is just fine.

A few readers wrote to suggest additional tools for Mail: iSay, a tool that lets you insert audio clips (think voicemail) into your mail messages; Serial Mail, which manages customized bulk mailings (kind of like a merged paper mailing); and MacResponder, which allows you to send automatic replies in Mail. Good suggestions, everyone. I'll be trying Serial Mail out to send out a Christmas mailing.

A number of readers also had suggestions and questions - and I'm happy to oblige with answers when I can.

Tom G. writes:

One missing feature in Mail that you didn't mention is a print button in the toolbar. This seems so obvious an omission I wonder if I've missed something.

Mail toolbar

Tom, if you right-click (or control-click) on the toolbar itself, you can customize what buttons you would like to have onboard. This includes a print button. I agree that the default set is a bit thin, so I've added a number of buttons to mine (above): add address, flag, smaller/bigger (see the screen shot of my Mail toolbar below). Print would make a good addition if I printed more emails (as it is, I probably print one a month, at most; typing cmd-P serves my purposes fine for this), but I end up archiving in DEVONthink or in Mail itself.

Stephano A. writes:

Maybe you can help me find out which tool is necessary to bring the application to create a disposition-notification? I've "scanned" many forums. A lot of people are looking also for such a tool, but I've found no answer anywhere.

Thanks for the question, Stephano. Thanks to Tim Gaden over at Hawk Wings (a blog dedicated to Apple's Mail client!), I've learned that there is a solution, albeit a permanent one. As I understand it, this hack result in every message requesting a disposition-notification (also known as a read receipt or return receipt). If you're interested in doing the permanent hack that will request a receipt for all messages, check out Return Receipts in Mail 2.0.

If you're using a pre-Tiger version of Mail (that is, Mail 1.x), you'll find that MailPriority would serve your purposes.

Weiqi Z. writes:

I just want to give you a hint, that it is already possible to set the default account in AddressBook.app. Unfortunately it is hidden in a submenu and is not well documented.

In Address Book.app:

  1. Edit -> Edit Distribution List....
  2. You will see all accounts for all people.
  3. Select one default account for each person. It will become highlighted.
  4. That´s all. Next time, you will send mail to this account

Good tip, Weiqi. That is a helpful function, and it is great to be able to specify which account is default for my addressee (though I've found this feature to be, at best, sporadic in its reliability....)

My hope, however, is in being able to specify which of my accounts is default for a particular recipient. For example, I would like to use a certain account every time I choose Dan Knight, Low End Mac's publisher, as the recipient. (Another reader wrote to affirm that I am not, in fact, the only one who would like to see this feature!)

That wraps up the Efficient Mac User mailbag this time around. Thanks for reading, keep the emails coming, and have a great holiday season! See you in 2006. LEM

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