The Efficient Mac User

A Big Decision: Fix the Old iMac or Buy a Mac mini?

- 2005.11.08 - Tip Jar

Greetings. I'm one of the new writers at Low End Mac. I learned computing on an Apple IIe in the early 80s and got my first Mac (an original LC or "Elsie") as a high school graduation present in 1991. It served me nearly seven years.

My main machine these days is a 12" 1.2 GHz G4 iBook G4 (the "iceBook"), while my wife has been using a 400 MHz G3 iMac ("Kihei").

My column is called "The Efficient Mac User". I work a full-time educational job that takes 50-60 hour weeks, do some other consulting and writing, and I'm finishing a graduate degree, so my computing (and my life) has to be about efficiency. I mean efficiency in the fullest sense - not just avoiding the waste of time or money, but efficiency in mental and physical health and energy as it relates to work and computing, in making use of what you have, and in getting the most from the tools available.

My approach will largely rely on personal experience - situations I have been in or that I am facing currently, and how I deal with them.

My presuppositions are these: First, most Mac users value the "productivity factor" on a Mac - they appreciate (and even rely on) the freedom to focus on the work being done, not on the computer itself. Second, busy Mac users (and even not-so-busy ones) are thankful for any help they can get with increasing their efficiency for whatever computing task is before them. Third, many of the questions that I face are not unique to me; others may want to hear how I worked through getting answers.

This leads to my first Efficient Mac User scenario: What to do with an ailing iMac?

Kihei iMacMy wife Marcie's iMac has been having hard drive trouble. Last January, the original drive - a noisy 13 GB Maxtor - was not only annoyingly loud, but it was also too small for our needs. I wanted to upgrade her machine to Panther (OS X 10.3) and suspected that 13 GB would be too small. On top of that, Marcie wanted our copy of Virtual PC on her machine.

I determined to upgrade her hard drive to something above 30 GB.

Around the same time, we had decided to get rid of our last Windows PC (yes, I confess that I've owned and used more than one machine running that dreaded operating system), which was seeing less and less usage, finally dwindling down to running only when Marcie wanted to use Photoshop Album to organize our photos (a call to Adobe - step up with a Mac version!).

The 40 GB Maxtor hard drive in that machine was still fairly new - only 2 years old. Why not pull it and drop it in the iMac?

That transition went as smoothly as I could have imagined. I found good directions online for accessing the hard drive of the iMac, and I was in and out in a little more than an hour's time. It seemed like our troubles were behind us.

But in August, new difficulties arose. First, I upgraded her iMac to Tiger (OS X 10.4) - and found Apple's reputation for older-system-friendly upgrades to be accurate.

Everything appeared to be fine, but a couple of weeks into the Tiger-on-the-iMac era she called me at work: "Mail doesn't respond when I ask it to check for new mail. In fact, it won't let me view any other messages, either." I talked her through a force-quit, then suggested that she go ahead and restart just for good measure.

After log-off, her system hung like a noose.

First, it locked up on the gray screen, not even showing a dark gray Apple logo. After a hard reset (using the power button), it locked up on the gray apple logo. At this point, I told Marcie to shut it off. I would work on it when I got home.

The first time I tried starting up, it showed a "question-mark folder", indicating that it couldn't find a bootable System on the hard drive. Another manual reset produced the same result, and a third and final one elicited some kind of UNIX diagnostic that threw a bunch of commands up on the screen, peppered with the occasional English comment.

I kid you not, one of them said something like, "big trouble - we're hanging badly"!

Well, I know trouble when I see it, so I restarted from a System install CD, then switched the startup volume to my external FireWire drive, where I have a diagnostic and repair boot volume set up.

I started by running Disk Utility, then TechTool Deluxe, then TechTool Pro - none of which could repair the damage to my drive. (Actually, just the partition of the drive that holds System and program files. I keep all stored documents, photos, and other files safely stored on another partition. See Michel Munger's recent article on partitioning for more on that subject).

With a sigh, I resigned to erasing that partition and reinstalling the system. This time the system installed more quickly, and I was optimistic that all would be well. "Maybe it was a mistake to go the upgrade route with Tiger, instead of a clean install...."

Five days later, I found out it made no difference. We were back to hanging on gray apples and flashing "question-mark folders". The most frustrating part was that I had literally just finished reinstalling software and restoring Mail accounts, iPhoto and iTunes libraries, and Quicken data the night before.

Some snooping on Apple's discussion boards led me to conclude that I very likely have a failing hard drive.

This brings me to my theory/rant about Windows XP and hardware, especially hardware with moving parts like hard drives. If you've ever used this OS, you know that WinXP spins up the hard drive very often - move the mouse and the drive spins up. The system itself is very resource-intensive. Add to that frequent restarts and the kind of maintenance (e.g., scanning for viruses regularly) that a WinXP machine requires - not to mention the drastic measures, like a full reformat and reinstall, that occur pretty regularly, in my experience - and you have, shall we say, more-than-average wear on that hard drive. Thus, my Maxtor drive, which was new in January 2002 and theoretically should have lasted 4-6 years, has worn out in 2-1/2.

We were faced with the big decision: Upgrade the iMac's hard drive or go in a different direction?

This is a 1999-vintage iMac. It shows no signs of impending failure in any other way, but it also is at its max in terms of the usage we ask of it. Even with a 512 MB stick of RAM in there, it is far from zippy running OS X. Tiger helped things a bit compared to Panther, but we won't be running any video-editing software on this machine unless it's a Classic app, and even that would face the difficulties of OS 9 emulation in OS X.

Marcie's idea of running Photoshop Album on Virtual PC didn't pan out for this very reason. She ran it twice, I think, before deciding to switch to iPhoto.

Plus you can bet that some future version of OS X won't support this hardware. At 400 MHz, Tiger barely does.

I'm pretty committed to the Low End Mac philosophy. I've always loved the fact that we run a 5+ year old Mac as one of our primary machines. I don't think "bleeding edge of technology" applies to 95% of the Mac world. (I will concede that such a mindset is more applicable in the Wintel world, since you have to upgrade your hardware to upgrade your software....)

But I also have to face the question from an Efficient Mac User perspective. What would it cost to upgrade the hard drive? (All numbers are rough estimates)

  • $100 - cost of a new drive
  • $75 - 1.5 hours @ $50/hour to install the drive
  • $200 - 4 hours @ $50/hour to install system, iLife, iPhoto, other basic software (based on the last time I did it)
  • TOTAL: $375

This cost would get us back to where were in July. Is this really the most efficient route?

I surfed over to Apple Discounts to take a look around. Aha! That same cost would get me a discounted Mac mini; another $150 would get me a substantially upgraded mini (1.42 GHz, 512 MB RAM, 80 GB hard drive, AirPort and Bluetooth installed).

A few words about Apple Discounts: Though they are not a subsidiary of Apple, they pull their information directly off of the Apple Store online. Apple sells returns, refurbished machines, and close-outs at discounted rates through the Apple Store. Apple Discounts lists all of the current deals on their site. They also offer a Dashboard Widget and a daily email list. You can also get similar deals at your local Apple Store. On the last weekend of each month, they fire-sale all of their returns and close-outs; you'll find everything from earbuds to iPods to cameras to PowerBooks.

With the iMac, I'm looking at only $100 of cash outlay. But I work a lot, and when I'm not working I'd rather not be digging around inside an iMac if I can help it.

Mac miniThe upgraded Mini (which is the configuration I would want, both for the RAM and the AirPort) still costs $150 more. But I will also have a Mac that should last another 5+ years and probably see another 3 or 4 OS upgrades.

Yes, the Mini requires a monitor. But I've got a 17" CRT in the basement that I seldom use. It's easy enough to move it to Marcie's little computer desk.

Plus the Mini will arrive with Tiger, iLife 5, AppleWorks, and Quicken already installed. Plug it in and go - no more hours spent reloading the OS and these programs. Further, it will run faster, which will make my wife's life more efficient, too.

For me, Low End Mac doesn't mean "low life expectancy". It means affordable, long-lasting, and as much as you need. The Mac mini is today's Low End Mac, and it brings the promise of The Efficient Mac User back to the Eubanks household.

I'll let you know how it turns out. LEM

Link: Apple Discounts

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