Upgrading to a Mac Mini

For those who don’t know, the blog is a side project. I earn money selling my web services over the internet. It works out great because I can work from home, being otherwise retired, and it’s work I enjoy.

2021 was a banner revenue year for my small business, which also means I’ll be paying more in taxes. These taxes can be somewhat offset with business expenses, which tend to be few as I don’t need much except a computer and an Internet connection. Given that I was flush with business income and my computer was eight years old, it seemed a good time to get another one.

Since 2008, I’ve ditched Windows for a Mac. I replaced the Mac once in 2014. A couple of years later, frustrated by having is slow down unacceptably, I had a shop replace the disk drive with a one terabyte solid state drive and bump up its memory to 16 gigabytes. Since then it’s been a solid machine, which is why I didn’t feel the need to replace it.

A year ago I would have told you I’d replace my Mac with some souped up computer than runs Linux. That’s because I know what I’m doing from the command line and for the most part I use the computer to earn money, not to play games or as a form of entertainment.

But Apple’s recent introduction of new Macs with their new M1 chip convinced me that there was now a compelling reason to stay with a Mac. With the M1 chip, Apple ditched Intel in favor of its own in-house chip, the M1. Intel chips are based on a CISC (Complex Instruction Set Computer processor) architecture. The M1 and most CPUs in mobile devices use RISC (Reduced Instruction Set Computer processor) architecture. Providing there is the software to support these chips, they tend to run much faster. These RISC-based chips are definitely the future for desktop and laptop computers. Who doesn’t like faster speed and more efficient use of energy?

I ended up buying a Mac Mini, with a 512 gigabyte solid state drive and 8 gigabytes of memory. I bought it for $869.99 on Costco’s online web site. I skipped buying another iMac. Apple has really jacked up their prices on iMacs. While they have the ultra-fast M1 chips in the Mac Mini, you essentially pay an extra $800 or so for a fancy monitor with a built in camera and microphone. If you are going to stay with a Mac, the Mac Mini is a better buy.

You don’t have to give up anything with a Mac Mini, but should give up less money to Apple. I would need a new monitor, something with retinal display, which my old iMac didn’t have. I’m not too picky. I found this 28 inch Acer gaming monitor at just under $300, also at Costco. I also ordered a web cam for about $25. Altogether, I spent about $1250.

Both the computer and the monitor arrived on Thursday. The Mac Mini is pretty small: about eight inches by eight inches and an inch tall. Generally, Apple does a good job of getting you up and running. I was initially baffled when I turned it on and plugged it into my monitor. Was I setting up the Mac or the monitor? It was hard to tell. The screen had an illustration of what looked like a gaming machine. It was actually an illustration of a Mac Mini, just way too skinny. There was nothing that really told you what to do. Eventually I realized I had to plug in both a wired mouse and a wired keyboard to start configuring the machine, which I should have realized. There wasn’t even a piece of paper in the box telling you this.

Once initially configured, there was the matter of moving my files from the old machine. I didn’t have much spare hardware and there were only two USB-A ports on the Mini Mac, so I had to continually plug and unplug my keyboard and mouse from the old machine and move it back and forth between machines to begin the process of moving all my stuff. I needed a USB-A port for my TimeMachine backup USB drive. It took nearly a whole day to move my 400 gigabytes of files to the new machine. It probably would have been faster had I selected the option to move files using WiFi.

So the process of configuration and migration was definitely less than optimal. But it was worth the hassle. The Mac Mini boots fully in about ten seconds, about six times faster than the old machine. It shuts down in about ten seconds too; the old machine could take a minute or more sometimes. At least the migration program intelligently fetches updated software (when it can) for your apps. Only a few of the programs I use every day didn’t have M1-compatible versions, and it’s hard to tell with the other programs because the machine is so dang fast that it’s hard to believe these programs are being emulated.

This is my first large screen with retinal display and I find it stunning. Everything is so clear and crisp. One of the few things that wasn’t as good is the built in speakers. They are tinny on the Mac Mini and if it’s in stereo, you can’t tell. Fortunately, I have a set of spare speakers with good fidelity that I plugged into the earphone jack, which rendered much better sound than even on my old iMac.

There were a few minor hiccups. I had to login to a host of websites again. Facebook kept giving me a “Sorry! Something went wrong!” error screen with no explanation on how to fix it. The online help didn’t help either: clearing cache and cookies did nothing. I was able to bring it up in Safari, which I don’t ordinarily use, but not in my primary browser. After a few hours, the problem mysteriously disappeared. Also, I couldn’t dim or brighten the monitor from the keyboard like I used to, until I did some searching and found MonitorControl that did the trick.

Aside from a business deduction, my primary interest in this machine was speed. I can’t do much about internet upload and download speeds, but the M1 processor(s) is truly a speed demon that is just stunning. In most cases a millisecond after I press the return key or click on a button, it’s done. Most programs load in a second or two. I’m working on a job for a client, a complex upgrade for a system. It should go much faster than a similar job would have gone on my iMac.

The web cam has still to arrive. I didn’t find much in the way of higher resolution web cams, at least not with 60 frames per second, but a good 1028 x 768 pixel camera will do fine for now. It’s all this plus I can keep running all my old Mac software too, and the same consistent user interface and extremely high reliability that I’ve enjoyed for thirteen years now that is hard to find on Windows. With all this speed, perhaps I can leverage it to earn more money from clients in the years ahead.

Linux Mint may be the Windows killer

I haven’t used the Windows operating system as my principle operating system for ten years. For a decade I have been using an iMac with its MacOS operating system and paying a premium for the privilege. I didn’t mind though. I just couldn’t stand Windows anymore. And since MacOS was basically written on top of UNIX, I could leverage my UNIX skills completely.

Linux Mint (Cinnamon edition)
Linux Mint (Cinnamon edition)

My loathing of Windows though was not enough to keep me from buying a Windows laptop. I don’t use it much and given this I didn’t want to pay the premium for a Mac laptop. I formally left the Windows world about the time I retired in 2014, where using Windows 7 was required. My laptop came with Windows 10. The more I used Windows 10, the more I realized I liked it less than Windows 7. It’s so flashy and so terribly annoying. Amongst its many faults is that it will frequently update itself during booting it up, sometimes taking ten minutes or more before I could actually use it. There’s that and it feels so bloated with all the flashy controls, not to mention all the junk software that came installed.

I’ve made it a goal to move off the Mac when I retire my iMac. The only alternative though seemed to be Windows. I couldn’t see myself going back to that. But maybe there was finally a distribution (“distro”) of Linux for the desktop that was finally mature enough to replace both Windows and MacOS?

This led me to a little project to partition my laptop’s drive so I could at least boot up to another operating system rather than wait for Windows 10 to be usable. In case you haven’t heard, Linux is an operating system. Haven’t heard of it? If you have an Android-based smartphone, you are already using it. Google’s Android operating system is actually a wrapper around a minimized version of Linux. So if you’ve been thinking that Windows was the most popular operating system, you are wrong. It’s really Linux, hidden inside your Android smartphone.

When Google created Android, it realized it was a completely different platform so the old constraints like “can I run Microsoft Office on it?” didn’t apply. They could build it properly and since Linux was already used on devices of all sorts (not to mention servers, where it predominates) they wrote a wrapper around free and open-source Linux and called it Android.

So if you are looking at trends, you are realizing that Linux is taking over. It’s only lagging behind on the desktop. One reason Linux is lagging on the desktop is that there are so many variants (distros) of Linux. I picked one pretty much at random to place on a partition on my laptop: Ubuntu. Ubuntu is nice but it doesn’t behave like Windows. It also doesn’t behave like MacOS. If you are going to move to a Linux desktop, it should at least work similarly to what you are already using.

It didn’t take me more than a week for me to say goodbye to Ubuntu. A friend recommended the Linux Mint distro saying it was written to be Windows-like. So I installed it and took it for a spin.

One thing I noticed right away: Linux Mint booted up fast: really fast, at least compared with Windows 10. Windows 10 gave the illusion that you could use it right away but in fact it sort of hung after you logged in while all sorts of background programs tediously loaded. Mint though was quickly loaded and usable. And it had a Start-like button in the bottom left corner and task bar on the bottom just like Windows. Clicking on the button brought up a Windows-like navigation pane. Nice!

But what was under the hood? Firefox came preinstalled, but also LibreOffice, an open source Office-like set of programs. I quickly learned that only the fussiest people would complain about these programs compared with Microsoft Office because probably less than 2% of us need the most advanced features of Office. LibreOffice is perfectly fine and you have to look hard to figure out what is different.

Pretty much everything I needed was already installed, but there was a Software Manager off the “Start” button that made quick work of installing lots of other useful software. What wasn’t in the Software Manager was often available from various websites. If you download a Debian package (.deb files) from a website, Firefox will recognize it and it is quickly installed. Since there is usually a Debian package for programs written for Linux, this means that few programs Linux programs that are not available for Mint.

While Mint comes with Firefox, if you love Chrome you can download that too. Only it’s not quite Chrome, but Chromium, basically the open-source version of Chrome. Google adds their own proprietary layers on top of Chromium to do things like make it friendlier with its services like GMail and call it Chrome. Since I do IT consulting, I didn’t have problems finding very familiar software I use every day. Filezilla is available for Mint. Since I couldn’t find a Debian package, I had to hunt for a RPM (RedHat Package Manager) package for XAMPP, a program that lets me install a local development environment for the web. This required some “hands on” work from the command prompt to install it, but it was the exception.

Strangely, I hooked my wife, a Windows bigot who spurned my iMac. Her needs are modest: mostly Firefox, Thunderbird for email, VLC for playing videos and Steam for playing games. It turned out there was a Steam engine for Linux that was preinstalled on Mint, as well as Firefox, Thunderbird and VLC. She put it on a rebuilt laptop, throwing away Windows 10 entirely and replacing it with Linux Mint. Tomorrow she is off to Las Vegas to visit friends, and doubtless she will show off her laptop with its Windows-friendly Linux Mint OS on it. She loves it and is amazed by how quickly it boots and is usable.

If you have to run Windows, you can run it virtually inside of Mint using WINE (a Windows emulator) which is also preinstalled. As for replacing my iMac, I don’t think there’s a way to run MacOS virtually inside of Linux. But there are Linux distros that try to emulate the Mac’s user interface. These include Elementary OS, Deepin Linux, Backslash Linux, Gmac Linux and Trenta OS. Of these, Gmac Linux looks the most Mac-like.

About the only software I can’t easily replace is Quicken. I could run it as a service online; I’d just prefer not to trust all my financial data online. Obviously there is some software like Photoshop that is not available for Linux distros, but may be some day. There are some programs that offer 90% of its functionality and are free. Chances are there is an open-source version that’s close enough to those you use everyday on Windows that you won’t mind trading a few differences for the cost (free!)

Playing with Linux Mint though has me thinking that it may kill off Windows. It behaves very similarly, is faster, more nimble, much more stable and doesn’t feel lethargic and bloated like Windows. Yet it’s also so familiar while feeling easier to use. Microsoft may be seeing the beginning of the end of Windows. To compete it may opt to turn Windows into a Linux distro, much like Android became a very unique distro of Linux for handheld devices. Or by being introduced to it through people like my wife, Windows users may discover Linux Mint and make the switch too.

There may be a Chromebook in my future

In principle, I am against getting in bed with any computer company. And yet it is hard to avoid.

Since 2008, I have been principally using Apple computers. I have an iMac where I do most of my work, and an iPad when I want to read more than interact with the web. I also have, courtesy of my employer, a Windows 7 laptop. I need it for work but there are also times when I just need Windows. Unfortunately, I’ll have to turn in that machine when I retire August 1. I don’t like Windows enough to want to buy a Windows computer, or even pay a license to run it virtually on my iMac, particularly now that Windows 8 is your user interface. In any event, upon retirement this will leave me with an Android-based Smartphone as my remaining computing device.

So you basically have to pick your platform. It’s almost always Windows or Mac for the desktop, and Android or iOS for mobile devices. None of them are ideal, even Apple with its shiny computers and snappy user interfaces. There is also no one-size-fits-all device, which is probably good because what you need often depends on your intended use.

For example, I don’t need to run Quicken on my Smartphone. I don’t need to edit Microsoft Office documents on my smartphone either, although seeing them on my smartphone is occasionally useful. When I am doing financial stuff, writing or banging out code, that’s when I really need a desktop or laptop computer. This kind of work is either mostly a lot of entering numbers or text. The work is primarily assertive computer use.

By the way, this is a term I just made up. It means I need to assert lots of real world facts to a computer, basically translating my thoughts into something that a computer can use. Assertive computer use often involves repetition but it also means expressing structured content and thought. Creating this post, for example, is assertive use. It requires not just a brain dump, but structuring my words carefully so exact meaning is communicated. In theory I can do this with voice recognition software. In practice it is much more efficient to do it with a keyboard.

During my last vacation I brought along just my iPad and a wireless keyboard, basically to see how realistic it was to do assertive computer work on this kind of device which is really optimized for browsing. What I discovered was that it was possible to do assertive work, but it was a hassle. The Microsoft Office suite has now arrived for the iPad, but it doesn’t make doing assertive work that much less challenging. It’s a hassle because I am using an iPad, and it’s not a desktop computer, and a tablet computer is basically used for browsing and for simple interactions that can be done by pointing. For assertive work, it’s like expecting a subcompact to haul a trailer. It is technically possible perhaps, but not close to ideal. Moreover, by its size and nature, it never will be ideal for this work.

So there is no one-size-fits-all device. We like to think that it can be done, but it can’t all be done elegantly on one device. But even when a device can do something elegantly, it cannot always do it optimally. That’s what I’m learning about my iMac. Mostly what I am learning is that after six years with the machine, I need to replace it. It’s not because there is something wrong with my machine, it’s that software has evolved a lot in six years. It’s gotten bigger and fatter and is causing my iMac to go into conniptions.

My 2008 iMac has 4GB of memory. It’s no longer close to enough, particularly when I am using Google Chrome as my browser, but also when I am running Dreamweaver or any Microsoft Office product. Chrome is fast, provided you have the memory. I now need 16GB of memory to get good performance and keep all the programs I use regularly handy. Unfortunately, I can’t add more. Once memory is used then when I start new programs I often wait, and wait. The operating system had to create a whole lot of virtual memory on my disk drive, which is much slower to read and write to than memory. It can take a couple of minutes to open Excel for the Mac, particularly if I have Chrome running.

Apple would like me to buy a new Mac, and I may have to. Six years is a long time to use any computer. However, the computer still looks like new. There is no reason to replace it other than due to general slowness due to new and more bloated programs I am running. I can’t replace the drive with a solid state drive to improve performance. And I can’t reengineer Chrome, Microsoft Office or any of these memory hogs. I can choose less memory intensive programs, perhaps by using Firefox instead of Chrome. But I moved to Chrome from Firefox because of its instabilities.

The general problem is there is no way to really know how efficiently a program will run until you use it a while with other memory resident programs. Software developers, being lazy, assume you have the latest machines with plenty of memory and super-fast processors. Coding for minimal memory use generally does not occur to them. What I can do is use my iMac just for assertive tasks, like writing documents, coding and email and stop using it for web browsing, in favor of devices which are better optimized for that, like my iPad. Or I can get a new computer and go through the same cycle again in a few years.

Or I could get a Chromebook. A Chromebook is Google’s version of a laptop computer, optimized exclusively for Google services. It runs on its own ChromeOS operating system. It basically requires you to do all your work inside of the Chrome browser. To use it effectively you generally need to be on a high speed wireless network. Of course you have access all the features of Google Drive so you have word processing, spreadsheets and presentations. Google is working hard to allow it to work easily disconnected from the network, via Chrome Apps.

Why does this help? Well, for one thing, I don’t need to wait a couple of minutes for Excel to load my spreadsheet. The functionality is there in a Google spreadsheet already. It’s true that their spreadsheets are not quite the same as Excel, but they are now close enough. In addition, all the stuff on your Google Drive is readily sharable. Google spreadsheets even have capabilities that Excel does not, perhaps the most useful of which is they are in the cloud, instead of sitting on your hard disk when you are a thousand miles away. And since my use is minimal, it is essentially free. There is no need to worry about installing the latest version of Google spreadsheets. There is no requirement to pay a Microsoft ransom periodically to keep writing or maintaining a spreadsheet. I also don’t need to spend more than a grand to upgrade my iMac. It’s all done in a web browser. These hassles of doing a lot of my assertive work, if it works as advertised, largely go away.

Moreover, I don’t need to spend a lot of money to buy a Chromebook. A decent Mac laptop is going to cost well over $1000. Chromebooks start around $200. Even if it only lasts you a few years, your data is in the cloud, hence always backed up. In addition, the device is cheap enough to easily replace. It can be used for most assertive tasks, as well as for browsing. Perhaps most cool of all, there is almost no “boot” time. Your Chromebook is available when you need it in seconds.

Its downside is limited use. If it can’t be done in a browser or one of their apps, you can’t do it at all. But I don’t see a Chromebook as my only computer, but as a primary computer to use except when I need the power of a desktop computer.

In short, it’s a pretty compelling solution as long as you don’t mind getting in bed with Google. If I’m going to have to get into bed with any company however, I might as well save money and time.