My sincerest apologies. There is a good reason (excuse) for me not publishing as often as I once did. For two or three months, I have been having trouble with my iMac, late 2009. I won't bore you with the details. Suffice it to say that it has greatly disrupted my workflow. At inconvenient times throughout the day, I just have to shut it down. Finances being what they are, I cannot simply replace it with a new 27" iMac. However, I do need to replace it with something. The only thing I can "afford" is the entry level Mac mini. Thus, my mini crisis.
I have been rocking a big iMac for a long time. Retreating to the mini feels like a step backwards. My first desktop Mac was a mini: the first Apple ever made. I graduated to an iMac and never looked back. After all these years, I'm finally looking back. In a little more than 24 hrs. I will be on my way to the Apple Store to pick up a mini. Unfortunately, that is just the beginning of my decision tree. Here are a few of the branches you might encounter if you find yourself faced with the same set of choices:
The core issue
How many cores does your current system have? If you don't know the answer, ore even what I'm talking about, then this is not going to be an issue for you. Consider yourself lucky. My iMac has a quad-core processor that is a few generations old. I am used to a certain level of performance that I do not want to lose. The entry level mini is a dual-core. Going from four cores to two cores has to hurt, right? Not necessarily.
Can you say with any certainty which of your tasks benefits from four cores? I can't either. I suspect there are a handful of things I do that see a benefit. But I only do those tasks a few times a year. Without a side-by-side comparison, I'm not sure I would even notice the difference. For an extra $200 that I really don't have, I could buy the peace of mind of having a four-core processor by picking up the high-end model. My mind would be at peace but my wallet would cry out, and for a difference I am not sure I would notice.
What size is your hard drive? If you don't know the answer, you are not alone. Chances are, whatever the size, it is more than plenty. The average person simply does not take advantage of all of their hard drive space. Their hard drive will break down long before it fills up. Currently, I am rocking a 1 TB hard drive spinning at 7200 rpm. Going to the mini means that I will be cutting that size by half, and reducing the speed to 5400 rpm. Surely, that's going to hurt, right?
Well... Currently, I have 954 GB of available space on my capacious hard drive. I have recently reinstalled the system. That said, I have been using it this way for several weeks, and have not noticed the absence of anything crucial to my daily workflow. My music and movie libraries are not on my system. They are all in iCloud. Almost all of my applications are pulled from the App Store. They take up very little space. The only thing I have not reinstalled is Logic studio: a monster of an app. I have all of the associated files on a backup drive. I keep extensive backups on an external hard drive with several times the capacity of my iMac's internal drive. When I need something, I use TimeMachine and pull it from there.
Still, losing half my internal capacity makes me nervous for some reason. If I moved up to the more expensive mini, I would get a 1 TB drive, with the option to upgrade it further. Is my peace of mind worth $200? My current usage suggests it is not.
If you go from an iMac to a Mac mini, you had better have a spare monitor. Otherwise, you are going to have to make yet another trip to the store. The display on my iMac has spoiled me for anything else. I love it. The screen is bright and clear. The color is accurate. It is a pleasure to use. Then, there is my ancient Gateway monitor that sometimes decides to just stop working. That is the monitor I have for the Mac mini.
If I purchase the high-end model, I can no longer even pretend that a new monitor is in the budget. It isn't. The base model gives me room to consider something new next month. A third option is to pick up a mini display port cable and use my current iMac as a monitor. I was planning on selling my iMac to help offset some of the costs.
All of these represent decisions with non-obvious answers. More budget would make all the pain-points go away. My shoestring budget keeps me biting my nails. What I am going to do is purchase the base model Mac mini, and hook it up to my ancient monitor. From there, I will catalogue the issues I face versus the issues that only exist in my head. Only then will I know if returning it and upgrading to the high-end model makes sense for me.
The other part of this decision is my belief that Apple will upgrade the mini to something even more powerful this year. If they do, I do not want to be so invested in this one, that I can't simply by the new one when it comes out. That won't happen if I spend the extra money for the high-end unit. If you find yourself looking at a Mac mini and facing the same decisions, you can either just go for it, or wait a day or two to read my follow up to this post.