Gene Steinberg's Tech Night Owl Newsletter — Issue #1055

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Gene Steinberg

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Gene Steinberg's Tech Night Owl Newsletter
May 26, 2024


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I was young and foolish — more or less — when I first brought a Mac into my home, after working on them at a prepress design studio for a year or so. My brand new system consisted entirely of Apple hardware, such as a Macintosh iicx, Apple LaserWriter II, a 13-inch Apple color display, the famous Extended Keyboard II and a mouse. Add to that a handful of apps, such as QuarkXPress, Microsoft Word and FileMaker, and the bill of particulars came to more than $14,000.

In 2024 dollars, that’s $34,821.27, more than a decently-equipped midsized car. How times have changed. And, of course, fewer people buy cars nowadays; it’s all about SUVs and trucks, which thus put me out of touch if I got a new vehicle.

Working as a paid Mac journalist, it was important for me to stay up with the latest and greatest. So over the years I upgraded my Mac every year or two, depending on whether the improvements made much of a difference. The arrival of Intel Macs in 2006 offered a demonstrable speed boost over the PowerPC. Not that the PowerPC was necessarily inferior to an Intel Core processor (it was once demonstrably superior), but since IBM and Motorola gave up on developing them for Macs in favor of embedded systems for cars and other products, Apple had to make a switch.

Intel’s hit or miss record of delivering more powerful chips meant that I didn’t have to upgrade near as often.

So my top-of-the-line 27-inch iMac from 2009 was in regular use until early 2015. The only change was to substitute the slow-as-blazes 1TB hard drive with a 1TB SSD. What a difference that made.

Compared to the roughy $25o0 I spent on the iMac, the upgrade to a Late 2014 27-inch iMac with 5K Retina display with all the bells and whistles, cost well beyond $3,000. Indeed, except for two drive replacements — the last a 2TB SSD — the machine ran perfectly for nine years.

But time passed it by. Apple declared that model “vintage” some years back (how dare they?, which gave them the excuse to no longer provide repair or tech support. Of course there are third-party repair shops who were happy to take over. If you want to buy a new Mac to replace on that old, forget about any trade-in value for a machine that old. Apple will offer to recycle it, or perhaps you can claim a few hundred dollars from a private person who has gear that’s even older. And there’s always eBay. Or you can consider a firm that buys old Macs, such as SellYourMac. It’s a division of MacSales, which sells that gear, RAM and other accessories.

This is not to say my iMac was useless, but more and more apps passed it by. The latest macOS it runs is version 11, Big Sur, released in 2020. The latest version of the Microsoft Office apps are no longer compatible. The current macOS, Sonoma, which was released last fall, is version 14.

So what to do?

Since Apple recently upgraded its 24-inch iMac to support the M3 version of Apple Silicon, I had a look-see. But it comes at a price, and therein lies a tale. Fully outfitted, with 24GB of RAM and a 2TB SSD, it costs almost $3,000 with sales tax. Performance wise, it benchmarks two to three times faster than my Late 2014 model. But downgrading to a 24-inch display (actually 23.5 inches) is a sacrifice to consider.

I considered saving for one — or perhaps waiting for the possibility of a new 27-inch iMac, which may never arrive. But my old iMac was probably on life support. The SSD was relatively new, replaceable RAM is relatively inexpensive, but the logic board or the display panel, if either failed, would cost more than its worth

I had to make a move.


As you know, when it comes to customizing your Mac, Apple nowadays forces you to make your decisions when you buy one. They just aren’t upgradable in the traditional ways. So it’s not that you can simply buy an upgrade from a third party dealer, such as MacSales or Amazon. You get what you get and live with it. You have to submit to Apple’s extortion charges for RAM and storage.

So my old friend Tommy had a solution, and he worked with me to assemble a system that, while not consisting of the latest models, and with accessories not made by Apple, would provide more than double the performance of the Late 2014 iMac. And Apple Silicon CPUs, of course, make a huge difference. They are both powerful and power efficient, and even the original M1 models will remain compatible with the latest OS and apps for a few more years.

The whole experience also reminded me of the inefficiency of all-in-one computers, except to the manufacturer. Sure it’s neater and simpler to deal with one box rather than several, but upgrading is impossible. If the computer is no longer suitable, you can’t just take the display and hook it up to another Mac. Apple has put the kibosh on that solution. Except for notebooks, separates are the way to go, and Apple provides two lines that’ll suit.

So after some research, Tommy had a workable solution for less than half the price of a new iMac, sporting most of its performance, and a really good display.

So here’s what we came up with:

As most of you know, the Mac mini is the unheralded hero in Apple’s lineup. It can be equipped to come close in performance to the Mac Studio at hundreds of dollars less. New, it starts at $599 with 8GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD. Surprisingly, it maxes out at $4,399, which includes the M2 Pro 12-core CPU, 32GB of “unified memory,” and an 8TB SSD. Add to that the cost of a display, keyboard and mouse, and it ends up being way above $5,000.

Tommy’s first suggestion to save some money is to always buy gear that’s refurbished or renewed, thus being fixed and/or cleaned up to match the performance of the new product, but at a reduced price. Even Apple sells them.

He went to Amazon and eBay to fill our shopping list.

For the Mac, his solution was the 2020 M1 Mac mini, with 16GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD. As you’ve probably read, Apple’s “unified memory,” embedded onto the CPU, is more efficient than separate RAM. So in the real world, 16GB should be roughly equivalent to a regular 32GB Mac or PC in terms of handling multiple apps at peak performance. Price $544. A 2023 M2 Mac mini similarly equipped is $799. Its benchmarks may be 10-20% faster, but Apple reportedly cheated out on the basic SSD. In using a single chip design rather than two chips, it cut the speed roughly in half. From a bang for the buck standpoint, the 2020 model ought to be just fine.

There aren’t a lot of 5K displays around, and expect to usually pay $1,000 or more for one. Apple’s Studio Display starts at $1,599, Samsung has a cheaper alternative without the fancy webcam and speakers. But if you’re willing to sacrifice a few of the frills and settle for a 4K display, you won’t lose much in terms of screen quality, although editing 4K videos works better with 5K. One of the most cost-effective displays we located was the ViewSonic VP2756-4K; we found a refurbished model for $255. Now we’re getting somewhere. In the real world, you won’t see a huge difference from the fewer pixels. Working on one, text was just fine at a normal viewing distance of about two feet.

Out of the box, the ViewSonic supports Pantone color matching for design professionals. With the proper resolution setting, I essentially recreated the desktop look of the iMac.

But what about the mini’s paltry SSD? How would I handle that capacity after filling more than 50% of my iMac’s 2TB drive?

The answer was external. Using the Mac mini’s built-in Thunderbolt 3/USB 4 ports, a speedy drive’s speed will match that of the internal SSD. And you get the added flexibility of being able to take that drive and use it on a newer Mac, so you can stick with the tiny internal drive.

Not here’s where it got a little complicated in our testing of this gear.

The original large-sized SSD scheme involved using a Satechi stand and hub, placed beneath the mini; it has an enclosure for an NVMe internal drive. Price is $99.99.


As to the drive itself, there were complications. The original SSD was a Lexar NM790, with a capacity of 4TB, price $249.99 last I checked. Installation in the enclosure’s SSD slot was fairly simple, with the only complication being the tiny screw Satechi supplies to hold the drive in its place.

Everything seemed to be going well. The display was connected to the mini’s HDMI 2 port. The expansion base was plugged into one of the Thunderbolt 3 ports, but it has several three USB-A ports and one USB-C port for added connectivity. A good thing.

I powered up in Recovery mode. You accomplish that chore by holding down the startup button until you see a display of available boot drives and choose Options. Options, in turn, offers such maintenance apps as Disk Utility, the ability to reinstall macOS and import data from a Time Machine backup. With Disk Utility, I reformatted the Lexar drive from its default PC-based formatting to Apple’s APFS for what I hoped would be maximum compatibility.

My input devices, which included several wired and wireless keyboards and mice, worked flawlessly.

Indeed, all was going well. macOS Sonoma was installed on the Lexar drive in less than 45 minutes, and the mini restarted. But rather than boot from the external drive, it started up from the mini’s internal drive. Not good. After setting up the OS via the built-in drive, I tried again to restart from the external drive, but it wouldn’t accept the setting in Startup Disk preferences. I went through the same process again, a reformat and a reinstallation of macOS Sonoma.

While I was able to successfully copy my document files to the drive, using it as a boot drive just wasn’t possible. So I settled, for the time being, on sort of a split installation. macOS and my applications were placed on the mini’s internal drive, the rest on the Lexar. The internal drive’s 256GB capacity was more than sufficient to contain the core files.

What to do?

I called Apple support, and went over the steps I used to set up the SSD. They told me that everything I did was correct, and suggested I try again — or call Lexar. In turn, Lexar support also told me it should boot the mini but suggested I call Apple for more support. As you might expect, I’m not a fan of finger pointing.

But was there a solution that would allow me to boot from a high-performance external drive? Such a layout ought to work perfectly, except with the products I used.

Tommy did more research and suggested a workable solution, we hoped. It came in the form of a WD Black SN850 NVMe internal SSD. With 2TB capability, it ran $159.99 at Amazon (prices change often). There was no reason The online chatter indicated that it’s macOS compatible. Since it’s packaged as an internal device, it needs a high-performance enclosure. The one selected was a Minisopuru 40Gbps M.2 NVMe SSD Enclosure. It is listed for $99.89, but Amazon was offering a $20 discount coupon when the product was checked.

The enclosure box was packaged with a thick Thunderbolt cable, and a heat shield adhesive to keep the SSD from overheating.

Are we there yet?

Indeed we were. I was able to format the WD, load Sonoma and my files on it, and it booted just fine. The enclosure and Lexar SSD are being returned; I don’t have the time to figure out which or both units prevented booting the mini. And Amazon made returning the offending gear a simple process.

All right, so this process isn’t quite as simple as setting up an iMac, though attaching the cables should only take a few minutes. It’s also less convenient to travel with. But here we are getting 75-80% of the performance of the latest iMac at a total cost of a little over $1,000 plus tax. I was able to raise the price of admission with the cooperation of a long-time advertiser who supported my radio shows and sites.

If you don’t have suitable input devices at hand, figure on adding $100-200 for a suitable wireless keyboard and mouse. As I said above, display quality is close to that of a 5K display, it benchmarks at more than twice as fast as my old iMac. As it stands, I ended up with a terrific and relatively low-cost replacement for a 2014 iMac, with ongoing support from Apple for a few years more. Thank you Tommy.


Gene Steinberg’s Tech Night Owl Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible.

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