In the old days, I had to own the fastest Mac, at least after I got my first writing gig about Macs and Mac software. It wasn’t that I was so flush with cash, but it was a business expense, hence deductible on my tax returns. So it was with great pleasure that I upgraded every year or two.
Even before then, I had to have a Mac at home.
It all began in 1989. I was working for a prepress outfit that provided typesetting and design services. They had been using Macs ever since one of the major desktop publishing apps, QuarkXPress, debuted. Without getting into the QuarkXPress/PageMaker/InDesign wars, where the latter eventually won, Quark was chosen because it was designed with the traditional typographer in mind because of its precision. With PageMaker, it was more intended for designers who placed elements in position on a design table.
After getting used to the Mac, I had some opportunities to bring some of my work home, so I ended up shopping for one. I got a good deal, so to speak, on the IIcx, since the larger Iix was just unaffordable. I remember paying in the neighborhood of $3,500 for it, far less than the original $5,369 price. With 8MB of RAM, a 100MB hard drive, a 13-inch Apple Color Display, a LaserWriter II NT, software and a few odds and ends, I ended up spending over $14,000 on a lease/purchase.
That figure would be worth $33,612.53 in 2022 dollars, about the price of a higher-ed mid-sized new car and a decently equipped Mac Pro. That’s just to see the perspective for a middle-of-the-road Mac system in those days.
To compare a suitable Mac in today’s lineup, a 24-inch iMac with Apple Silicon and all the options you can checkmark, including 16GB of RAM and a 2TB SSD, will set you back shy of $3,000 with sales tax in the 8% range. How things have changed.
It wasn’t long before the IIcx was replaced with the IIci, plus a cache card, which also cost me somewhere in the $3,500 range. I sold off the old computer, ending up paying a $1,500 difference (approximately) to upgrade.
So it went, year after year. I remember 2009, when I was using a Mac Pro and a 30-inch Dell display. It was quite a good combo, but then came the first 27-inch iMac. Well equipped with a 1TB hard drive, it came in at less than $2,500 as I recall. Yet it was, in many respects, equal to or faster than my Mac Pro of a year or two earlier. I arranged to sell that computer and the display to none other than Bob LeVitus, one of the popular Mac book authors of the period, for $3,000. So the extra money could be spent on a backup LaCie hard drive.
Such a deal.
A few years later, I replaced the hard drive with a comparably-sized SSD from OWC, a vendor I’ve dealt with for years for memory and storage devices. As is typical of Apple these days, even when you can do field upgrades, they are extremely difficult. The 2009 iMac required the use of suction cups to pry the LCD from the chassis. Not difficult, just dangerous if something falls while you’re trying to separate slim wiring harnesses from the screen. I opted to have a third-party take the risk.
In any case, the performance boost was a revelation, and I stuck with the iMac for another year or two before I was able to configure a Late 2014 27-inch iMac with 5K Retina display. It came with a 3TB Fusion Drive, a sort of hybrid device that included a 128GB SSD and a 3TB hard drive. Since the OS and most apps and smaller files wouldn’t even fill the solid state device, the theory was that you’d get most of the speed of a full SSD without paying the price.
What I did learn was that a Fusion Drive isn’t the most reliable device on the market. If either drive fails, you’re out of luck, though I suppose you could disconnect the hard drive and live with the SSD if you could cope with the small storage space. In 2019, I replaced the Fusion Drive; this fall, it went south again. After deciding to replace the defective drive and give it a go, I ended up raising my hands in defeat when the fix proved temporary.
At this point, I probably should have considered upgrading to the 24-inch Apple Silicon iMac, but that would require more free cash than I could cover at the time what with lingering medical copays after seven surgical procedures in less than 18 months.
The final solution was to acquire a 2TB SSD from OWC. Again, I called upon a local service center to do the installation, because the newer iMacs are more hostile to upgrade than ever. Swapping RAM is simple, because Apple provides a convenient removable rear cover for the process. Replacing a drive requires, as with the previous model, removing the glass, which is now attached with a special adhesive tape. You still need the suction cups, but the tape has to be loosened first with a special tool that Apple and third-party dealers offer. OWC bundles its SSD upgrades for the iMac with the tools you need to perform the delicate, potentially hazardous process.
So my iMac is back in business, and the performance boost is substantial. This time I did the ultimate clean install, which included the OS, fresh installs of all my apps, then manually carrying over the remaining documents and multimedia files from a backup drive. Everything I could find was brought over, but I still saved over 300GB.
I never really figured out the disparity. Nothing is missing, other than the small number of apps and downloads I could find no purpose in saving, maybe 20-30GB worth. A theory, which OWC CEO Larry O’Connor more or less agrees with, is that I’ve been migrating data from my Macs for 33 years. Once Apple provided an app for migration, I had it grab all my stuff from a Time Machine backup. Amazing how much needless junk had been accumulated.
Again, this move is meant to be temporary. I am considering my “last Mac” for some time in 2023.
While this is all going on, Apple has missed its two-year deadline for migrating from Intel CPUs to Apple Silicon. Missing in action is a high-end Mac mini and, of course, the Mac Pro, last upgraded in 2019. That model remains in the lineup, and it is Uber-expensive, costing as much as a BMW 3 Series or Tesla Model 3 when maxed out.
Clearly only a small number of power users are able to afford such a beast, and not many more will need its power. Published reports say that Apple is working on a new Mac Pro, but apparently has hit some road bumps in boosting performance of Apple Silicon CPUs suited for the purpose. Today’s best power combo is a Mac Studio and the accompanying 27-inch Studio Display. A decent configuration, with tax, costs around $5,500. Configured to the max, including 128GB RAM and an 8TB SSD, would cost me $11,042.27 with local sales tax.
And it would clearly beat the existing Mac Pro in most respects when it comes to performance, but upgrades are impossible. RAM is part of the system-on-a-chip. Adding any internal devices is not possible, though an aftermarket expansion box could manage an extra graphics card and other options).
Indeed, it’s fast enough that most Mac Pro users can probably upgrade and still get a hefty penny for the old models, which are still in demand from customers who aren’t ready to consider Apple Silicon or its lack of internal expansion.
So what does Apple have up its sleeve for the promised Mac Pro? Some suggest the chip they want to use isn’t ready yet, or it will just offer the same power as the Mac Studio with support for internal expansion. But would that even be worth it for most users who crave the latest and greatest? Maybe recent reports that Apple’s chip supplier, TSMC, has begun production of 3nm process chips will allow it to complete work on a new generation of Apple Silicon that will provide a sizable upgrade over the Mac Studio.
Maybe the Mac Pro’s time has passed by for the vast vast majority of potential customers. I made a similar decision in 2009, but my needs then and now were far more modest. Even a Mac Studio with just a few enhancements would suit, or perhaps the next generation 24-inch iMac if it arrives in 2023, assuming no new 27-inch model is in the offing.
Whatever I get, considering a useful life of 6-8 years, it would probably end up being, at my advanced age, my last Mac. With a mid-priced replacement, in a sense I’ll be ending up where I began 33 years ago.
THE FINAL WORD
Gene Steinberg’s Mac Radio Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible.
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