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  • Newsletter Issue #1052

    March 6th, 2024


    Most of you are aware that I have been around the Apple universe since the 1980s, so maybe I know one or two things. I know, for example, that despite its claims or illusions to the contrary, Apple is not your friend. It is a multinational profit-making corporation that pays a little more than lip service to the environment, recycling and products that are more user friendly.

    Now when the first Macintosh personal computer was released in 1984, the critics pounced on it. Not just because a graphical user interface must be a toy, nothing to take seriously (they said), but it was offered as an appliance. You could use it, have it repaired, but upgrades just weren’t possible, unlike the do-it-yourself atmosphere in PC-land. Keep that in mind.

    Over the years, more and more Macs could be upgraded, until they couldn’t. One of the simplest was the Macintosh II series, where it was simple to lift the cover and replace RAM, hard drives and graphic cards. The floppy drive was dust prone because of its faulty layout on the chassis, so it often had to be removed for cleaning. So what could be better?

    But over the years, Apple has removed or complicated upgrade potentials. In recent years — except for the Mac Pro — it was made so difficult that you had to think the designers just hated people. Or wanted you to damage the machine, so you’ve have to pay loads of money to fix it or replace it.

    The real reason may have been profit-borne. The only way to replace your aging Mac is with a new or recent model. What you buy — as with your 4K smart TV or any home appliance — is what you have to live with.

    The iMac all-in-one has had different levels of upgrade hostility over the years. The early bulbous models could all be opened, and parts weren’t all that difficult to replace. While everything was integrated, you could upgrade hard drives and RAM. To make it personal, my Late 2014 27-inch with 5K Retina display can be upgraded to replace RAM and the internal drive(s). A convenient slot near the bottom rear allows for easy RAM swapping. But if you want to replace storage, prepare yourself for unnecessary agony. You have to separate the LCD panel from the chassis. It’s held by a special adhesive tape, which you have to pry loose. But that’s the easy part. You then have to unplug thin wiring harnesses without breaking them before you can get to the drive to remove it. And by the way, if your iMac has a Fusion Drive, it’s two products  one a regular hard drive, the other a small SSD.

    When I had to replace its troublesome Fusion Drive (a hybrid system with a large hard drive and small SSD to boost performance) for the second time, I went with a large SSD, which actually cost less than Apple’s exorbitant replacement fee. I also gave a third-party repair shop $125 to do the replacement; the first time an Apple Genius handled the chores. I will take chance when it comes to home repair, but not that kind of chance with its dangerous consequences. And please don’t forget that I built tube radio kits when I was a teen. There just have to be limits.

    Now when it comes to the one-and-only iMac in the current lineup, the 24-inch model, when it comes to upgrading anything, forget about it! As with all M-series Macs, RAM is part of the CPU chip and thus can never, ever be upgraded; ditto for storage. If you need to repair something, it’s the entire logic board.

    You can add internal expansion cards to the Mac Pro, which otherwise consists of mostly the same electronics as a Mac Studio. But that’s how far it goes. There are decided advantages in performance and power efficiency with Apple’s integrated system-on-a-chip scheme, but it otherwise meets the promise of the original from 1984. It’s basically a closed box that can only be repaired, but not upgraded.

    I will concede that Apple might also provide greater levels of reliability by this approach. But there’s also a level of greed involved.

    One would think that Apple Silicon ought to provide cost benefits because of its integration and the fact that checks don’t have to be written to Intel for each machine sold. But profit is profit and there’s something really wrong with how Apple prices the customize process.

    Take a drive upgrade. So with entry-level models offering 256GB or 512GB of storage, you are probably going to want more. Now we’ve got a problem. A model with a 2TB SSD, which is what I have on my Mac, costs $800 extra for Macs with the former and $800 for the latter.

    I am not considering the brand name, but there are much cheaper and perfectly good performing alternatives if the storage was replaceable. And here I want to thank my old friend, Tommy, who helped me research the gear I’ll be recommending below.

    So consider the WD Black 2TB SN850X NVMe Internal Gaming SSD. The manufacturer claims up to 7,300 megabits speeds. It was on sale for $159.99 at Amazon last I checked, and, based on published reports, it’s definitely macOS compatible. That’s priced at the lower end. MacSales guarantees Mac compatibility and prices its WD Black 2TB SN850X NVMe Internal Gaming SSD at $249.99.

    But if you can’t swap the drive where do you go?

    Well there’s another solution if you want to consider external. So Amazon offer a Minisopuru SSD enclosure for $80. It comes with a thick Thunderbolt cable.  Assembly is simple, and the manufacturer includes a heat strip to keep it relatively cool running.

    Macs with Apple Silicon all offer Thunderbolt ports, so the hookup is simple. In the real world, I’ve seen measured performance on a 2020 Mac mini close to 3,000 megabits, very much in line with one of Apple’s internal SSDs. Price of admission for the drive plus the enclosure ranges from $239.99 to $329.99. So if you want to avoid paying Apple’s extortion-level upgrade fees, these are suitable alternatives.

    All right, there are 2TB external SSDs for maybe half those prices, but they are meant largely for backup storage; they aren’t nearly as fast. Remember, I’m looking for alternatives to the internal drive without sacrificing performance.

    Unfortunately when it comes to memory, you’re stuck with factory unified RAM regardless. Upgrading from a paltry 8GB RAM to a more useful 16GB is $200. Add another $200 for 24GB.

    Now compare that to upgrading the memory on my aging or aged iMac. MacSales reports that you should always upgrade memories for those models in pairs, so doubling the unit from 16GB stock to 32GB, the maximum recommended configuration, will cost a mere $36.99.

    In fairness to Apple, its unified memory scheme is more efficient. A 16GB Mac mini with Apple Silicon should be able to manage the same level of open apps and peak performance as an old fashioned model — or traditional PC — with 32GB. But that still doesn’t explain the exorbitant prices to customize memory.

    Apple’s built-in storage ought to be similar to what third parties offer — and will often be sourced from the same suppliers, so it’s hard to justify the how prices. Unified RAM is part of its Apple Silicon design motif, so I grant it isn’t cheap to do. But $200 to go from 8GB to 16GB seems almost obscene. It’s also clear that Apple is not going to change the pricing scheme any time soon, since it hasn’t so far since Macs with its own silicon became available in 2020.

    Long and short, a Mac desktop sans display is the most practical system. The most cost effective systems are probably a Mac mini or Mac Studio with a small amount of internal storage and an external drive for the rest. With RAM, you’re stuck. What you get is what you get.

    When it comes to displays, Apple’s 5K Studio Display is $1,599. Granted it comes with a fancy web cam, mic and loudspeaker setup. But there are loads of decent third-party web cams, and I’ve used external mics and speakers for years. If you aren’t editing 4K video, you might also save a bundle with a 4K display. A compelling example is the ViewSonic VP2756-4K; the model name indicates screen size and resolution. Based on my personal evaluation of one of these products, you give up little in terms of sharpness of small text. Color rendering out of the box is first rate, and it can be set to easily match the desktop look of the 5K iMac while sacrificing much in terms of picture quality at normal viewing distances. Even better, it costs $399.99.

    You may also want to consider refurbished or renewed. It may be a used or returned unit, but it is supposed to perform like new for a lower price. The ViewSonic, for example, can be had for as little as $259 this way.

    In short, so long as Apple wants to explode profit margins when you click “customize” on your order screen, you can easily save at least some of your hard-earned money with a little creativity and a little shopping around.

    Maybe Apple will one day realize that there has to be a more affordable upgrade solution. It’s not fair to the tens of millions of loyal Mac users. But I don’t expect to see anything of the sort in the foreseeable future.


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

    Publisher/Editor: Gene Steinberg
    Managing Editor: Grayson Steinberg
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