Every pro computer user is different. Each of us have different jobs, different projects, and different responsibilities. That means that my needs, for my specific job, are undoubtedly going to be different from your needs. Even so, enough of you have asked about my Mac mini purchase decision that I'm writing this article.
On any given day, I regularly use four Macs. There's an old 2011 Mac mini driving a big TV that I use for writing, whiteboard, and watching videos.
I have another Mac mini, a 2012 model, that I use for writing in our family room. I added this when our puppy started going through separation anxiety when I spent too much time in my office.
I also have a 2015 MacBook Pro that I use when out and about. I lived off this machine for three months last year when we evacuated Florida for hurricane Irma, and for the many trips back and forth to our new house here in Oregon while it was being fixer-upper'd. It's a nice machine, but I made the mistake of configuring it with an i5, so it's a bit of a lightweight.
And then I have my main desktop machine. My main machine has always been the one where I produce the bulk of my work output. That's a fully-equipped 27-inch iMac that I bought back in 2013. I've used it as my main daily driver for five years!
Prior to the iMac, I'd never been able to use a machine for more than 18 months without needing a major upgrade. The iMac lasted five years. To be fair, it's desperately needed an upgrade for about a year, but the hurricane and the big house move took precedence and I just didn't want to get a new machine until we were moved back into a permanent place.
Your workloads determine your computing needs
I use all my machines for light writing, web browsing, keeping up with social networks, and email. But I use my main machine for seven main workloads:
Video production: I use Final Cut Pro X to do multi-cam 4K video. This is what finally killed my iMac. It does one 4K stream reasonably well, but just choked with four camera feeds.
Giant PowerPoints: I make big PowerPoint briefings containing lots of graphics, slides, and data. I need PowerPoint, Photoshop, Illustrator, and other apps open, along with a bunch of research resources.
Big analysis documents: When I'm working on a big analysis, I often need a bunch of documents open. I used to have four screens on my iMac and even that wasn't quite enough screen real estate to see everything.
Coding: I support a number of open source projects, one of which manages donations for more than 10 thousand non-profits.
3D modeling: With all the 3D printing and desktop fabrication projects I'm doing and documenting on ZDNet, I need to build some relatively complex 3D models.
VM simulations: I used to do network simulations of up to 16 simultaneously-running VMs. I'm not doing quite as much work with this now, so I usually don't need more than four VMs open at once.
Windows: From Windows Excel (which has features the Mac Excel doesn't) to a wide-range of Windows-only products, as well as Windows-based product testing, I use Windows almost as much as MacOS. Fortunately, running Parallels, I can cut and paste between both environments, which saves a ton of time.
With a lot of my bigger projects, I've been craving a wider screen. When the ultrawide monitors started appearing a few years ago, I was bummed to discover that my iMac wouldn't support them.
Then, when I started doing multicam video (either with four talking heads or lots of camera angles shot simultaneously) it became clear the iMac had met its match.
The best fit
For me, the best fit was a Mac rather than a Windows machine. The Mac would run Windows, and since I need to run applications on both, I couldn't just run out and buy or build any old Windows machine. That put me in wait-and-see mode for new Macs.
As I discussed a few weeks ago, there were four scenarios for a new machine to meet my workload. A Hackintosh could have done it, but I just didn't want to go that route if I could help it.
While I'm not uncomfortable with the technical hacks to set one up, I am uncomfortable with the ongoing fiddling required for maintaining them, especially during upgrades. When I have an assignment to work on, it's sometimes very time-sensitive and I need a machine I can rely on.
Since I wanted an ultrawide monitor, the screens that come with an iMac or a 2018 MacBook Pro would have been more pain than gain. The MacBook Pro screen is too small for desktop use, and the iMac screen is unwieldy and heavy for most standard monitor stands.
I really wanted a headless computer, and since the Mac Pro is missing in action, that meant a Mac mini -- if Apple ever upgraded it.
To almost everyone's surprise, they did. And I bought one last week. It'll arrive on Wednesday.
Here's what I bought
The 2018 Mac mini starts at $799 with an i3, 8GB RAM, and 128GB storage. That's just silly. Apple has two configuration columns, one starting at $799 and one, with a six-core Coffee Lake i5, 8GB RAM, and 256GB storage that starts at $1099.
I began in the $1099 column and picked the fastest processor possible, the 3.2Ghz 6-core i7. That added $200 to the price, bringing me to $1399. To be honest, I would have liked an even higher performing processor, but this will still be a huge boost.
In terms of single-core performance, that puts the Mac mini at just below the 4.2Ghz 2017 iMac and above everything else. In single-core performance, that's about 25 percent faster than my old iMac.
In multicore performance, it still lags a bit behind the old 2013 Mac Pro 8-core Xeon processor, but not by much. Apple still sells that model for $3999, but everything else about the machine is totally out-of-date. The new Mac mini also lags behind the 8-core Xeon iMac Pro, but that's five grand, just to start.
Beyond the two hugely expensive pro machines, the new Mac mini with the processor I chose appears to be faster in multicore performance than all the other Macs. In single core performance, only one machine bests it.
Next up is memory. Right now, I need 32GB RAM. I haven't pushed past about 24GB in any of my recent workloads. So, given a choice, I'd rather not spend on 64GB. My preference is usually to buy gear when my workload needs it.
Fortunately, the new Mac mini allows for RAM upgrades. The Apple spokesperson I spoke to last week told me, "Yes, Mac mini is configurable up to 64GB and uses industry-standard DDR4 SO-DIMMs. While we don't consider the memory directly end-user accessible, service providers can access the internals of the Mac mini to upgrade the memory."
Since the 32GB upgrade is a whopping $600 more than the base 8GB unit, I opted for the 8GB unit. I then went over to Amazon and picked up some Corsair Vengeance Performance 32GB (2x16GB) 260-Pin DDR4 SO-DIMM (PC4 21300) RAM. That set me back $288 instead of $600.
While Apple has not been entirely clear on what it means by "service providers," Tim Cook did go out of his way to state that the Mac mini supports SO-DIMM modules. I'm honestly not entirely sure what I'll encounter when the Mac arrives, but I'm sure it'll be interesting.
Stay tuned, because once the machine arrives, I'll do a piece on what it takes to add the RAM.
Next is storage. Apple charges way too much on storage, but it's not internally upgradeable. Apple's internal storage is also seriously fast, since it relies on flash memory.
Here, I needed to balance performance against price. I use an external direct-attached RAID array for my video production and assets, so I don't need a huge amount of on-system storage. I also have a very large NAS with most of my other resources.
I checked my various machines and, as might be expected, the main workhorse iMac used the most. Even so, it was under 500GB. That machine was equipped with 1TB and I found that quite workable.
So, while I certainly would have preferred to avoid paying the Apple storage tax for overpriced storage upgrades, I did pony up an additional $600 to bring my Mac mini's flash storage to 1TB.
Finally, there was another big decision. This time, though, it was not about price, but about reliability. The new Mac mini comes with either a 1Gb Ethernet port or, for an extra hundred bucks, a 10Gb Ethernet port.
I am not running 10Gb Ethernet here, mostly because none of my computers support it. But my NAS is capable of 10Gb Ethernet. I spent the extra hundred bucks and configured the Mac mini with 10Gb.
My only concern is that since Apple only has such a port on the iMac Pro and now the Mac mini, will it work properly? Apple just doesn't have that much experience with this new port. I decided to go for it anyway, because it'll help future-proof the machine. Also, worst case, since the machine has four Thunderbolt 3 ports, the worst case scenario is to throw an Ethernet adapter on the Thunderbolt and use it that way.
So here's my spec:
- 3.2Ghz 6-core Coffee Lake i7
- 8GB RAM (to be upgraded with third-party sticks)
- 1TB flash storage
- 10Gb Ethernet
All told, the bill for the machine itself was $1999. Oddly enough, that's exactly what I recommended when I recorded my Mac mini Pro video and article last April. I asked for Thunderbolt and USB-3 (and got it). I asked for a 10Gb Ethernet port (and I got it). I even suggested Space Gray (and got it, although I don't really care about shade of gray). And, finally, I suggested Apple price it at $2,000. I paid a buck less.
It's rare (okay, never before) that Apple builds a machine that's pretty much exactly what I specified as what I need. So, yeah, I bought one.
Also: Mac Mini 2018: Cheat sheet TechRepublic
You might notice I did not discuss an external GPU. To be honest, I don't know if I'll need one. If I do, that's another thousand bucks. I won't enjoy spending it, but at least it's incremental. Undoubtedly, sometime before this Mac mini reaches end-of-life it'll get a GPU upgrade. Just probably not this year.
Finally, let's look at the other Apple machines I discussed in my pre-game scenario. A similarly equipped iMac would cost $3099 with the processor maxed out. Yes, I would have gotten a Retina display, but I don't want that form factor screen. The iMac is RAM upgradeable, so the $3099 configuration is with 8GB RAM and can be upgraded later.
The 2018 MacBook Pro I would have bought would have to be maxed out for RAM, since it's not upgradeable. That machine, with the i9 processor (and all its related heat management problems) would have cost $3899.
Was the Mac mini I bought cheap? Oh, hell no. Was it less expensive than other Mac alternatives? Yeah, by quite a lot. Does it look like it will actually meet my needs? Yeah, I think it will. Stay tuned. I'll let you know what I think after I get it and set it up.
You can follow my day-to-day project updates on social media. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz, on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz, on Instagram at Instagram.com/DavidGewirtz, and on YouTube at YouTube.com/DavidGewirtzTV.
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