A few years ago, I bought a 12 inch PowerBook and said it’d last me until I finished my PhD. That is, I wouldn’t buy a new computer until I got a job. Well … I changed my mind. And over the last year or so, I realised I don’t want a laptop. As a Mac user, my choices are nicely limited: Mac Pro, Mac mini, or iMac. And it’s the latter that I am keen on. Here’s some of my thoughts revolving around this decision.
Why a new computer?
Firstly: why do I want a new computer now? Since I bought this 867MHz processor + 640 MB RAM machine 3.5 years ago, Apple has switched to Intel processors, and a comparable machine now is something like dual core 2GHz processor + 2GB RAM (and around $1000 cheaper). That’s approximately following Moore’s law with a fourfold increase (two doublings) in performance. And boy, does my computer feel pokey these days.
With Leopard coming along, I want to buy an iMac with the next product line refresh, in order to get the OS update “for free”. My notebook is simply insufficient these days and I’ll use two examples of why I think that: iPhoto is too slow and the lack of USB 2 makes transferring photos painful; and iTunes is compromised by not enough disk space, and exhibits poor performance — there’s nothing worse than iTunes crashing while streaming music during a party. I’ve also got an iPod shuffle lying around that I’d love to be able to use.
Regarding the choice between those three computers, the Mac Pro is completely out of my league. The things I do at home don’t require the price premium for the best performance of the day. And yet I find the Mac mini distinctly underwhelming. Upgrading the mini to match features of an iMac yields a more expensive unit that is still inferior. I don’t want to go into the details too much, but for $2100 (iMac) vs. $2500 (mini) — rounding to the nearest $100 at education prices — the comparison just doesn’t match up, all else being equal with 1 GB RAM and a 20 inch display:
- 2.16 GHz vs. 1.83 GHz Intel Core Duo;
- 250 GB, 7.2 rev/s vs. 160 GB, 5.4 rev/s hard drive;
- Embedded graphics vs. some sort of ATI graphics card.
I can see why Apple sells the Mac mini. If people are buying them, they’re making a killing. For $400 more, I can buy a Mini that’s slower, holds less, has worse graphics, and has no keyboard or mouse. Let’s be fair and shop around for a cheaper display and say the prices are equal. I’m still not seeing the attraction of the mini. It’s just not for me — or for anyone else (in my opinion) also buying a display.
So why not a notebook?
Several factors have led me to dismiss the idea of using a notebook as my primary computer. The first is data loss: Mac OS X 10.5 will have in-built backup (“Time Machine”, probably not a permanent link unfortunately), requiring an external hard drive for mirroring purposes. I hardly backup at all at the moment. I’m scared of Bad Things Happening. Unless they start selling notebooks with two hard drives, I’m not using one as my main machine.
Rigging up a notebook with an external hard drive ties it to a desk (and is tedious as hell for various reasons), which brings me to my next point.
Notebooks cannot be used ergonomically. Either the keyboard’s in the right spot and the screen’s too low, or the screen’s at eye level but the keyboard impossible to type on. This means bad backs and headaches for long stretches of work. If you don’t understand this point, you’re younger than 25.
Another point is noise. My laptop is louder than most because the fans are old and need cleaning or replacing. But the fact that they drone on hasn’t been mitigated in the Apple’s current lineup — the CPUs used run too fast and too hot to be used without fans (but it would be marketing suicide to downclock them). I was very impressed reading an iMac review at silentpcreview.com (linked to page four):
With a maximum power draw of 63W, the iMac certainly qualifies as a low power system. At idle, the system drew 46W, which will qualify for approval from EnergyStar if their current draft computer spec makes it to the planned 2007 release. Even better, the system falls back into a low power mode after being left alone for a few minutes, dropping the power even more to just 33W. By way of comparison, the lowest idle power consumption we’ve ever seen from a custom built system is 36W — and that doesn’t include an LCD monitor.
The energy efficiency of the iMac solves the mystery of how it is able to get away with so little cooling. At first glance, the numbers don’t look that impressive, but keep in mind that all of these numbers include the power required by the LCD screen. Stand-alone LCD monitors typically draw between 30~40W from the wall, so we were quite impressed when the entire system managed to draw this little power.
(The low noise from low power consumption is equally appealing to the side of me that is concerned about the environmental issues of running a computer 24/7.)
Their testing showed negligible noise increases even with hard drive seek and full CPU activity. Especially when iTunes is running the music in the living room, I don’t want my computer making creating white noise. That simply isn’t the case with notebooks these days. Correct me if I’m wrong as I’ve had essentially no experience with the MacBook line.
Finally, screen size. This is a big one for me. I’ve never really used a Mac with more than 768 by 1024 pixels. A 20 inch LCD just sounds like a dream.
As an aside, I really like the idea of some sort of future portable that syncs data with a home computer, is very small, and doesn’t do too much. I might manage to critique people’s desires for an “ultra-portable” Mac notebook for Macworld before the event, but this post is taking long enough already.
So, in summary: with an iMac similar in price to a MacBook, the advantages of good ergonomics, easier data protection and a big screen easily outweigh the portability advantage of a notebook for me. I’m hoping for an iMac refresh sooner rather than later (moving to quad core would be better than I can dream) so I can justify buying one as soon as possible.