Mac Mini: Falling in Love All Over Again

I’m often inspired by others’ creative endeavors to post something of my own creation here, but most times I lose the mojo and the post never goes beyond an idea.

Not today.

This time the inspiration came from an episode of Jason Snell’s excellent 20 Macs for 2020 podcast. For one of them (I won’t tell you which, to avoid spoilers) he focused on the original PowerBook, and one of the major points of the podcast was that the design of that computer signaled the direction for all laptops to follow – two perpendicular planes, one for the keyboard and one for the screen. This got me thinking about my Macs, their use cases, and how I have turned my desktop into a laptop.

Read that again: A desktop morphing into a laptop. Huh? you may be thinking. How does that happen? I’ll explain (hint, sometimes being blind has its advantages) but first I must take a detour to explain my first Mac.

Act I: 2011 MacBook Air

I could write an entire blog post on my origin story with the Mac. I go into it in audio form in this Tech Doctor Podcast from 2014. The short version is I went to Minnesota to visit my best friend, she taught me how to use VoiceOver in a few days, and by the end of that trip I had cloned her computer and it was waiting for me when I got home. I’ve never looked back. The form factor was just right–I got the 11-inch model with the internals of the 13-inch model–it was of course thin and light, and it could boot Windows, something I needed at the time in college for laboratory work. To this day, when I hold the machine, I am still amazed that there is a whole computer with a full-size keyboard in that tiny little package.

Interlude: My MacBook Air Specs

  • Processor: 1.8gHZ dual-core Intel Core I7 (maxed out)
  • RAM: 4GB (maxed out)
  • SSD: 128GB (all I could afford)

By 2017, however, the little computer that could was starting to show its age. Its main limitations were its anemic RAM and storage. I kept having to remind myself, as I swapped external hard drives in and out, that for early 2012 it was a fine computer. It really didn’t start slowing down until 2017. Given my experience with PC laptops in high school breaking every six months, having a computer for this long was incredible. Indeed, I never had any hardware problems with it. The RAM made having multiple Safari tabs open at once nearly impossible. And as a VoiceOver user, the motto always is: More RAM. To be clear, VoiceOver isn’t the resource hog that some nameless screen reader on Windows is… but it is still important for future-proofing. To say nothing of the poor battery, which only lasted about an hour, depending on the task. Still… not bad for a several-years-old battery. Unfortunately, I was unemployed when my MacBook Air started to slow down, so replacing it with a newer, faster, latest and greatest Mac model was just a dream.

Decision Time: Which Mac to Buy?

When I had a job again and actually had this wonderful thing called disposable income, the decision came to pick out my new shiny toy at the Apple store. Did I want a laptop? Desktop? What would be the specs? what would I use it for? Oh, what wonderful, wonderful questions to ask after seven years without a computer upgrade! At the time, Apple didn’t make a thin and light laptop with the specs I wanted, and I’d used a MacBook Pro at work and knew I didn’t want that design. USB C also had something to do with it–Magsafe was wonderful, and I still have Braille displays that like to be plugged in only via USB A. Going from the USB C port on the Braille display to the USB C port on a laptop, through a dongle, seemed silly. (But then, that’s blindness technology for you. Sigh.)

Plus, those fancy retina screens were an expensive part of the buy-in proposition that I wouldn’t ever get to use.

The state of Apple’s desktops wasn’t much better. As a “90s kid,” desktops had always had a nostalgic appeal for me. By the end of its useful life, my MacBook Air was basically a desktop anyway. The all-in-one iMac seemed like the ultimate computer, especially with all the Bluetooth peripherals. However, the more I thought about it, the less practical it seemed. I would again be paying for a screen I wasn’t going to make much use of, and if it ever needed repairs, it would be very hard for me to carry or transport it. Plus, I didn’t really have the space for it in a small apartment.

So that left… the Mac Mini. Apple’s other, seemingly forgotten, utility computer. Although I’ve never owned one, by all accounts, the 2014 Mac Mini was not a great upgrade. I’d have to keep waiting, along with the legions of others who adore this computer and wanted to replace their servers.

And then, in 2018, Apple had an October keynote. A keynote that would answer my prayers; a keynote that would change everything.

Act II: 2018 Mac Mini

By the end of the October 2018 keynote, I had thought, Yes!!! Finally! This will be my next computer. Even though they had revived the MacBook Air, I wasn’t interested. All the problems with laptops that I mentioned above (and one major one I didn’t: the butterfly keyboard) still existed. The moment they talked about the new space gray Mac Mini, I knew that computer was mine. Because I was finding excuses to take my iPad Mini with me on trips instead of the MacBook Air, and because I wasn’t traveling much anyway (this was way before the 2020 pandemic, when no one was going anywhere) I knew the desktop was a market I could safely enter. Plus, so. many. ports! Two USB A (making the Braille displays happy), check. Four Thunderbolt 3, check. Ethernet, check. And HDMI (but who really needs that?) I couldn’t wait.

Interlude: My Mac Mini Specs

  • Processor: 3.0gHZ 6-core Intel I5 (all I wanted)
  • RAM: 16GB (all I could afford, but upgradeable, hooray!)
  • SSD: 1TB (all I could afford)
  • This ridiculously cheap HDMI adapter which makes Mac OS think there is a display connected to it, and hence behaves normally.

With these specs in a 2018 computer, why am I now writing about it, a little more than three years after its introduction?

Because it is still awesome, that’s why.

If you compare the two spec lists, you will see that naturally the Mac Mini is better, and not just in a Moore’s Law kind of way. I’ll gush about the individual specs for a moment.

The processor is not only faster, but has all those wonderful cores. The two most CPU-intensive tasks I’ve done so far are ripping DVD’s and running a citizen science protein folding program called Folding at Home. Ripping DVD’s and backing up my physical media discs takes about twenty minutes, versus the two hours or more on my Air. I ran Folding at Home during the start of the pandemic to try and feel useful, though it maxes out your CPU so I would not recommend it on an Intel-based Mac laptop. I stopped because the fan spun up and that didn’t suit the other electronics on my desk. The interface is also not very VoiceOver friendly (I haven’t looked into a command line interface), so I couldn’t control it very well. Still, if you don’t use your CPU that much and want to contribute to science, feel free to give this program a whirl on a desktop computer. It sits there plugged in all the time!

I don’t know which I was more excited about when I unboxed this computer, quadrupling my RAM or getting an eightfold increase in storage. Both felt like moving from a cramped space into a light, airy, roomy house. I didn’t have to move DVD images off my main drive immediately to make room for the next one, and I could even move folders I accessed frequently that wouldn’t even fit on my Air to my main SSD, thus prolonging the life of my external hard drives. I even could move my iTunes/Music library, which made the app much snappier because it wasn’t accessing a magnetic disk. I tried to future-proof as much as possible, anticipating my needs as I expect this computer to last a long, long, long time. And because it’s a desktop and I don’t have to worry about power, I can plug in as many external drives as needed.

And the RAM. Oh, the glorious RAM! Running memory-starved machines as a kid, where it was hard to keep a document, browser, media player, and screen reader all happy (I know, I expect a lot from my computers), having a fourfold RAM increase is absolutely amazing. I don’t know (or care) the number of tabs open right now in Safari. When VoiceOver says, “Safari not responding” I know it’s most likely some JavaScript thing on the webpage and not my computer. I can have lots of applications open–I can even forget that I’ve left applications open. Indeed, for the first five years of its life, my Air felt this way too. 4GB in 2011 was pretty sweet, given the megabyte limitations I’d grown up using.

The best part? While RAM was the limiting factor in my Air’s life expectancy, I do not foresee this with this particular Mac Mini. the RAM is upgradable to 32 or 64GB, though the M1 has since killed this dream on future hardware. Since I don’t do intensive video or graphics work (and hence could care less about the meh GPU), I foresee this computer lasting a very, very long time. We’ll see.

One minor footnote: The built-in speaker on the Mac Mini is terrible. But as with the GPU, I don’t care. In college, my parents got me a wonderful set of Bose speakers, and they work just as well plugged into the Mini as they did the Air. I like to joke that those speakers are my 27-inch monitor.

Back to the Podcast

If you’ve stuck with me this long through my mini computer reviews, you may be wondering where the podcast on the PowerBook comes in: right here. I started this post by saying that a desktop could be a laptop if it wanted to, but I haven’t revealed how I do it. The answer?

Bluetooth!

It’s that simple, and that magical. I have an apartment with a balcony, and I can take the keyboard away from my desk, on the couch or comfy writing chair, and yes, even out on the balcony. The spring and fall seasons are so short here that when it’s prime balcony weather, you take advantage of it. Besides the space gray Apple Magic Keyboard with Numeric Keypad (now officially discontinued, though probably still for sale on Amazon), I swap out my desktop speakers for a Bluetooth one (Bose, of course) and I have the perfect balcony machine. No worrying about battery life, since the accessories last so long by themselves. No worrying about being chained to the desk and “looking” at the computer. No worrying about the heat generated. If I want to use a Braille display or the trackpad, then I come back in, but I’ve been sitting here writing this article with the sun shining on my face and a breeze blowing. Best use of a desktop ever! Sorry Jason, but this machine fits my needs perfectly, three years later, and it can be used as a desktop and a laptop. If needed, I can even take it with me in a backpack and carry it around.

Act III: Stay Tuned for the Future

What’s next? Certainly I have taken this long to mention Apple silicon. I’m excited to see what the next, higher-end Mac Mini will bring. If it will be smaller, with the new Touch ID keyboard, I might switch to it, but I’ve been purposely keeping myself away from the M1 family to avoid temptation. It’s not as future-proof yet with the max 16GB of RAM, but as others have said, this is only Apple’s first crack. When they drop support for Intel Macs, then I’ll have to upgrade, but Apple has such a wonderful track record with supporting older hardware that I’ll be ready and willing to get a new shiny when they do.

I certainly didn’t lay out every single reason and detail in this post. I’m still not traveling much, so this has been a perfect pandemic computer. As with my Air, it’s still kicking three years into its life with no sign of slowing down. If I need an actual computer to go places with, then I’ll look into iPads and laptops again. But as with the Air:

Apple, you put a whole computer in that small design?

Yes, they did.

(For those interested in Mac history who came to Apple when they were successful in the 21st century, I can’t recommend the 20 Macs for 2020 podcast enough. Both beloved computers mentioned here are profiled. Go listen, or read, or watch! Jason does it all.)

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