A new computer, is it time?

The Moocher’s 2009 Mac Mini is too old to run Sierra but is it time for a new computer? It is still doing the jobs I use it to do well so just when is it time to trade? In this article, I’m going to offer my current take on trading.


Software support is a key consideration with basic system capabilities and audio/video codec support being the driving deciders. Apple continues to expand the bundled application frameworks and uses these to add convenience features to MacOS and iOS. Except for the user interface widget libraries, the two systems share kernel code and application support code for working with mail, media, messages, images, etc. Apple is focusing on consumer application support while leaving professional application support to third parties.

Apple has dropped the older Intel Core 2 Mac Mini from Sierra and future releases but is still issuing security updates. So is there anything compelling in Sierra? Not yet.

File systems

In 2016, rumor spreaders expected Apple to release a new file system with Sierra launch. But Apple has delayed release of its future file system. This file system is said to be like Sun Microsystems developed ZFS, a large scale fault tolerant file system for enterprise use. This file system allows volumes to span physical devices, supports device failure tolerance when 2 or more devices are assigned to a file system, snapshots, file roll back or recovery from a snapshot, etc. More about ZFS in a coming article about Network Attached Storage.


Apple has been lagging behind the Intel product release roadmap for a couple of years as Intel is always tinkering with hardware to make it easier to build, more power efficient, or to fix earlier not so good or no longer so good ideas. At some point, Intel products accrete enough changes that it becomes attractive for Apple to upgrade its notebooks and iMacs. The lesser selling Mac Mini and Mac Pro see less frequent updates.

It’s about visible architecture, not clock speed

Apple is always keeping the hardware capabilities and OS capabilities well integrated. Over time, the energy efficiency improves, support for virtual machines improves, and the vector instruction set used by audio and video codecs has changed several times. Apple tends to use older hardware until the newer hardware offers compelling end-user or software capability advantages.

The programmer visible instruction set architecture and video system architecture are key deciders for Apple. Apple uses the virtualization features to sandbox the web browser and applications. Apple uses the both the processor vector floating point instructions and the video vector processors for audio and video transcoding and rendering. And Apple develops its own tool chain rather than relying on GNU Project compilers.

It could be the graphics hardware

Apple used the vector hardware in its audio and video codecs but is making increasing use of the video unit vector floating point units. Newer video cards have 128, 192, or 256 floating point rendering pipelines that are exposed for use by applications. These video processors offer parallelism on a scale not possible in Intel’s on board vector units. Apple accesses the video floating point through OpenCL allowing a single application code base to work with ATI, nVidia, Intel, and iThing graphics hardware.

It’s also about ports

Apple Support Mac Mini Image showing ports

The display is the big one. VGA, gone. ADC gone. DVI, gone. Display Port, gone. HDMI surviving. USB-C rising.

External storage is the second. SCSI, gone. USB-1, gone. USB-2 surviving. USB-3 rising. USB-C coming rapidly.

Networking is third. Ethernet RJ-45 point to point links are amazingly robust with speed bumps from 100 Mbps to 1Gbps, and 10 Gbps in the rack.

One sleeper port, that audio jack. Apple is thinking about making it go away. Interestingly, on current Apple systems, it is a combination 3.5 mm TRS plug and optical TOSLink port. I use the TOSLink port to send audio to a Cambridge Audio high fidelity digital to analog converter. Much better than the built in DAC and class D headphone audio amp.

The following appear to be stable.

  • SATA/eSATA disk interface
  • RJ-45 Ethernet interface
  • USB-C standard and miniature connectors
  • HDMI replacing DVI and Display Port
  • USB-C carries Ethernet, HDMI, Lightning, and Thunderbolt protocols with bridges to Ethernet, HDMI, Lightening, and Thunderbolt physical interfaces

Disk Drives?

Disks having moving parts last about 5 years. Disks w/o moving parts (SSD)? One would hope they would last until the machine becomes functionally obsolete as Apple is soldering them in or using a proprietary daughter board depending on the model. Apple is currently offering 3 internal storage options.

  • Traditional 2.5 inch laptop form factor disks
  • SSD soldered in or on a daughter card
  • Fusion Drive, SSD plus traditional 2.5 inch disk

If disks are not field replaceable, they impose a limit on system life time. In my past experience, market catch of the day disks survive about 5 years. Service life of SSD’s are only now becoming established but appears to be on the order of 5 years depending on access patterns. Those in enterprise storage appear to last 5 years. Those in low activity home service should last the life of the system. (Said hopefully)

So, where is the Moocher headed?

Windows 10 is out. Best Windows yet but not the Moocher’s taste. Home brewing a Hackintosh is out because the home-brew drivers needed to make MacOS work with market catch of the day hardware are flaky. A main machine can’t be flaky.

The Moocher’s 2002 Apple Studio display is no longer supported and feeling mighty cramped.

So the Moocher needs a display and a new processor with current ports and some software support future. Current thinking is Retina 5K iMac for photo and movie editing and added screen real estate for counting the Moocher’s geld. But the newest Macs have USB-3 ports and Thunderbolt ports. Dongles or docks to anything else. Apple just moved the laptops to USB-C ports talking USB-3 or 3.1. So wait patiently for Skylake iMacs with USB-C.