Note: I originally wrote this post for my photo website since my primary use of my computer is photo editing. However, everything related to computer choice applies equally to general usage.
Over the past several years, I have done the majority of my photo editing and cataloging on an iMac Retina 5K computer built in 2015. The iMac has been a trusted tool for this task but it has entered the stage of being considered obsolete. In Apple’s terms, that means it can no longer be upgraded with the latest operating system or features.
While this is not an immediate killer issue, I have noticed the computer bogging down with new versions of programs in recent months. Apple’s spinning beachball has become an all-too-often visitor to my screen.
I had in mind to get a new computer toward the end of 2023 but that timeline moved up a few days ago when I spent an entire day on the phone with customer service trying to get a new version of a program to work on my ‘obsolete’ machine. After a discussion with my wife, I decided to go ahead with a new computer.
For some time, I considered eliminating my desktop computer and just using a laptop. There is something to be said for having a portable computer and the ability to take all of my photos with me to any location without transferring files. Several people I know, including my wife and two sons, do all of their work on a laptop.
But as I looked at options, I came to a couple of realizations. First, I’m getting older and my eyes aren’t what they used to be. Thus, the thought of editing photos on a much smaller screen wasn’t appealing, considering the largest MacBook available only has a 16-inch-diagonal screen. That is in comparison to the 27-inch screen on my iMac. (I am a confirmed Apple fan, even though I have a Windows laptop for one special application.)
Second, I also reasoned that I don’t really travel that much. In fact, a year or so ago, I released my 2014 MacBook for ‘family’ use and got an iPad Air as my ‘travel’ computer. I can do light photo editing on it, which is sufficient for the little off-site work I do. So by investing in a MacBook, I would be buying a ‘mobile’ solution for a problem that, in practical terms, doesn’t exist for me personally.
Finally, cost was a factor. A 16-inch MacBook outfitted with the memory I need would come with a price tag of nearly $3500. And if, as some suggested, I would need to get a 27-inch monitor to better use my MacBook at home, the cost would increase by several hundred dollars, even for a less-than-ideal monitor.
As my thoughts moved away from a laptop, I briefly considered a new iMac. However, the all-in-one iMacs no longer come with a 27-inch screen. A 24-inch screen is the largest available with the new iMacs.
The Mac Studio was also a fleeting consideration. It had a much higher base price, and it became considerably more expensive when I added sufficient storage memory for my needs. Additionally, the Mac Studio currently comes with the older generation M1 chip from Apple.
The Mac Mini
The elimination of those two alternatives brought my choice down to the Mac Mini. I was happy to see that a new version of the mini, complete with the new generation M2 Apple chip had been released in January, 2023. I also noted that the mini is smaller than the Mac studio, at least in height.
While the base model, priced at $599, would have been a reasonable alternative when the internal memory was upgraded for my needs, I opted to go with the slightly more expensive pro model. With the pro, I got some additional expansion ports and a slightly better cooling system. Since I plan to make this computer last for 7 to 10 years, I felt the small upgrade was worth the price. Even with a memory upgrade, the mini was less expensive than the Mac Studio model.
Since I had already dismissed the notion of buying another iMac or a MacBook, my alternatives represented modular technology. In other words, the computer was separate from the monitor. While this is the normal configuration for Windows-based computers, it represents a departure for Apple computers of the last decade or so.
However, I wasn’t unhappy with this situation. Since monitor technology and computer processor technology might develop at different rates, it’s a benefit in my mind to be able to address upgrades separately.
There are literally dozens of monitor choices available. But after having the advantages of a 5K monitor for several years on my iMac, I knew I wanted to stay with that level of resolution. That significantly limited my choices of monitors since there are really only two monitors available with a 5K 27-inch screen. One is the Studio Display from Apple and the other is a similar monitor from LG.
LG typically makes good products and their monitor was, on paper, very similar to the more expensive Apple monitor. But some of the features not apparent on performance specs alone became considerations. Most prominently, the Apple Studio Display is cased completely in aluminum, thus making it very sturdy. The LG comes in a plastic case.
Beyond the durability issue, the Apple provides four additional USB-C expansion ports on the back for connecting additional disk drives or other peripherals. The LG has no such ports. The Apple’s built-in speakers also came highly rated.
Finally, the reviews listed some occasional issues with LG connectivity to Apple products, from the Mac Studio to using it as an external monitor for a MacBook. Conversely, the Apple Studio Display ‘just works’ with Apple products.
It might be prudent to accept a lower level of quality and connectivity if there was a significant difference in price. But the LG is only slightly cheaper than the Apple – and not enough of a difference to justify the limitations, in my opinion.
The Studio Display comes in two screen versions – a normal glass screen and a nano-coated screen which reportedly cuts glare by significant amounts. However, the nano screen also mutes some colors and is more difficult to clean than the standard screen. Since I have good light control in my office, I chose the base model. It’s really no different from a standpoint of glare, than my iMac screen. That is to say, in my case, it’s not a issue.
Significant in my choice was the fact that the Mac Mini and the monitor I chose came in at almost the same price as a 16″ MacBook Pro – and the larger monitor I would need for serious editing at home is included in the package.
My desktop setup also includes my iPad Air 5th generation. However, it is not – as some might assume – connected to the Mac mini as a display. Rather it is connected through a feature called Universal Control. This function allows me to control my iPad with my desktop keyboard and mouse, but as an IOS device rather than an extension of my Mac. There are times when I need a file or a message that in only available through an IOS app, and this setup makes it easy to move my cursor over to the iPad to read or capture that data.
Anyone who has ever been through the process of moving files to a new computer can identify with the frustration and the time that it takes to complete the process. That is why I was very impressed with Apple’s Migration Assistant. This app makes the transfer from one Apple Computer to another extremely easy.
And unlike setting up a new computer from a back up, all of your passwords come across in the transfer, so you don’t have to spend time reactivating numerous accounts.
The Right Choice
Right away, I noticed a significant speed difference from the Apple M2 chip over my older Intel processor. The monitor also showed significant improvement over my older system.
I’m very happy with my choice and I think that this set up will last me several years into the future.
My new desk setup from left: HP 4K 27″ secondary monitor – Apple 5K 27″ Studio Display primary monitor – Apple Mac Mini – Wacom editing tablet – iPad Air – Brother color laser printer. To the right, barely in the frame, is a Fujitsu ScanSnap duplex scanner.