What Computer to Buy?

July 31, 2019

I’d really like a new computer, but I want something that will meeting my current computer needs and have enough storage capacity to not only hold my current data, but enough to allow my current data to grow.

What I Currently Have

My current primary computer is a Late 2013 15” MacBook Pro with a Retina display, a 2.3 GHz Core i7 processor, 16 GB of RAM and a 1 TB SSD. Except for needing a battery replacement earlier this year (the original was starting to swell), and having a bad case of full storage, it has been and continues to be a superb machine. I’ve used it daily since getting it in June 2014 and it still does everything I want.

Being out of storage space, or nearly out of storage space, has been an issue for over a year now. Photos, music, audiobooks, videos, and documents, not to mention coding projects, applications and their data, all add up. Recently I was down to 30 GB free space. Some judicious moving of files to an external USB drive, and the deletion of old iOS backups, brought the free space figure up to ~ 150 GB.

I’ve already migrated all my audiobooks and movies to an older (a Mid 2009 MacBook Pro) laptop. I could use external drives to house my growing media collections, but carrying around a laptop with an attached external drive is nowhere near as useful and portable as a laptop by itself.

Here is the space used by all the directories in my home folder, along with the space used by the Applications folder.

DirectoryGB UsedComputer
Applications37.78Primary
Desktop1.93Primary
Downloads23.4Primary
Dropbox8.47Primary
Library244.78Primary
Movies37.17Primary
Music162.54Primary
Picture237.78Primary
code18.01Primary
manuals4.67Primary
src11.5Primary
Movies121.45Secondary
Music373.88Secondary
Pictures232.84Secondary
TOTAL1,516.20 

Any new computer would need to have, at a minimum, 2 TB of storage. And that would only give me roughly 500 GB of room to grow. I have no idea how long it will take to fill 500 GB. It would be a nice cushion, but I fear it would be filled within a year’s time.

My current favorite configuration from Apple is a new 13” MacBook Pro, with Retina display, a 2.4 quad-core i5 processor, 16 GB of RAM, and a 2 TB SSD for $2,799. Moving up to a 2.8 GHz quad-core i7 adds $300 to the price, or $3,099.

An Aside on Annual Computing Cost

I bought my first laptop, A Titanium PowerBook G4 in 2002. In 2009 I upgraded to an aluminum MacBook Pro. And in 2014 I upgraded again to a Retina MacBook Pro. Combined these three computers cost roughly $8500. Divide 8500 by 17 years and you get an annual computer cost of $500 per year. A $3100 computer would need to last 6 years to keep that $500/year average.

Butterfly Keyboard Effect

My employment provides me with a 2017 13” MacBook Pro, with a 3.1 GHz core i5, 16 GB of RAM, and a 512 GB SSD. It’s a very nice machine; the size is perfect, the weight is subjectively considerably lighter than my 15”, and with BetterTouchTool installed, the TouchBar is semi-useful. Until recently it hadn’t been plagued with butterfly keyboard switch issues. However, the “B” key now only works some of the time. Repeated presses with varying weight will eventually produce a “B”.

My fear of spending $3,099 on a new laptop only to have it develop issues with its keyboard is not significant, however, it is present. I’d be happier if I could get something without the butterfly keyboard. My work iMac has a Magic Keyboard that has good key travel and no keyboard issues.

Options, Options, Options

Using $3100 as an upper limit my question is: what computer can I buy that would:

If that computer happens to be a desktop, then would there enough left from the $3100 budget to replace my current laptop with something smaller and lighter? With a desktop for heavy lifting the future, smaller and lighter laptop (or iPad Pro?) needn’t be maxed out for CPU or storage.

Another option would be to invest money (and time and effort) into setting up a NAS with enough storage to hold the media collection (and enough room to expand it), and act as a backup target for all the computers in the house.

In the rest of this posting I want to explore these options:

NAS

A 4-bay Synology chassis can be bought for ~ $360. Four 6 TB Western Digital Red hard drives, at ~ $150 each, total another $600. So for a $960 investment I could have a NAS with 24 TB of raw capacity. A RAID 10 (mirror and stripe) configuration would net 12 TB of usable storage. That would easily swallow my media collections and provide back up for all the computers in the house.

A 5-bay Synology chassis is $899. Five 6 TB hard drives, at ~ $150 a piece, is $750, for a total cost of $1,649.

BaysTotal SizeNet SizeTotal CostCost per TB
424 TB12 TB$960~ $80
530 TB15 TB$1,649~ $110

The 4-bay option is less expensive per terabyte of storage.

Playing media (music or a movie) across my home network would be acceptable. We currently use an Apple TV to view movies stored on my older MacBook Pro, and for the most part that works. What I don’t know, and would need to research, is could I access music or movies when I’m out of the house? And would that bump into the bandwidth consumption limits my ISP has?

Having a NAS - even without reliable media access while not at home - would be a huge improvement in reliable storage at home. It would also relive to pressure of having a constantly full hard drive. Having a NAS is likely something I should do regardless of getting or not getting a new computer.

Apple Desktop

Apple currently sells desktop computers at three price points. 27” iMacs, 27” iMac Pros, and Mac Minis. You can still get refurbished 2013 Mac Pros, but a new (to me) computer that is based on a thermally limited 6-year design does not make good sense. While I’d love to get one of the new Mac Pros being released later this year, I expect them to start at double my budget, and expect a nicely fitted out one to use up all of $10,000. Not an option unless some kind reader of zanshin.net wants to make a donation.

iMac

A 27” iMac, with 3.1 GHz 6-core i5 processor, 32 GB of RAM, and a 3TB Fusion drive, with Magic keyboard and a Magic Trackpad, sells for $2,949. I’d have $151 left over from my self-imposed budget. Spending all the money on a new desktop would preclude a new laptop or iPad for the time being.

An Aside on Fusion Drives

Apple’s fusion drive is a combination spinning platter drive and SSD. The OS optimizes how the drive is used. It is less expensive per GB, but I’m not sure I want a fusion drive. The 3 TB fusion drive adds $300 to the price. That same $300 will outfit the iMac with a 512 GB SSD. External USB drives would then be used to house all the data.

iMac Pro

A 27” iMac Pro, with a 3.2 GHz 8-core Xeon processor, 32 GB of RAM, and a 4 TB SSD, with a Magic keyboard and trackpad, sells for $6,249. More than twice the budget. Scratch the iMac Pro from consideration.

Mac Mini

A Mac Mini, with a 3.0 GHz 6-core i5 processor, 32 GB of RAM, and a 2 TB SSD, with no keyboard, no trackpad or mouse, and no monitor, sells for $2,499. It is possible to upgrade the RAM in a Mac Mini. 32 GB of after market RAM costs roughly $150. Getting only 8 GB of RAM reduces the price to $1,899.

A Magic keyboard and trackpad are another $228. I have a 24” monitor I could use, but a new 27” 5K monitor is ~ $550. Getting a Mac Mini that is equivalent to an 27” iMac costs $2,827. For that price you might as well get an iMac.

Approaching the Mac Mini from a different angle, and getting a minimal machine and adding RAM, and using external, directly connected storage (USB drives) looks like this: 3.0 GHz, 8 GB RAM, 512GB SSD for $1,299. Added RAM is $150. Two 4 TB USB drives are ~ $200. The keyboard and trackpad are still $228. And the monitor is still $550.

ItemOption AOption B
Mac Mini 3.0 GHz, 8 GB RAM, 512 GB SSD$1,299 
Mac Mini 3.0 GHz, 8 GB RAM, 2 TB SSD $1,899
Magic Keyboard & Trackpad$228$228
5K Monitor$550$550
32 GB after market RAM$150$150
Two 4 TB USB drives$200 
Total$2,427$2,827

With either Option A or Option B, postponing the monitor purchase until a later date saves ~ $550, bring the two prices down to $1,877 and $2,277 respectively. At $2,277 a 2 TB Mac Mini is $672 less than the iMac. The $1,877 Mac Mini is $1,072 less.

Side-by-side, here is a minimal Mac Mini with 3rd party RAM, and external USB storage, next to an iMac with comparable RAM, and external storage.

ItemMac MiniiMacComments
Processor3.0 GHz i53.1GHz i5 
Memory8GB 2666MHz DDR432GB 2666MHz DDR4 
Memory upgrade$149.99 - 32GB 2400MHz DDR4  
Storage512GB SSD512GB SSD 
Keyboard$129included 
Trackpad$99included 
Monitor$550included 
External storage$200$200Two 4 TB USB drives
TOTAL$2,426$3,149 

Clearly a Mac Mini, with 3rd party RAM, and some external storage is the least expensive desktop option. The biggest difference between the two setups is the monitor. Apple makes simply gorgeous high resolution monitors. While there are some options for 4K or 5K monitors from 3rd-party manufacturers, those offerings are no where near as good looking as the iMac. And the LG monitor infamously had problems where it interfered with nearby WiFi access points.

The question becomes, is it worth an extra $723 to have the Apple display. One way to look at the iMac is, it’s the best 5K monitor money can buy, and it comes with a free computer glued to its backside.

Apple Laptop

Apple has three laptops in it’s current line up. The MacBook Air, and both a 13” and 15” MacBook Pro. Price and processing power, along with storage, vary widely.

MacBook Air

A MacBook Air, with a 1.6 GHz i5 processor, 16 GB of RAM, and a 512 GB SSD sells for $1,699. It would make a fantastic second computer. As a way out of my “need more storage” situation, it isn’t helpful.

MacBook Pro 13”

The 13” MacBook Pro, with a 2.4 GHz i5 processor, 16 GB of RAM, and a 2 TB SSD, sells for $2,799. If you select the largest processor option, a 2.8 GHz i7, you add $300, bringing the price up to $3,099. My benchmark machine, for better or for worse.

MacBook Pro 15”

All of my personal laptops have had some flavor of a 15” screen. A new 15” MacBook Pro with a 2.3 GHz processor, 32 GB of RAM, and a 2 TB SSD lists for $3,799. You can double the SSD to 4 TB for an additional $1,400, bringing the total up to $4,599. A little outside my budget. And a lot of money for a laptop.

What to Choose

The best choice, I feel, among the laptop options, is the 13” MacBook Pro with a 2 TB SSD and 16 GB of RAM. However, I don’t think that is the rational choice.

The rational choice is to buy a 4-bay NAS chassis and four 6 TB drives, and set that up. It eliminates the lack of storage problem, and provides much needed back up storage. For all the computers in the house. A NAS would be $960 well spent.

The “I want a shiny new toy” thing to do is to spend $3100 on an iMac and some external drives. The “still shiny but more affordable” thing to do is get a Mac Mini, a keyboard and trackpad, and a couple of external drives for ~ $1,876. Delay the monitor purchase hoping that Apple will release a standalone 5K monitor for a reasonable price in the next year or so.

In the end I think the first thing is to buy and setup a NAS with as much redundant storage that $1000 will buy. And wait to see what Apple does. There’s a rumored 16” MacBook (in the same form factor as today’s 15”). There is speculation about a 14” laptop to follow the 16”. And I hope that sometime soon, Apple releases a new keyboard that eliminates once and for all, the problems with the butterfly switches.

Getting a NAS and waiting to see what Apple does is the smart move. With network storage I can offload quite a bit from my laptop, making it perform better. It still has life in it. However, if you want to donate to my cause, I’ll be happy to buy bigger, shinier toys from Apple.

Author's profile picture

Mark H. Nichols

I am a husband, cellist, code prole, nerd, technologist, and all around good guy living and working in fly-over country. You should follow me on Twitter.