Help me choose a replacement computer!
August 31, 2019 7:26 AM   Subscribe

My workhorse computer is a 27" iMac from 2011, and it's reaching the end of its life. I use it for cartooning, book design, audio editing and a little bit of video. What should I replace it with?

My machine has already had one major hard drive failure, and has been getting slower and less reliable to the point where it regularly interferes with my ability to do my job. At this point it feels like only a matter of time before it has another major failure or else slows down to the point of actual unusability.

My instinct is to just replace it with another 27" imac, probably refurbished. But which one? And is that actually the best idea?

Things I like about my current machine:
-- Nice big screen
-- Mac OS (which I've been using consistently since childhood)
-- Decent number of ports
-- Compatible with my aging cintiq 12WX (model DTZ-1200w if it matters)
-- Low-maintenance up until recently

I'm on a limited budget due to big life changes. I CAN get the money together for an expensive-ish computer if I need to, but it really has to be a justified expense -- if there's a way to keep costs down with refurbished and/or not-quite-current machines, that would be ideal.

I currently have a laptop as well, which I mostly use for writing, and which is also getting on in years. I'm nervous about the prospect of having only one computer and having that computer be a laptop, but could potentially be talked into it if that's what makes the most sense.

I am dead set against switching to another operating system, I hate Windows and also all my STUFF is here.

Years ago, I would've just gone to Tek Serve and had a nice long conversation with the staff there to figure this out, but ALAS, those days are behind me.

If it matters, I'm based in Brooklyn, NY.

Please, friends of MeFi. I crave your opinions.
posted by Narrative Priorities to Technology (16 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
What's your current spec? You may be able to get a reasonable speed bump from maxing out the memory and adding an SSD. Still, a 2011 machine is coming to its end of being actively supported with OS upgrades if it hasn't already, so it depends how much you need current versions of your main programs as to whether that's worthwhile.
posted by Jon Mitchell at 7:36 AM on August 31, 2019

Response by poster: Specs:

Processor: 3.4 GHz Intel Core i7
Memory: 16 GB 1333 MHz DDR3 (4 GB installed in 4 slots)
Graphics: AMD Radeon HD 6770M 1024MB
Storage: 1TB SATA Disk
OS: Sierra 10.12.6

It's also worth stressing that a major problem right now is that I'm constantly running out of hard drive space. I can offload more stuff onto external drives, but I haven't been able to free up more than 40 gigs in a years, and those gigs got swallowed back up pretty much immediately. And I get anxious about having important projects that only exist on external drives.

Most of the software I use SHOULD be able to survive transition of hardware or OS -- I caved to Adobe CC a couple years back, and everything else I could re-download and re-install.

That said, the reason I have CC at all is because an OS update broke my cintiq's ability to talk to the version of Photoshop I'd bought, so. Yeah.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 7:46 AM on August 31, 2019

Of the things you list that you use it for, the only thing that's going to put a strain on the computer is the "little bit of video". And figure that even if you get a refurbished computer that's a couple of years old, it's going to be substantially faster than what you're currently using.

"And I get anxious about having important projects that only exist on external drives."

Why? They're no less dependable than internal drives. And drives these days are cheap. You can get an external one and store it at a friend or family member's house if you're worried about theft or fire.

Aside from the refurbished ones from or directly from apple, id look into a Mac mini. Although they, too, have gotten very expensive, you should be able to pair one with a 27" Dell or HP monitor for less than he price of an iMac. And since your video needs aren't heavy, it probably won't matter.
posted by jonathanhughes at 8:09 AM on August 31, 2019

You should be more nervous about having important projects that only exist in the same physical location, no matter how many drives you have. Many people fail to consider the risk of data loss from fire, theft, flood, tornado, power spike, etc. Backups in at least two locations (and/or a robustly redundant cloud like Google or Amazon WS or iCloud or a major offsite backup service) or you aren’t backed up at all.
posted by spitbull at 8:17 AM on August 31, 2019 [6 favorites]

Recent Mac mini and as much monitor as you like.
posted by zadcat at 8:34 AM on August 31, 2019 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I think your first priority should be buying an extra backup drive that is large enough to hold backups of everything from all your existing drives.

Second priority should be moving around some files until all of your hard drives have at least 15% free space, you may notice that Time Machine does this automatically for backup drives.

You should then find the mac starts to perform a lot better, probably enough to buy you one last year of use giving you some time to save up for a replacement.

When weighing up when to upgrade, remember that although a refurb will be cheaper, it is also likely to need replacing a bit sooner than a brand new machine. Similarly your current mac will still have some residual value (look it up on ebay) but that will decline as it gets older.
posted by Lanark at 8:43 AM on August 31, 2019

Best answer: If you consider switching away from iMac be sure you count up all the pieces you have to buy to replace it. I was surprised when I switched to ordinary desktop PCs how much stuff I needed to replace. Webcam, microphone, speakers, SD reader, the monitor itself. There's a lot packed in to the iMac.
posted by Nelson at 9:06 AM on August 31, 2019

My instinct is to just replace it with another 27" imac, probably refurbished. But which one? And is that actually the best idea?

If you're "dead set" against switching to another OS, I'd either look at another 27" iMac or a mini, or maybe a Macbook Pro. I would probably buy direct from Apple from their refurb sales. A refurbed 2017 model with a Core i7 that has user-accessible RAM (16GB, should be upgradable to 32GB) with a 1TB fusion drive is a bit more than $2K. Models with a 2TB or 3TB drive start about $2.2K.

I'd check that against the cost of a 2019 new model or refurb that will push your next upgrade out by a year or two and decide whether the money you save now is worth making a new mac purchase five or six years from now instead of seven or so.

Macs are pricey, that's the cost of living in Apple's walled garden. But if you're using a 2011 it's due to give out soon one way or another, I'd recommend beating it to the punch and getting a new machine now and transferring everything over - and like someone else said, your current machine still has some value. Get everything off it, wipe it and re-install macOS and sell it for $500 or so to recoup some of the cost of the newer machine.
posted by jzb at 9:23 AM on August 31, 2019

Best answer: I recently replaced my 2011 iMac with a 2017 model I bought from B&H. I don't know how they sell for these prices, but $1599 for a new 27 inch iMac with a 5k display and a 2TB hard drive is an outstanding deal. (Offer ends today, though.)
posted by Pater Aletheias at 9:58 AM on August 31, 2019 [2 favorites]

I don’t do a lot of intensive graphics stuff, but I do do some Mathematica work, etc. I’ve been super happy for a number of years with a (mac) laptop hooked up to a big monitor at work. Now, the monitor’s not cheap either...
posted by leahwrenn at 10:41 AM on August 31, 2019

And I get anxious about having important projects that only exist on external drives.

Consider getting a Blu-Ray burner and keep copies offsite for redundancy, media is cheap and I’d much rather deal with data in 25GB chunks. I would also recommend an SSD if it wasn’t such a pain swapping out the HD in this model.
posted by porn in the woods at 12:14 PM on August 31, 2019

I was keeping an old “Late 2009” model 21.5" iMac as my main computer up until last fall because i managed to keep a working installation of the full CS3 Design Suite. Then, it died due to hardware failure not worth fixing on a computer that old (the display backlight). Much sadness.

I ended up getting a new 21.5" and am happy with it. I also have set-up/maintained several 27" iMacs for a friend’s business (also a graphics professional).

The quality of the high-DPI panel on both the 21.5" and 27" is what i’d really miss if i was forced to change to anything else. Note that LG’s own packaging of the 27" panel they make for Apple as a stand-alone monitor costs about $1300 and LG’s current high-quality 4k monitor (which is lower resolution than the custom panel they make for the 21.5" iMac) is $700.

On both iMacs the resolution is around 219 pixel-per-inch (thus why the 21.5" iMac has more pixels than a standard 4k monitor). Text rendering is wonderful. Photos look great (many websites now send higher-res images). Even watching HD movies is better than on my old 21.5" (which was exactly HD resolution) because you can’t see individual RGB stripes. Everything looks smoother.

The panel is also a P3 wide-gamut monitor. ColorSync profiles keep images using sRGB IEC61966-2.1 looking as they should while the extra color range is noticeable when working with images outside that gamut. I’ll also note that the uniformity of the backlight is first-class and the color calibration is excellent.
posted by D.C. at 12:34 PM on August 31, 2019

If you get a Mac mini you can use your current iMac as a display using target display mode. You’ll need a thunderbolt cable and an adapter.
posted by doctord at 1:10 PM on August 31, 2019 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: (Coming in to reassure folks that I have both physical and multiple cloud backups of everything important.)

(But seriously all of this is very helpful thank you!)
posted by Narrative Priorities at 3:40 PM on August 31, 2019

Best answer: If you like your current machine with its nice 27" screen, this would be an easy replacement: Apple Certified Refurbished 27-inch iMac 3.4GHz quad-core Intel Core i5 with Retina 5K display for $1529.

It's the June 2017 model and crucially it has a 256GB SSD. In this day and age, I think you should avoid Fusion Drives if at all possible, and simply connect a cheap external SSD via USB-3.0. I have a Samsung T5 SSD hanging off the back of my June 2017 27" iMac and it's awesome.

This particular model only has 8GB of RAM but it's still user-upgradable so you can get up to 16GB or beyond easily. The monitor is awesome, of course, and there is basically no other way to obtain a comparably-specced 5K 27" external monitor. There are plenty of ports with a healthy mix of USB-A and USB-C, and I've had precisely zero problems in the two years I've been using mine.
posted by adrianhon at 10:19 AM on September 1, 2019

Response by poster: Ended up going for that extremely good Labor Day sale at B&H -- thank you to folks for pointing it out!

All of the general advice on reselling my current machine and organizing my files was also very much appreciated!

Thanks to everyone for chiming in!
posted by Narrative Priorities at 1:45 PM on September 2, 2019

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