Can You Survive Without a Desktop Mac?

December 1st, 2009

I first started using desktop Macs in the 1980s, not long after Apple first released the Macintosh, but it took several years before I could afford to bring one into my home. Well, actually it was a matter of necessity, to earn a living, but low-cost equipment leases were readily available to finance the $15,000 purchase price that included a IIcx, a color display, laser printer and a selection of the key software I needed for my work, which included FileMaker, Microsoft Word and, of course, QuarkXPress.

On the other hand, I didn’t adapt to the note-book revolution right off the bat. That came out of necessity. My wife was getting surgery in another state, and taking my Mac with all the accessories seemed a daunting task for a hotel-based existence. However, I worked out a deal with a relative to borrow their PowerBook and inkjet printer during the week I was away from the home office. I also brought a modem with which to stay online. Remember these were the days before broadband was readily available at such establishments.

In those days, in the 1990s, an Apple note-book used a trackball, not a trackpad, and that was the sort of input device to which I was never successful at fully adapting. But I managed to actually get some work done, with time left to take my son, Grayson, on a few sightseeing tours. Fortunately this trip occurred during the summer, so Grayson didn’t miss any classes.

I only acquired a portable Mac a few years later, after Apple had migrated to trackpads, but it took what seemed almost forever for me to become sufficiently comfortable with its unique style of cursor movement, and the short-travel keyboards were an acquired taste. These days, of course, all Apple keyboards are note-book inspired, perhaps to lessen the difficulties of adapting from desktops and back again. It’s not my cup of tea, but I’ve become reasonably flexible with this alternative.

If anyone cares, my desktop keyboard right now is the Logitech diNovo Edge, Mac Edition, which remains one of the most comfortable keyboards I’ve ever used. I never for a moment considered using a note-book computer for all my work, even though it’s a trivial matter to hook up a separate display.

On the other hand, the Mac market is moving in a different direction. With three quarters of Apple’s sales going to its portable lineup, you can certainly feel that desktops might be an endangered species. But that 25% or so percent is still a sizable figure, and with Apple’s increased sales, comes extremely close to the total number of units in all categories that Apple managed to sell just a few years ago. It’s not a trivial figure.

However, you can’t ignore the public’s changing tastes, although Apple certainly made a credible attempt to beef up desktops in October. The Mac mini received a decent speed bump, and the server version is going to be surprisingly popular to many small businesses and educational institutions.

The iMac appears to be a home run. As I write this article, it remains the top seller at Apple’s online store, and the quad-core versions remain backordered, with waits increasing to seven to ten business days. Then again, there may be some production problems at the core of this delay, considering that there are reports online of some people receiving their units with cracked screens. I wouldn’t assume that’s because Apple is using thinner and thinner boxes these days. It may be just one of those things, and one hopes the issue will be resolved soon and build quantities will reach a normal level.

Or maybe Apple just underestimated demand for the top-end product, particularly from customers who might have considered a Mac Pro instead under normal circumstances.

Long term trends, though, indicate that desktop computers will continue to be abandoned by customers in favor of note-books. As more powerful chips come on line from Intel, there may be a time when a MacBook Pro, with a quad-core mobile chip, would be quite as powerful as a top-of-the-line iMac. That, and a perhaps new lineup of big screen displays from Apple, may encourage this wholesale move to the portable segment.

Although I’m sure many of you are quite ready to write the epitaph for the Mac Pro and give it a decent burial, I rather think it may a few more years for that to actually happen. There are still tens of thousands of potential customers each quarter who require state-of-the-art performance and easy expandability. One day, in the not too distant future, we may all acquire small personal computers, perhaps not much larger than an iPhone with the option to hook up to a larger display and a regular keyboard for the appropriate tasks. If you need more computing power, incredibly fast wireless networks will lot you connect to a computer network “in the cloud” to perform the complicated rendering tasks that are reserved for a regular desktop workstation. When that happens — and I think it will — the Mac Pro will truly become a part of PC history.

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21 Responses to “Can You Survive Without a Desktop Mac?”

  1. javaholic says:

    Our lives are more mobile these days and we have this hunger for instant data anywhere, anytime, so it’s little surprise in the shift towards the laptop. Personally, I just prefer working on a desktop. It’s a state of mind thing. I do very little creative work on my MacBook Pro. The heavy lifting is usually done on the MacPro. Maybe I’ve just conditioned myself to thinking that way, who knows? But while the laptop performs well and has convenience on its side, desktops will continue to serve their purpose for certain segments of the market that require the horsepower, expansion or whatever. With the laptop, trading off desktop performance for power consumption and cooling will continue be the challenge.

  2. ken h says:

    I have not had a desktop since the power supply in my 9500 went down about 8 years ago. I did tons of creative work on that machine, and still do some of that kind of work on my Macbook.

    My Macbook with 2 gigs of ram has more horsepower than the 9500 did, so………….would I go back? No, not if I had to choose between the 9500 and the Macbook. If I needed a new desktop, it would be the iMac.

  3. Andrew says:

    Desktops have very limited use for me these days. I use an old Power Mac G5 as a file server, backup repository and spare Mac in case my MB Air or ThinkPad are otherwise unavailable.

    I don’t do content creation beyond light photoshop these days, so even the MacBook Air has an abundance of power for my needs.

  4. Lawrence Rhodes says:

    I’m a desktop fan. I like all those pixels. I dislike working on a keyboard without the full number pad, which I use constantly for engineering data and computations. (Not that my daughter’s MacBook Pro isn’t the slickest laptop I’ve ever seen — great trackpad.) I’m planning to get a Core i7 iMac soon to move up from an iMac G5, although I’m somewhat put off by the necessity of using a 68K emulator for the few Classic applications I can’t replace and irritated by the painful changes in my workflow necessitated by Snow Leopard dropping creator codes. Laptops are OK for traveling, but they’re nowhere near as comfortable to sit in front of, with their cramped screens way too close to their keyboards. Plus, they have even fewer ports than the rather limited iMac.

    • Andrew says:

      @Lawrence Rhodes, You can always plug a nice big display and an external keyboard into any Mac laptop. The 24″ Apple display with its Mini Displayport, Magsafe and USB connectors built-in is an especially convenient option for replacing a desktop with a laptop. I just found out that its built-in USB hub will even power the MacBook Air superdrive, making this probably my next purchase.

  5. BC says:

    Well, I thought that way too, until at my age the eyes have become the weakest link. I have been using laptops for the most part over the last 10 years. As we all know, to increase usable screen area laptops had a greater pixel count which means a relatively smaller text size … now this has also been extended to desktops as we have improved screen quality. But for this 50s something person it presents a problem. I found that I was always setting the text size larger which took up more area on my MacBooks/Pro. So to solve the eye problem, I looked at the new iMacs and the Mac mini using a non-native screen resolution … yes, it is just a little blurry but I sit at a position that mostly negates this and I make good use of Spaces. The text and graphics are both larger … very similar to the old days with CRTs. I have a 19 inch display … but haven’t calculated the dpi … it feels like 80 a little better than 72 but less than 90. I could have purchased the iMac but I had a lot of leftover peripherals so I went for the slightly cheaper route (but now I have all these wires running everywhere … S Jobs was right … it is ugly). Yes, I wish I had a quad core but the mini is really all I need for my basic needs. In fact, for my work, if I want to run more sophisticated simulations I may spring for a Mac Pro as my ‘calculator’. When will the dual hexacore Pros become available? In fact, It looks like I will not be using any mobile solution any longer unless you include my iPod Touch.

  6. Kaleberg says:

    I gave up on desktops in ’98. My couch is a lot more comfortable than any desktop chair. I can put my feet up, plop my Mac on my lap and work on a nice big 17″ screen. With a built in DVD player, I got rid of my television, though I have a inFocus projector for sharing movies and the like. Desktops have terrible ergonomics. They can destroy your back, and the screen is way too high for extended use. Maybe plane spotters don’t mind gawking upwards all day, but there’s a reason people read books held low, not up high like a desktop display.

    On the other hand, I think there will always be a market for a Mac Pro. It will probably be stuffed with a hundred processors, able to drive a billion pixels, have a terabyte of RAM, and manage a gazillion bytes of SSD, but there will be enough power users willing to pay an extra $500 – $1,000 for the ability to stuff it to the gills. If you are set to buy all that other stuff, the premium just doesn’t matter that much.

    Apple will keep a high end, flexible option to find out where the power users are going. Are they driving multi-media extravaganzas? Are they operating video security systems? Are they hacking LHC output? Are they 4D gamers? If they gave up the Pro, they’d give up on valuable market research. After all, what better way is there to figure out new features for the basic lineup than by letting the early adopters and power users point the way? It wasn’t that long ago that the power users were buying flat screens and CD burners.

  7. ken h says:

    Everybody here has good points depending on what their needs are.

  8. Jocca says:

    I am now totally converted to the Mac Book Pro, the multi touch trackpad is just wonderful to use. However I am also very much attracted to the quad-core iMac. The screen is just unbelievable and since I like to make a lot of movies and do a lot of photography, I may very well get one. All I need is to test drive one in the store first before I make a move.

  9. It is probably my personal bias but I prefer desktops when doing heavy work. Simply because notebooks can’t give you the comfort of a big full screen and a decent keyboard. I do a lot of layout and illustration work so it is imperative that my Mac has enough screen size to accommodate all the windows and layout elements at the same time. My current setup is a 27 Quad core iMac and an Apple Cinema display and all that real screen estate is fantastic to work with. Another factor would be the way each of us work, for me I conditioned myself to work at my designated desktop at my quiet distraction free den or in my silent office space, unlike the mobile warriors I simply cannot concentrate and get anything done in public places like in coffee shops, malls and the like because of all the chatter, sound of traffic or the store music. Perhaps I can work in places like a library but I can’t bring my huge multi-monitor setup there can I?

    Finally, I rather have two desktops iMacs, one at my office and one at home then have a single Macbook Pro because I prefer to commute with just a portable hard disk with me then a whole laptop. Also having two computers saves as a fail-safe in case one of them goes south and need to be repaired.

  10. Adryan says:

    Our family owns a small private pre school and grade school and in our field we prefer providing our students with desktop Macs (iMacs and Mac Minis) over Macbooks because:

    1) Desktops are more durable and can take more abuse then laptops, we did provide our students laptops before and they wear out pretty quickly.
    2) Our students, especially the younger ones prefer big monitors with loud full speakers when playing educational games and working on their computer projects like making movies.
    3) Macbook are prone to accidents like dropping or being tossed around. Compared to our iMacs, we had lots of fatalities with our Macbooks.
    4) iMacs are more cost effective because for the same price point as the Macbook we can provide kids with more powerful and capable hardware that last longer. This helps a lot when teaching them processor hungry programs like iMovie and Garage band.

  11. ken h says:

    I am a teacher, and although I prefer my Macbook as I said earlier, I have to go along with what Adyran says about laptops.

    Based upon experience in a school with 6,000 computers, I definitely do not support laptop programs.

    Mac’s are much tougher than the Windows machines, but unless your school has a definite program to enforce personal responsibility (that may happen) along with the willingness to enforce it (Very Rarely Happens) you will need roughly a 25% extra quantity of backup machines. When you run out of the backup machines is when the real costs start to show themselves. It actually shows itself the first week, but administrators think like accountants, so until it shows up on paper relating to budgets or expenses,(which is always at a later date) they tend not to recognize it. Suddenly, it becomes a major crisis, and WE HAVE TO CUT EXPENSES YESTERDAY!

    The will to enforce individual student and parent responsibility is virtually non-existent in our modern PC environment. (and I don’t mean computer PC) I know of one case relatively near here where over a period of two years, 3,000 iBooks were either destroyed or missing. The school does not have a good management record, but…………..even when you try, you are still probably going to have to use the 20-25% per year replacement factor.

    Not nearly so in desktops. Assuming you can get the students to stop pounding the keyboard or the mouse in order to get the computer to work faster. Oh, yes, they do believe that works!

    There are some schools that run a tight ship generally, and the problems ARE much less, but that is a different issue, I am afraid.

    • Adryan says:

      @ken h, That right Ken, when kids break keys by pounding, replacing the a Macbook’s keyboard and trackpad is much more costly then just replacing a regular mouse and keyboard of the iMac. Also kids pounding hard on a iMac keyboard does not damage the computer itself but doing so in on a Macbook may damage the internals of the portable.

  12. ken h says:

    Adryan, you are right, but it is more than mechanical damage.

    My personal belief, someone with more tech expertise should chime in here, is that it also overloads the operating system. When someone does that, on the Mac, you get the “spinning wheel of death” that may not stop until class is over, force quit won’t stop it.
    And on the Windows machines, they just freeze. Control-alt delete, wait 3 minutes, restart, by then the class period is over.

    On some heavily used machines, the whole computer may have to be re-imaged from the schools server bank at least once a week. True of either Mac or Windows machines. At that point, when they are restarted, every student who uses them has to wait several minutes for their personal profile to download from the server. It starts the keyboard and pounding cycle all over again. Those are easy to spot in computer labs, the ones closest to the door because students go to them first. (also the ones to avoid! Sharp students know this)

    Of course, the teacher “should” be able to stop it, but when there are 48 students in the lab, it is often impossible to keep up with those that do it. You are trying to help students who actually want to do something useful on the computer.

    It all comes down to how the kids are raised by the parents. For teachers, it is often 2 years too late when they get to kindergarten.

  13. BC says:

    I vote for the ‘desktop approach’, but a minimalist desktop (except for all those cables I mentioned above). My work effort does not need as much screen real estate. A cheap screen + the Mac mini suffices. I’m tired of carrying things to work. Basically, my home set-up is an old G4 Mac mini + a new Intel Mac mini + a single screen with a switch. (The old G4 mini is there because I don’t like to see anything go to waste that is still functional.) Leopard is loaded on the G4 mini and Snow Leopard is on the Intel mini + Time Machine & WD drive for back-up + Mobile Me for critical files + Screen Sharing w/Back to My Mac. At work an older iMac Core 2 + Aluminum MacBook (used for class although the classrooms have fairly new iMacs) + a stack of Mac minis for class servers. Yes, I’m spoiled, but all this equipment will be essentially obsolete at least from a ‘newness’ point of view after a couple of more years. Functionally, I will use equipment as long as I can keep updating the OS and apps … but the PPC machines are starting to fall off the software curve even though the hardware works. There is always that iPod touch for slide show presentations + the Mobile Me Gallery.

  14. I like the power and spacious screens of desktops.

  15. Mr. Reeee says:

    Almost by accident, I stopped buying Mac desktop machines back in 1999 when I got a PowerBook G3 Lombard. At the time, I was shuttling between different clients’ offices and lugging an external hard drive with all my files and utilities with me. I’ve always played with various Mac interface utilities (remember ResEdit?) to speed my workflow and would feel lost without things like NowUtilities.

    The PowerBook was the first Mac laptop that didn’t feel like a terrible compromise in terms of speed and power, so I was able to carry my entire work environment (interface tweaks and all) and file archives with me everywhere. Having that kind of portability was a huge advantage for me.

    Yes, I use a laptop, but at my office it’s set up like a workstation; a 26″ Viewsonic monitor and a metal riser platform for my MacBook Pro so they sit at the same level. A full-sized external keyboard and a Kensington Expert Mouse trackball (fast, accurate and ergonomically friendly, unlike mice) and a Canon LiDE scanner. There’s a powered USB hub and an array of FireWire 800 hard drives: Time Machine RAID, backup and mass storage RAID.

    When I travel, I unplug the MacBook Pro from everything and carry it and a small Wacom tablet. I loathe mice and find the trackpad limiting for my work: architectural design using Vectorworks. I only wish the MacBook Pros had better graphics cards and a quad-core CPU!

    If you buy a MacBook, get AppleCare.

  16. BC says:

    Next year will be the 45->32 nm world all ‘i3,5,7,9s’ and dual ‘hexacores’ (or quad ‘quad cores’). Technology marches on. It will just make us work that much faster … but can we keep-up? If you can utilize the cores then fine, but many real world problems don’t yield solutions to these type of cpu/gpu technology gains. ResEdit, Automator, etc. allow a little customization but they can’t change the underlying ‘architecture’ of the machine. I have to wonder where massive parallelism + interconnectivity will lead … how do you benchmark or sell a fast thinking machine? Will you go in and ask for a creative computer or a specialized procedural machine? I guess it depends on the type of work you do. Currently, I am challenged just trying to get Xgrid functioning across separate dual core machines.

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