Mike Becky

Tag Archive for ‘Mac Mini’

Preferring Separates Over the iMac ➝

David Sparks:

I have received many emails and messages from listeners and Labs members wanting to get a large iMac and asking how long they will have to wait. Based on this reporting, my answer will be, “Don’t wait; it’s not coming.”

I used to be a large iMac guy. I owned several of them over the years. If they released one today, I would not be interested. I’ve found I prefer the new world of separate computers and displays. My current display (a Pro Display XDR) has now worked with three different Macs. While there’s a higher cost going in, I think the math works out over time. Moreover, you can avoid that higher cost if you buy a non-Apple display.

My second Mac ever was a 20-inch iMac purchased in 2008. I loved it. And since then I’ve convinced two family members to purchase iMacs as well. But today, I wouldn’t recommend them. They just don’t have the versatility long-term when compared to the alternatives.

My recommendation for almost anyone that wants a desktop Mac now is to get a Mac Mini and an external display. You could get a Mac Studio or a Mac Pro, but if you’re the kind of person that needs the additional performance or connectivity, you already know that the Mac Mini isn’t enough for you.

In terms of displays, the Studio Display is an excellent option, but I think it’s far too expensive for most users. And I’m the oddball that doesn’t think larger displays are all they’re cracked up to be. My first thought would be to look at Dell’s offerings for displays. They tend to have decent specs for the price and generally rank well in reviews. But I’d have to do a bit more research to know for sure if that’s still a safe bet.

The beauty of a setup like this, though, is that you can continue to use the display for many years longer than Apple would support the iMac. When it’s time to upgrade you can just buy another Mac Mini and drop it into your existing setup.

And on the other side you’ll have a Mac Mini that you can use as a home server, hand down to a family member, or resell. It can be connected to a TV, used as a headless computer, or just about anything you can think of. Mac Minis take up almost no room and can be used in environments where an iMac just wouldn’t work.

➝ Source: macsparky.com

Umbrel Node

Umbrel Node Dashboard

One of the gifts I received this year was a 2012 Mac Mini with 16GB of memory and a quad-core processor. It’s not too useful as a Mac at this point, Catalina is the latest version of macOS that it can be officially installed, but Apple is no longer supporting Catalina as of December 2022.

Instead of using it with macOS, I’ve installed Ubuntu and am running it as an Umbrel node. Umbrel, I believe, started its life as self-hosted server software that allowed you to run a full Bitcoin node. It’s advanced quite a bit since then — most notably introducing an app store with more general purpose software like Plex, NextCloud, and Syncthing.

I may explore some of those apps down the line, but my goal was to use Umbrel for the cryptocurrency features. And although I’m still fumbling my way through everything, here’s what I currently have installed on my Umbrel:

Bitcoin Node — This is a full Bitcoin node, which means I have a copy of the entire blockchain — it’s 507GB at the moment. I can connect my wallets directly to my own node and contribute to Bitcoin’s decentralized nature.

Electrs — This is an Electrum server, which is basically an API layer between the Bitcoin node and some wallet apps. I’m using this to connect BlueWallet at the moment.

Lightning Node — Lightning is a layer two solution for Bitcoin. Essentially, it allows for transactions to be abstracted from the actual blockchain. This lets individual transactions complete faster and with less fees than transactions that are completed on-chain. Lightning transactions are eventually settled on the blockchain in bulk, minimizing fees for individual transactions and allowing the whole system to run more efficiently.

Lightning Terminal — The Lightning network uses “channels” to connect nodes to one another. These are the pathways by which transactions are routed. So far I’ve used Lightning Terminal to help me determine what other nodes might be good for me to connect to.

mempool — a self-hosted version of mempool.space, which let’s you track and visualize transactions on the blockchain. This app is still a bit of a mystery to me, but so far I’ve used it to track a few transaction in real-time.

ThunderHub — An app for managing my Lightning Node. It offers a number of reports and charts that I don’t quite understand yet. But as I get more usage out of the node, I expect I’ll start connecting some dots.

Uptime Kuma — The only app that isn’t cryptocurrency-related. It’s an uptime tracker that I’ve configured to periodically ping all of the other apps, sites, and services that I maintain. I’m not sure if I’ll really find it useful long-term. I’m already using Jetpack for this on all of my WordPress sites, so maybe I’ll just use it for tracking uptime of my Mastodon and Pixelfed instances.

I still feel like I’m at that point where I don’t know enough about Bitcoin and Lightning to know what I don’t know. But I’m learning. And it’s a lot of fun.

Christmas Gift Guide

It’s been several years since I’ve published a gift guide on Initial Charge. But I thought it was a great time to bring it back. I’ve maintained a private wishlist site where my family and I post links to things that we want and we can all view each others’ lists. The site isn’t just for gift giving, though — I also use it throughout the year to keep a running list of things I want to purchase for myself.

I happen to have a number of items that I’m pretty excited about acquiring, though. So you can think of this as a gift guide for people who happen to share my interests.

Retroid Pocket 3+ — an excellent retro emulation handheld. I already own the Retroid Pocket 2+ and the 3, but the 3+ includes a pretty decent performance boost over the 3. It’s far from perfect, but the more powerful internals allow it to better emulate PlayStation 2, GameCube, Wii, and Nintendo 3DS games.

8bitdo Pro 2 — I love 8bitdo’s controllers and this seems like the one to get right now. I’d mostly pair it with my Retroid handheld for playing on a television, but I’d also use it with my Apple TV, MacBook Air, and Nintendo Switch.

Apple TV 4K, Wi-Fi + Ethernet — I’ve purchased every Apple TV iteration since the first generation. This one would go in the living room and the old one would be moved to the bedroom. The old bedroom one would likely get handed down to my in-laws.

20TB WD Red Pro — These are priced at $330 at the time of this writing, which is an unbelievable deal. The 8TB drives I’m currently using for media storage are nearing their capacity, if I’m going to upgrade, I’d want to go a lot bigger and this capacity offers the best price per terabyte from my preferred hard drive manufacturer.

CyberPower 1500VA UPS — My current uninterruptible power supply is maxed out in terms of power outlets. This model only adds two, but that should give me enough room for the new hardware I’m planning to add.

ThunderBay Flex 8 — This is a bit expensive, but the ThunderBay 6 I’m currently using will eventually reach capacity and I’ll have to move to something with more bays. The ThunderBay 8 only offers two more, but it also has a PCIe slot, which can be used for additional storage or accessories.

2012 Mac Mini, Quad Core — You can pick these up from OWC or eBay for under $200 at this point. I would install Ubuntu and run it as an Umbrel. And for the price, they offer pretty decent performance in a chassis that matches the rest of my server hardware.

Anker 40W, 521, Nano Pro — This is the charger I have in my laptop bag and I love it. I’d like another one to keep in the living room for more flexibility in our charging setup — we’re just using Apple’s 18W USB-C power adapter at the moment.

Ledger Nano X — I still dabble in cryptocurrencies and would like a hardware wallet for more secure storage, rather than keeping everything on an exchange. From what I’ve researched, this is the best option on the market.

My Computing Hardware

Kev Quirk and ldstephens recently wrote about their collection of Apple devices and I, coincidentally, had already drafted a quick idea in Ulysses to document and share a list of my current computing devices. If only so I can better wrap my head around what hardware I’m using and what I use each device for.

iPhone 13 Pro: My true, primary, general purpose computing device. There’s very little that I can’t do from my iPhone, but it’s often more comfortable to perform the more intensive tasks from devices with larger screens. But it’s always with me, so it’s my main camera and gets used more often than any other device I own.

iPad Pro, 11-inch (3rd generation): Like my iPhone, but with a larger display. And that’s generally how I use it — for the majority of my computing tasks, but a little less mobile. It’s also my go-to device when I want to watch media outside of the living room — at the kitchen table during lunch or to have in the background at my desk during the work day, for example.

MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2020, Four thunderbolt 3 ports): My work laptop. It’s used for a lot of writing, email, Slack, RSS reading, and app testing. I also have another user account on the machine if I need to do any personal tasks and don’t have another device handy. This is mostly with the intention of leaving my iPad at home when I travel for team/division meetups.

Mac Mini (2018): My main home server. It houses our Plex library, stores local copies of our photo library, runs Channels DVR, is used as a backup server for all of the non-iOS devices in our home, rips CDs, DVDs, Blu-ray Discs, archives a few YouTube channels for my son, and acts as a general purpose file server.

Mac Mini (Late 2014): The latest addition to my computing setup. I got it fairly cheap from OWC and it runs Steam on Windows for streaming games to our Apple TVs and Retroid Pocket 2+ using Steam Link. It’s not particularly powerful, so it won’t run the latest games at high settings, but it’ll run run plenty of indie games like Untitled Goose Game, Celeste, and older titles like Half-Life 2.

Mac Mini (Mid 2011): This machine serves a very specific and singular purpose — it runs TunesKit M4V Converter (still available under a different name) to remove DRM from iTunes purchased content. This software only works on older versions of macOS with an outdated version of iTunes. Since I still purchase content from iTunes, but prefer to watch through Plex, this bridges the gap.

Retroid Pocket 2+: Mostly used as a gaming device using Launchbox, RetroArch, Steam Link, and various emulators, but is also occasionally used for media playback — Pocket Casts, Plex, and Channels.

Google Pixel 3: This is a test device for work, which is used for trying out new builds and attempting to recreate user-reported bugs in our Android apps.

It would be great if I could simplify the home server setup a bit. I made an attempt at this with virtual machines, but gaming just wasn’t stable enough — I ran into a few games that simply wouldn’t run — and TunesKit M4V Converter requires that the system be able to playback the video it removes DRM from. Since there’s no way to use HDCP within a virtual machine, I was only able to remove DRM from standard definition iTunes content — running it natively is the only option for high definition content.

There will be some changes to my hardware soon, though. I’m expecting to receive a Retroid Pocket 3 soon to replace the RP2+ — I got my shipment notification yesterday. And I’ll likely be ordering an M2 MacBook Air in the next few months to replace my current MacBook Pro.


Home Dashboard

I’ve always had a fascination with self-hosting. The idea of fully owning and controlling the web services I relied on was incredibly appealing. I’ve been running my own media server at home for years — first using iTunes and then moving to Plex — but last year I purchased a Linode, installed Cloudron and started leaning into it even more heavily.

I setup a Homer dashboard to keep everything organized and give me a single place to go when I want to access or manage any of my self-hosted software and services.

I thought I’d go over everything listed in my Homer dashboard and explain a bit about how each item is used. Not everything listed is something I’m self-hosting, but it’s all self-hosting-related.

Homer Dashboard

Plex — Our Plex library contains terabytes of ripped DVDs, Blu-rays, and iTunes purchased content that I’ve removed the DRM from. It’s our most used self-hosted service by far. But it’s not just TV shows and movies, I also use Plex to store my music library and children’s videos that I periodically archive using MediaHuman YouTube Downloader.

Channels DVR — A recent addition to my self-hosting setup. I use it with our over-the-air antenna and a number of M3U IPTV playlists.

Seed Box — This is the web interface for Transmission on my older Mac Mini. That machine runs a VPN so I can privately download all of my perfectly legal Linux ISOs.

Transmission — This is the web interface for Transmission on my main Mac Mini server, which I don’t typically run a VPN on (it makes Plex inaccessible outside the network). This is for the times when I want to download perfectly legal Linux ISOs without the privacy.

AllTube — This web app lets me easily download YouTube and other web videos. When I’m on a Mac I usually use a browser extension or the aforementioned MediaHuman YouTube Downloader. This is more for downloading from my iPhone and iPad.

App Manager — This is my Cloudron instance, which manages most of the self-hosted services I run on Linode.

Mastodon — My primary social network built on ActivityPub. Rather than join a public instance, I decided to run my own. If you have an account, you can follow me, Initial Charge, and/or #OpenWeb. And if you don’t have an account, you can find an instance to join on instances.social.

Pixelfed — Much like Mastodon, Pixelfed is a photo-focused ActivityPub service. If you have an account, you can follow me, and if not you can find an instance to join on Fediverse.party.

SearX — A meta search engine that I have configured to primarily pull results from DuckDuckGo and Brave Search. There are occasions where I need to search with Google, but SearX handles the overwhelming majority of my needs.

FreshRSS — An excellent backend to my feed reading system. I sync this with NetNewsWire and Unread on my iPhone, iPad, and Mac. The web interface isn’t great, though. Cloudron recently added Miniflux to its app store, so I might toy around with that in the future.

Wallabag — My read later service of choice. I’m not too fond of the iOS app, so I simply use that for its share extension and then have the website saved to my Home Screen as a progressive web app for reading articles.

RSS Bridge — A nifty service that generates RSS feeds for dozens of websites and services that don’t offer them.

Initial Charge — The site you’re reading this from — where I publish thoughts about Apple products, software, the web, and other geek-related topics.

\#OpenWeb — My recently relaunched directory of independent web publishers. Mostly focusing on technology and Apple-related weblogs.

Initial Charge Shop — This is a super secret project that I’ve been toying around with recently. Built on WordPress and WooCommerce. Hopefully I’ll have more to share soon.

Mike Rockwell — My LinkTree-style homepage built on LittleLink.

The Wishlist — A private site among myself and a small number of family members where we can keep an ongoing wishlist for birthdays and Christmas.

Don Rockwell — A family WordPress site to showcase photographs of and by my father.

Rebecca & Michael — An archive of my wife and my wedding website. Serving as a digital photo album.

Linode — Where most of my web services and websites are hosted. I use a Shared CPU Plan with 4GB of RAM, which handles everything I’ve thrown at it with a little bit of headroom.

SiteGround — Fantastic WordPress hosting. I’m currently using their GrowBig service. I might end up moving my WordPress sites to Linode to simplify things a bit, but I haven’t fully explored that option yet.

NameCheap — My domain registrar. It’s not clear to me if there’s really any benefit to using one registrar over another unless you’re utilizing their other services. So it comes down to price, mostly. And NameCheap seems pretty competitive on that front.

Fastmail — The best email hosting service. I’ve considered truly self-hosting email, but that seems like a task fraught with annoyances.

WordPress.com — Some of my WordPress sites are hosted here. It’s an excellent service, but for full disclosure, I do work at Automattic.

Cloudron — A shortcut to the subscription management site for Cloudron. The software is free to use for up to three apps, but requires a monthly or yearly fee if you want to install and run more than that.

Listenbox — A nifty service that lets you subscribe to YouTube channels as podcasts. This is primarily how I interact with YouTube now.

Social Crossposter — A service for cross-posting between Mastodon and Twitter. This is something that can be self-hosted, but I haven’t explored that option yet.

Search Console — This can probably just be removed from my dashboard. I don’t actively use it for anything at all. I could probably get some more traffic to Initial Charge if I did, but there’s almost nothing about search engine optimization that appeals to me.

IFTTT — Web automation at its best. I used to use it for a lot more than I do now — the original iteration of \#OpenWeb was built on it. But now I just use it to automatically save Initial Charge entries and Mastodon posts to Day One.

Jetpack — A link to Jetpack Cloud where I can manage subscriptions, backups, view my sites’ Activity Log and more.

VaultPress — Although new sites get backups directly through the Jetpack plugin, I still have some WordPress sites that are using VaultPress for their backups.

Bridgy — A bridge service that will let you save replies, favorites, and retweets/boosts to your site as webmentions.

Motorola Surfboard — A link to the web dashboard of my cable modem.

Geek Tees — My retired weblog, which linked to geeky t-shirts and other apparel. It may, at some point, resurface in one form or another.

CyberSurge — The first weblog I ever published with my own domain name. From 2006 until 2009, this was my home on the web.

Nu HTML Validator — W3C’s HTML Validator. When I make updates to any of my sites, I always try to run it through this to make sure all my code is valid.

CSS Validation — W3C’s CSS validator. Used in similar instances as the HTML validator.

Feed Validator — Another W3C validator, this one for RSS feeds.

Security Headers — A service for checking the security-related headers on your site. I’m happy to say that Initial Charge uses five out of the six that this checks for.

Structured Data — A Google developer tool that checks and validates the markup for structured data in your web pages.

PageSpeed Insights — A service for checking the speed of your web pages. It’s not my favorite, but it sure seems like everyone uses it.

Pingdom Tools — Another webpage speed tester. I prefer this one to PageSpeed Insights, but it doesn’t offer quite as detailed recommendations. I usually just use it for quick speed tests.

Just a quick note on hardware, for the folks that are interested in that sort of thing. I already referenced my web hosting — Linode, SiteGround, and WordPress.com — for the services I host locally I have a couple of Mac Minis.

The primary home server is a 2018 Mac Mini with a 3.6GHz quad-core Core i3 processor and 32GB of RAM. For storage, it has a ThunderBay 6 enclosure connected over ThunderBolt that houses two 8TB drives for media storage, two 14TB drives for backups, and a 1TB NVMe SSD that serves as the boot drive.

The other machine is a 2011 Mac Mini with a 2.3GHz Intel Core i5. 16GB of memory, and a 1TB SSD. This computer has more specialty usage — it primarily runs NordVPN, Transmission, and TunesKit M4V Converter to remove DRM from iTunes purchased content. Its running macOS El Capitan, which has the latest version of iTunes that the DRM removal tool works with.

Mac Studio and Display Design ➝

Luke Miani seems to have the scoop on what to expect in Apple’s event later today. The new Mac Mini-like machine is the most interesting of the bunch to me and I’m excited to see the full details from Apple. Although I’m not in the market for one at the moment, I would always love to have a more powerful home server.

➝ Source: m.youtube.com

A New Found Appreciation for Control

Chris Hannah, writing about his want for more control over his computing devices:

[…]one phrase came to mind yesterday that seems to sum up my overall opinion on technology: “I don’t want nice, I want control”. And whether or not this is the reality, I’ve always felt like the Apple world offers more niceties and a cohesive experience throughout all of their products, and not exactly one that offers an abundance of control to its users.

When I started using Apple computers, the ability to swap out hard drives and memory was the norm. And with many machines you could even swap out processors and graphics cards.

That era of Mac seemed to have culminated sometime around 2012 — right before the introduction of the trash can Mac Pros and soldered components became more and more common.

Apple has slowly removed much of the control we had over our hardware. Today, if you want some of that control back, you either need to buy an old machine which will soon be unsupported by macOS or spend north of $6,000 on a Mac Pro.

But they’ve made strides to take control away from a software standpoint too — the difficulty in installing unsigned software and booting from an external drive comes to mind.

I’m not too fond of these changes. Like Chris, prior to my interest in Apple products, I built my own PCs. I loved picking out all the hardware, installing the operating system and fully configuring the environment to my liking. And after a few years with the same machine, I could upgrade the graphics card, hard drive, and RAM with ease. I still got a taste of that when I started using Macs — I’ve upgraded the memory and hard drive on most of the Macs I’ve owned. But with the move to Apple Silicon, those days are numbered.

This is partly why I bought a 2018 Mac Mini, and why I recently purchased a used 2017 MacBook Air and installed Pop!_OS on it — I want some of that control back. Despite Linux being a worse operating system in a lot of ways, the freedom that I have to use it exactly how I want is incredibly valuable. And I think it’ll be worth the frustrations I run into along the way while I’m still learning everything.

This doesn’t mean I’m abandoning the Apple ecosystem. At least not any time soon. I’m writing this on my iPad Pro while listening to a podcast on my iPhone through AirPods. A single laptop running Linux isn’t going to supplant all of my computing devices. But there’s plenty of opportunities to fit Linux into my life.

My current plan is to use Pop!_OS in all the instances where I want a desktop operating system for personal tasks. If I need to do a bunch of file management on my home server or if I want to make some changes to Initial Charge’s design, for example. And if that usage naturally grows in the future, so be it.

I recently shared some thoughts on Mastodon about the tension that Apple has created with users over the past handful of years — the bad keyboards in MacBooks, the move to USB-C, the move away from replaceable components, software changes that seem to exclusively get in your way, and more.

I’m someone that, just a few years ago, would never have even considered using anything other than iOS and macOS. But now I’m using Linux on my personal laptop and actually thinking about buying a laptop without an Apple logo. Has Apple pushed things so far that they’re starting to run off the die hards?

Mac Mini

I’ve touched on this a number of times over the past few years — my current home server is due for an upgrade. The 2011 Mac Mini has served me well, storing our Time Machine backups, our Plex library, our local photo library, and performing various random Mac-specific tasks for the past decade. But it’s stuck on High Sierra and is quite a bit slower than any modern Mac.

I thought about upgrading when the 2018 Mac Mini was released, but the funds never quite lined up and at the point when they did, the Mini had been available for long enough that I didn’t want to order one shortly before a new model was released. Then the M1 Mac Mini came around and I had a bit of a dilemma — should I jump into the Apple Silicon world head first? Should I wait until the second iteration? It was a tough call, really.

Eventually I made a decision and not necessarily what you would expect. I recently ordered a base model 2018 Mac Mini. Yes, it’s older and slower than the M1, but there’s good reason to stick with the previous model for my next upgrade.

  1. It’s less costly than the M1 Mac Mini. The model I ordered cost just $499, brand new. The M1 starts at $699. But even if I ordered a refurbished one, we’re talking in the $600 range.
  2. It has more ports. I don’t expect to plug too much into the Mini at a time, but I do want to move everything to USB-C and Thunderbolt. The M1 Mini only comes with two Thunderbolt ports compared to the 2018 model’s four.
  3. It has upgradeable memory. With the M1 Mini, I need to order one with the amount of memory I need now and what I’ll need in a handful of years when I’m still using it. And that’s capped at 16GB. With the 2018 model, I can order the base configuration with 8GB to start and then upgrade to 16GB, 32GB, or even 64GB down the line when my needs change.
  4. It’s based on Intel, making it more versatile. Sure, there’s been some advancements in getting Linux running on M1 Macs. It will probably be working fully at some point in the future. And Microsoft may, at some point, let you purchase a license for a version of Windows that runs on ARM. But there’s no guarantee. And even though I don’t have any plans to run Windows or Linux on this machine, I’m going to own it for a decade or more — I’d rather leave my options open.
  5. It’s space gray. This is an incredibly minor point, but there is something sort-of cool about owning the only Mac Mini released that wasn’t silver.

There are downsides, of course. Buying an older model might put a shorter lifespan on its usage, especially with the transition to Apple Silicon. And it is slower than the M1. But I think the positives far outweigh the negatives, at least for my usage.

Speaking of usage, I’m pretty excited to get it all setup. It’ll be quite the process, though. I’m not going to be using Migration Assistant to move everything over, I’m going to do it manually. The current Mini’s macOS install is several years old at this point and I think it’s time for a fresh break and a clean install.

That means manually configuring my Time Machine shares and getting a new backup from all my machines, transitioning my Backblaze license, moving Plex’s database files, setting up VNC for remote access, and more. I’m also going to be booting from an external drive so I have a bit more breathing room — I’ll have to enable external booting and installing a fresh copy of macOS on the external drive.

There’s quite a bit to do, but it’ll be a lot of fun. This is exactly the sort of stuff that I enjoy most about computing. And there’s likely to be plenty of opportunities to write about what I learn and discover along the way.