Apple Is No Longer Easy: A Mac Mini Tale Of Woe

My decision to continue to stay on Apple’s Macintosh platform was not a particularly easy one. Three of our last four Macs have come to untimely deaths. Since 1984 dozens of Macs have lived on my desk and I have fond memories of several of them. My problems with Apple hardware might be unusual, but it is my reality and gave me some reservations about sending more of my money to Cupertino.

Upgrading To A Mac Mini

As I was coaxing the last few DVDs out of my iMac, the infamous iLemon (see My iMac Has Turned Into An iLemon, And It Makes Me Concerned About Apple), I placed an online order for Apple’s least expensive Macintosh, the Mac mini.

For those not familiar with Macs, the Apple store price for that model is $599 and it comes with 2.5 GHz I5 processor, lots of ports, but almost nothing else except an HDMI-to-DVI connector. I also ordered additional memory from Amazon Prime. And I bought an external Samsung DVD drive, for a lot less than the Apple model.

My growing frustration with my dying iMac meant the Mac Mini rested on the sofa in my office for just 24 hours after it arrived.

My Mac mini with DVD drive just behind the keyboard, and an external LaCie Firewire 800 hard drive on top of the Mac mini. My Mac mini with DVD drive just behind the keyboard, and an external LaCie Firewire 800 hard drive on top of the Mac mini.

Easy Digital Migration?

One of the great things about Apple products for the last several years has been the migration assistant, which helps you move everything from an older Mac to a new one. I used it with my iMac and it worked flawlessly. However, given that my iMac had problems that even Apple couldn’t solve, and that I was running it off an almost completely full external hard drive the same size of the drive in my new Mac Mini, I thought it best to start from scratch.

I sort of expected there to be some conflict when I plugged the Samsung into the Mac mini, given all the court cases, but it worked great as I installed my Microsoft Office 2011 for the Mac. My other software, Rapidweaver 5, Nisus Writer Express, Fetch, SnagIt, Chrome and Firefox were all downloaded without a hitch.

But when you get a new Mac, you almost immediately end up at the App Store. Surprisingly Apple’s App store was where the real pain started.

My first shock came when I arrived at the App store and clicked the “Update All” button. It didn’t take long before things ground to a halt. The first thing I noticed was a message “We could not download iPhoto” because OS X version 10.8.2 or later is required.

Next I got a message that I needed to do an EFI firmware update. For those not familiar with EFI, it is basically today’s version of the BIOS. Of course, the EFI message immediately made me think I had slipped back into the world of DOS. But the Mac Mini that I purchased was introduced on October 23, 2012, not even three months ago.

Anyway, the EFI update wasn’t a problem other than it had to be done separately. Then I went through a huge system update to bring my brand new Mac Mini from OS X version 10.8.1 to 10.8.2. Only then would the App Store let me update my iPhoto. The net of this was far more rebooting than I normally experience when bringing up a new Mac.

Mac vs. Windows, Redux

It occurs to me that maybe Microsoft should shoot a new version of the old iMac commercial where a boy and a dog race a man and a desk full of boxes to see which can get on the Internet first. I think Windows 8 might win. I say that because I got my Mac mini only a week after I first booted up a new Lenovo desktop tower PC. I know this will bring howls from the Apple crowd, but it was easier to get started using the Lenovo PC than it was to get the Mac mini going.

There were more challenges along the way. Apple’s Mail wizard did not know how to configure my old .Mac email accounts. I did a Google search to find the right settings. Postbox on my Windows 8 machine did a better job.

The surprises were not over. As I've noted before, my decision to stay on the Mac platform was largely based on the tight integration of the iLife products, iPhoto, iMovie, and iDVD. While I checked to make sure iLife was included, I didn’t think to check to see if the definition of iLife had changed.

I was floored when I found out that iDVD not only wasn’t included, but it no longer exists. A little searching confirmed that Apple had indeed ditched iDVD. I missed the news because when I migrated to my iMac in October 2010, the migration assistant brought iDVD along. Given I was using iDVD on my external drive just before I started unpacking the Mac Mini, I was floored.

Boot Troubles

This turn of events made it essential that I boot my Mac Mini from my external Firewire hard drive so I could use iDVD. This being a Macintosh, I thought it would be no problem. After all I have been booting Macintoshes from external drives of one sort or another almost since the Mac was introduced. And my current external drive was successfully running my dying iMac just a few minutes earlier.

But apparently thinking that it would work easily pushed me into some sort of reality distortion zone. It's time to admit that some things no longer just work on a Mac. My new Mac would just hang when trying to boot from the external drive. Given that both drives have the same version of the OS, I knew talking to first-tier Apple support was a waste of my time, so I went a little higher up the ladder to find out the real scoop.

Turns out that the Mac Mini requires the absolute latest build of OS X 10.8.2. My external hard drive likely has an earlier build. I bought Mac OS X Mountain Lion for my iMac this fall and it got the update to 10.8.2 on October 4, 2012. Who knew we had to keep track of build numbers for Mac OS X?

Well I thought, no big problem, I paid for a copy of Mountain Lion, I will just go download the latest and greatest version from Apple’s App Store. Sorry folks, this journey into the magical mystery world of Apple isn’t going to end that nicely.

Just to be sure I did not dream the whole thing, I just tried downloading it again, and the message is still the same. “Mountain Lion isn’t compatible with your computer.”

Well this is actually a pretty ugly turn of events. I checked back with my Apple contact. He too was mystified, but assured me that all will be well whenever Mac OS X 10.8.3 is released.

Really, that's what he said.

There are more adventures in this, but here's one more tidbit. During all of this I installed VMware’s Fusion software. With zero challenges, I got Xbuntu Linux running on the Mac mini. Maybe Linux running perfectly on Mac is a message from Steve that the gnomes in Cupertino need to focus a little more on OS X?