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Maxed out on Minis! (Our Recent Tech Refresh)

It all started over a year ago when we decided to purchase a friend’s Mini Cooper to be our bus’s toad (towed behind vehicle) for getting around.

That was our first Mini. Little did we know that it would be the start of a “Mini” collection.

But… Now with our recent addition of a Mac Mini and an iPad Mini, we actually have three Mini’s in the household!

As technology enthusiasts who earn our keep by staying at the cutting edge of the latest and greatest, upgrading our technology and doing a “tech-refresh” of our gadgets is actually a fairly normal thing for us.

We don’t quite swap out our tech as often as we change underwear, but it’s pretty darn close.

Comparing Apples to Oranges... laying out all our tech (plus some parental gear) during the refresh.

Comparing Apples to Oranges… laying out all our tech (plus some parental gear) during the refresh.

But the recent confluence of being stationary for a few months, and Apple releasing a bunch of new shiny presented a perfect opportunity for an unprecedented massive re-fresh of our tech arsenal recently.

We’ve not only updated to the latest and greatest, we also made some pretty big changes to better match our always evolving nomadic lifestyle.

Several folks have asked for the reasoning behind our decisions, and our impressions so far…  so here goes…


We are unashamedly geeks who push our computers to their max capabilities – between our software development work and personal pursuits in photography, video, and occasional gaming. It is rare that either of us has been able to remain satisfied for long with a laptop older than 2 years old.

There’s usually something – memory, hard drive space, graphics or CPU power – that tempts us to upgrade to stay ahead. Sometimes we can get by for a while with some minor tweaks, like adding memory. But often only a new machine will do.

Over this past summer, we both had come to the conclusion that not only were we each maxing out our systems – but the very form factor each of us was carrying was no longer ideal for us.

Our 'old' arsenal in a classic digital nomad dream shot (not that we actually work out on picnic tables often.)

Our ‘old’ arsenal in a classic digital nomad dream shot (not that we actually work very often on picnic tables – it’s painful on the back, and the sun is too bright!)

Here’s what our past computing set up was:

Cherie – Before we moved to the Virgin Islands in late 2010, I had purchased a 17′ Macbook Pro (coming from a 15″ model), so I could have a powerful laptop with a large screen. We wouldn’t be taking an external screen with us, so this turned out to be a great compromise. When we returned, we soon moved onto the bus, and I acquired a used lustful 30″ Apple Cinema Display.

Chris – After a month of living on trains and carrying our laptops on our back during our summer 2011 bus hunt, Chris decided he wanted to downsize from his old MacBook Pro and explore finding balance with an ultra-portable laptop in the form of a 13″ Macbook Air. With deskspace in the bus, he also got a 27″ Thunderbolt display to serve as a doc for it.

Combined with a pair of Bluetooth keyboards and trackpads, we each ended up with an awesome desk setup that our laptops could dock into, but which kept us still highly portable outside of the bus. (And since I know someone will ask, here’s the post in which we describe the seatbelt system we designed to keep the large monitors clamped to the desk while in transit.)

It was actually a great setup, for a while. But we eventually realized we could do better.

Here’s the dilemmas that emerged, and the solutions we’ve settled on for now:

Cherie’s New Computer: Mac Mini

Sometime over the summer I started to grow increasingly frustrated with the capabilities of my 17″ MacBook Pro. In particular – I frequently need to run Photoshop, iMovie and VMWare (to run Windows for some of my client projects) – concurrently. And all three of these are resource pigs.

I was starting to experience frequent slows downs, especially if I was in the middle of doing Coverage? map updates in Photoshop and a client support call came in that required me to quickly VPN into SQLServer via VMWare, grinding my computer to a halt.

Using my 17" Macbook Pro on a train

Using my 17″ Macbook Pro on the train. Great screen space, but painful to lug around on my back!

It was frustrating, to say the least… I needed more memory, and I was already maxed out at 8GB.

And I needed a bigger hard drive, I was tired of having to archive old photos just to keep things running. 500 GB used to seem like a lot of space (I still vividly remember the day I got my first 1GB of hard drive space way back in 1992), but now it seemed limited and tiny. I could have upgraded the hard drive, but that would have been almost as much work as moving to a new laptop.

I had also lost my appreciation of a 17″ laptop being “portable” after lugging it on my back during our Amtrak bus hunt.

And with the laptop coming up on its 2-year birthday, I was due for a replacement.

Since I’ve used laptops for over a decade now, the newly released 15″ MacBook Pro Retina seemed like the logical default upgrade path for me – going back to more portability since I had an external monitor for the screen space. Maxed out, it would be a setup that would happily run everything I needed.

Thankfully, the $3500 list price of my dream machine gave me pause to re-think my actual tech needs. Especially when I considered I’d probably also want a new 27″ Thunderbolt display to serve as a dock… making the upgrade closer to $4500.

Ok, I’m a geek girl who loves her gadgets and toys… but I do have some consumer restraint…

Despite the digital nomad myth - I don't actually work away from my desk often.

Despite the digital nomad myth – I don’t actually work away from my desk often.

I was realizing that as much as I had the nomadic-fantasy of taking my laptop to work in cool locations – like a picnic table, local library, a coffeshop, the beach – I hardly ever actually did.

I’m now firmly enjoying the desk comfort zone. After years without a desk setup, my fanny (and my back) are really digging having a comfy ergonomic desk chair again, and I was swimming in 30″ of high-res screen delight. My laptop was mostly sitting in its dock, closed up and being a woefully underpowered desktop machine. And with the lid closed – the laptop was actually prone to overheating!

And when I am away from my desk, I had discovered that I am actually able to do much of my work functions via my iPad – so even when I *could* take the laptop with me, I wasn’t.

To retain the option of grabbing the laptop for the occasional fantasy work-on-the-beach experience, I would be paying a high premium in dollars and compromising in oophm. For a machine with a fancy screen that would sit mostly closed in its dock.

After 12 years of using a laptop as my main computer, I was seriously contemplating going back to a non portable computer. Which seemed totally the opposite of what a digital nomad should do.

But hey, who ever said I follow formulas??

Yes - I've totally drank the Apple Kool-Aid.

Yes – I’ve totally drank the Apple Kool-Aid.

I spent a lot of time reading specs, and came to determine that the 27″ iMac was my new dream machine – combining Apple’s beautiful large screen display with a built in high powered computer. Even if I went crazy and maxed out an iMac to get oodles of gigabytes and megahertz’s, I couldn’t spend more than $3500 (and honestly, for about $2800 I’d get something that was far more than I actually needed). Compared to the 15″ Retina / Thunderbolt combo – that would leave me a theoretical $1500 that I could earmark for picking up a lower end MacBook later if I needed to take an extended trip away from the bus where the iPad alone wouldn’t cut it.

I was excited, and was sorely tempted to click the ‘Buy Now’ button several times over the summer. Especially when my 17″ was clunking down more and more frequently.

I would have, except for my sweetie, who spends lots of time tracking Mac rumors, kept reminding me that the iMac line was way overdue for a major refresh from Apple. And what self-respecting cutting edge technomad would buy something about to be thoroughly obsoleted??

So every single Tuesday (Apple’s traditional product announcement day), I would anxiously poke Chris for news on when my new iMac would be ready. I had sultry dreams about my sleek new machine floating in my head, and was salivating to get acquainted.

The rumors flooded in, like the new screen would be far less reflective. Woooo… that would be awesome, I hate glossy screens! (I often roll out of bed and go right to work. I really don’t need to see my messy bed head reflecting back at me between lines of SQL code.)

Weeks went by. My curse word vocabulary grew as my 17″ continued to slug down and down and down. In September, I did something I never do – I marked the 2 year anniversary of using the same laptop. This was so wrong.. what’s up with you Apple? Where’s my iMac??

While I theoretically could get a 15" laptop and use it as a second screen.. I don't want to give up my office view.

While I theoretically could get a 15″ laptop and use it as a second screen.. I don’t want to block my office view.

October 23 – the big announcement came of how Apple was going to fulfill my technolust. They announced the new iPad Mini (yup, see below), the new Mac Mini and finally.. the new iMac. Lust. Drool. My finger was hovering at the ready to click the Buy Button.

Wait.. what?? Not shipping until December??? And then only in limited supply?? My heart sank.

There was no way I could continue to limp along, not with all the new work underway of fully taking over the family business.

That’s when the new Mac Mini caught my eye. It had undergone a major refresh too, and was now actually quite the little powerhouse. Looking over the specs, it would represent a major upgrade for everything I needed, and could use my existing 30″ display screen. Maxed out at $1500, with a fusion 1TB combo SSD/HD drive, I could get my critical upgrade and try out this living without a laptop thing for a vastly smaller investment.

Especially considering I had a buyer lined up for my 17″ MBP for about a grand (old Macs hold their value well), it was a worthwhile experiment – I could always upgrade to an iMac later.

And I have to say… I’ve now used the setup since November, and I’m loving it. My snappy performance is back, it doesn’t even hesitate when I ask it to run Photoshop, iMovie and VMWare all at once.  Nothing about my interface to my digital world has changed – same keyboard, trackpad and display. And I like the option that if I needed to, I could toss the tiny Mini in a suitcase and find an external monitor/keyboard/mouse at my destination if I ever needed to temporarily relocate somewhere other than the bus.

I definitely made the right decision. I’ll reconsider things later in the year of course, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I’m using this awesome Mini for quite a while.

Chris’ New Computer: 15″ MacBook Pro Retina

Us lugging our larger laptops on our month long train adventure in summer 2011.

Us lugging our larger laptops on our month long train adventure in summer 2011.

Last fall, Chris had picked up a 13″ Macbook Air, thinking that it would be hefty enough to be his primary machine, and at the same time ultra portable. I think he was likely influenced from lugging his 15″ MacBook Pro on his back for a month as we traversed the country by train.

We were also starting to consider some extended international travel, where being ultra portable would make sense.

Extended international travel is not likely in the immediate future however. For one, we’re adoring our bus life. And for second, we just can’t talk ourselves into being that far from family right now, not to mention the challenges that would come running our now two businesses from so far away.

Meanwhile, Chris had been suffering under the MacBook Air’s limitations. It was a little speed demon, but when you used it heavily (which he did most of the time) it would spin up its cooling fans annoyingly loud. And though he had bought the largest sized SSD drive available at the time (256GB), it proved to be too small – leading to a constant battle to avoid out of space errors even with most of his photos and music archived elsewhere. And with the limited graphics capabilities, any sort of gaming was out of the question too.

So after just a year of use, Chris was ready for something new. And when the Retina MacBook Pro came out that was simultaneously the most powerful Mac laptop ever offered, and yet substantially slimmer and lighter than any prior MacBook Pro – his technolust began salivating.

A killer Amazon one-day holiday sale he stumbled on that saved him about $500 off the list price finally pushed him over the edge.

The dual desk.. now with Chris' laptop on a nifty stand giving him a second monitor.

The dual desk.. now with Chris’ laptop on a nifty stand giving him a second monitor, putting the amazing retina-resolution screen to good use.

Chris staying with a laptop makes sense for us. For one, he’s much more likely to grab his laptop and work remotely. He’s much cooler with working in uncomfortable positions, or from crowded public locations. And as I’m the more extreme homebodied introvert, he’s the one most likely to get kicked out of the bus when we need time apart.

It’s ironic that just as soon as we started this switch, we went on two week long cruises in which I’d need to be working a bit. So here I was, giving up my laptop and for the first time in many months – actually needing one. But that was actually planned. Chris set up an account with my work environment on his laptop, and we tested out me using that setup for occasional needs to allow us to travel with just one computer. And heck, at 75 cents a minute for satellite time on a cruise ship, we would be limiting our online time anyway. Sharing a single machine on the road worked surprisingly well.

Chris is enjoying his new laptop very much. We found the awesome & stylish mStand laptop stand that allows him to use the retina display as a second monitor next to his 27″ display, though the sharpness of the retina screen makes his Thunderbolt monitor look a bit fuzzy in comparison.

And since he remains easily portable, I don’t feel too guilty when I send him packing to a nearby cafe for the afternoon to soak up bandwidth while I get some solo recharge time.

iPad Mini

The iPad has become an essential part of my arsenal, and has replaced a lot of the functions of what a laptop once did. I use it to correspond via e-mail to keep in touch with my clients, surf the web, diagnose problems in our web apps, communicate with my virtual team, and so much more. Heck, I can even protype new development projects on it – I’ve done entire mock ups of user interfaces on the iPad.

When I walk into client meetings, I keep all my notes, documents and presentations on the iPad.

On top of that, I can read books, stream video content, take classes in iTunes U, play games, share photos, read the paper, keep up on Facebook, livestream video presentations and so much more.

If I'm away from my desk, it's the iPad I grab these days.. not the laptop.

If I’m away from my desk, it’s the iPad I grab these days.. not the laptop.

I’ve pretty much carry my iPad with me everywhere. But the full size version was starting to get a little heavy for my poor aching shoulder.

I’ve been craving being able to carry a smaller bag, maybe even one I could strap to my waist again. I’m pretty minimalist in what I like to carry with me – my iPhone, my iPad, a high quality point and shoot camera (also a recent upgrade, I just got a Canon S100), a small money clip with a couple cards and cash… and that’s it. The full sized iPad was really limiting me in options for ‘purses’ that were well organized without being overly huge.

So when rumors started coming out about a smaller iPad, my curiosity was piqued. But I really wasn’t sure if it would still be as functional for me in a smaller form factor. Yes, easier to carry – but would I be able to do everything on it?

I decided I’d pre-order one for Day 1 delivery to try out.. and if I didn’t like it, I could probably turn around it sell it.

Well. Let’s just say I had my iPad 2 sold within just a couple days after receiving my Mini. There was no going back.

I love my iPad Mini. I was absolutely amazed with how quickly I adapted to the smaller size and how quickly the old iPad seemed downright clunky. The Mini is great for my smaller hands to hold for longer periods of time, which means I’m reading more eBooks and doing more with it.

I had been concerned about the smaller keyboard, but turns out for my hands, it’s perfect and easier for me to type on.

My only complaint is that watching video on it is smaller and not as much fun. And since we were able to transfer our grandfathered in AT&T unlimited data plan to the Mini – that means we do a lot of video streaming on mine. But using the Lightening->HDMI cable, we’re able to utilize our 22″ LED TV screen in the bedroom for much better viewing.

The screen isn’t nearly as sharp as that of our Retina iPad, but that is the only downside of the Mini so far. When Apple eventually adds in a retina display to this baby, it’ll really rock!


Mini Mini Mini!

I’m once, twice… three times a Mini!

So, there’s the recap of my refresh.

  • I drive a Mini Cooper
  • I compute on a Mac Mini
  • And I stroll with an iPad Mini

Hmm.. that’s making me hungry for some M&M Mini’s to snack on…

Mac Mini for Sale – We actually have a fourth Mini in the household, and it is for sale. It is a mid-2007 Mac Mini that used to serve as the media center in our Oliver, and we would love to find a new home for it. Specs: 1.83GHz CPU, 2GB RAM, 500GB HD, DVD reader / CD burner, runs Mac OS X 10.7 Lion. This model is not upgradeable to the latest OS Mountain Lion, but it is one of the last that can be run via a power-supply tied directly into a rigs 12V system with no need for an inverter. This makes it a great foundation for a mobile media center, or as a starter Mac for anyone. We’d love $300 for it. Anyone interested???

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Cherie has been a full time technomad since 2007, after joining her partner Chris on the road. She's been self employed most of her adult life working in technology - and is passionate about conscious choice, community and living life to the fullest.

4 Comments - Still Plenty of Room for Yours!

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  1. Thanks for all of the great info! We attended your seminar at the Arcadia rally. It was very helpful, so when we got home we started shopping for ipads.
    You mentioned in your seminar to be sure to buy the ipad with the GPS chipset. However, when we spoke to the folks at our local Apple store, they told me none of the ipads have gps chipsets and never did? Did I misunderstand?

    I wanted to use the ipad instead of the Garmin for GPS navigation.

    Also, have you found any software that really works well for multi-stop route planning? We use MS Streets and Trips, but it doesn’t play nice with Garmin gps devices.

    Thanks again!

    • Hi Jim… thanks for stopping by. Was nice to meet you guys at the rally!

      Any of the iPads with cellular (AT&T or Verizon) have GPS capability.

      We generally just use Google Maps or Apple maps for our routing, and haven’t felt much need for multi-stop planning. So sorry, can’t recommend anything there.

  2. After 17 years of PC all the way from DOS, I finally bit the bullet and moved to Apple! My first apple is an Ipad mini. I love it, and will never go back. I have only fired up the laptop PC once since I got the mini.
    As far as I’m concerned its what a real computer should be: the world at our fingertips,the size of a book, and easier to use.
    Sorry PC geeks and techies, you’ve forgotten what a computer is supposed to do: make our lives easier.

  3. Definitely interested. Hubby just picked up a bunch of consultation work — sounds like what he is looking for.

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