New iMac or Mac Mini and Monitor

17 Feb 2014

New iMac or Mac Mini and Monitor

I’ve been mulling this decision over in my mind for a few years now. Do I replace my 24” iMac with it’s new incarnation or ditch the all in one in favour of a Mac Mini and a decent wide gamut monitor. From conversations and private messages on Twitter, I know a fair few people seem to be considering the same upgrade route. Hopefully my experiences and research will prove helpful.

All in all, I’ve been very happy with my iMac. I bought on the day that the first of the silver iMacs was unveiled in 2007 and I upgraded every option on it to future proof the £2700 investment. I upgraded the hard drive to a larger one a few years later as my photo library increased, but other than that it’s been totally trouble free. It certainly earned it’s keep.

Latterly it’s been more frustrating as I got busier and have tended to need to flip between Lightroom 5, Photoshop CC, Mail, web browsers, calendars and all sorts of things. Deadlines have been tighter to get things done and the spinning beach ball has been a much more frequent visitor to my screen. It’s fair to say my language also took a turn for the worse as I became more impatient.

Incidentally, a few months back I bought a Synology 16TB Raid server and migrated my bulky archives of photos to that to free up as much space on the iMac as I could to take some of the load off it. This certainly helped and meant I didn’t have to lament over what size hard drive to have in my replacement mac. 

I plumped for a Mac Mini with a 2.6 Ghz i7 Processor & a NEC Spectraview Reference 272

The two main factors in my decision to go for Mac Mini in favour of the iMac were:

The screen is, by far, a better panel than the one in the iMac

When I need to upgrade the Mac next time I won’t need to find the best part of £3k - I can replace the screen and mac separately and take the sting out of my future upgrades.

The Mac Mini

I ordered the fastest i7 version available in the Mac Mini (2.6 Ghz in Jan 2014). The iMac has a slightly faster version available, but I decided given that I would likely be in a position to upgrade the mini more frequently given it’s lower price point, that I wasn’t going to lose any sleep over a relatively small number of Ghz. I chose the 1 TB fusion drive and the standard 4Gb of RAM and will upgrade this on crucial.com/uk in the near future.

I’m a big fan of fusion drives and the fast boot time and load time of my apps is remarkable. From power button to login screen is now around ten seconds and I can now launch Photoshop CC in under 4 seconds. I'm actually shutting down rather than sleeping my machine which I have been doing for years. I've only heard the fans running on the Mini when I import a CF card of images into Lightroom and the 1:1 previews are rendered.

The Monitor

Choosing a screen proved to be surprising. I had almost made up my mind that I would buy an Eizo and did some research on some similar brands I should look at rather than buying the first thing I saw. The guys at Colour Confidence were very helpful and suggested I look at the NEC Reference range as well as the Eizos. 

I was able to pop up to the SWPP trade show and see both Eizo and the NEC in action. On paper and by reputation I always thought of the Eizo as the best. However I found the screen quality of both the Eizo and the NEC indistinguishable. Both looked incredible and boast a massive 99% of Adobe RGB, comfortably 30% more than the sRGB colour space. The look of the screens also both similar. The matte screens with their hoods both providing a very low glare image. The matte black bezels on both were similar too. I found the aluminium bezel on the iMac quite distracting when I used my iMac again after a few days of having the NEC. 

The deciding factors were:

SENSOR/CALIBRATION

The Eizo can self calibrate with the in-built sensor which is very snazzy  and saves time, BUT, I already have a Spyder4 Pro. Also it's fair to say that most sensors cost at least £100 so £100 of what I spend on my monitor isn't actually spent on my panel.

LCD vs LED

The NEC is LED technology rather than the older LCD technology of the Eizo which also means the NEC is up to working temperature and ready to go in 5 minutes and costs less to run. 

WARRANTY

Both have 5 year warranties but both have 5year or hours warranties. The NEC has a better xxx hours guarantee. 

All in all the NEC seemed a better buy for me, despite the price tag being a bit more I felt it money well spent. 

Comparisons

I've spent quite a while getting the NEC calibrated and profiled to my satisfaction. It seems that using a different display, despite it being calibrated has taken some getting used to. 

Here are the settings I have used in my calibration setup for reference. 

D65

Gamma 2.2

110cd/m2

There's a lot of complicated terminology assosiated with setting up displays. Once I had grasped the difference between calibration and profiling, it seemed less complicated. Getting a screen to display correctly is a 2 part process. Calibration is setting the hardware settings of the monitor up, so that the contrast, brightness and red, green and blues are correct. This is an automated process on higher spec monitors and done by means of buttons on other models. Once these values are corrected the calibration tool and accompanying software will move onto the second part of the process. Profiling. The software will display and read a series of known colours on screen and then make an icc profile to compensate for the small differences, to ensure that the best possible colours are displayed on your screen.

Here are a few graphs comparing the icc profile of my NEC to various other panels, so you can see for yoursef the colour range. In each graph the grey part is the NEC profile I am using.

NEC Profile

The graph above shows the NEC profile only.

NEC vs sRGB

The graph above shows the sRGB colourspace overlaid and the NEC profile in grey.

NEC vs Adobe RGB

The graph above shows Adobe RGB overlaid.

NEC vs iMac27

The graph above shows the profile from a calibrated iMac 27" overlaid on the NEC profile. This was the one I was most interested to see, to see if I had made the right choice. It's clear the NEC has significantly wider gamut, other than a little bit of difference in the blues.

NEC vs 27

The graph above shows the profile from a calibrated Apple Thunderbolt 27" Display. I think this is the same panel or very similar to the iMac one.

NEC vs Eizo

Finally the closest contender was an Eizo SX2761W.

The Cost

27" iMac
3.5Ghz i7
16Gb RAM
1 TB Fusion Drive

£2,258.99

vs

Mac Mini
2.6 Ghz i7
16Gb RAM
1 TB Fusion Drive

£1,159.00

&

NEC Spectraview Reference 272

£1500

Mac Mini and NEC Display £2659.00

This shows a difference of £400.01

Although I've not gone for the cheapest route, I am certainly using a far better screen and will be able to afford to upgrade my Mac more frequently that if I were upgrading an iMac costing double the price of a Mac Mini. I don't expect to need to replace both together again at any rate, which will help cash flow.