My main computer is a Mac Pro tower, hooked up to a 30″ Apple monitor. From the outside, the machine looks exactly like one you could buy in the Apple Store today, but it’s actually six years old.

It feels fast enough, largely because I swapped in an SSD and upgraded my video card. I use it for most of my writing, plus the podcast and video work, and I haven’t felt any pressure to get a new machine.

But now that time has come: tests confirm that this rig won’t be able to run Mountain Lion when it ships later this month.1

Six years is a long time for any computer. I’d happily replace it with a new Mac Pro tower, except the ones they’re currently selling are so shamefully behind the curve that Tim Cook had to break with Apple tradition and promise that better ones are coming in 2013.

So in six to eighteen months, I’ll buy one of these new ones. The question is, what do I do in the meantime?

Some scenarios I’ve considered:

  1. Do nothing. Just keep running Lion. I’d give up some of the new features, but most apps should continue to work. One challenge is that a lot of the new software we’re developing is aimed at Mountain Lion, so I’d have to do that work on my little MacBook Air. And the new computers might come at the end of 2013, and they might not have been worth the wait. There’s an opportunity cost to doing nothing that is real but hard to calculate.

  2. Use my MacBook Air as my main machine. I love this little computer, but its puny graphics card wouldn’t be able to handle my big screen, and I’m not willing to give that up.2 Also, I’m running four hard drives in my tower, so I’d have to figure out an external solution for these.

  3. Buy a used-but-newer Mac Pro. The transition would be simple — just shove my drives into the new chassis. But used Mac Pros are not cheap ($1000+), and in six months I’d have two old towers to get rid of.

  4. Buy the current Mac Pro. Sure, they’re not the computers I’d hope they’d be, but they’re certainly faster than what I’m running now. This was Marco Arment’s solution, and he’s a smart guy. But I’d no doubt feel stuck with this if the next Mac Pros are the generational leap in performance many believe they will be.

  5. Get a Mac Mini. According to speed tests, the fastest version of Mac Mini is actually faster than my current tower. But it’s also pretty expensive ($1500) for something I only hope to hold onto for six months.

  6. Get a Retina Macbook Pro. It’s the fastest machine Apple sells, and the hi-res monitor would be good for proofing graphics. But it’s a lot of money ($2200+) for something I don’t plan to keep, and it feels odd to have two laptops.

A new scenario that we discussed at lunch is a variation on #6. I would take Ryan Nelson’s recent-edition MacBook Pro and buy him the Retina version.

Why it’s a good idea:

  • It puts the hi-res screen in the hands of the graphics guy who actually needs it.
  • His MacBook is powerful enough to run my big monitor. (With a $99 adapter.)
  • I should be able to replace his hard drive with my tower’s SSD, so it’s a fairly painless transition.

Why it’s a bad idea:

  • Using a laptop as a desktop computer is arguably the worst of both worlds. Everything about a laptop is designed to maximize battery life.
  • I still have the hard drive problem. One possibility: Keeping the tower around as a headless server and just pull files off that as needed.
  • Ryan gets a cool new computer and I get his leftovers. Boo.

For now, this is feeling like the best plan. As a company, we’d already discussed the need for at least one Retina Mac between me, Nima and Ryan. But I’m still open for other solutions as they come up.

  1. Sure: you can make a distinction between “able” and “permitted.” There’s a chance that someone will come out with a clever hack that will enable Mountain Lion to be installed on my old machine. But then I’m risking crashes and bugginess, which is a considerable trade-off.
  2. Also, I’ve played Diablo 3 on my Air, and it just about melts. But the inability to play Diablo 3 could be argued as an argument *for* the Air.