How to Breathe New Life into an Old Mac

Nine years ago, I snatched up a Mac Mini to study the software development environment on macOS. My hope was to demonstrate that a piece of production software targeting the FreeBSD operating system would be easier to work on from a Mac than a Windows PC. The trouble was, I was working for a company that sold Windows PCs! Needless to say, I had some difficulty getting anyone to sign-off on purchasing a Mac for software development purposes. Still, I persisted. For this new project, we had to run some of the FreeBSD software on a commercial desktop. It’s much easier to port code from a BSD operating system to another POSIX operating system. I bought the Mac Mini on my own dime, and I set it up at home to build a demo on my own time.

Ultimately, I failed to convince the team that the irony of using Macs to build embedded products under the brand of a Windows PC manufacturer was worth the savings in time and effort. I respected that line in the sand, and I welcomed this Mac into my home theater. Truthfully, my Xbox handled streaming, but I needed to justify to the wife that I didn’t just waste a pile of cash on a computer I didn’t need.

Skipping ahead a few years, I’ve still got this Mac Mini laying around. I’ve got new goals, and I want to light-up this machine as a capital resource to help me achieve them. I would love to use this box to demonstrate to the Takeoff Technical audience that macOS is developer-friendly. This time, though, the Mac itself is the problem…

The Apple Hardware Support Schedule

Apple’s support policy defines the following classes of devices:

  • Supported Devices – products released within the past 5 years.
  • Vintage Devices – products released more than 5 but less than 7 years ago.
  • Obsolete Devices – products released more then 7 years ago.

These classifications show the timelines that Apple uses as a guideline for whether or not they can fix a broken product — “support”. There is, however, more to this story. Software compatibility tracks along with the support classifications. Let’s examine the annual macOS releases and compare to the Mac Mini specifically:

Oct ’21
Big Sur
Nov ’20
Oct ’19
Sep ’18
High Sierra
Sep ’17
Sep ’16
El Capitan
Sep ’15
Mac mini (M1, 2020)XXXXXXX
Mac mini (2018)XXXXXXX
Mac mini (Late 2014)XXXXXXX
Mac mini (Late 2012)XXXXX
Mac mini (Mid 2011)XXX
Mac mini (Mid 2010)XXX
Mac mini (Late 2009)X
Mac mini (Early 2009)X

As we can see, when a new macOS is released, a “Vintage” Mac Mini may or may not be compatible. “Obsolete” Mac Minis are not supported in macOS releases, and the installer will not allow you to proceed on such hardware!

The macOS Support Schedule

Unfortunately, Apple does not publish a support timeline for releases of macOS. The University of Vermont, however, has summarized what to expect in a Knowledge Base article. Security updates are only issued to the current and previous two versions of macOS. Do no use macOS if it is older!

My Mac Mini will still run Catalina, so technically, at the time of this writing, my “Obsolete” device can still use a macOS that is secure. Unfortunately, security updates are not enough to keep a macOS version useful. Have a look at the Mac App Store after performing a clean install:

A picture of Xcode on the Mac App Store stating a newer macOS version is required.
While macOS Catalina still receives security updates, content on the Mac App Store has moved past this version of the operating system.

Without access to the latest versions of Apple software, a Mac loses the ability to perform as a development machine.

New Life for Old Hardware

If you’ve found yourself in my shoes, you still have options! Apple is known for quality hardware, and an old Mac may very well have useful life yet to give. For instance, the machine in front of me has a quad-core i5, 16GB of RAM, a 500GB SSD, a 1TB HDD, Bluetooth 4.0, gigabit ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, USB 3.0, HDMI, thunderbolt, and an SDXC card reader! Such specifications are suitable for a wide variety of computing tasks.

Install Windows

Please refrain from vomiting. I get it. To long-accustomed macOS users, a switch to Windows is enough to inspire indigestion. That said, the Redmond shop has come a long way in recent years. If you can overlook that Microsoft keeps trying to make “Edge” happen, Windows is a dandy of an operating system. Moreover, Microsoft actually publishes end-of-life dates for each version. I can install Windows 10 on the Mac Mini and know that it is supported until 2025!

Install Linux

Linux is hardly an operating system for the masses. Recent editions, however, are not far off. Canonical’s Ubuntu will install on the Mac Mini just as easily as Windows. Once it is on there, rest easy knowing there is a published Long Term Support (LTS) timeline. I’ve confirmed that Ubuntu 20.04 LTS runs on my Mac, and it’s under support until 2030! If I bought a brand new Mac, it would be “Obsolete” before then!

The beauty of Linux on the Mac is the wealth of open source software that comes along with it. Programs like Inkscape, Gimp, and Audacity might just capture the imaginations of former Mac users. Additionally, modern Linux offers a first-class development environment. Don’t sell this option short!

Install VMware ESXi

Advanced users may be delighted to hear that VMware’s free ESXi Hypervisor will install and run on older Intel Macs. Users that fell asleep reading that should move on to the next option.

Trade it in for a New Mac

Did you know that Apple is a $3 Trillion Dollar Company? One way to reach such a market value is to sell you a $1,200 computer and then buy it back from you 9 years later for $50. If you have no use for Windows or Linux, however, this is probably your best remaining option.

Final Thoughts on Your Next Mac

Apple’s support timeline is based on the release date of a device — not the end-of-sale date! This is an import distinction. At the time of this writing, the latest Mac Mini released in 2020. If I purchased one today, in 2022, I can expect it go “Vintage” in just 3 years and “Obsolete” in 5. If I wait for the next Mac Mini release, which may be in the fall of this year, I will have 5 years before the device is “Vintage”, and 7 years will pass before it is “Obsolete” — but only if I buy it immediately. No wonder Apple customers jump on new products as soon as they release! Purchasing a Mac a year or two after the initial release has no upside! Apple keeps the cost the same throughout the sale period, but the support clock begins ticking the day it lists on the Apple Store.

There is an extra caution, at present, for consumers shopping Mac computers. Apple is moving the entire macOS hardware lineup to the new Apple silicon processors. I would advise against purchase of a new Mac with the Intel chip – support for that processor will only get worse. That said, when the Apple silicon Macs get too old for macOS security updates, there may not be as many options to rescue the hardware with new purpose as outlined in this article. I sincerely hope that at least the Linux community can support Apple silicon, so future obsolete versions of great hardware can find new life beyond Cupertino’s ability to support them!

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