For the last few months, my iMac has been dying a slow death, making even the most simple tasks dreadfully slow. Anyone familiar with Macs has likely experienced the perpetual spinning beach ball which usually signals "the end". I tried reinstalling the operating system, restoring the whole thing, wiping the disk clean, and still it fails.
Thankfully, I was able to back up almost everything to the external drives. This was essential, as was Dropbox. Without these backup solutions, all of my photos would be gone. To get your own account, please use this link as we'll both get a little extra storage space.
Feeling burned by the iMac which cost nearly $2000 a few years ago, I was hesitant to get another especially after the base model price rose to $1299 and that is for the smaller 21" screen. To make matters worse, there is no optical drive for cd/dvd, and no firewire which is what my card reader uses. Furthermore, in order to upgrade the RAM from the standard 8GB, you are forced to go through Apple who marks it up more than 3x the actual cost.
The solution I found is a hybrid of sorts starting with a new Mac Mini running the Lion operating system. Unlike most of Apple's products, the bottom panel of the Mac Mini can be opened to upgrade the RAM. For just $80, I went from 4 GB to 16GB buying it through New Egg. This easily handles multitasking situations with Lightroom, Photoshop, and Safari all running simultaneously. The hard drive has a spacious 500GB of storage which is plenty considering I use several external drives as well.
The screen is a 24" IPS monitor from Dell with an ultra-sharp high resolution reduced glare screen. My first impression upon connecting it was wow! The images are bright and clear and the colors looked great right out of the box. Unlike the old iMac screen which had a slight gradation effect near the corners, this monitor is evenly lit across the entire 24 inches. It also can be raised or lowered, and swiveled on the mount. These are simple user-friendly features which the iMac does not have. Read the reviews at B&H to see why it's been rated as 5 stars.
For most users, an external optical drive will still come in handy for those older software, and data dvds, or music cds you want to add to Itunes without purchasing the album again. Apple sells one for $79, and Best Buy also has many inexpensive third party options that plug into a USB drive. I bought this one by LG.
While this entire setup saved me several hundreds of dollars, the real difference is in performance. As Schmidt would say on the entertaining show, New Girl, "it crushes" Lightroom and other tasks with snappy performance and lots of power under the hood.
I'm sharing all of this info in hopes it will be useful for some other photographers who may be on the fence about what computer to buy for their workflow. You do not need to spend thousands of dollars for a great system, you just need to work a little harder to build your own as I've done with the above setup.