I ignored the early warning signs: the slow boots, the strange noises, the polite requests to insert the install DVD and run the disk utility. My main problem was that I’d lost my install DVD a long time ago. I had purchased my Mac Mini G4 1.5Ghz brand new in 2005, and it had hummed along without a hitch… until recently. When it eventually stopped booting altogether, I “borrowed” a full install DVD from “the internets” and tried to do a full re-install. I spent the better part of a day letting the installer progress far enough to give me hope before it choked and froze at various and random times. I gave up, powered off my little Mac Mini, and stuck it in a corner.

Fast forward a few months to today. My wife and I were planning on visiting the mall today anyway, so I made a web appointment at my local Apple Store Genius Bar. I showed up at 12:52PM to check in for my 1PM appointment. At 12:58PM, I met Bruno.

It was Bruno’s first day as an Apple Genius. He admitted that he had just graduated from sales associate, and I could tell he was a little nervous. But he was a geek, in good company in an Apple Store, and I didn’t have to say a word for him to know I was a brother geek. My t-shirt read “The Internet was down so I decided to come outside today.” I detected a slight accent when Bruno spoke. I asked “C’est un accent francophone, non?” (That’s a French accent, right?) Bruno’s eyes lit up and he asked “Vous êtes français?” I replied that no, I wasn’t French, but I’d lived there for a couple years a while ago. Bruno smiled and relaxed. We continued in French and asked where he was from. He told me “Corse” (Corsica) which is a small island off the southern shore of France in the Mediterranean. It was obvious that Bruno was far more comfortable geeking out en français, and I was happy to oblige. For the next 30 minutes, we tried a number of things to resurrect my ailing Mac Mini. After ruling out all the other possiblities, we both agreed it was as I had suspected: a dead hard drive.

Bruno looked up the price for a new 80GB hard drive from the Apple Store: $250. We both laughed, because we both knew that’s about $100 more than a functioning 1.5Ghz Mac Mini with 512MB of RAM and an 80GB hard drive would fetch on CraigsList – even with the Bluetooth and AirPort options (which mine has). He recommended that I buy a cheap replacement drive online and just swap it out myself. After explaining our findings to one of the other Geniuses (who only spoke English… apparently not that much of a Genius), he recommended that as long as I was going to crack the Mini’s case, and because the warranty had expired 4 years ago anyway, I may as well install a bigger hard drive and upgrade the memory. OK – English-speaking Genius earned back some Genius cred with that one. He gave the specs on the RAM (a single 184-pin PC2700 333 MHz DDR SDRAM module, if you were wondering) and told me the Mini would support up to a 320GB 2.5″ IDE hard drive. I bid the Geniuses “Merci,” tucked my critically injured Mini under my arm, and strolled into the mall with a geeky plan taking form.

After dropping off my wife at home (I still have no idea why she doesn’t love Frys Electronics as much as I do), I headed to Frys to buy the required parts. My choices were limited on 2.5″ notebook drives: 250GB or 320GB. I decided on a 5400 RPM Western Digital Scorpio Blue 320GB with 8MB of cache. I was relieved they still had the 5400 RPM version. Although a 7200 RPM drive may have been 10-15% faster, it also runs hotter – and there’s a single small fan in the Mac Mini that probably couldn’t keep things cool. The drive cost me $94 (it was $90 on Amazon, but I would have had to pay shipping) and the RAM module was $45. Apple didn’t design the Mac Mini to be upgraded, and it’s not easily opened by the end user, so I also stopped by Lowes Hardware to grab a painter’s tool to help pop open the cover on the Mini. So for $139, I had everything I needed to resurrect my Mac Mini, double the RAM, and quadruple the hard drive space.

I brought all my goodies into my office and got right to work. Google helped me find a great tutorial on iFixit with easy-to-follow instructions and photos on upgrading any part of my Mac Mini. The whole process took me about 20 minutes (the trickiest part was actually reconnecting the AirPort and Bluetooth antennae – those connectors are tiny).

The Mac Mini fired up on the first try. I popped in the OS X install DVD, started the install, then came back to my desktop system to author this blog post. That was 32 minutes ago. The install is now finished, and my Mac Mini (whose machine name is MacDaddy) is now humming along… noticeably faster and happier than ever. I was going to connect it to the plasma screen in the guest room, so that guests could easily surf the Web and check email, but I think I might use it as a digital jukebox and media player in my office, as well as my primary iTunes system for syncing songs to my iPhone, jailbreaking, and unlocking.

The moral of this story is this: Steve Jobs is filthy rich and he didn’t get that way by accident. He got there by charging suckers $250 to replace hard drives in a machines that could be completely replaced for $150. You’re better off spending a fraction of the price, buying new parts yourself, having some geeky fun, and massively upgrading your system. You just might end up with a grateful computer that has a new DHCP lease on life.