My First Day with a Mac mini

05/30/2009

I recently wrote about why I decided to downgrade from a nearly-three-year-old Mac Pro to a Mac mini. Well, the mini arrived yesterday, and it’s up and running. I thought I would post my first impressions about this computer, and, especially, compare it to the Mac Pro that I’ll be selling soon.

First, unboxing any Apple product is a fun process. The packaging is always attractive, intriguing, and parcimonious. There I was with this tiny box, weighing about two kilograms (less than five pounds) in my hands, thinking, “Wow, this is going to replace that big, bulky Mac Pro under my desk.” And the Mac mini takes up about half of the box; the rest of it is for the power supply and cord, and the installation discs and small manual.

If you haven’t seen a Mac mini in action, then you may not realize that there’s more to the computer than what Apple shows you in its pictures. The power supply is a white brick that is about 1/4 the size of the computer itself. Having the power conversion (AC to DC) in this brick does two things: it keeps the actual computer smaller, and it makes it much cooler, eliminating the need for a fan to cool the power supply within the computer. The power supply cools passively, just dissipating its heat, and this contributes to the low noise level of the mini.

Setting up the mini was easy, though it took a while to get all the cables together and in the right place. My Mac Pro was (well, still is…) under my desk, but I put the Mac mini on a shelf next to my desk. Since it’s so low, if I put it on my desk it would be hard to insert optical discs in its drive. So I needed to move some cables around that were just a tad too short to get everything connected: mouse and keyboard (well, their wireless adapter), scanner, headset, iPod cable, USB hub, as well as a FireWire 800 cable that goes to three drives in a daisy chain, the monitor connection, and an Ethernet cable. (For the latter, I could probably use AirPort, since I have a wireless network, but I’ve always kept my desktop Macs connected by Ethernet.) The back of the mini is a bit of a tangle with all those cables, but it works out well enough.


When I started up the mini, I was immediately impressed by the silence of the computer. I cannot hear the fan at normal levels; if all my windows are shut, I hear a whisper of fan. I haven’t yet done anything to get the fan above 1800 RPM so I don’t know how it would sound when it does go fast (the minimum is 1500 RPM). Even copying a lot of data to the mini didn’t raise its temperature enough for the fan to go wild.

I’ll skip the installation and file-copying process, because there was really nothing of note there, but I’ll mention briefly how it is to use external hard disks. I haven’t yet tried booting off an external FireWire 800 disk; it might speed up some disk-related operations a bit, but I wanted to try out the internal disk first. It’s easy enough to connect one or more external disks via USB or FireWire 800; the latter is preferable, because of the speed difference. When you connect a FireWire disk, it has two FireWire ports, so you can connect a second disk to the first one, in a daisy chain. In my case, I have two external disks and a drive dock, which I use with naked hard disks to back up my data.

The big issue here is to compare a the speed of a 4 x 2.66 GHz Mac Pro to a 2 X 2.26 GHz Mac mini; the former with 8 GB RAM and the latter with only 4. As I wrote before, I wasn’t using the Mac Pro anywhere near its capacity, and it’s obvious when doing 98% of my computing tasks that the Mac mini is no slower. Once an application is open, unless it’s doing something processor-intensive (I’ll get to that in a bit), everything is exactly the same. I have iStat menus installed, so I can keep an eye on processor activity; it’s usually around 10% at most. The first place where the mini is slower is opening applications: it takes a second longer, on average, to open an app because of the hard drive, which is 5400 RPM compared to the 7200 RPM drives I had in the Mac Pro. (The externals are 7200 RPM, which is why I’ll eventually try booting off an external to see if there’s a difference.) But, frankly, I don’t care much about waiting a second longer for my applications to open. (One exception is Microsoft Word, which takes about twelve seconds to open; I don’t know why it is so much longer on the mini, but on the Mac Pro it was usually about five seconds.)

The one place where I really see a difference in speed is when ripping CDs. I had a second optical drive in my Mac Pro, because I buy and digitize a lot of discs. It ran at 52x, much faster than the Mac Pro’s internal SuperDrive. The mini has a 24x CD read speed, and when ripping CDs, iTunes maxed out at about 14x, compared to 20 – 40x on the Mac Pro. So part of that is the processor, but much of it is the drive speed. I haven’t found an external CD drive at 52x here yet; the fastest I found is 40x. I may pick that up, because ripping CDs is something I do often enough that speed makes a difference. I also saw huge speed differences when converting some FLAC files from a Grateful Dead concert I downloaded to AAC. Using XLD, I would convert six files simultaneously at about 20x each; with the mini, I lowered it to four files at a time, and got about 10x each.

The only other obvious weakness is with the Mac mini’s video. In normal usage it’s fine, but when I do things that move windows around, such as evoking Exposé or Dashboard, the video stutters a bit. It’s surprising that it can’t keep up with this type of operation, which is pretty standard stuff, but I am using a 1920×1200 display, so this may be about the limit for the Mac mini’s video card.

There’s one minor annoyance: the internal speaker does not work if something is plugged into the audio output. With the Mac Pro, I had system sounds go through the internal speaker, and other sounds – basically music – go through my external speakers, which I only turned on when listening to music. I would hear beeps, or iChat sounds that way. With the mini, this is not possible; I can only have the sound go out through the external speakers. But as I don’t leave them on all the time, I don’t hear system sounds.

Aside from music, I have yet to perform any tasks that are sufficiently slower on the mini to make me regret my decision. (For example, I haven’t yet launched Windows in VMware Fusion to see how the mini’s memory handles that.) For now, I’m enjoying a quieter, cooler, smaller Mac and I’m realizing that minimalism in computing can be a Good Thing. Now, time to get that Mac Pro sold.