In previous articles, I have written about my decision to “downgrade” from a Mac Pro to a Mac mini, and about my first impressions using the Mac mini. It’s now been one week since I got the Mac mini, so it’s time to write a report about how it works “in the field”, in normal usage.
Aside from the raw processor power, one of the biggest differences between the two computers is the amount of RAM they contain. I had put 8 GB into the Mac Pro – it came with, I think, 2 GB, but over time I increased it to 4 GB, then, at the end of last year, to 8 GB – mostly so I’m comfortable when using Windows (which I don’t use often, and not for work). With 4 GB in the Mac mini, I find little difference in the ability to open a large number of applications (large, for me, being around a dozen). They all respond well, and switching between applications is immediate.
As I’ve said before, my work does not involve any processor-intensive applications; as a writer, I basically write, using productivity tools (Word, Pages, Acrobat, BBEdit, Numbers, etc.). All of these applications function fine with the Mac mini, and I see no difference at all in their speed or response. If I were to do a massive find/replace operation, perhaps, I might see a difference, but I’m convinced that it would be minimal. In my work this week – a pretty normal week, using all the applications I use in my work – I didn’t see any differences in using applications, with the exception that some applications, notably Microsoft Word, take a bit longer to open, perhaps two or three seconds more.
One clear difference, however, is in the graphics response. There is a bit of a stutter when using ExposÃ©, when invoking Dashboard, or when I display all my spaces. The graphics card is much weaker than that of the Mac Pro, and it is not dedicated video RAM: the RAM is shared between normal memory and the graphics card. While this is visible, it is not a major problem; it has never occured when working in any applications, and since I’m not a gamer, I won’t have any issues with applications that need fast graphics response. I’m running a 24″ monitor, which may be one factor; I wonder how the Mac mini would work with a 30″ monitor?
Posted: 6/6/2009 by kirk | Filed under: Apple & Mac OS X Tags: Mac mini | 3 Comments »
The main difference between the two is in ripping CDs and converting music files. Here’s what I wrote after the first day with the Mac mini:
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 Proâ€™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 havenâ€™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.
I’ve ordered an external drive that reads CDs at up to 40x, so I can speed up ripping. Over the past couple of days, I ripped a box set of 14 CDs, and it was slow. I buy enough CDs – and often large box sets of classical music – that this is important to me.
There’s not much else to say. To recap, it’s small, quiet, cool, and does everything I need. It has a couple of weak areas – graphics, CD ripping, music conversion – but that’s nothing that gets in my way when I’m working. At less than half the cost of the Mac Pro – even with my maxed-out version – it’s almost a no-brainer. I still wish Apple had something in between, maybe that could hold two hard disks and a second optical drive, but I’m more and more convinced that we won’t see that any time soon. If you’re hesitating between the two, and don’t use processor-intensive applications, and don’t need the fastest graphics, it’s a clear choice: the Mac mini is one heck of a little Mac.
Check out the Mac mini at Amazon.com
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.
Posted: 5/30/2009 by kirk | Filed under: Apple & Mac OS X Tags: Mac mini | 3 Comments »
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 ExposÃ© 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.
Almost 8 months ago, I wrote about how my Mac was fast enough, and how I wasn’t planning to buy a new Mac for a while. Well, my Mac Pro is now within a few months of the end of its AppleCare contract – the one thing that will get me to buy a new Mac – and I’ve decided to buy a new one. This time, I’ve opted for a Mac mini.
It all started as the weather got warmer. My Mac Pro gives off a lot of heat, and not having air conditioning (here in France, with “French windows”, you can’t just stick an air conditioner in a window) means that this computer heats up my office too much in the summer. I wanted to consider replacing it, in part because of the heat, but also because of that looming AppleCare deadline. Knowing that it’s easier to sell a used Mac if it has AppleCare – even a few months – meant that my upgrade window was fast closing.
My first consideration was an iMac. But Apple only sells iMacs with glossy screens, and, looking at my son’s iMac, I realized that I couldn’t work if I saw myself on the screen all day. In addition, I already have a 24″ Dell monitor, so buying an iMac would mean either using two monitors (nice, but I don’t have the desktop space), or putting the Dell in the basement.
I actually hadn’t considered the Mac mini at all, until my fellow Macworld author Rob Griffiths suggested it. There always seemed to be something missing in the Mac mini; it seemed to be a stopgap designed for switchers who didn’t want much in a Mac. But looking more closely at the specs, and comparing its speed with my MacBook Air, I realized it would be more than fast enough for what I do. As I said when I wrote about my Mac being fast enough, the only time I really use its processors is when I rip CDs or convert music. I do these things often, but not that much that it would change my life if they were slower. Another thing I liked about the Mac Pro was the ability to have four internal hard disks. But as the Mac mini has FireWire 800, I could daisy chain two big externals (1 TB each), and have all the disk space I need.
I ordered the maxed-out model of the Mac mini: 4 GB RAM, a 320 GB hard disk, and the faster 2.26 GHz processor. It will be faster than my MacBook Air (2 x 1.8 GHz), which is more than sufficient for most of what I do. I could have tried to upgrade the RAM and hard disk myself, as Dan Frakes recently wrote about in Macworld, but I didn’t want to bother with it, and didn’t want any worries about my warranty.
Posted: 5/26/2009 by kirk | Filed under: Apple & Mac OS X Tags: Mac mini | 23 Comments »
The more I thought about the Mac mini, the more it made sense. It’s basically a MacBook in a brick, as Rob Griffiths pointed out. Fast enough for most everything I need, and with 4 GB RAM, the only time I’ll not have an ideal amount of RAM is when running Windows. But it’s smaller, quieter and cooler than my Mac Pro, and uses less electricity. After all these years of technical progress in computers, it seems almost illogical to use a huge tower instead of a tiny box. Granted, when I bought the Mac Pro, I wanted, for the first time, to have the fastest Mac, but now I just don’t care any more. As I have said before, my Mac is more than fast enough for everything I need, and the Mac mini will be sufficient for most tasks.
The only thing I’ll miss, however, is a fast CD drive. The Mac mini comes with a 24x SuperDrive, which is about the same as the stock drive in the Mac Pro I have. However, with the second optical drive bay available, I installed a 52X CD-only drive. Since I rip a lot of CDs, it saved me a lot of time. I haven’t found any external CD drives that run at that speed.
So I await delivery of my Mac mini, which should be here in a few days. At the same time, I’ve ordered a couple of additional 1 TB hard disks and an enclosure, so I can set up two external disks to use with the mini. It has been suggested that, to improve speed a bit, one can boot off an external drive using FireWire 800. This allows you to use a 7200 RPM disk, instead of the internal 5400 RPM disk. While this may make a difference in the time required to open applications or start up the mini, I don’t think it will have much of an overall effect on the mini’s speed. I may try it, but as I’m looking for simplicity, I will probably not go that route. I’ll post another article after I’ve got the mini up and running, and tell you how everything’s going.
P. S.: In response to a reader question as to why I need a new Mac just because my AppleCare is running out, I’ll copy and paste this paragraph from the article I wrote 8 months ago:
One possible consideration for buying a new Mac will be when my three-year AppleCare contract runs out. Since I use my computer for my professional activities, I canâ€™t be without a working computer, and I need to have a service contract. Living in a rural area, only AppleCare can help me: the nearest Mac repair center is a 2-3 hour drive. (Fortunately, AppleCare includes on-site repairs; a technician replaced my motherboard after about a year, when the front USB plugs stopped working. He drove the 3 hours to come here and do it in my home.) In addition, accounting rules here in France make me amortize my computer over a three-year period. Not that accounting would make me buy a new computer, but financially it makes sense to buy one every three years.
Check out the Mac mini at Amazon.com