The Mac mini from a gamer's perspective

If there’s one thing that’s abundantly clear from this past week, it’s that the Mac mini is very different things to different people—and that includes Apple.

Rarely can I think of a time when the opinion on a new device from Apple has been so varied as it has been in our own forums since this past Tuesday, when Apple unveiled the first Intel-based Mac minis.

Much of the debate has centered around Apple’s use of Intel integrated graphics on the motherboard, in place of a discrete graphics chip like the old Mac mini, which featured an ATI Radeon 9200 graphics processing unit and 32MB of dedicated VRAM.

The new system uses an Intel GMA 950 chip, which doesn’t have any discrete VRAM—instead, it borrows the system’s main memory for its own needs. So if you have 512MB of RAM installed, 80MB of that disappears for the graphics chip’s use, reducing your effective amount of RAM to 432MB.

The good

There are some upsides to the new graphics chip. Because it has twice the amount of RAM allocated to it compared to the 9200, and because the GMA 950 can support pixel shading, the Mac mini is, for the first time, capable of displaying graphics effects rendered using Tiger’s “Core Image” technology.

Among other things, Core Image provides a plug-in architecture for accessing filters, transitions and effects packages that are built right into the operating system. These effects are used by Apple to create the “ripple” effect when you fire up a Dashboard widget, for example. Core Image effects are leveraged by third-party developers and by Apple in its own software.

Another thing the GMA 950 is better at than the Radeon 9200 is its fill rate. It’s capable of rendering almost fifty percent more pixels per second than the Radeon chip that was in the older Mac mini.

Apple’s senior director of desktops, Tom Boger, told me and my colleague Jon Seff that this results in improved performance for iLife ‘06 on the new machines, and Front Row—a new addition to the Mac mini that’s certainly welcome to anyone who plans to use the mini to view photos, watch videos, or listen to music.

In our preliminary tests, the new Mac mini (the Core Duo model in particular) also seems a lot more capable of playing back high definition video. That also bodes well for people who want to use their Intel Mac mini as the cornerstone of a tiny Mac-based media center.

The bad

The GMA 950 has a number of downsides, however.

The chip isn’t capable of programming vertex shaders—one of the more common ways that 3D graphics for games and other 3D-intensive applications work. The Mac’s CPU has to make up for this shortcoming.

The GMA 950 is also incapable of doing transform and lighting effects. Transformation involves the conversion of a 3D object to a 2D view—your computer monitor. Lighting, in this case, is making that 3D object look more real by making it reflect, refract, and absorb light. The Mac mini’s spiffy new Intel CPU also has to make up for this shortcoming.

It’s a good thing the new Intel chips are a lot faster, and the system bus and other various components have been sped up too.

Speaking of speed, there’s an important reason why Apple emphasizes (but doesn’t insist) that you should install RAM in pairs in the new Mac mini. It features a dual-channel memory controller—the machine can move double the amount of data through its memory than it could otherwise.

As I said before, the GMA 950 is integrated and doesn’t have its own discrete video RAM, or VRAM. It allocates its own frame buffer memory from the main system memory. Installing RAM in matched pairs can improve your Mac’s overall performance when you’re running software that’s likely to put a toll on the graphics chip.

This is very similar to the iMac’s memory architecture. But because the iMac has its own discrete graphics system with its own VRAM, the difference in performance between one chip and two is less noticeable.

The ugly

Unfortunately, that overall speed increase isn’t enough to make up the difference when it comes to playing 3D games on the new Mac mini. 3D graphics chips and cards have supported these features for a while, so they’ve become standard issue on most games. And what we’ve learned is that the new Mac mini is even a bit slower than its PowerPC-based predecessor when it comes to running older titles like Unreal Tournament 2004.

Now, the older Mac mini was no speed demon when it came to playing games: We clocked the 1.42GHz PowerPC G4-based Mac mini at about 12 frames per second when we benchmarked it using Unreal Tournament 2004. The new Core Solo Mac mini averaged about 10 frames per second using the same test, running a Universal Binary of Unreal Tournament 2004.

I readily admit that’s only one test, and it’s not conclusive enough to write off the Mac mini as a gaming machine all together. Apple’s Boger told me that Apple’s tests showed a considerable improvement in frame rate on Pangea Software’s popular 3D action game Nanosaur II, for example. That’s not entirely a surprise, though, as Nanosaur II emphasizes CPU speed over GPU capabilities. And the Mac mini is unquestionably faster in that regard.

We hope to test that out in the coming days, and I’m also planning on bringing you a primer on what kind of games do run well on the Mac mini—look for that in the future.

The times they are a-changin’

Up until Tuesday, Apple pooh-poohed integrated graphics as inferior. As my colleague Rob Griffiths noted in his recent editorial, Apple’s Mac mini Web page read (in part):

Go ahead, just try to play Halo on a budget PC. Most say they’re good for 2D games only. That’s because an “integrated Intel graphics” chip steals power from the CPU and siphons off memory from system-level RAM. You’d have to buy an extra card to get the graphics performance of Mac mini, and some cheaper PCs don’t even have an open slot to let you add one.

I asked Boger about this. That was reflective of the state of the industry fourteen months ago, when those remarks were made, he told me, and things have changed since then. The GMA 950 represents a newer and more capable generation of integrated graphics processors. And in all fairness, Intel didn’t introduce the chip until May of last year—five months after Apple’s Web page went up.

But Apple’s new Web site for the Mac mini says this:

The Intel GMA950 graphics supports Tiger Core Graphics and the latest 3D games.

And frankly, that’s an assertion I dispute. Tiger Core Graphics? Sure. The latest 3D games? Probably not so much. We can play semantic arguments until we’re blue in the face about what “latest 3D games” means. But it seems like a lot of our readers, judging from the forum posts made this week, have higher expectations than what our initial tests are showing as possible for this machine.

I’ll be the first to tell people that if they want a gaming Mac, they’re much better off looking at an Intel iMac or even a MacBook Pro. With each additional Universal Binary game we’re getting, we’re seeing great performance on both these machines.

The Mac mini might be a bit of a disappointment to people who wanted it all—a great gaming and media machine, a general workstation, and more, all in a tiny box. And there’s certainly room for debate as to whether the GMA 950 was the right move.

But there’s always room for improvement.

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