Desktops

First Look: A maximum look at a mini Mac, part one

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is a series documenting Macworld Senior Editor Rob Griffiths’ first week with an Intel Mac mini. You can view each individual series installment:

  1. Setup, configuration and application tests
  2. General observations, audio & video, gaming
  3. Testing methods, Intel transition and conclusions
  4. More RAM, more tests
  5. HD issues and final thoughts

A week ago Friday, I received my first Intel Mac: a 1.66GHz Intel Core Duo Mac mini with 512MB of RAM and an 80GB hard drive, to be used as my test machine for all Intel-related Mac OS X Hints. This being my first exposure (beyond a few minutes on the Macworld Expo show floor in January) to any of the Intel boxes, I decided to spend a fair bit of time with the machine, trying to see just how well it works, and just how Mac-like it may be, relative to my recent thoughts about the direction of the platform.

As such, what follows is both a look at the Core Duo mini in detail, and a more general look at the transition from PowerPC to Intel, as seen through the eyes of the mini. Think of it as an incredibly detailed hands-on report, based on my first week with the unit.

What this article is not is the official Macworld benchmark report for the mini, though I will include some other interesting (or not) figures from a few benchmarking apps. This is also not the official Macworld review of the new mini. This article also isn’t a look inside the new mini, as Jason Snell has already covered that topic in detail. And finally, this is not a “new vs. old” comparison of the second and first generation minis, as I didn’t have a first-generation machine with which to compare.

The final thing to keep in mind is that what you are about to read is specific to the Core Duo mini. The experience with a Core Solo would be notably different. So don’t generalize these results across the model range, as they’re really two very different machines. With all that said, let’s get started…

I. Out of the box experience

Open that box! My mini out-of-box experience started with FedEx handing me a reasonably-small-sized box on Friday morning. Now, I’m not normally one to document every stage of the “opening your new Mac” process, but I knew I’d be writing about the mini, so I went ahead and set up my photo studio—which consists of a full-sized tripod and a miniature Canon PowerShot SD-400 digital camera. The tripod dwarfs the camera, and the whole setup looks quite ridiculous, which is why you’ll never see me using it in public! However, it worked well enough for this task, and you can view the results of my efforts in this slide show. (Note that my mini was shipped from a reseller, which may account for the extra box you see in the slideshow.)

To me, the initial out-of-box experience felt a little bit like playing with one of those ever-expanding kids’ toys. You know the kind, where the larger wooden egg splits in two to reveal another egg, which splits in two to reveal another egg, etc., until you get to the unique, tiny item in the center. In my case, the reseller’s box opened to reveal Apple’s first box, which then opened to reveal the actual mini box, which then opened to more packaging that had to be removed to reveal the actual mini. All in all, it was a very thorough packing job, and I think FedEx could’ve just dropped the unit on my porch directly from the plane, and it wouldn’t have suffered much damage. As seen in the pictures, there’s an amazing amount of packaging for a computer so small and simple looking.

The other thing that struck me was the size of the power brick, which can be seen in the last few pictures of the slideshow. At nearly the height of the mini, and exactly its length, this is not a small piece of hardware. Thankfully, the included cables are long enough to let you hide it a good distance from the mini. It does, however, detract from the thought of just taking the mini with you an a visit to a friend’s place—you’ll need to plan ahead and bring some form of carrying case.

I would assume that a local-store purchase would skip the reseller’s box and padding, making the out-of-box experience a bit quicker and less cardboard-intensive. But you’ll still wind up with more material than you might have thought possible for a 6.5”x6.5”x2” computer. As usual, though, I wound up impressed with the engineering that went into Apple’s packaging. Everything had a place and fit together just exactly right.

Three takeaway points:
  1. Make sure you allow for room for the mini’s power brick in your space planning. It’s big.
  2. There’s an amazing amount of packaging for such a small machine, especially if your machine arrives from a reseller.
  3. As is typical of Apple, the packaging is very well engineered.
Opening the mini was, as with most any Apple product, an enjoyable experience. Everything had its spot, and the design of the packaging made it very difficult to overlook any pieces.

II. Initial setup and configuration

Power Up! After getting the mini out of its boxes, it was time for the fun stuff—firing it up for the first time. Of course, since the mini comes without keyboard, mouse, or monitor, some assembly was required. That meant it was time to go digging through my accumulated collection of cabling and peripherals, looking for a functional USB keyboard and mouse, along with a monitor cable (my Sony monitor has three inputs, which are now all occupied). Digging around the SCSI cables (any day now, SCSI’s making a comeback, and I’m ready!) and the Farallon PhoneNet adapters (you never know when you may need one!), I eventually scrounged up a beater old keyboard and mouse, along with a VGA monitor cable.

Cables in hand, I plugged everything together, and ran into the first ‘gotcha’ due to the mini’s compact design: if you’re using a VGA cable, you’ll need to leave at least three or four inches behind your mini, due to the mini’s DVI-to-VGA adapter. When you connect the video cable, you’ll find you’ve got a lengthy run of not-easily-bent cabling streaming out behind your mini. By far the best bet is to connect via DVI, as you’ll also get a better picture and not have to give up as much space behind the mini. (Note that you don’t want to cram your mini too close to a wall anyway; the exhaust port is in the back, and as you’ll soon see, you’ll want to leave some room for that air to circulate.)

Once everything was plugged in, I pressed the power button on the back of the mini, and was amazed at the boot speed—this thing goes from off to ready-to-use in about 30 seconds. This is notably faster than both my PowerBook and my G5, and it’s quick enough that I’m at least now thinking about powering the machine down at night—though I’m still using sleep at the moment. Granted, it will slow down as I load a few login items. But a quick comparison with my PowerBook with all such things disabled showed the mini to still be substantially quicker. I’m running it at 1280x1024 resolution, the native mode for my monitor, but the mini is capable of 1920x1200 via DVI and 1920x1080 via VGA.

A few quick setup minutes later, and I was nearly there—just a few Apple product and OS updates to bring the machine’s software up to date. After the requisite restart, the machine was ready to go.

Lose the wires!

The first thing I decided to do was to rid myself of the mess of cords sprouting from the mini. With built-in Bluetooth and AirPort, this was quite simple. The wired beater keyboard was replaced with Apple’s wireless Bluetooth model, and then I took my Bluetooth travel mouse, the Macally BT Micro, and paired it to the mini. Both these items worked just as you would expect, with nary an issue during installation or use. Next to go was the Ethernet cable, after I finished transferring over a bunch of files and apps I wanted to use for testing. Unplug the Ethernet, configure AirPort, and now the mini was as de-cluttered as possible. There are but two cables—power and monitor—sneaking out of the back, which you can just barely see in the photo of the clean setup at right (click for a larger version).

All of the mini’s ports, of course, are on the back. While this keeps the front looking crisp and clear, it does make it more troublesome to do things like add and remove an iSight camera, USB input devices, and headphones and microphones. If the ports must be on the back, at least they’re in good spots. The four USB ports are at the lower left corner, and they’re easy to identify by feel. Just above that, also on the leftmost edge, is the headphone input. (You can see all the ports in this photo from the slideshow.) These can all be used without looking behind the mini, after some practice. I became quite proficient at it while testing some of the games and their associated peripherals. The only port that’s a bit of a pain to use is the FireWire port, as it’s squeezed between the monitor plug and the Ethernet jack.

The mini’s 80GB drive came with about 58GB free. Beyond the OS and the standard Apple applications, the following programs were installed: iLife ‘06, Microsoft Office 2004 for Mac Test Drive, iWork (30-day trial), Quicken 2006 for Macintosh, Big Bang Board Games, Comic Life, and Omni Outliner. With the exception of Office 2004 and Quicken 2006, the other bundled applications are all Universal apps.

So enough about the box, the machine, the config, and the wiring. It’s time to put it to use! I’ll go into general performance later on, but the first comment is that the mini is a quiet machine. It does have a fan, but even when it ramps up during high-demand periods, it’s still very quiet. My PowerBook’s fan, by way of comparison, is much louder when it kicks into high gear.

Three takeaway points:
  1. Make sure you have the requisite cables before your mini arrives.
  2. Using a mini with a wired keyboard and mouse makes a mess of a neat little box. Spring for wireless.
  3. The new mini is quiet, though not totally silent, even when pushed.

I’m still marveling at the size and quietness of the mini. I wish they’d put at least the headphone jack on the front, but it’s at least in a reasonable position on the back.

III. Application testing

To get a feel for the mini’s applications in everyday use, I’ve been using it almost constantly since it arrived, with only a few forays back to the G5. Word, Excel, Keynote, Camino, Safari, BBEdit, iTunes, iChat, Photoshop Elements, Mail, etc. have all been in use for some or all of that time, helping me both with this report and my daily tasks for Macworld.

So how does it feel? It feels like a fairly speedy Mac that’s particularly fast in some regards, and somewhat slow in others. But we’ll discuss that more in my next installment. For now, here are my observations on how certain applications, both Rosetta and Universal, performed on the Core Duo mini.

Rosetta applications: These programs have not yet been compiled to run natively on the Intel chips, so they must rely on Rosetta to function.

Photoshop: This is clearly not a program to use on a mini—especially if you make your living with it. As Jon noted in his review, the full-blown Photoshop CS2 performs quite slowly in comparison to its PowerPC counterpart. If, on the other hand, you happen to own a version that you use for the occasional minor project, you’ll find its speed slow but bearable. I tested a mesh filter applied to a 1024x768 image in CS2 on all three Macs here, and the results were as expected. The G5 finished in roughly five seconds, the PowerBook took about nine, and on the mini, it took just over 14 seconds. So while it’s slower, if you’re not doing a lot of heavy lifting with the program, you’ll probably find it acceptable. You will, though, tire of the slow loading times quite quickly.

Photoshop Elements: Photoshop’s less-capable sibling is actually a much better match for the mini, at least in Rosetta mode. While it still won’t break any speed records while loading, the program is responsive enough in actual use. I used a 6.6MB TIFF test image, and had no trouble applying filters, working with text, or saving images for the web. Yes, these actions took longer than they did on my PowerBook, but I didn’t find the delay unbearable. I’ve actually left Elements in place on the mini, and have removed the full version of Photoshop, as Elements is the more usable of the two programs under Rosetta. All of the screenshots in this article were edited using Photoshop Elements on the mini.

Quicken 2006: Quicken is included as one of the bundled applications, so I tested it by moving over our massive Quicken 2004 data file—7.5MB and 12 years’ worth of records. Quicken 2006 launched reasonably quickly, and had no trouble importing and updating our data to work with the new version. Once running, Quicken’s responsiveness was fine. If I hadn’t had known, I would have had difficulty guessing if the program were in Rosetta or native. About the only giveaway was slightly jumpy scrolling.

As a stress test, I asked Quicken to give me a detailed report on all income and expense items for the entire 12-year timeframe. The report took just over a minute to prepare, which is relatively slow, but I didn’t find it unreasonable given the amount of data being crunched. Note, however, that this same report took only about seven seconds to prepare on the G5. Clearly much of that is CPU horsepower at work, but some of the slowdown is due to the Rosetta overhead. More “normal” reports for a month or a year or a particular category showed up basically instantly. In normal use, Quicken 2006 works just fine under Rosetta.

Microsoft Word 2004: Along with Photoshop and Excel, this is probably the program most potential Intel switchers are concerned about. So for all you who have to live in Word day-in and day-out, here’s what I found. Nothing. Well, OK, not absolutely nothing, but essentially nothing. The most obvious difference is that Word scrolls more slowly than does its native counterpart. I opened a 74 page, 4MB test file loaded with text and graphics as a test case. I then timed how long it took to scroll through the document when pressing and holding the scroll arrow on each of my machines. The G5 took eight seconds, the PowerBook required 15, and the mini needed 23. Yes, that’s about 50% slower than the PowerBook’s scrolling speed. But we’re also talking about scrolling through an entire 74 page document in just over 20 seconds. I don’t know about your use of Word, but I rarely, if ever, simply scroll a document all the way through in that manner.

A more telling test is what happens when you drag the scroll thumb around; this is how I’m likely to navigate through huge documents such as my test case. When doing that, the text on the screen lagged the thumb’s current position by maybe a half-second or so—it was close enough that when I was looking at the text for the section I wanted to move to, I didn’t even notice the slight lag. On shorter, less-complex documents, there was no lag at all. (The same was basically true when using the scroll wheel on my mouse.) Since a picture is worth a thousand words, I made a brief movie using the camera-on-tripod solution to show what it’s like scrolling about this large text document. Counting all 38,000+ words in the document took maybe a second, versus a half-second on the PowerBook—and that was on a very lengthy document. For typical home and business use, you won’t notice any difference in the times.

In summary, Word 2004 felt and worked fine running under Rosetta. Even manipulating graphics in Word’s graphic editor was reasonable, though it did seem a bit more “laggy” than when working in the document itself. I think most typical users won’t have much difficulty working in the Rosetta version of Word.

Microsoft Excel 2004: Excel behaved much like Word—basically normal, with somewhat slower scrolling. Being an ex-Finance guy, I have a lot of large, complex worksheets, so I loaded a few of those to test Excel’s performance. As with Word, scrolling is a bit jumpier, especially on super-complex worksheets.

The worksheets I’ve created that used macros all worked fine, and recalculation times were never a problem, though they are slower than when using Excel on a PowerPC. For example, I have a worksheet that requires about a second to recalculate on my Dual G5. On the PowerBook, it takes 2.5 seconds. On the mini, it took 4.3 seconds. Now, if you have insanely complex spreadsheets that require minutes to recalculate on a G5, you’d notice the differences on the mini. But for most of us, including those who use Excel in reasonably complex ways, the slight slowdown in recalculation doesn’t really have much of an impact on the daily routine. As with Word, I think that Excel running in Rosetta will meet the needs of the vast majority of users.

Google Earth: Google Earth has become a favorite way for me to spend a few free minutes zooming around the planet and checking out the high res images of other parts of the world. It’s also a fairly CPU intensive application, and it does some heavy graphics work, too, so I was curious how well it would run in Rosetta. As with the other apps I tested, the answer is “quite well.” There’s some occasional lags as the graphics try to keep up with what you’ve asked the program to do, but these are minor distractions. Zooming in, spinning around, and tilting the views all worked great. Adding measurement line overlays was trouble-free, as was clicking on the numerous National Geographic pop-ups that are splattered across Africa. In short, it worked very well.

jEdit: This isn’t really a mainstream application—it’s a free text editor designed for programmers. But it’s written in Java, and I wanted to get a sense of how well Java applications worked. The very short answer is that Java applications in general should work great on Intel Macs—that’s because most Java applications will automatically be native, at least according to Apple.

jEdit is certainly an example of that—it runs notably better on the mini than it does on my PowerBook, and in fact, keeps up with the G5 as well. A simple scroll test revealed that the G5 and the mini scrolled through a document in basically identical times. Java on the Intel machines looks like it could get a nice speed bump. Intrigued by these results, I ran the CaffeineMark Java benchmarks, and the mini outscored my Dual G5, by about 10 percent. Java users are in for a treat on the Intel-based Macs. (And Macworld’s own Java-based tests seem to bear this out.)

Universal applications: These are programs that have been recompiled to run natively on the Intel-chipped machines. All of the Apple-provided applications, for instance, are universal, and the number of third-party Universal apps increases daily. Apple has an excellent Universal Applications page that presently includes 1,073 listed native applications and Macworld has a summary of the key applications and their status.

I won’t focus on the Apple applications, as Macworld’s Jonathan Seff touched on those in his review, and I haven’t had the time to dive into many of them in a serious way, beyond iChat, iTunes, and a bit of iPhoto. Instead, I’ll talk about some of the native third-party apps that I’ve been using for a week or so now.

BBEdit: This entire report was written using BBEdit on the mini, and it works great. It loads faster than the PowerPC version on my PowerBook, scrolling is very fast, and the Unix filters work as expected. In terms of how it feels, it actually feels just as peppy as it does on the Dual G5. Window resizing is also very rapid, much more so than on my PowerBook, and about the same as the Dual G5.

Camino: Although Safari is a Universal application (and runs quite well), so is Camino, which has been my browser of choice lately. It loads amazingly quickly, and once running, page loading times are quick enough to be immeasurable. Moving between tabs, or browsing back and forth in history, are both near-instantaneous tasks, with minimal delay. Camino is quite fast on the G5 as well, but there’s a ‘snap’ to it in Universal format that seems to be missing on the G5. Of course, things happen so quickly that it’s nearly impossible to quantify this feeling, but using the two back-to-back, it’s definitely real.

Note that you may be disappointed by some aspects of plug-in support on Intel Macs. While Flash 8 is Universal, that’s not true for either Windows Media Player or its free replacement Flip4Mac. So if you’re trying to watch a streaming Windows Media file, you’ll probably be out of luck. But if the movie offers a downloadable version, Windows Media Player may be able to play it under Rosetta—and you can still download Windows Media Player from Microsoft’s Mac site. I did have mixed results with this; some movies played fine, others started playing, then stopped, while others didn’t play at all.

Finder: Yes, the Finder is an application, and it’s also Universal. This is one of the most impressive areas of the new mini’s performance. It’s sad to say, but this version of the Finder runs rings around the version on my Dual G5. It’s hard to explain how much better it is, but I’ll try. Long lists of files in a folder (over 1,500 in my test folder) don’t even slow you down—resizing and scrolling are amazingly fast, with no lag. Moving windows around has a sense of immediacy to it that’s lacking on my G5.

To try to measure this perceived increase in speed, I created a simple test. I created a folder containing 100 empty folders, opened this new folder, hit Command-A to select the 100 sub-folders, and then hit Command-Down to open each folder in its own window. Once they were all open, I Option-clicked the close box to close them all, and timed both actions (results in seconds):

Rob’s Empty Folder Test

Open 100 new windows Close 100 new windows
Dual G5 15 5
PowerBook 21 6
Mac mini 10 4

Testing by Rob Griffiths.

As you can see, the mini was remarkably quicker than both the PowerPC Macs, and by a wide margin. This new Universal Finder, finally, feels incredibly fast and responsive. There’s only one downside to all this speed: when I switch back to the G5 now, I’m astounded by how slow the Finder feels!

At 200 folders, though, the G5 took the lead in opening, too—53 seconds for the mini, versus 31 on the G5. And when closing all 200 folders, the mini really had difficulties—50 seconds versus only 10 for the G5. So there is a point at which the CPUs and graphics card in the tower help, but it’s at a level that seems beyond what most folks would do with their Finder on a daily basis.

OmniGraffle: OmniGraffle is somewhat difficult to categorize. It’s sort of this amazingly versatile multi-talented graphical assistant, able to help with everything from home layout to network design and much more. One reason I like it is that it includes palettes of pre-made graphics, so that even the truly artless such as yours truly can make decent looking finished projects. For instance, consider the Network palette:

To use any of those nifty images, you just drag them into your work area. But that palette also serves as a nice system stress test. Every object you see is a ‘live’ image that scales as you drag the lower right corner of the palette. Scaling 50+ graphical objects is not easy to do, and so resizing the Network palette can be slow, even on a speedy machine. I was amazed to find that the mini could handle the task just about as well as my Dual G5—it’s a slow process on either machine, but I couldn’t really tell whether one machine was any faster than the other.

Other programs: In addition to these major apps, I was thrilled to see that some of my most-important tools have already gone the Universal route. Butler, Textpander, and Backdrop, to name three. All three seem to work just as well on the Intel box as they do on the G5, which makes me quite happy. The only tool I really need on the mini but don’t yet have is Snapz Pro, my screenshot and screen movie capture tool of choice. It’s not that it runs slowly in Rosetta, either; it’s that it won’t run at all on the Intel machines.

Application launching tests: I wanted to see how quickly the mini would launch both Rosetta and Universal applications, and to then compare those figures to the launch times for the same apps on my PowerBook (the closest direct comparison machine I have here). The table below shows the initial launch time, from double-click to usable state, and an immediate subsequent “relaunch” time. Initial launches were run after a reboot on both the mini and the PowerBook. Note that the relaunch times figures aren’t indicative of real-world usage, unless you often relaunch apps immediately (or very quickly) after last using them. As more time goes by, OS X will have to essentially reload the applications from scratch, as the RAM will have been put to other purposes. But it’s still a good indication of how quickly the machine can reactivate a recently-used program.

Rob’s Launch Tests

Mac mini PowerBook Mac mini PowerBook
1st launch 1st launch 2nd launch 2nd launch
Excel 13 3.9 6.3 2.2
PS Elements 3 34.9 23.2 16.3 8.4
Google Earth 14.8 9.4 6.7 3.1
Photoshop CS2 55.3 26.4 22.8 6.7
Word 11.6 5.7 3.7 1.8
BBEdit 5.7 6.8 1 2.3
Camino 3.3 4.5 0.5 1.5
iChat 2.9 4.2 0.5 1.4
iTunes 3.1 3.8 0.5 2.2
Keynote 11.1 14.2 1.9 4.1
Pages 4.2 8.2 1.5 2.2
Safari 1.3 2.5 0.1 1.3

Rosetta applications in italics.

Testing by Rob Griffiths.

So what can we learn from this chart? Here’s what my tests seem to show:
  • First launch times for Rosetta apps was about twice that as for the same apps on the PowerBook.
  • Second launch times for Rosetta apps are between two and three times slower than those same apps’ second launch times on the PowerBook.
  • Universal applications load quickly. Every single universal application I tested loaded much quicker on the mini than it did on the PowerBook. As an extreme test, I also looked at Keynote ‘06 on my Dual G5. Its first-time load took about nine seconds, so it was still quicker than the mini—but then again, at roughly 5x the cost, I would hope it would be.
  • The second launch times for universal apps on the mini are astoundingly quick. The table really doesn’t do justice to the experience. Launch a universal app, quit it, and launch it again, and it’s back on the screen almost faster than you can double-click the mouse. And while this effect vanishes over time, if you aren’t opening a lot of other apps in the interim, you’ll still get the turbo-reload results later on. This is the one test that really demonstrates the advantages of the mini’s much faster RAM and motherboard speed; when it’s reading data from memory, it can do so at a very impressive rate. By way of comparison, the second launch time for Keynote on my Dual G5 was about 3.5 seconds, easily trounced by the mini.
Three takeaway points:
  1. Word and Excel will perform fine in Rosetta for the majority of ‘typical’ Office users.
  2. Universal applications open notably faster than their PowerPC cousins.
  3. The Universal Finder is amazingly speedy.

Although some of the applications I tested were quite impressive, nothing stunned me more than the speed of the Finder. It’s amazing to think it’s this fast on what is essentially Apple’s cheapest Mac. This bodes well for the high-end PowerMac replacements due out later this year.

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