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

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III. Application testing


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:

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.


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.

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