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

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

IV. General usage observations

After my previous installment, you’ve got a sense for what the Mac mini is like, and how individual applications perform, both in native and Rosetta form. But how well does the mini actually work, when you sit down and use it on a daily basis? For the last seven days, I’ve been doing exactly that.

If you’re expecting a simple one-word answer like “great!” or “awful!” or “so-so,” you’ll be disappointed. How well the mini might work for you really depends on two things. First, what types of programs you run and what you do with those programs. And second, how many applications you like to use at once.

You’ll be disappointed with the mini, at least in its stock form, if your workflow includes tasks such as these:
  • You routinely load 15 to 20 applications at once, and switch between all of them regularly.
  • You open 25MB files in Photoshop CS2 and apply complex filters and other digital magic to them.
  • You have a set of 500 Excel templates, each 2MB in size with thousands of arrays and conditional formulas in each, that all must be updated on a weekly basis.
  • You’re a hard-core gamer.

Usage patterns: My challenge in moving over to the mini is that the first item above describes how I use my Power Mac G5. It’s not unusual to find 25 open programs on my machine, even though I don’t switch between all of them regularly. With so much RAM and CPU power available on my G5, I have a tendency to get a bit lazy. But following those same habits on a 512MB (with a max of 432MB usable) mini is a recipe for a quick trip to the virtual memory slow-zone. When OS X runs out of real memory, it starts writing the memory used by inactive applications to your hard drive. These actions are called Page Outs, and they can be seen in the Memory Usage tab at the bottom of the Activity Monitor window:

If your system is running at its fastest, that Page Outs number will be zero, meaning no data has ever been written to your hard drive. Now, OS X has a very efficient virtual-memory system, so this isn’t anything like the horrors we experienced when OS 9 used virtual memory. But it does lead to some lengthy application switching delays if you move from an active to an inactive program—anywhere from five to 15 seconds in my testing, depending on which applications were involved.

The good news is that if you tend to keep using only a few of the active applications regularly, you won’t even notice you’re using VM—until you try to switch to an inactive application. What’s even worse is if you switch, rapidly, from one unused application to another; the system is sent scurrying about, trying to collect all the bits necessary to reactivate two applications at once. This led to a couple of interesting situations for me, wherein I had control of Application X’s windows, even though Application Y’s menus were showing on the screen. Once the virtual-memory switching caught up, everything returned to normal. In the end, the Mac mini with 512MB was usable with a bunch of apps open, but only as long as I was willing to wait for the occasional virtual-memory reload.

Thankfully, there’s a way to solve this particular issue: buy more RAM. And when it comes to this new Mac mini, I’d recommend you do it at the time you purchase the computer, because it’s quite a bit harder to install RAM in this model than in the previous generation. The new mini supports up to 2GB of RAM, which is twice the limit of the old mini. With 2GB installed, you can be much more aggressive about opening and using multiple applications at once. Based on my experience, I wouldn’t recommend keeping the mini at only 512MB of RAM if you plan on using more than three major apps at one time. One gigabyte seems to be a reasonable amount of RAM to let you do what you’d like to do, without constantly thinking about memory.

Rosetta vs. Native apps: If you push Photoshop or Excel (or Word or any other large not-yet-native apps) hard, then you’ll find the mini’s performance disappointing. While Rosetta works fine for most typical usage, if you start to load it with monstrous images or huge spreadsheets, you’ll be waiting a long time for things to happen.

Gaming: Want to play the latest 3D shooters? Get another machine. Don’t mind playing some older stuff, or you prefer puzzle games to graphical games? Then the mini will probably be fine for you. I’ll talk about this more later on.

My experience: Overall, I was thrilled with the performance of the mini. That doesn’t mean I had a beachball-free experience, nor that I never had to wait for the VM system to reload an app I wanted to work with. It means that, for what this computer is designed to do, I think it performed admirably. Yes, I was using a Mac with 512MB of RAM while simultaneously running Camino, BBEdit, Keynote, Terminal, Photoshop Elements, iTunes, iChat, and one or two other programs. That led to beachballs and odd graphical delays at times. And Photoshop Elements was running in Rosetta, so things were slower than they otherwise would have been.

But through all of that, iTunes never skipped, the machine only crashed once (and that was a gaming-related lockup), and whatever application I was working in was always responsive to my requests. And there are aspects of the mini’s performance that easily exceed that of my Dual G5, which is an impressive accomplishment. Even more impressively, within a day or so of receiving the machine, I’d basically forgotten that there was an Intel chip inside. The new mini is, first and foremost, still a Mac.

Three takeaway points:
  1. The mini is an extremely capable “entry level” Mac.
  2. You’ll want more than 512MB of RAM if you’re going to run more than a few apps at the same time.
  3. It may have Intel inside, but it’s still a Mac on the out (user) side.

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