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.

V. Audio and video

Now we finally reach the section of my review that covers what may be this mini’s main role in many households: playing music and video, either to a connected display or through the stereo and television. To help it in that regard, the Intel Core Duo has been optimized to handle true high-definition video, and it sports digital audio input and outputs. I spent a bit of time working with various audio and video features, trying to get a sense of the machine’s capabilities.

Audio: First and foremost, the Mac mini’s built-in speaker is awful. It’s better than the 25-cent paper-cone types I used to put in my homebuilt PCs, but only just. Plug in a pair of headphones or external speakers, though, and the mini puts out fine sound, at least to my untrained ear. And having such a quiet machine is a nice change of pace when listening to songs with quiet passages.

I test-ripped one CD to iTunes (U2’s The Joshua Tree), and it took just over four minutes. On my PowerBook, it took 3:37 to import that same CD. Since both drives have the same rated 24x speed, I’m not sure why the PowerBook was somewhat quicker.

HD Video: One of the first things I wanted to test was how well the mini could handle HD video. The integrated graphics chip on the new mini supports H.264 HD video playback, so it should be possible. However, on Apple’s QuickTime HD Gallery page, they include this disclaimer:

Testing the mini with HD material seemed like a good way to put the CPU and graphics chipset through the wringer, since it’s clearly not a G5! I used the following clips for my testing (some of these may no longer be available on Apple’s page, or may have come from other sources):

  • “Harry Potter & The Goblet of Fire” trailer: 1920x816 resolution, and a good sample of a typical movie.
  • “The Da Vinci Code” trailer: 1920x900 resolution. The largest clip, and one with lots of lighting changes and fast cuts.
  • Warren Miller’s “Higher Ground”: 960x540 resolution. I included this one just because I love Warren Miller’s stuff (see screenshot below)!

After opening each clip in QuickTime Player, I chose View: Fit in Window if necessary to make the clip fit my 1280x1024 screen. Then I opened the Movie Info window so I could watch the frame rate while the clip played back. I then set up the same videos on my 1.33GHz PowerBook G4 as a comparison unit. Then I hit Play on each machine to see what happened.

On the PowerBook, the short answer is “not much at all” happened. The videos all jumped around, skipping huge chunks of time and playing only intermittent sound bites. The Movie Info window showed frame rates varying between 0.5 to perhaps 11 in a particularly slow section of the footage. In short, none of these HD videos was close to watchable on my PowerBook.

Switching over to the mini provided a completely different experience. All three videos played perfectly. No video frames dropped that I could see, and no sound dropouts at all. In the first two, the frame rate never wavered below 23fps (the target for all three clips is 24fps). In the Higher Ground video, I did see the frame rate drop to 12 once or twice, and 18 a few other times. But never did those slowdowns result in lost audio or video; the clip just kept playing fine.

Perhaps even more astounding was what happened when I switched from QuickTime to BBEdit with a clip still playing: nothing at all. Even while typing in my BBEDit document, the frame rates never wavered, audio was crystal clear, and the video didn’t stutter. To put it simply, I was amazed. My G4 couldn’t play the videos at all, and the mini could not only play them, but play them in the background while doing another task. Feeling confident, I then tried something quite dumb. I opened up both Harry Potter and Da Vinci Code, and tried to play them both at once. After trying for a minute or so, QuickTime Player decided the most prudent solution would be a quick exit, so it unexpectedly quit. To be fair, this is something that not even my Dual G5 will handle smoothly, though QuickTime Player didn’t quit when I tried it.

Keep in mind that I’m using a Core Duo mini for this report. If you’re interested in using a Core Solo mini to play back HD video, you’re out of luck. As Jonathan Seff noted in his review, “The Core Solo model… dropped frames, leading to distracting, stuttering video—even after we upgraded it to 1GB of RAM.” So if you want HD video playback, you’ll need to spring for the high-end model. But if you do pay the extra bucks, you’ll wind up with a system that handles HD nearly as well as a high-end Power Mac G5.

DVD Playback: To test DVD playback on the mini, I put in the extended edition of the third Lord of the Rings movie, “Return of the King.” This movie spans two DVDs, and is chock full of high-bit-rate action shots. I started the movie, and then sat back and worked on my G5, just letting the movie run on the mini. A couple hours into the film, I noticed the area behind the mini was getting quite warm.

I was curious as to just how warm it was, so I grabbed a nearby temperature probe and stuck the end of the probe in the mini’s exhaust fan airflow. After a few minutes, the readings stabilized at just above 110 degrees Fahrenheit. Sticking the probe under the mini found temps just slightly lower, around 105 degrees. Having so much computing power wrapped in such a tiny case doesn’t leave a lot of room for cooling airflow, so the warm air is just directed out the back and bottom vents. The exhaust temp on my G5, by comparison, never crossed 95 degrees during a similar test, due to the amount of space available for cooling air.

While the mini’s temperatures seemed quite warm to me, I was curious if the new machine was substantially warmer than the previous generation. So I asked a friend with a first-generation 1.42GHz mini to run the same experiment. His readings were in the 105-degree range after a similar length of time. So the new dual-core system, with substantially faster CPU, RAM, and system bus, seems to be only running a few degrees warmer than the old G4.

While the movie was playing, I’d switch my attention to it every so often to check the audio and video. (And I couldn’t very well miss the battle at Minas Tirith, could I?) I never noticed any dropped frames, and the audio was always perfectly in sync with the video.

The other amazing thing about watching the DVD was that, despite the extremely warm exhaust air, the fan noise in the mini never got annoyingly loud. It went up a level from idle, but it was still much quieter than my PowerBook is when its fan is cranked up. This machine would work quite well in the stereo cabinet, assuming you can get it enough fresh cooling airflow. Note that I did not hook my mini up to our television and stereo, but Jonathan Seff did for his official Mac mini review.

Video encoding: Given how well the machine did with HD playback, I wanted to see how well it would do converting video. To test it, I used Bruce Springsteen’s “Devils & Dust” music video. This clip is 61MB in size, and runs 5:15 in length, and was encoded with the Sorenson 3 codec. I set up QuickTime to convert it to H.264 video at medium quality using the faster single-pass encoding method. For a comparison, I also did the same conversion on my Dual G5.

On the mini, the conversion took 14 minutes and 39 seconds; on the dual G5, the task finished after just over seven minutes. So while the mini could be viewed as being half as fast as the Dual G5, it’s also only about a quarter of the cost, so it’s a relative performance bargain on that scale.

iChat: I held a few test audio and video chats, and they all worked fine. Video quality was excellent, and there weren’t any audio issues that I could discern. It’s interesting to note that the Core Duo (and the Core Solo as well), according to Apple’s iChat page, will let you initiate multi-party video chats. That’s something that you can’t do on a G4 mini—only Dual G4s can initiate multi-party chats.

Front Row: The Intel mini was my first exposure to Front Row; prior to the machine’s arrival, I had only seen screenshots on Apple’s site. After using it for a while, I can certainly see how it would be quite useful in a home entertainment set-up. The newly-added ability to play shared music, videos, and photos also greatly enhances Front Row’s usefulness.

I didn’t test Front Row using an AirPort connection, but over my wired Ethernet, it was fairly impressive. Accessing shared data from the G5, I was able to listen to music, watch videos, and view photos, all without any data interruptions. I even tried to cause problems by loading up the G5’s CPUs. I started playing iTunes, opened iPhoto to browse some images, and launched a flight in X-Plane’s autopilot mode. All told, both CPUs were running above 80% utilization. Despite that, playback on the mini continued to be smooth and uninterrupted.

I only ran into a few problems, two of which were relatively minor, the other, not so much so. The first (also mentioned in the official Macworld review) was that Front Row didn’t give appropriate feedback when I needed to authorize the mini to play music purchased from the iTunes store. The second was that I couldn’t get iPhoto to display the shared photo library on the G5. It turns out that you have to have something in your local iPhoto library in order for Front Row to share a remote iPhoto library.

The third, and more troubling, issue was that the Movie Trailers feature in the Videos section of Front Row simply didn’t work. Whenever I selected it, Front Row instantly displayed a message that read “The movie trailer server is not responding.” Browsing the net, it seems many other users are having this issue, even with super-fast Internet connections. Then I remembered a hint we published on this very subject on macosxhints.com. The hint requires a second machine, along with a good dose of Terminal usage. It’s far from a simple solution, and it has some definite downsides (you can’t reach www.apple.com from the mini any more, for instance), but I thought I’d try it. Amazingly, it worked perfectly—the Movie Trailers feature now worked as expected.

Unfortunately, the downsides outweigh the benefits for me, so I’ve reverted the changes and no longer have a functional Movie Trailers feature. Hopefully this will be addressed in a future update, as the problem seems relatively common.

I probably won’t use Front Row all that often, given the mini’s location in the same room as the G5. But for those thinking about the mini as a home entertainment device, it’s definitely a useful piece of software. The remote worked well, too, though I wish it wasn’t quite so minimalist—I’d be happy with buttons to jump directly to music from videos, for instance, without backtracking through the Front Row interface.

Three takeaway points:
  1. Core Duo minis do an excellent job with HD video playback. Core Solo minis do not.
  2. DVD playback worked perfectly, with audi and video always in sync.
  3. Front Row’s ability to access shared libraries really helps make the mini a capable centerpiece in a home entertainment system.

Overall, I was quite impressed by the onboard graphics’ handling of HD video playback. Even when placed in the background, video and audio playback continued unaffected. The mini makes a fine DVD player, and through the use of shared libraries in Front Row, you wouldn’t need to duplicate all your media files if you choose to use it in the living room.

VI. Gaming on the mini

Because the new mini uses a somewhat-contentious new graphics design (onboard video instead of a separate video card), I thought it’d be a good idea to throw some games at it and see how the chipset performed.

Games tend to stress any machine quite a bit, so I figured this was also a good way to see how well the overall system worked. Trying to be at least somewhat pragmatic about it, though, I mostly avoided the current generation of first-person shooters. After all, if a high-end Dual 2.5GHz G5 with a top-end XT800 video card can only crank out about 40fps in Doom 3 at 1024x768, then the mini is clearly not a good system on which to play such games. The Macworld Lab benchmark results prove this out, with frame rates between 10 and 12 for Unreal Tournament 2004 (more on that a bit later).

Instead, I focused on games that, while still graphically interesting, wouldn’t be quite so impractical to use on the mini. I also had two other machines available, my first generation Dual 2.0GHz G5 (2.5GB RAM, XT800 video card) and my 12” 1.33GHz PowerBook (768MB RAM). You’ll see some comparisons to those machines throughout, just as reference points.

Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2005: This is a game that I play somewhat regularly when I need a few minutes’ diversion. It runs great on my G5, and reasonably well on my PowerBook, so I thought it might be a reasonable starting point. I also chose it intentionally as it is not a Universal application as of yet. I wanted to see just what kind of penalty that might impose on the game. In fact, I was curious if it would even run; I had no idea how well Rosetta handled graphical games in general.

My first surprise was that Tiger Woods 2005 was very playable, though jerky, at 1024x768 resolution on the mini. Average frame rates were low, in the 10 to 12 range, but I was able to control the shots and watch the progress of the ball in flight without any problems. On my PowerBook, the same holes usually averaged out between 15 and 18fps, while the scores were over 40 on the G5.

I recorded a short movie of one shot on the course, just to give you a sense of how it plays. I’m sorry about the quality, but Snapz Pro X doesn’t run natively on the Intel machines yet. So I had to capture this clip the ‘old-fashioned’ way—using the digital camera mounted on a tripod. I did notice some occasional sound dropouts, which you can hear in the movie, and the graphics would briefly ‘freeze’ occasionally. But overall, given that I was running a 3D game in Rosetta, I was very impressed. I played through a full 18 holes, just to make sure there wouldn’t be any crashes or other surprises—and there weren’t.

Halo: Halo is not presently a Universal application, and it’s not known when (or even if) a Universal patch will become available. I launched Halo under Rosetta on the mini, set the in-game resolution to 640x480, and turned off as much eye candy as possible. I managed to get in-game frame rates in the 15 to 20fps range. Unfortunately, this rate dropped tremendously whenever the action on the screen got a bit intense. So much so that actually playing Halo on the mini in Rosetta would be basically impossible.

Spider-Man 2: This is not one of my favorite games, but it held a crucial advantage that led to its selection for my testing—it was one of only two games I owned that had Universal patches available. The Universal version was silky smooth, with nary a slowdown to be found, even at 1280x1024 resolution.

Over on my PowerBook, the game was equally smooth, but there was a big difference in image quality. All the distant views on the PowerBook were fogged out, which is done to improve frame rates. On the mini, I could see to the limit of the scene. And again, on the PowerBook, I was listening to some major fan noise. In this case, it’s a clear-cut win for the mini against my PowerBook, given the superior graphics performance at a higher resolution.

X-Plane: As a licensed (but not current) instrument-rated private pilot, I’ve always enjoyed flight simulators, and X-Plane is one of the best out around. Even better, I had my non-Universal version, along with a beta Universal version. Again, I’d be able to test both Rosetta and native versions and compare the results.

One of the features of X-Plane is that it automatically changes the application’s visibility settings to maintain a target of 15fps or better. As frame rates drop, X-Plane starts fogging distant objects, maintaining the minimum frame rate. So while it’s possible to play it on almost anything, the view out the windshield may not be all that enticing. In the case of the Rosetta version, I was looking at a very foggy day—even though the weather was “severe clear.” To demonstrate the visual differences between the machines, I set up an identical scenario on all three machines. Shortly after takeoff, I grabbed an external-view screenshot, and then edited them together into this montage (click for a much larger version).

You can also see full 1024x768 versions of each of the above images:

As you can see, the Rosetta version really had to cut visibility to maintain its minimum frame rate, while the other versions had no such issues. Note that the G5 goes beyond the others, with much better ground and sky lighting effects. Such are the benefits of a nice graphics card and powerful CPUs.

Quake III Arena: This oldie-but-goodie is still one of my favorite first-person-shooter games of all time. Featuring fast and furious online play, it’s a great mindless diversion. It also runs perfectly well on the mini, in either Rosetta or Universal mode (using the unofficial beta patch). At 1280x1024 resolution, running the standard demo, the mini scored around 55fps in Universal mode, and 51fps in Rosetta. Drop the resolution to 1024x768, and those figures jump to 90fps and 76fps, respectively. The game is very playable in either mode. (The advantage to running in Rosetta mode: PunkBuster, a technology designed to prevent online cheating, doesn’t support the Universal binary version.)

Unreal Tournament 2004: This was the only “current” 3D FPS game I tested. As noted in Macworld’s official mini benchmarks, the game cranked out a whopping 12fps on the Core Duo mini. However, that’s at 1024x768 and the ‘max’ setting. I wanted to see what if it was possible to get a somewhat playable frame rate out of UT2004 on the mini.

And the answer is…sort of. By setting the resolution down to 640x480, and using “lower” or “lowest” on most visual settings, I could get frame rates that averaged closer to 30fps…most of the time. However, when playing online against multiple opponents, the situation got much worse. Frame rates often dropped into the low teens, turning my character into instant fragbait. If you’re an UT2004 fan, the new Core Duo mini is not the gaming machine for you!

Controllers: I have a gamepad, steering wheel, and flight stick, and they all worked perfectly throughout my testing, in both Rosetta and Universal games.

Three takeaway points:
  1. Gaming peripherals will probably work with the Intel mini, unless they rely on a dedicated extension. In those cases, you’ll need to wait for Universal drivers.
  2. For games not on the bleeding edge of graphics requirements, performance under Rosetta may actually be quite fine, though it will vary by game.
  3. Don’t buy a mini if your primary intent is to use it for gaming! Spend the money on an Xbox 360 or Playstation 2 instead.

Overall, I was generally impressed with both Rosetta and the onboard graphic chipset’s performance. Both were better than I was expecting in terms of their gaming performance. Unfortunately, I didn’t have access to a first-generation mini to see how the games compared head-to-head, but on a standalone basis, the Intel mini is clearly capable of playing some games quite well—even in Rosetta—as long as you’re OK living slightly in the (gaming) past.

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