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

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:

  • Setup, configuration and application tests
  • General observations, audio & video, gaming
  • Testing methods, Intel transition and conclusions
  • More RAM, more tests
  • HD issues and final thoughts
  • VII. Testing the Mac mini

    You can see the results of the Macworld Lab’s tests in our full review. Since my personal objective was to learn as much about the Mac mini as possible, I sought out additional test tools to add to what the Macworld Lab tests told me.

    Geekbench benchmark: Impressed with the relaunch speeds of applications, I went looking for a benchmark test that would measure the raw computing power of the Core Duo chip in the mini. With some help from Google, I found Geekbench, which runs in the Terminal and runs a whole slew of number-crunching tests (and works on Windows and Linux, too). I ran Geekbench on all three Macs. One interesting feature of Geekbench is that there’s a Rosetta version as well as a native version, so you can see just what kind of performance impact Rosetta makes.

    Geekbench is, well, quite geeky, so dig into the table below only if you want to see all the gory details.

    Rob’s Geekbench Results

    Intel Mac mini (rosetta) Intel Mac mini (Native) Rosetta as % of Native PowerBook Dual G5 Native as % of Dual G5
    Emulate 6502
    (1 thread)
    71 152 47% 65 154 99%
    Emulate 6502
    (4 threads)
    136 290 47% 70 282 103%
    Blowfish
    (1 thread)
    (see note) 291 N/A 184 143 203%
    Blowfish
    (4 threads)
    (see note) 494 N/A 181 253 195%
    bzip2 Compress
    (1 thread)
    49 115 43% 79 132 87%
    bzip2 Compress
    (4 threads)
    101 219 46% 76 240 91%
    bzip2 Decompress
    (1 thread)
    57 115 50% 66 141 82%
    bzip2 Decompress
    (4 threads)
    117 215 54% 65 269 80%
    Mandelbrot
    (1 thread)
    62 123 50% 64 131 94%
    Mandelbrot
    (4 threads)
    118 234 50% 62 247 95%
    Latency 210 432 49% 73 222 195%
    Read Sequential 152 306 50% 38 213 144%
    Stdlib Allocate
    (1 thread)
    (see note) 119 N/A 156 114 104%
    Stdlib Allocate
    (4 threads)
    (see note) 139 N/A 157 117 119%
    Stdlib Write 134 135 99% 34 132 102%
    Stdlib Copy 156 158 99% 45 134 118%
    Stream Copy 79 108 73% 34 135 80%
    Stream Scale 62 109 57% 33 133 82%
    Stream Add 82 162 51% 18 138 117%
    Stream Triad 70 158 44% 18 135 117%

    Noted results differed significantly from native tests, suggesting a possible bug in the test program.

    Testing by Rob Griffiths using GeekBench .

    If you just want the summary version of the results, here it is:

  • In nearly all tests, there’s about a 50 percent hit in performance due to Rosetta when compared to running in native mode.
  • My PowerBook is in a different (much lower) league when compared to the mini. In only a couple of tests did it score better, and in most of the others, it was resoundingly trounced.
  • In just over half the tests, the Core Duo chip was actually quicker than my Dual G5, and in the other tests, it was never far behind. I find that fairly impressive.
  • Clearly the Core Duo is a powerful chip, based on its raw number-crunching abilities. As more applications go Universal, we (consumers) will see the benefits in terms of improved performance.

    Cinebench benchmark: The free Cinebench benchmark uses the Cinema 4D engine to test the graphics performance of your Mac. I tested all three of the Macs here, and then, for an added data point, also tested my homebuilt Windows XP PC (which literally hadn’t been powered up in months). Here’s how the machines performed:

    The first thing that stands out, quite glaringly, is that the Windows XP box kicked some serious Cinebench butt on the OpenGL benchmarks—it was over twice as fast at the hardware accelerated test! Now Maxon’s OpenGL engine implementation may not be the best, but the fact is that Cinema 4D’s OpenGL engine will run twice as quickly on my homebuilt Athlon-based single-core CPU as it will on my Dual G5. That just doesn’t seem right.

    Also obvious from the charts is that the 12-inch PowerBook is really not a great machine for Cinema 4D work. It was substantially behind the mini on all tests.

    What do these results mean to you, if you don’t work in Cinema 4D all day? Not necessarily a whole lot, other than to put the relative performance of the machines in perspective, and to note that the mini’s onboard graphics chip works much better than the PowerBook’s separate video card.

    Xbench: This is one of the older Mac benchmarking applications, and it too is now available in Universal form. I ran all three machines through the standard test, and here are the results:

    Rob’s Xbench Tests

    Intel Core Duo 1.66GHz PowerBook G4 1.33GHz Power Mac G5 2GHz
    CPU 63.94 55.59 100.14
    Thread 164.8 58.38 101.17
    Memory 94.66 25.91 91.58
    Quartz Graphics 57.99 62.17 101.16
    OpenGL Graphics 184.9 68.73 116.16
    User Interface 23.83 34.23 90.17
    Disk 30.25 26.38 50.86
    Overall Score 53.87 40.83 87.46

    Testing by Rob Griffiths.

    Xbench is designed to return a score of 100 on a 2.0GHz Dual G5, which just happens to be my desktop machine. As you can see, my system did better in some areas like graphics (where my XT800 card is quicker than the stock card), but much poorer in others—I completely failed the disk test, for example. I’ll have to look into that at some point!

    The interesting figures here are the three tests where the mini beats the Dual G5. The Thread and Memory results don’t surprise me, given the much faster RAM and the Intel chip’s capabilities. The OpenGL results, though, I have no explanation for. My Dual G5 is clearly much faster than the mini at anything using OpenGL, but these results suggest otherwise. And yet, in something like the iTunes visualizer, running at the same resolution on both machines, the Dual G5 is about 50 percent quicker than the mini. I really don’t have an explanation for this result, and welcome any thoughts from others on the subject.

    Three takeaway points:

  • Rosetta has about a 50 percent raw performance hit, though its actual impact will vary by application.
  • In many raw CPU performance tests, the Intel Core Duo chip outperformed the 2.0GHz Dual G5s in my desktop Mac. Not bad at all, given that this Core Duo mini is about one-fourth the cost of a high-end G5.
  • The PowerBook G4/1.33GHz is completely dominated by the Core Duo mini in these benchmark tests.
  • These test results are more for general interest than specific comparison purposes, especially as they lack any comparative info for the prior-generation mini. Still, they do show that the mini has a powerful CPU and not-too-shabby graphics chip, both of which should help it easily fulfill its role as Apple’s entry-level Mac.

    VIII. Rosetta and Intel transition issues

    I’ve touched on these topics in other sections before, but I thought I would also consolidate the subject here for easy access.

    Rosetta: Rosetta works, and in my opinion, works amazingly well. The fact that something like Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2005 can be converted on-the-fly to run with an acceptable (if slow) framerate on the Intel mini is just amazing. And in more typical usage, such as in Word or Excel, the performance hit from Rosetta isn’t really noticeable unless you’re pushing the limits of these program’s capabilities. The most visible signs of Rosetta are slower scrolling, and perhaps a bit of lag in screen redraws.

    Now, if you try to do something like edit a multi-megabyte TIFF image in Photoshop CS2 on the mini, you’ll definitely feel the Rosetta impact. In working on this article, I used Photoshop Elements extensively, and at only one time did I really notice the slowdown. I had opened four 1MB TIFFs for conversion to PNG, and it took a few seconds to open the “Save for Web” dialog for each one. Not a big deal, time-wise, but notably different than either the PowerBook or the G5.

    For most typical users, who spend their time in e-mail, on the web, and working on simple letters and spreadsheets, I don’t think Rosetta is going to be noticed much, if at all. If, on the other hand, you’re a power user who works on massive Excel spreadsheets, huge image-laden Word documents, or monstrous 20MB advertising layout TIFFs in Photoshop, you’re going to want to wait for native versions of your applications before you switch.

    Intel transition issues: At the end of the day, the mini is really just another Mac, regardless of what’s powering it. If nobody told you, you wouldn’t know there’s anything different under the hood. The machine is a Mac, just one with a different engine powering it than we’re all used to. That scares some people, myself included. But after having used the thing for a very-intensive seven days, I can see that my fears were mostly unfounded. The mini is a Mac, through and through, regardless of what it looks like inside.

    That said, there are some things you’ll want to be aware of before you switch. If you use hardware or software that requires a kernel extension or similar driver to function, it won’t work until that driver is converted to work on the Intel-powered Macs. If you use a MacBook Pro, for instance, that means you can’t yet use the wonderful SideTrack to add functionality to your trackpad. And for me, it means that I can’t use Snapz Pro to capture screenshots and movies, which is why the two movies in this article look so ugly, despite my efforts with the tripod and digital camera.

    On the positive side of the transition issue, native applications work really well. They tend to launch more quickly than their counterparts on similarly-powered PowerPC machines, and performance within the applications is snappy. On the games I tested, the Universal versions had amazingly good frame rates, at least compared to the PowerBook’s version of the same games.

    If you use Java applications, you’ll be thrilled to see that these (usually) don’t require any conversion to run natively on Intel…and they run fast . jEdit on my G5 feels slower than jEdit on the mini, which is quite the feat for a “low end” Mac.

    Three takeaway points:

  • Most typical users won’t find Rosetta to be an intrusive, slowing technology, despite the benchmark results.
  • If you have hardware or software that relies on extensions and/or drivers to function, these things will not work until the drivers are modified to work on Intel chips.
  • Native applications tend to be quite fast, and Java applications are already native by default.
  • I really think Apple has done a good job with Rosetta. Yes, there’s a performance hit, but really, it’s not that obvious unless you’re really stressing the machine. Many people probably won’t even realize something’s running under Rosetta unless they’re told; it’s a very seamless technology.

    And I’ve been thrilled with the speed of the native applications, especially the Finder! I keep having to remind myself that I’m using the second-cheapest Mac you can purchase, and not something near the top-end of the food chain. Yes, my Dual G5 is still quicker in most things, especially gaming and graphically-intensive applications. But for everything from e-mail to web browsing to working in the Finder to iPhoto to iTunes, etc., the mini feels at least as fast, if not much faster (Finder!) than the Dual G5.

    IX. Conclusion

    If you’re still reading this, you’ve got an incredible amount of patience, interest in the mini, or you just jumped down here to get to the good stuff first. Whatever the reason, here are my concluding thoughts after a long, busy week working intently with the new Intel Core Duo mini—thoughts on both the mini itself, and the Intel transition. Because my fingers are nearly ground down to stumps, I’m going to present the conclusion as a bulleted list…

  • I cannot directly comment on the Intel Core Solo vs. the Duo, but from what I read in Macworld’s review, the Core Duo seems to be well worth the extra $200, especially if you’re interested in HD playback.
  • As expressed in my opinion piece a couple weeks back, I was very concerned that the “Dellification” of the Mac’s internals would somehow change the user experience. Despite the fact that this mini is the most Dell-like Mac yet, my concerns in this area have been satisfied. Regardless of the parts inside, Apple’s hardware and software engineers have succeeded in making the mini “just another Mac.” And though it may not sound it, that’s a compliment for a job well done!
  • Rosetta, the technology that allows PowerPC code to run without recompiling for the Intel chip, is fairly amazing. Yes, it extracts a performance penalty, but not so much of a hit that you feel like you can’t use the technology. From opening a graphically-intensive game to navigating through a 75-page Word document and running complex Excel spreadsheets, I was impressed with Rosetta’s invisibility. You don’t think about; stuff just seems to work right.
  • As nice as Rosetta is, Universal applications are even nicer. They all load quickly and feel very responsive. Web pages in Camino basically appear; there is no drawing time. Amazing.
  • The Universal Finder is a real “wow” item for me. It’s very hard to explain just how much faster it feels and reacts. This is the first time since my days of OS 9 usage where I’ve felt the Finder was really keeping up with what I was asking it to do. Most impressive.
  • For an entry-level machine, the Core Duo mini does some amazing stuff. Playing back HD video, for instance, is something that my $1800 PowerBook can’t do. The Core Duo makes it look simple. It runs Java apps faster than my Dual G5. Many of its processing benchmarks surpass those of the G5. As impressive as this is on the mini, what I really think it bodes well for are the upcoming top-of-the-line Power Mac replacements. Those machines will simply scream.
  • The mini will meet the needs of its intended audience quite nicely. It won’t satisfy power users running huge apps in Rosetta, but for everyone else, it’s a very nice machine. Ideally, it would come with 512MB more RAM, but it’s very usable out of the box.
  • The on-board graphics chip handled Tiger’s Core Graphics with ease, and did a surprisingly good job with games. Apple’s decision to limit the chip to 80MB of system memory was a good one, removing my concern that free RAM would be sucked up by the graphics system. At no time did I ever feel like I was using a substandard system as far as graphics went. DVDs looked and played great, HD video playback was amazing, and it even did a reasonable job on most of the games. Just remember that it’s not a Doom 3 power machine, and you’ll be fine.
  • The final question is…would I buy one of these myself, and/or recommend it to friends? That’s a tougher question; it would really depend on who the user was and what their needs were.

    For first-time Mac buyers, I don’t think the machine makes a lot of sense, unless they already have a keyboard, mouse, and monitor from a PC system. If you order a 1GB Core Duo, that’s $899 up front. Add a keyboard ($20), mouse ($10), and monitor ($150), and you’re up to $1079. For an extra $300, you could have an Intel-based iMac with a faster processor, twice the hard drive space, and an included iSight camera. The iMac has a better video card as well, and makes a better gaming machine. Unless budget was “absolutely no more than $1100,” I would probably try to convince a newcomer that the iMac was the better value proposition.

    Yes, you can knock the mini’s price down by $200 by getting the Core Solo, but I’m not sure that newcomers will be as impressed by the performance of that machine, based on our review and lab tests… and it won’t play back HD video, so it wouldn’t work as well in the home entertainment center.

    For those who already have the accessories, however, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the mini, especially the Core Duo. Even power users may be surprised at how well the mini does some things—just don’t expect it to be a Photoshop-in-Rosetta powerhouse! As an add-on system, it’s amazingly fast, very quiet, and can be placed almost anywhere. It’s also a great way to get acquainted with the Intel processors, and perhaps test the waters before diving in with a new high-end Intel tower later this year. And as a centerpiece in a home entertainment system, it would perform admirably.

    And now, I really am out of things to say about both the Intel transition and the Core Duo mini. I hope you’ve found this information useful, and thanks for reading along!

    [ Rob Griffiths is a senior editor at Macworld and runs MacOSXHints.com. ]

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