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

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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.

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.

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.

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