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

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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:

  • “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 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 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.

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