Mac Mini Intel Review
In April 2006, a fist-generation Mac Mini became my main work machine.
The following is a mini-review covering my daily use of the machine for
the last year. Please note that, while I started out using this
machine under Mac OSX, I moved it to Linux in June when it actually
took over as my main machine.
Apple finally satisfied the hoards crying for an inexpensive Mac when
it originally released the G4 Mac Mini. The machine was impossibly
small when it was released. Two years later, I've still never seem a
slicker or smaller PC.
early 2006, Apple moved the Mini to the Intel processor. At the time
of purchase, the choices were a single CPU Core Solo processor or a
more expensive Core Duo. At the time of writing, the Mini remains the
only machine in Apple's lineup that hasn't moved to the faster Core 2
As mentioned above, this machine is impossibly small when it was released. The Mini is literally
the size of a few CD jewel cases. This is accomplished with an
impossibly small motherboard, very limited expansion slots and a power
adapter that is almost as large as the PC itself. When it comes to
design, this is a top-flight machine - provided you don't mind giving
up one of the main advantages of desktop machines: Expandability.
mini is essentially a laptop without the display. While this can be of
limited value, in an office setting it is quite ideal.
My Mini's specs are:
- Intel Core Duo 1.6GHz CPUs
- 2GB DDR2 RAM
- 100GB Hard Drive
- Intel integrated GMA950 video
- DVD+-RW slot-loading optical drive
- Built-in WiFi and Bluetooth
- 3xUSB2, Firewire
- 1GB ethernet
you can see, by todays standards these specs are good but not
fantastic. It's worth noting that a few of these items, such as the
2GB RAM upgrade were extras. As I recall, this completely maxes out
the mini, which is something I'd recommend, as opening it isn't as easy
as removing a few screws. While it is possible to open it, for most
users it should be considered a car with the hood welded shut. Not
that this is a problem, expansion these days mostly comes in the form
of new USB or FireWire gadgets. Moreover, the base machine is good
enough that you wouldn't really need to upgrade anything.
the lack of internal expansion might be a deal-breaker for some, the
tradeoff for almost no footprint and virtually silent operation more
than make up for the drawbacks of the Mini's diminutive size.
machine replaced a Pentium 4 2.8GHz. Despite the lower clock speed of
the Core Duo, the Mini is much faster for my purposes. The second CPU
core makes all the difference for me. One of the applications I use
daily is VMWare. Between the Core Duo's VT features and the second
core, VMWare barely makes a noticeable dent in performance. This is
something I thought I'd never say. For VMWare, the second core is
fantastic. One can actually assign a CPU to a VMWare image, the second
core is left to handle all other desktop tasks. This alone makes the
Mini a worthwhile upgrade for me.
While the CPU was a
significant upgrade, the video was a sidestep. I had an Nvidia GeForce
MX 400 before, and a GeForce 5200 in my PowerBook. Under Mac OSX the
GeForce 5200 seems faster than the Intel GMA950. However, in Linux I
actually prefer the GMA950. It's not a gaming card but it does do
brilliantly for normal desktop use and light OpenGL work. Unless
you're a gamer, the GMA950 is probably good enough. On laptops, I'd go
with the GMA950, as it draws much less battery than a GeForce or an ATI
card. For the target market of the Mini, the GMA950 is the right
card. The biggest drawback is that it pulls from your system RAM, so
be sure to have at least 1GB of RAM in the mini.
use the Mini day in and day out. It's been mostly great. I have had
it lock up with no explanation a few times. This has happened in both
Mac OSX and Linux. If you didn't run the machine 24x7, you might not
notice. It may even be a problem with my particular system, though
I've read similar reports from other Mini owners that make me think
that it's a problem common to all first-gen Intel Minis. This hasn't
been a problem for me and I haven't investigated the problem much but
I'd think long and hard before using this machine as a server.
a Linux box, the Mini is fantastic. Everything was detected, even the
Bluetooth and WiFi, not that I've ever used either in the office.
Installing Ubuntu Dapper was a bit of a pain. I first installed the
firmware update to give BIOS support, then installed BootCamp, then
installed rEFIt as a boot loader. There are good how-to pages on
setting this all up. It added about an hour on to the setup. After
that, it was smooth sailing. Ubuntu installed without issue, except
that GRUB doesn't work with the Mini, so I had to install lilo etc. It
was a bit of a pain but didn't take me long. Anyone seriously
considering using this as a Linux box shouldn't have problems setting
I must say, the GMA950 is a joy under Linux. Games
aside, as I don't have any installed at work, the DRI/3D was
unbelievably easy to get working. It really highlights why proprietary
drivers from Nvidia and AMD/ATI are such a pain in Linux. In other
systems, open or closed drivers don't make much of a difference. In
linux, every kernel update means fiddling with closed binary video
drivers. No good, as far as I'm concerned. Now that Intel has decent
graphics cards, I'll stick to them personally. I don't game much and
the ease of use is more important to me than a few FPS on games that I
rarely fire up. It's certainly not a problem in an office setting.
Mac OSX, I found the Mini to be faster than my G4 PowerBook but
ill-suited to daily use in my job. It's certainly a nice Mac machine
and for office tasks or content creation I'm sure it would do
perfectly. However, the X11 server is quite slow under Aqua, and iTerm
and Terminal.app are just too sluggish when you have 30+ open. I tried
to move to Mac OSX as my main work machine but in the end, Linux -
even with the occasional hiccups is better suited to my work.
However, as a Mac OSX machine, the Mini is quite fast. Fast enough. Significantly faster than a G4.
Why Buy a Mini?
my exact mini is no longer available through the Apple Store, the
closest at the time of writing would be the 1.83GHz with a 120GB
drive. Without AppleCare, this costs $1320CDN or a cool $1500 with
AppleCare. Personally, I think this is too much for what it is, at
least at this time. Moreover, a similarly-configured MacBook with a
faster Core2 Dou CPU is within a few hundred dollars of the Mini.
real draws to the Mini are the size and the fact that you can plug it
into a KVM or different monitors. As a small media PC in the living
room, I doubt you could do better than the Mini. As a general-purpose
computer, it's a reasonable corporate machine. However, for most
people, the price of the Mini just doesn't add up. An iMac, maybe, a
Mac Pro perhaps if you need the power and expandability, but for most
uses, the MacBook or an iMac would make far more sense and would make
more sense. The low-end iMac is actually cheaper as configured than
the Mini, albeit with a combo drive, but the mid-range iMac costs about
as much as the Mini with AppleCare or, again, the same price as a
However, the Mini is a great little machine, is silent,
fairly flexible and very well-suited to certain tasks. For my uses, I can't imagine a better machine at this time. Having said this, I would have a difficult time recommending it to someone else at this time.