Linuxgruven > Hardware > Mac Mini Intel Review

Mac Mini Intel Review

2007.03.10

NOTE: 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.


Introduction

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.

In 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 Duo CPU.

The Hardware

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.

The 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
As 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.

While 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.

Performance

This 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.

Daily Use

I 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.

As 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 it up.

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.

Under 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?

While 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.

The 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 MacBook.

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.