Performance Impressions

The performance of the Mac mini in its standard form is unacceptable, even for a $499 machine.  At first, I was afraid that the poor performance was due to the 1.25GHz G4. However, upon further investigation, the root of the cause revealed itself - 256MB of memory is simply not enough for OS X.  When running one application, such as Safari or Mail, the 256MB of memory is enough, but as soon as you open more than one application, the memory quickly disappears.  The problem with disk swapping on the mini is that it is using a 2.5" hard drive, which is significantly slower than a desktop hard drive. So, overall performance is reduced significantly.  There's a ton of stuttering when multitasking (not even heavy multitasking) and it's completely caused by disk swapping. 

Upgrading the system to 512MB of memory fixes all of the problems. You'd be hard pressed to get close to 100% CPU utilization on even the low end 1.25GHz G4 without resorting to video encoding, and most importantly, the system is as smooth as can be with 512MB.  As I mentioned in the first Mac article, OS X's caching algorithms work wonders for perceived system performance, since there's very little disk swapping, but in order for the OS to do its thing, you need a certain minimum level of memory and that seems to be 512MB.  Apple offers a 512MB upgrade for the mini for $70, which is slightly cheaper than what a DDR333/400 stick would cost you aftermarket, and it is an absolute must-have for this system.  Working on a simple file, ftp or web server with no end user interaction in the OS, you can get by with a 256MB configuration, and the same goes for a single user, single application usage environment, but as soon as there's any element of multitasking at play, you need 512MB - any less doesn't do the system justice. 

Honestly, the first time that I used the mini, I was quite frustrated with it, simply because there was just too much disk swapping going on.  But after the 512MB upgrade, I was more than happy from a performance perspective.  The 5400RPM drive in the system is actually fairly snappy (when not being swapped to) and application start times are pretty reasonable as well.  There's a clear difference between the mini and Apple's PowerMac G5s, but despite the difference, the mini offers a pretty good level of performance, if it is configured with 512MB of memory. 

Apple should not be allowed to sell any system with OS X with less than 512MB of memory; and you shouldn't buy the mini with less than 512MB of memory. It's as simple as that.

The performance of the 1.25GHz G4 is surprisingly good. I was expecting to notice a big difference between it and the 1.5GHz G4 in the 15" PowerBook reviewed yesterday, but the difference isn't that big in most applications.  The one area where the G4 definitely lags behind, though, is in video encoding.  Importing any video into iMovie HD frankly takes too long for the mini to be used often as a video editing box. Granted, the 2.5" hard drive should be an indication of that alone, but even with an external FireWire drive, the CPU does hold you back significantly.  Performance throughout the remaining iLife '05 applications is pretty solid, and even iMovie HD, as an application runs wonderfully on the 1.25GHz G4. It's just importing movies that can take a pretty long time, especially for longer clips.  Low video encoding performance may burst the mini HTPC bubble, which has been brewing in many minds since Apple's announcement, but it will work just fine as a media server - just not as a PVR (not without hardware accelerated encoding). 

Despite what I had originally expected, the on-board Radeon 9200 is a bit of a performance limitation.  I had the Mac mini hooked up to a 23" Cinema Display running its native resolution of 1920 x 1200 and was wondering why Exposé and a handful of other animations were choppy. After tinkering with resolutions, I found out why.  At resolutions above 1280 x 960, the Radeon 9200's 32MB of local frame buffer isn't enough to handle Exposé of even just four windows - swapping to main memory, and thus reducing the smoothness of the Exposé effects.  At 1024 x 768, it's great and it's even fine at 1280 x 960, but once you start going above and beyond that, you start running out of video memory real quickly.  I am concerned about performance under OS X Tiger, simply because with more being stored in video memory (e.g. font caches), you'll run out of video memory even quicker.  Granted, what I'm discussing right now isn't a reduction in actual performance, but rather a reduction in the smoothness of animations - which to a first-time OS X user can be a huge turn off.

The other thing to keep in mind is that the Radeon 9200 interfaces to the North Bridge using AGP 4X, not AGP 8X.  All windows in OS X 10.3.x are treated as AGP textures, and thus, AGP texturing performance is also important to UI performance.

As I mentioned earlier, the Mac mini features a single DVI output, but ships with a VGA adapter as well.  The analog VGA output quality of the mini is actually pretty impressive, with no issues at 1600 x 1200 over the VGA adapter.  It looks like Apple paid attention to all aspects of performance with the mini, including those that are sometimes overlooked, such as analog video output quality. 

In normal application launches and application usage (with 512MB of memory), the hard drive is surprisingly fast. However, when it comes to application installs, especially larger applications like iLife '05, install times are extremely long.  On a desktop PowerMac G5 iLife '05, a 4GB application suite takes a decent amount of time, but on the mini, iLife '05 takes forever to install.  Even the smaller 800MB iWork '05 installation takes forever (but less than the previous forever) to install.  Luckily, these are the types of things that you only have to do once, but doing any sort of intensive file copying to the mini's 2.5" hard drive can be frustrating (e.g. installing all 4GB of iLife '05). 

Sound Impressions and Hardware Surprises Stability and Out-of-Box Software Completeness
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  • JeffDM - Wednesday, January 26, 2005 - link

    "and remember that the shuttle has an Internal PSU. Without that unit, it would likely be fairly close to the mini's size."

    That depends on what "fairly close" means. A desktop internal DVD drive is about as big in volume as the mini. The Shuttle cases are about twice as deep, four times taller and a third wider (12" x 8" x 8"). They aren't really in the same order of magnitude in volume, even when you include the power supply. That, and the three Shuttles I've had the pleasure of being around were obnoxiously loud. Otherwise, Shuttles don't seem to be too bad.
  • tinydancer - Wednesday, January 26, 2005 - link


    1st read #18
    2nd read #23
    then read this:

    Maybe you'll have some perspective after that!
  • msva124 - Wednesday, January 26, 2005 - link

    We must not be visiting the same websites. Viruses have never been an issue for me, I haven't had an AV program installed since maybe Windows 95. As for spyware, running Ad-aware once every week or two will usually find nothing. I am using XP SP1.

    I agree that macs are free of spyware and viruses, and that is a huge convenience for most users. But for someone who has been using pc's and macs for over 10 years? Please.
  • cryodude - Wednesday, January 26, 2005 - link

    I just love reading the rants, the nice responses and the clueless ridicules. Unfortunately, most people have never used a mac, will never understand that most people really do not want to have to mess with their computers, they simply want them to work. I'm a dual user, pc's and mac's both for over 10 years beginning with windows 3.1 and mac system 7. Both have come a long ways, but having windows at work, and a high end AMD machine at home, (strictly for playing games) and then having my macs, I can from many years on both platforms tell you that there truly is no comparison between the systems when it comes to downtime, system maintenance, ease of use, and the big one, "Peace of Mind". Until you understand that you really have an alternative, although it will cost you more in $$'s up front, never ever having to deal with spyware/malware/addware/virus protection, blah blah blah, is worth 4 or 5 times the cost in a machine. Now I'm not advocating that you go spend that much, or even close to that, but honestly, if you could get something that just did the things u want to do with ease, without heartache, headache and frustration, is that such a bad thing? If your answer is yes, ( or you are stuck on the money issue) then there is no hope for you to ever understand what macs have always been about. Simply a choice, to do things easier and in many ways, better in the long run when you consider the big picture of computing.
  • JeffDM - Wednesday, January 26, 2005 - link

    Anand didn't compare the warranty lengths (the cheapest Dells have only 90 days, vs. mini's 1 year) or support when comparing with a Dell. According to a big PC Magazine survey, Apple rates noticibly better than Dell in support quality and how often people need to call support.
  • Burbot - Wednesday, January 26, 2005 - link

    #71: I am recording and mixing a community radio program. Thus, I need at least one input and one output with decent sound quality. Mac Mini has only one output, so an external sound card is needed.

    On programming: I am mostly interested in SWT/JFace for GUI, and various stuff (Perl, Python, Java, AspectJ) for anything else. I am not interested in win32-specific stuff, so pretty much any machine and OS will work fine for me in this area.
  • WaltC - Wednesday, January 26, 2005 - link

    I am constantly amazed at the bias Anand obviously feels compelled to demonstrate when comparing Wintel to Apptel....this particular comparison could have been penned by the RDF gang at Apple PR--no doubt about it...;) (I'm sure it rates their stamp of approval for being so masterful in failing to actually reveal any pertinent facts while wandering heavily into crass product promotion and PR. Good for Apple, no doubt--but I think not so good for the consumers who read Anand's site.)

    First, does the $499 Apptel actually cost the same as the contrasted $499 Wintel?

    Well, let's the time you add for the keyboard, mouse, 15" lcd monitor and the 256-mbs of extra ram Anand states is needed to make the mini something useful, all of which is built in to the compared Wintel box...gosh, I guess we're talking at least $1,000 for the actual MiniMac Anand likes--which makes it--oh, 2x the cost of the contrasted Dell consumer box. This is leaving all other considerations as to processing power, graphics horsepower, 3.5" desktop IDE hard drive perfomance, expansion capacity, and the rest of it, aside, give or take the $40 more you might have to spend to put a DVD/CD-RW *of your choice* into the Wintel box.

    I was delighted to see how petite and quiet the $1,000 mini appears to Anand--no doubt courtesy of the *external power brick* it requires--whereas the contrasted Dell box athalf the price, I'll bet, not only includes a lot more expansion room but also something as exotic as an *integrated power supply* so that sans monitor, keyboard, and mouse the Dell comes in one piece as opposed to the two pieces required for the mini. (My HP Deskjet 722C has an external power brick, too, so I hardly feel left out...;))

    And of course, only Anand would pair a "$500" minicomputer with a ~$2,000 monitor, and then declare how great the graphics on the "$500" computer looked, as if the far more expensive monitor had nothing to do with anything...;) Nothing like testing a $3000 + system while telling your readers--over and over again--that it costs "$499"...;) And then there's the whole prospect of "taking the miniMac apart to see what's inside" that I find very amusing--as if this is exactly what the "computer illiterates" Anand recommends consider a miniMac are ever apt to do...;)

    I'll never understand why Anand is so shy and timid about publishing a "price as tested" sticker along with the MSRP for the base package! Seems like nothing except common sense and good ethics, to me. There's much more I could say but I think this covers the basics pretty well. You know, I'd have much more respect for this kind of superficial "comparison" if Anand would say something like: "Well--compared to the Dell box the mini is literally 2x it's price, so it's certainly no bargain. Even so, I liked it a lot, and if novelty gadgets or conversation pieces trip your trigger you can't go wrong with the MiniMac." That would certainly be much closer to the mark.
  • semo - Wednesday, January 26, 2005 - link

    post 100!

    uuhh what was the topic again?
  • pringlis - Wednesday, January 26, 2005 - link

    eek.. I should note that it wasn't on a Mac mini but on a PowerBook with specs a little lower than the mini (except the RAM which was 512megs).
  • pringlis - Wednesday, January 26, 2005 - link

    #75 - I used Microsoft Remote Desktop to work from home for several months and I've never had any problems with it. Fairly speedy and no crashes.

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