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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  • WorkingHardMan - Wednesday, January 26, 2005 - link

    #94. I don't think anybody was biased, and certainly didn't mean to imply so. Regarding your hypothetical computer and related points, Dan Frakes addressed such concerns in a follow-up article (see URL below). At any rate, you make my point with your final statement " but I agree that it still has a small price premium over equal performing PC's.". A small price premium, when you consider other factors, such as differences in warranties, complexity of ordering, set-up, and software acquisition, does not equate to a "better value" except perhaps for a small sector of the population. Consider how many users for a sub $600 computer have the inclination, knowledge, or desire to go out to get, install and configure the freeware you mention, much less figure out the case and internal hardware components to use such as those you suggest be used for an alternate base Wintel ( WinAthlon?) computer. The statement in Mr. Shimpi's original review that I feel does not maintain the same high standards as his other work is the one reading "The PC continues to be a better value from a hardware standpoint, there's no doubt about that." For many, if not most users, the "small price premium" that you note does not constitute "a better value." People want a computer that works for them. As Mr. Shimpi stated in one of his articles, "I came to the realization that what attracted me most to [Macintosh] OS X was the way everything just worked the way that you'd expect it to. Prior to my OS X experiment, I had done things in reverse. I molded my usage patterns to the way Windows wanted them to work in order to get things done. " This sort of benefit in use, for most users, outweighs any small cost differential. In his review of the Mac Mini, Mr. Shimpi used the phrase "a better value" where it would have been more accurate to say "a slightly lessor cost." There is a big difference.

    The url for Mr. Frakes follow up to points similar to the ones you raised is:
  • DigitalDivine - Wednesday, January 26, 2005 - link

    Antivirus is free... avg is a great antivirus program that loads faster than norton and other anti viruses out there,

    dvd player is free... windows comes witha dvd player and media player classic is excellent...

    Open office is a great office suite that has replaced microsoft office in my pc.

    Picasa is great, and so is gimp. for the pc.
    just going through would give you great free and legal software that rivals and is sometimes better than leading commercial software.

    but the apple does have one thing going for it, is that the OSX is an excellent OS, very easy to use and microsoft should take note. I think apple can gain more ground with the PC users if they just go ahead and release an operating system for the x86 platform, but apple has invested way too much in R and D to just dump their platform. Heck if you look at a mac, it uses pc tech the only glaring difference is that it uses the power archetecture.
  • CrystalBay - Wednesday, January 26, 2005 - link

    Lookin good AMan, very right right to the guts review. Apple needs more like you....Sold I'm picking up one ,just for Shitz and jiggles
  • Cygni - Wednesday, January 26, 2005 - link

    No offense #92, but I think that "Apples and Oranges" article is also very biased in its comparison. Here is what i posted when the Mini first shipped:

    "I built a comp on Newegg, comparble to the Mini. Shuttle SFF NF2U case, Athlon XP 2200 (should smash the 1.47 G4), Radeon 9250 128mb (signifigant step up), everything else comperable to the higher end Mini... with a copy of XP, comes out to $533. Compares pretty close to the Mac Mini. WMP plays DVDs and burns CD's, AV and adware are free... and i really doubt alot of people will use their mac mini for audio video editing. In general, i dont really think the Mac software package comes into play for me, although it is a nice bonus.

    When all is said and done, the Shuttle box will probably wipe the floor with the mini... but it is considerably larger, and a little more expensive"

    and remember that the shuttle has an Internal PSU. Without that unit, it would likely be fairly close to the mini's size. It also is upgradeable with any AGP card, and has a PCI slot. It has firewire, twice as many USB ports, PS2 ports, SPDIF in and out, and much better sound. For a dollar more, you can get a Sempron 2600+ and get a little performance boost.

    Its tough to compare the Mac Mini to a PC. I personally feel like a Mac Mini with 512mb would be quite a good little comp, but i agree that it still has a small price premium over equal performing PC's. It is a Mac, afterall. Its still very neat.
  • mzlin - Wednesday, January 26, 2005 - link

    Anand, one small quibble to your otherwise outstanding review: by mentioning that a certain program can export to PDF, you make it sound like that is something special, when all programs can export to PDF via the "Save as PDF" button in the print dialog box.

    So that means you can add Adobe Distiller to the list of software you do NOT have to buy to get a usable system. Other things would be anti-virus, Office, photo editing, movie editing, etc.

    By the way those who claim they will wait for the price of the base mini to fall to $150 on ebay -- you will be waiting 3 years, I predict. Even now a 500Mhz Powerbook G3 from 2000 costs $500, about a quarter of their original price. The most "faddish" and much-criticized clamshell iBooks, also from 2000, have depreciated about the same %.
  • WorkingHardMan - Wednesday, January 26, 2005 - link

    Generally, a well written article. I believe, however, that it does have two weaknesses. (1) Based on your earlier articles on your experience using a PC, and the level of thought that went into them, I was surprised to see the statement: "The PC continues to be a better value from a hardware standpoint, there's no doubt about that - the above comparison alone proves that." Mr. Dan Frakes did a more detailed comparison of the low end Dell to the Mac Mini, that, if objectively reviewed, would I think cause anyone to see that such a blanket statement about "better value" just can not stand close scrutiny. Mr. Frakes review can be found at:

    (2) The second area in which I think your review came up short was in its dismissal of Appleworks. Admittedly, this older application does not take advantage of all of OS X's bells and whistles, but for most people it has all the power they need. I switched from Microsoft Word to the Word Processor in AppleWorks because, for the work I do, which involves preparing engineering reports and proposals (running from 10 pages or so to in excess of 200 pages) with lots of figures, drawings and photographs interspersed with the text, I found it to be far superior to Word. For a new comer to computing, its also a much faster learn than Word. While the Appleworks spreadsheet doesn't have anywhere near the power of an Excel, it is more than adequate for 98%+ of the work I actually see done on spreadsheets. Considering the likely target market for an entry level computer, I would suggest any purchaser give Appleworks a good hard look before shelling out any extra money for word processors or spreadsheets. And, the next time moving a graphic or text box around in MS Word gives you a pagination problem, I suggest you crack open the humble little AppleWorks program, get your paper done, and get a good nights sleep with the time you save. I know it has saved me hours of time I used to spend fighting Word.

    Overall, I found all three of your articles most interesting and informative. I would, however, suggest you review Mr. Frakes work, and reevaluate Appleworks through actual use. If you do, I suspect you will want to make a few changes to your article, which will only make it better.
  • mzlin - Wednesday, January 26, 2005 - link

    Anand, one small quibble to your otherwise outstanding review: by mentioning that a certain program can export to PDF, you make it sound like that is something special, when all programs can export to PDF via the "Save as PDF" button in the print dialog box.

    So that means you can add Adobe Distiller to the list of software you do NOT have to buy to get a usable system. Other things would be anti-virus, Office, photo editing, movie editing, etc.
  • wad45 - Wednesday, January 26, 2005 - link

    #87 I have read most of the posts on the forum and well yours are the longest lol. But they were all well pressented and not all one sided. I figure you like the mac alot or atleast their OS. I personally only have had PCs my entire life so I cant share your enthusiasm but I would love to get more exposure to their systems as I know alot of people say they are a great OS. You were not rude in anyway.

    #85 msva124 your the kinda person that starts these flame wars and gets everyone in a huffle. Your post did seem like an attack perhaps in the future you should think before you post because you just sound like a jerk in the end.

    Anyway I wish the price was lower on the mac mini. The ram options are still a bit too high. I have seen the video of the case opening but has anyone tried it yet and is there a better video?
  • jm20 - Wednesday, January 26, 2005 - link

    This is the kind of review people look for. Another great review from Anand. =)
  • Rand - Wednesday, January 26, 2005 - link

    "Hello? The Mac Mini comes with over $100 worth of software. Where are you going to get a software suite on Wintel for $100? Kazaa?

    Not to mention the lack of a need to buy an antivirus subscription, which kicks in at $25/year for Norton's antivirus program."

    There are some pretty good antivirus programs that are quite decent available, Picasa is a pretty good freeware image manipulation/editing app, and there are excellent free office applications available for the PC.

    iMovie/iDVD are a bit harder to match without spending some extra $ though. I haven't spend much time with GarageBand, but that's definitely one application that cannot be easily matched on the PC without spending a decent chunk of cash.

    I wish it came stock with 512MB of RAM, I've always felt OSX to be a bit more RAM hungry then WinXP and 256MB under OSX will kill the user experience except under the most basic of uses.
    Would have been nice if the R9200 had 64MB of RAM as well, Expose is much nicer with at least that.

    Beyond that the Mac Mini's stock setup should be more then comfortable for most users IMHO, the 1.25GHz G4 does quite adequately in under OSX.

    The hardware configuration isn't perhaps quite as nice as one could get in a comparably priced PC, but it'll do nicely for an intro to the Mac for PC users. For many the sheer size and convenience of the Mac Mini would more then mitigate that factor.

    Anyone that's been tempted to give the Max platform a chance but has held off due to price finally has a reasonable option.

    I've been quite enjoying the Mac articles on AT. It's slowly been easing a bit of the ever present Anti-Mac stigma that's so prevalent among PC enthusiasts.

    Maybe it'll entice a few to try Apple's PowerBook/IBook lineup, thats where Apple reakky shines IMHO. Their notebooks are absolutely fantastic and the quality of manufacture is easily comparable to the best you'll find in PC notebooks.

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