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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  • Dualboy24 - Wednesday, January 26, 2005 - link

    #85 I am not saying come develope on the Mac. I am just saying that it comes with a great asortment of languages and even a full IDE. You can get these for free on a windows platform also but they are not included by default and thats understandaable that the majority of users would not use them. I assume apple includes Xcode to help promote software development on their platform.

    "I think that most developers are a bit more educated on this subject than you are, buddy. Save the marketing hype for those who are more easily persuaded. Some of us may decide to program for OS X (I have), some of us may not. But we will do it for our own reasons, not because you throw around the names of programming languages like they are the latest buzzword. "

    Gee somewhat hostile no? I never said anything negative in my post have I (please people read my post and tell me if you think I was rude in any-form).

    You may be right I am not an expert developer, nor have I worked on any large complex projects for companies etc. But I have programmed a lot in my life. And did get a degree in CS Software Engineering.

    As for the throwing around programming languages I listed I really just summarized what was on that link I added to that post. I assumed it was nice of me to do that as it saves people having to read the full link to get a composed list.

    And I do not wish to start any issues or flame wars or anything negative.

    Great article also Anand!

    Your site continues to be one of the top hardware sites in the world. It just continues to get better and better. Keep up the good work.
  • abakshi - Wednesday, January 26, 2005 - link

    I'll pick one up when they're under $150 just to play around with OS X. Otherwise, there's not much use for it -- I code in VS.NET (VB), do some gaming, and some image and video editing. The first is obviously not going to happen on Mac, the second is N/A (except UT, Halo, D3 -- running on a 9200 with 32MB...), and so basically I could only use it for some basic browsing and image/video editing - anything fancier would require getting a lot of Mac version software (e.g. Photoshop, Premiere, etc.).

    Alternatively, if you could get one of these with something like a 9600 onboard and a 7200RPM HDD in the range of $300 within a few months from now, that would be quite cool to play around with :)
  • msva124 - Wednesday, January 26, 2005 - link

    >Oh lets not forget about developers. You will love a mac if you do C, C++, Objective C, >Java (built deep into the system) oh and Apple XCode a fully featured IDE that is so >simple to use if you have used Visual Studio etc...

    You’re right, Xcode is totally intuitive for the Win32 programmer. The GUI target and action system is pretty much second nature, especially for the Visual Basic developer who is used to double clicking on a button to write an event handler. Heck, even the framework is the same as with Windows, to most people I’ve talked to there is no noticeable difference between MFC and Cocoa. Then there’s the compilation speed, it must be ten times was it was on Delphi on my Wintel machine. And I hear in Tiger there will be a project converter that lets you import Windows source directly from Visual C++ 6.0 without any recoding. Yes, I’m serious. You need to go to other sites and start spreading the word about these things. Many people will say you are lying or wrong, just ignore them.

    I think that most developers are a bit more educated on this subject than you are, buddy. Save the marketing hype for those who are more easily persuaded. Some of us may decide to program for OS X (I have), some of us may not. But we will do it for our own reasons, not because you throw around the names of programming languages like they are the latest buzzword.

    And from now on you might want to read links before posting them, to make sure that they align with your inexperienced viewpoint. On that kernelthread site one of the first things it says is:

    “Life is still much better for a developer on Windows than on Mac OS X - no matter what one might think of the usability, etc. of Windows.”
  • Dranzerk - Wednesday, January 26, 2005 - link

    Because many people will buy it for the Hype and find they really don't care for it, esp many PC users who might not be as thrilled like they thought they would about it for whatever reasons. :)
  • michael2k - Tuesday, January 25, 2005 - link

    #66 Dranzerk: Why would you expect there to be a flood of cheaper minis? If anything, I imagine you'd find a flood of old G4 PowerMacs, G3 PowerMacs, and any minis on eBay would be really expensive (though still less than retail) as all the old Mac users look to upgrade from 8 year old machines to a more modern one.

    That's exactly what's happened for the last 4 years I've been a Mac user and seeing how used Macs are priced.

    So I would expect you'd find them on eBay for $400 :)

    #82: The Apple Mac mini accessories page also mentions that same DVI to video adapter.
  • Dualboy24 - Tuesday, January 25, 2005 - link

    #81 there is a "Apple DVI to Video Adapter" for $19 USD"

    "DVI port to S-video or Composite video devices such as TVs, VCRs, or overhead projectors with S-Video or RCA (Composite) connectors"

    Its stated as being designed for the Powermac G5 but it will work with the mini.
  • AtaStrumf - Tuesday, January 25, 2005 - link

    Too bad cMAC doesn't have a TV out. It would make for a nice HTPC even for those less fortunate of us, who don't own HDTVs with DVI inputs -- that would be the so called majority :-)
  • dingbat - Tuesday, January 25, 2005 - link

    I think the Mac Mini has the potential to be the jukebox for the living room, except the designer forgot one thing... good audio input/output. Either that or you have to dangle a USB based audio device and I am not sure how well those will perform.
  • Dualboy24 - Tuesday, January 25, 2005 - link

    I forgot to mention a lot of additional things... but I will hold back.
    If your into programming (Java, PHP, MySQL, C/C++, Fortran, Applescript, Perl, Ruby, Lisp, Scheme, Python, OpenGL, Qt, Tcl/Tk ,X11R6) then you should read << a great read
  • Dualboy24 - Tuesday, January 25, 2005 - link


    I dont have a Mini yet.. but I got a powerbook 17" (First mac ever. Its a beautiful machine). I would never have gotten a mac if it wasn't for one of my old friends that I was in CS with got an ibook. I got to use it and did a lot of reading and research before trying the Mac world. BTW I do computer sales/repairs/system quotes/web-design and system admin for an ISP/Computer company. Used Windows 95-2003, Linux from redhat 5.2-SUSE 9.2 and now Mac OSX 10.3.X. I must say that the OS on Apple is by far the best OS for desktop users. The only thing it falls behind on is video gaming.

    For #75: I have been able to connect to my PC with the Remote Desktop with no issues. However I find myself using a program called VNCDimension and running RealVNC (or any VNC software) on my PCs so I can connect to Windows/Linux systems in my house and from my office. I can also use my PCs in Win/Linux to control the mac. Plus SSH/Telnet access thats so easy to setup.

    Also for the Linux fans you would love the terminal and a program called Fink. Which allows you to install a huge selection of linux apps including KDE/Gnome that can run rootless or full-screen

    For those people that like to download you can get a host of different P2P apps for every P2P network and torrents for music/movies/apps

    Sherlock is another great application that you get with OSX that lets you do so many things. Search the net look for pictures, search ebay, check for flight data, Dictionary, Translate languages, AppleCare database, RSS feed reader, and Version Tracker the best tool ever!

    The default calculator also has built in converters including a currency converter that updates via the internet the daily currency values.

    Oh also going over installation and removal of apps would be a great read. Its drag the app to a folder and its installed. If you run terminal you can actually go into the app were it stores all of the data and settings for the app. Very smart method.

    Oh lets not forget about developers. You will love a mac if you do C, C++, Objective C, Java (built deep into the system) oh and Apple XCode a fully featured IDE that is so simple to use if you have used Visual Studio etc...

    Well all in all its really impossible to cover all of the default apps that come with OSX but lets just say Windows is a joke compared to OSX

    Oh one problem is if you buy a Mac you become a Mac fanatic... It made me one. And I was very anti mac before I got my powerbook.

    I will probably get the Mac mini with the wireless and apple keyboard with the USB ports. Add a stick of 1GB OCZ for under $200 and all good for a system for silent operation in my bedroom. You can turn this thing into anything you really want. Silent download system and transfer the files via network or usb/firewire, http, ftp, ssh, great for photoshop work, email with Mac mail (instant searches almost), safari/firefox web-browser. Plug it into your TV for a great media experience with VLC... you name it and it will do it. I have yet to find a limitation to my G4 CPU. Of course I do not do any heavy video work. My daily use is best summed up in a screenshot

    BTW I still keep 4 PCs at home one gammer, one storage and download, one linux for dev/testing/fun, and one win2k3 server for testing/dev/fun and I love windows... just love mac more lol.

    [/STOP RANT]

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