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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  • tfranzese - Tuesday, January 25, 2005 - link

    For articles from Anadtech, you seem quick to jump to performance comparisons without any data to back them up. The G4 is quite a capable beast, and just because it has been surpassed by the G5 doesn't make it a slow chip. It's an incredible number cruncher, yet I never see anyone put it to such tests.

    Having used the mini, though the max config, I find myself wanting one more and more. I'm a hardcore PC user, but it just has to be seen in person. Then there's OSX, which is something to experience and give the time to get use to.

    Also, the Apple mouse is great. Thing I miss most using it is the scroll wheel, but right clicking can be managing with a control + click and further alternate options with control + option + click.

    I share your opinions with the apps for the most part. The iWorks programs both show a lot of promise IMO.
  • Ecgtheow - Tuesday, January 25, 2005 - link

    #62: I think it's a month or so.
  • davecason - Tuesday, January 25, 2005 - link

    Anand, other Mac Mini owners, would you please try MS Remote Desktop for OS X and let us know how it performs on the Mac Mini:

    I had hoped to get one and use it to connect to a faster computer in my basement when needed... like a very stylish dumb-terminal.

    Thank you.
  • jasonsRX7 - Tuesday, January 25, 2005 - link

    #71, In response to point 2.

    Because PC manufacturers typically wait for someone else (like Apple) to do it first, and then copy them.
  • rowcroft - Tuesday, January 25, 2005 - link

    Got one, love it (hooked up to a 30" Dell LCD - VERY NICE!). Very good article as well. I like the commentary and explanations of your points. Good job.
  • hopejr - Tuesday, January 25, 2005 - link

    #36, Appleworks is included with the mini, as is a trial version of Office 2k4
  • hopejr - Tuesday, January 25, 2005 - link

    #26, The mac mini already has a sound card, and it's pretty decent. Unless you're talking about something to bring audio in, why get another one?

    #69 in response to your two things:
    1. Get an Apple keyboard with the built in hub (they all have one). You can plug your mouse into that, and the printer into the spare port on the back of the mini.
    2. If PC manufacturers could make something this small, why haven't shuttle done it already when getting into SFF?
  • Chuckles - Tuesday, January 25, 2005 - link

    #67: You've got some brown on your nose... ;)

    As for the article, I agree completely with the "five year" idea. The computer I am writing this on is three-and-a-half (G4 .73GHz) and I am not planning on replacing it for another year. The computer my parents use is, well, its one of the last of the beige Macs. Also, it was a good article, a lot better than the typical "Mac review". Kudos.
  • mostlyprudent - Tuesday, January 25, 2005 - link

    Two things:

    1. With only 2 USB ports - wouldn't you need a USB hub to connect a keyboard, mouse and printer?

    2. I recently purchased (for a new secretary) a Dell Optiplex SX80 (which I am very impressed with by the way). It's a bit larger than the Mac Mini, but with a lot more performance. It does not seem it would be too difficult for Dell or some other large PC maker to create a PC that is as small as the Mac Mini with equal performance. I have to wonder how much market there actually is out there for such a PC. I thought the Shutle Zen would have been a bigger success than it was.
  • ShadowVlican - Tuesday, January 25, 2005 - link

    good article anand... always wanted to know more about macs... just to see both sides of the picture!... i wonder how this will compare with a mini-itx system?

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