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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  • elvisizer - Tuesday, January 25, 2005 - link

    also, someone needs to tall anand that you can get pictures out of iphoto via drag and drop, not just going to Share->Export.
  • Saist - Tuesday, January 25, 2005 - link

    Wanted to step in and comment that the Microsoft Office problem is also solved by a little application that you may or may not have heard of.

    It's called.

  • wilburpan - Tuesday, January 25, 2005 - link


    Not to mention the lack of a need to buy an antivirus subscription, which kicks in at $25/year for Norton's antivirus program. If you keep your Windows PC for 4 years, that's an extra $75 in software updates you'll need to buy.

  • shuttleboi - Tuesday, January 25, 2005 - link

    "The comparison above was very deliberately set up to focus on hardware alone, ignoring things like software differences and form factor differences. "

    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?
  • edwardhchan - Tuesday, January 25, 2005 - link

    #25: I used a Kingston ValueRAM PC2700 1GB DIMM... Works like a charm. Just a note on using as a media server: Divx and MPEG4 playback is fine with VLC. DVD is good too, but the DVD player doesn't have a very good de-interlacing algorithm. My Mini is being watched on a 43" Samsung DLP at 1280x720. Beautiful display for the compy :)
  • Eug - Tuesday, January 25, 2005 - link

    Apple has just dropped pricing on some of the BTO options:

    BlueTooth/Airport Express combo now $99.
    1 GB RAM now $325.
    80 GB hard drive upgrade now $50.

    And now the SuperDrive option is 8X. Cool. :)
  • pbrice68 - Tuesday, January 25, 2005 - link

    Just a quick FYI:

    TextEdit does open MicroSoft Word documents. Obviously, it doesn't support all of Word's features, but it will open and display the text and try to maintain all of the formatting.

    Although you went over a great deal in iPhoto, you really didn't mention it's built in slideshow features, professionally printed books, and the ability to purchase prints directly from the application. The books really need to be seen to appreciate them.
  • Doormat - Tuesday, January 25, 2005 - link

    #26: the mini takes a regular DIMM, not an SO-DIMM. 1GB PC2700 DIMM is under $200. Plus the putty knife you'll need to open and install it.

    And I was planning on getting one until I read that they had problems at 19x12. As someone who is going to hook this to a HDTV at 1920x1080, this is disappointing news. Maybe next years refresh with a 9600+ with 64MB framebuffer will do the trick.
  • barnett25 - Tuesday, January 25, 2005 - link

    First I want to say that I loved the article. With that out of the way I have to ask, when you said that Pages exports well to html, what were you smoking? I just recieved iWork yesterday, I bought it becuase Pages seemed like an easy way to make good looking webpages. I saw the family newsletter template and knew my mom would love to have a webpage based around that. But try saving just the template, with no editing, to html. You get a big mess. Pages was not ready to be shipped. It's export to .doc format is messed up with the supplied templates too, but I can understand that being due to Word's lack of refinment and features. I do like pages, but it seems to only be good if you are either printing, exporting to pdf, or simply saving as a pages file. For any other kind of exporting it's next to worthless. (By the way, if you go to Apple discussions you will see dozens of people with similar compaints to mine.)
  • jasonsRX7 - Tuesday, January 25, 2005 - link

    Apple today lowered some of the prices on the BTO Mac Minis at the Apple store.

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