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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  • aliasfox - Friday, January 28, 2005 - link

    mlittl3- that's hilarious. Reply
  • mlittl3 - Friday, January 28, 2005 - link

    Wow,

    Everyone just went through the eight stages of dealing with grief from the first post to the last. Cool!

    1)Shock - Apple reviews on Anandtech
    2)Emotional Release - just those crazy Mac fans, it will all pass
    3)Panic - maybe Apple might just have something here. Oh no, what about my shuttle box!?
    4)Guilt - maybe I should have been nicer to Apple all along. I'm now out of the loop.
    5)Hostility - those f*cking Mac fans. They don't know how cheap PCs can be.
    6)Inability to Resume Business-as-Usual activities - must read forum every second to ensure a Mac fan doesn't get in a good point without rebuttal
    7)Reconiliation of Grief - see description of emotional release
    8)Hope - we can stop reading anandtech.com and go to another hardware review site where there aren't any Mac articles. If we ignore Apple, they will go away.

    You guys crack me up. Let me know when the funeral is.
    Reply
  • ElFenix - Friday, January 28, 2005 - link

    heat sink is two words. thanks. Reply
  • ransath - Friday, January 28, 2005 - link

    Cocnord..."By the way, it is the same 'narrow minded' engineers as you call them who make miniMac. No?"

    Nope - they are OPEN minded "revolutionizers" caught in the Steve Jobs "reality distortion" field :)

    Concord - my apologies to you for being a smart ass. My comments weren't meant to be malicious, I was just poking fun at you. As I said to cygni, I will refrain from them in the future.

    BTW - I drink 2 or 3 Mountain Dews (Code Red) everyday! w00t!
    Reply
  • WorkingHardMan - Friday, January 28, 2005 - link

    #157 "I guess Mac folks are used to paying for everything and don't mind it" - I guess this is a perspective thing. I've always thought of the Wintel crowd as being the ones that like to pay for things that can be had for free on other platforms, since just about all the software I've ever needed either came with the Mac or was easily available as freeware or low cost shareware. In fact, I long ago concluded that one of the reasons you only found 12,000- 15,000 Mac software packages for the Mac vs. the 80,000+ (well, way less if you don't count the games) on the Wintel side is that (1) You don't need a lot of the utility programs like those used by the Wintel crowd to keep a Mac going, (2) free programs on the Mac drive out commercial products, and (3) Mac people are more into value than cost, and are less likely to pay for a program than a Wintel user unless it really makes their life easier. And, or course, most of the major Open Source projects are Unix/Linux stuff and run on Macs (you do know that Mac is a Unix system?), that are ported to Windows.

    I also find it curious that Wintel people are always concerned about the availability of software on the Mac, but when you find out what programs they use it is usually MS-Word, MS-Excel, MS-Powerpoint, Adobe's Photoshop, and Quark DP, all Mac programs that have been ported to Windows, usually years after their depute on the Mac. And what is the Windows user interface but an imitation (and some would argue, not a particularly good one) of the Mac OS? [I have to admit here, that I haven't spent a lot of time with XP, but both Windows 95 and Windows 98, at least from the UI standpoint, were pretty half-baked imitations of Mac 85, and even MS would like to forget that Windows 1.x through 3.x ever happened).

    Similarly, to me it is the Wintel users that seem to include among their ranks the shrill who regard computer operating system selection as more of a religion than as choosing the best tool for the job ( in this thread, people like Concord come to mind).

    As I said, it's a perspective thing, what the "Wintel" crowd looks like vs what the "Mac" crowd looks like seems to change with where you are sitting. The good thing about the 3 articles to which this whole thread is supposedly relating, is that one member of one camp made a concerted effort to put away his prejudices and see what life was like on the other side. It was undoubtedly a difficult job, and I think he did a good job with it.

    Reply
  • mzlin - Friday, January 28, 2005 - link

    I meant after anandtech, of course :) Reply
  • mzlin - Friday, January 28, 2005 - link

    Arstechnica is the single best technology site on the internet. Their software and hardware reviews are done by programmers and engineers and is full of all the technical details you would ever want to know while at the same time assessing the more consumer-oriented questions such as value, productivity, practicality. Then they are very up-to-date on general science, technology, and internet news. I have learned of many an upcoming trend or internet phenomenon from them. Reply
  • Entropyq3 - Friday, January 28, 2005 - link

    arstechnica is head and shoulders over the others in terms of general level, even though it has deteriorated (IMHO). Go to the technical forums, and you will find knowledgeable people.
    If you just want to blubber about technical stuff and voice opinions, please choose one of the others. ;-)
    Seriously, there are knowledgeable people in all three of these fora, but the signal-to-noise ratio is way better at arstechnica.
    Reply
  • msva124 - Thursday, January 27, 2005 - link

    Speaking of which what are some other hardware sites to go to? I know of three, hardocp.com, arstechnica.com, and tomshardware.com. Are these any good? They all look very similar, just wondering if there is a certain one that is better than these three that I should take a look at. Reply
  • linuxOwnzIfUrLeet - Thursday, January 27, 2005 - link

    Anand,

    you used to be my hero below john carmack and martha steward.

    After seeing you get married and now this mac loving I can only believe that you've lost your engineering edge.

    Your poster on my wall will now be taken down.

    Reply

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