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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  • fitten - Thursday, January 27, 2005 - link

    Actually... the Mac mini is hardly *the* home media machine except for playback tasks. It doesn't have the horsepower to do realtime encoding and no way to expand it to have such functionality.

    As far as both sides bringing up stuff from the early 90's about hardware, I haven't had a single x86 PC have any of the problems you've mentioned here.

    As far as the software, just as with any other software package that is actually useful, somewhere out there, some OSS folks are already off and running cloning the software. It's not like Macs are magic or anything, it's just software and a matter of just writing it. The thing about OSS is that any software package that gets popular, OSS can drop the bottom out of the market for that software by offering free (as in no-cost) alternatives for it. I guess Mac folks are used to paying for everything and don't mind it, but things will change I'm sure.
  • aliasfox - Thursday, January 27, 2005 - link

    I think I agree with ransath. Each platform has its place, market, upsides and downsides. I personally use a Mac because I find it more enjoyable and generally easier to get around in. Yes, there are aspects of Windows that may seem somewhat more intuitive, and yes, there are aspects where OSX wins hands down.

    For the stuff I do, my two year old PowerBook is usually more than enough- and if that's true for me, than it's true for Joe Normal who doesn't care if your homebuilt is 15% or 150% faster than his machine in processor or disk intensive tasks. He wants to surf the web, write memos, and bore the rest of his family with slideshows. Anybody who needs that kind of power knows enough not to buy a $600 microsystem.

    One last thing: Mac is a product. Apple is the company. Saying that you're throwing money away at Mac (or worse, MAC) is just as bad as saying you're throwing money away at Windows (or Athlon or Pentium).
  • ransath - Thursday, January 27, 2005 - link


    Sorry, not a fanboy. I make my living on a PC. I just built a new PC (ASUS P4R800E, P4 2.8, gig of ram). I LOVE PC's! I think Win XP Pro is one of the best operating systems I have ever used. I won't bash PC's in any way, shape, or form. (I'll bash Microsoft, but I am sure you would too ;)

    However, I also use Mac's for audio recording. I use Mac's for video editing.

    Both platforms are excellent for their purposes. What I take exception to is people like Concord and a few others on this board that belittle a perfectly good OS and company and dismiss it as an afterthought - as if it doesn't belong in a computer discussion.

    This has nothing to do with being a "religious" zealot - it has to do with giving respect where it has been earned and is due. And it pisses me off when people take an elitist attitude (and that goes for Mac snobs too).

    Yes, I agree that I am a smart ass (but not a tool). And I will refrain in the future from making sarcastic comments.

    One last thing - please explain "there are SO many problems littered in all of your posts" (only 3 posts). I would like to know what they are.
  • Deucer - Thursday, January 27, 2005 - link

    I love Mountain Dew.
  • Concord - Thursday, January 27, 2005 - link

    I clearly expressed my point of view on miniMac You expressed your point of view on ME in pejorative tone. We have no common points to discuss, sorry. By the way, it is the same 'narrow minded'
    engineers as you call them who make miniMac. No? Let me guess... Eh, it's a beautiful fairy who picks miniMacs from magic Apple tree in the morning twilight.
    P.S. I don't drink Mountain Dew and I am OK with shower, too
    Best regards,
  • Cygni - Thursday, January 27, 2005 - link

    Ransath, you are a tool. You are more of a fanboy than the PC fanboys you are bashing. There are SO many problems littered in all of your posts thats its gotten to the point where i just have to call you a tool and be done with it. We had a pretty good rational pro/con debate about the mini going before you came in, and now its another name fest. Thanks alot. Concord, you too are a tool.
  • ransath - Thursday, January 27, 2005 - link


    Please! YOU are the one with an attitude - a PC holier than though attitude that dismisses Mac's as a peice of junk and poo poo's the very thought of owning a Mac. Why the hell do you think I wrote the response to you that I did? To tell YOU to get off your high horse.

    And, dood, try to proof read your posts. Or did you have to turn off spell check in Word cause it had a macro virus?

    BTW - don;t you and peachee have a D&D event to attend tonite? You two, I am sure, would make great friends ;) Just take it easy on the Mountain Dew.
  • Concord - Thursday, January 27, 2005 - link

    Oh, I am sorry! I did not know that it's religion.
    I am really sorry I thought that we were talking about computers. Sorry again I wasn't respectful to this box full of chips. Yes I am very narrow minded person You are right that's why I am talking about expandability, functionality, price etc. I didn't know that I should just knee and praise Mac-allmighty for letting us to be enlighted only for 499 US. There is lot job to do! You see few INTELLIGENT people left in the world and your personal attitude will not help Mac to gain popularity. Are you really think that if You can't respect other people's opinion You can be considered to be intelligent? Are You relly think that having Mac makes You intelligent?

    Best regards,
  • ransath - Thursday, January 27, 2005 - link

    peachee..."Ipod is not an innovation, there was the Rio and many many others before. The mini Mac is not innovation, Shuttle came before ... long before and there were many others."

    The iPod is an innovation in design, styling (just like the Mini) and GUI. There is nothing on the market that even comes CLOSE to an iPod with regards to navigation. If there was, then Apple wouldn't dominate the hard disked based market - which they do IN SPADES! You think they sold so many iPods cause people are drones? PLEASE!!! They sell so many because they hands down BLOW the others out of the water. Quality and attention to detail.

    The Mini will crush the Shuttle. Why? Because just like the iPod, it is better designed, better styled, and it runs a rock solid OS that is NOT prone to viruses AND includes iLife. There is NOTHING in the Windows or Linux world that even comes close to iLfe. Hell, an app like Garageband or iMovie alone would set a typical PC user back well over a $100 - for each seperate app!!!!

    Anands comment when unpacking the Mini sums it up best..." Once again, I wasn't reminded of a computer; I was reminded of buying something from Bose or Mercedes."

    Enough said, Mr. Bargain Hunter.
  • peachee - Thursday, January 27, 2005 - link

    Coming from a one time Apple-owner, I can say that they WERE better than PCs. But that was quite some time ago in the early to mid 90s. I experienced pre-PPC Macs and it's various generations. I remember the Newton, AV DSP macs, clone Macs, the Apple ISP, and the promises of the NEXT OS for 68040 Macs--all died miserably leaving owners with outdated computers (forcing us to buy expensive new systems). I did my part to keep up with Apple's complete and ruthless abandoning of Macs and OS compatibility and product support, but in the end, I realized I was being stupid SUPPORTING A JUST ANOTHER CORPORATION!

    I started over with PCs and never looked back. I don't care how shiny OS X+ is, it's just BSD. If you hate Bill G and Steve B, go Linux or BSD. If you don't like Intel, get AMD. With Shuttle and everyone else going small but keeping with 3.5" HDs, and 5.25" DVDRWs and AGP/PCI slots, why suddenly switch to unupgradeable mini Mac at a premium price? Did we all win the lottery and have the time to and money to switch our softwares and all our waking ours to devote to mini Mac?

    I believe and many industry analysts concur that Apple has not innovated for years. Ipod is not an innovation, there was the Rio and many many others before. The mini Mac is not innovation, Shuttle came before ... long before and there were many others. What Apple has become is a hype machine. It makes average products and hypes the hell out of it, throws ads in your face, puts it in celebrities hands, and some of the richer MTV crowd will lap it up until they lose interest.

    Apple is all marketing hype ... an informercial. You jonny come lately Apple supporters need to realize that you are disposable tools (free marketing for the just another corporation of Apple) and Apple will abadon you high and dry (I know--been there done that). Why should we as thinking, hardworking, bargain hunting beings ... why should we lobotomize our brains and dump our money into Apple's laps for their average and expensive products when there are far better and cheaper choices out there?

    The "oh, I'm too dumb to use computers and therefore I must use Mac" excuse never made sense. Most people can learn fairly quickly to use any computer (we aren't using punch cards and I/O switches are we?). XP and even many versions of Linux are quite user friendly.

    Think, learn, grow and don't fall for corporate tricks.

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