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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  • 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.
  • msva124 - Thursday, January 27, 2005 - link

    Go ransath - you tell that Windows l00ser! Hooray for Apple!!!!!
  • ransath - Thursday, January 27, 2005 - link

    Concord - You have to be an engineer. With a mind that narrow, there can be no other excuse. :)

    Seriously folks, you have to remember WHO the Mac mini is targeted for, the demographic that Mac is shooting for.

    Hardcore PC geeks obsessed with tech specs - Apple could care LESS about you. They don't want your business - and the Apple community doesn't want to know you either. You don't shower enough, have greasy hair, and leave too much Cheetoes dust on your keyboards.

    The mini is targeted, for one, at people like Ananad. INTELLIGENT people that would like to explore OS X for a ridiculously low price. it is also targeted at people that just want a SECOND comp. Do you seriously think Apple ever intended this as an "entry-level" system? If you do, well, expand your mind! The Mini is going to be THE home media center. Once it has been out for a few months you are going to see a plethora of apps that are just going to put the sale of these boxes through the roof. It will also serve as a great internet terminal and still be powerful enough that your kids can do their book reports and homework (especially since Dad got a new virus on the PC last night while he was surfing - note: should have surfed porn on the Mac - NO VIRUSES!!!)

    There are 2 sides when approaching an issue - the glass is half full or half empty. On the one hand, when priced pound for pound against a similarly configured PC the Mac is still more expensive. So what? On the other hand, the mini comes with a $79 retail suite of apps. Okay, that brings the price of the base model down to $429.00. You do realize that a 40 gig iPod is $399, right? So, basically, for an extra 30 bucks you get an entire frigging computer ?!!!?!!!?!!!

    I have had it with the "techies" out there that add the cost of a keyboard, video, and mouse and then say the Mini is overpriced. You mean to tell me as computer literate as your are you have never heard of a frigging KVM switch ?? - which makes all of your arguments not only completely moot but somewhat idiotic. My PC 's peripherals are awesome (logitech MX900, logitech keyboard, and Dell (Sony) P991 - and I will be able to use the same ones for my Mac. I AM LOVING IT!

    You PC folks should be really thankful that Apple has not "died" and shows NO SIGNS of EVER dying off. If it wasn't for Apple and those fruity little iMacs do you think Dell and all the other folks would have ever updated their cases? HELL NO!!!

    One last thing - just remember that when you buy Dells, Gateways, etc... all you are doing is paying someone to put a box together for you. Dell doesn't MAKE ANYTHING!! All they do is buy parts in massive quantities and put them together - B F D!!!! Anand made this very point - because Apple controls everything related to their computer, everything WORKS perfectly!!! No crazy BIOS update from Taiwan that may fark everything else in your computer. And I am willing to pay a little bit higher price for QUALITY over QUANTITY! Apple LEADS the home PC market in innovation. They always have - and probably always will.

    All I can say is that Anand has probably written the definitive take on Apple from a PC users perspective. Thankfully, he has an open mind and is willing to accept changes and a small learning curve. And I have a feeling that there are A LOT more people that read this site that are in Anand's category than Concord's.
  • abakshi - Thursday, January 27, 2005 - link

    As for the pricing and specs, it only really matters for computer-literate users, who know at least _something_ about what they have running.

    And in that case, they can go to a company like Dell and get decent deals. Even if it's not the type that power users (e.g. experienced deal catchers at deals forums) can get, they can get some decent deals -- and that's where Apple gets knocked out of the competition.

    For example, this is what you can currently get at Dell with no special codes, nothing - just a deal on their site for $479.

    Dell Dimension 3000
    Intel Pentium 4 Processor w/ HT Technology (3.0GHz, 800 FSB)
    Microsoft Windows XP Home Edition
    256MB DDR SDRAM at 400MHz
    15 in (15.0 in viewable) E153FP Flat Panel LCD Display
    40GB Ultra ATA/100 7200RPM Hard Drive
    48X CD-ROM Drive
    Integrated 10/100 Ethernet
    2 Year Basic Warranty Plan

    That's for $479 AR. For a few extra dollars, you can toss in a CD-RW/DVD drive, 512MB Dual-Channel DDR, or other similar options.

    Yes, the Integrated Intel Extreme Graphics 2 is not at all powerful, even compared to a Radeon 9200, but if you pay just a bit more (just over $500), you can get the Dimension 4700, which has the 915G chipset, newer CPU's, DDR-2 RAM, PCI-Express, etc. If graphics are of concern, then you add in a Radeon X300SE for almost nothing - that blows away the 9200.

    So all in all, unless the Mac Mini can be had for under $400 at most, it's completely blown out of the water value-wise by PC options.
  • stmok - Thursday, January 27, 2005 - link

    I don't see what the "thing" is with the Mac mini.

    If you have a use for it, then buy it.
    If not, then spend your money on something else.

    Heck, I'm getting a Mini-ITX EPIA since I just want a small x86 based setup to learn Linux and BSD off. I wanna get my hands dirty of Tux (Linux) and Daemon (FreeBSD) in my unproductive spare time. :)

    If I had a use for a PowerPC-based setup under the Apple name, then I most likely would get something a bit more beefier that is powered by the G5 chip.

    But I don't. And I don't think I ever will as the x86 platform is cheap, abundant and widely available. (And I like to build systems myself.)

    Apple (or anyone else) aren't holding a gun to your head to make you buy. No point arguing over it.

    On a side note : You have choices, if you really want to get away from Windows while keeping your existing x86 setup (or AMD64/EMT64) and have time to burn, why not download Linux or FreeBSD? (Yes, its really FREE).

    Some of the technologies found in there are in Mac OSX. You essentially get the same stability benefits but with a lot of reading and tweaking! (SO make sure you have time to burn!) :)

    What I'm saying is, Apple products aren't the only alternative.
  • RMSistight - Thursday, January 27, 2005 - link

    For most PC users, they won't care about trying out the Mac because it's relatively cheap. I want to get a Mac Mini because I have heard and SEEN great things about Mac OS X Tiger. I want something reliable for everyday use. Windows XP Pro has tested my patience enough. Don't give that "90% of errors on Windows are user errors." Is turning your computer a user error then? Because that's exactly what happened. I couldn't go into windows because all I did was TURN IT ON. In all truth, it doesn't matter if you can build a better winbox for cheap and more powerful. Some PC users can finally rejoice that the price of a Mac now is now reasonable enough for us to purchase. People need to also take note about the kick ass software Apple has. Most of the Mac bashers haven't even seen or tried out Mac OS X...I HAVE. Unless you have owned and used both platforms, you cannot make a valid argument. Also, let's not associate Mac being bad on their earlier models. Those are long past and gone. Let's talk about the newer models of Macs.
  • magst - Thursday, January 27, 2005 - link

    Lots of people here make comparisons between the cost of the apple and a winbox.
    Apart that most forget the cost of the included software, there is another very big factor called


    The winbox will be worth next to nothing in 2 years, while you will still be able to sell the mini mac for at least 300 in 2 years..

    So in the end the apple is lots cheaper.
    (btw, dont have one (yet))
  • msva124 - Thursday, January 27, 2005 - link

    CD jewel case? Please. At most it is the size of a pack of cigarettes, and that is including the power supply.
  • RMSistight - Thursday, January 27, 2005 - link


    All you need to purchase is a USB to PS/2 adapter. I have one that has both mouse/keyboard with one USB connector. It was only $7.
  • Serpico74 - Thursday, January 27, 2005 - link

    I test drove a 1.42ghz Mac Mini with 512MB RAM today. The first thing I did was fire up Final Cut Express.

    I am super impressed. Projects loaded fast and renders were much quicker than I thought they would be. For a sub-$700 box the size of a CD jewel case this thing is smooth as hell.

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