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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  • bob661 - Wednesday, January 26, 2005 - link

    Graphics card swap hardly agonizing but Joe $499 User won't know how or care to do that, I agree. I am still wondering how a PDA can be useful for me but since I can't think of a reason to get one I am obviously not the market for those.
  • Chuckles - Wednesday, January 26, 2005 - link


    1: Given that a 3.5" is about a third the size of the computer, what do you think?

    2: Do you think Joe Luser is willing to spend the time and agony upgrading his graphics card?

    3: If the past is any indication, no, its got about 4, maybe 5 years of "official" OS support.

    4: Does your PDA have the ability to serve as your HD backup, play music for 8 hours, and still fit in your pocket? Capability is a matter of perspective. The PDA I have does exactly what I need it to, my iPod does different things.

  • Concord - Wednesday, January 26, 2005 - link

    Oh, yes! Dying - strong word but its true and best
    describes situation. Macs represent now less than 1 percent of the market. Of course we do our best to keep them alive. We vote for personal computer's diversity :)). But frankly speaking this miniMac is so badly constructed (I have at least 10 reasons for this claim) so I see at this moment only one reason to buy. Your girlfrend would say - Oh, its so cute! Maybe this reason is strong enough to buy it. But I will give you strong consumer advice (it was in 1st post) - wait for a couple of month and you will buy it on eBay for 200 US, of course if you will not change your mind.
  • bob661 - Wednesday, January 26, 2005 - link

    People will still jump on these because the $499 buyer doesn't know about how much system or video memory they'll need. Like someone else said, the $499 market only cares about price and name.
  • Dualboy24 - Wednesday, January 26, 2005 - link

    #121 "A pitiful attempt of the dying platform."
    - People have been saying its a dying platform since the early to mid 90s. Perhaps even earlier. But that hasnt stopped tens of millions of people worldwide from buying their products.

    I am sure that everyone would agree that they would love standard 512MB RAM and 64MB or 128MB video memory. If apple were to offer this a large amount more people would jump on these Mac minis. Perhaps a good rule is to hold off a few months. Until the buying rush is done with and apple tries to start a new rush by offering more advanced features. I dont know if they could get in a 9600 or higher video card with heat reequirements though. But the 9200 should do fine for the OS and the higher res work with more video memory.
  • bob661 - Wednesday, January 26, 2005 - link

    Shuttle is making gaming machines. They need to be able to fit a 6800 or X800 in them. Also, they use full size hard drives and DVD/CD drives.
  • Concord - Wednesday, January 26, 2005 - link

    A pitiful attempt of the dying platform.
    There are no reasons to buy it. Stylish? This soap box? I am dying laughing! Try to have your own look on things. Apple is trying to make an impression that it does so much good for us poor users and for only 499 US we are among choosen.
    Ha-ha buy and enjoy - You are different! That's all you can get.
  • peachee - Wednesday, January 26, 2005 - link

    It uses 2.5" HD. Does that mean 3.5" HD upgrades won't fit?

    Is the graphics card upgradeable?

    Will it take 1 - 2 years before Apple completely abondons this computer when a new OS update comes out?

    When people realize that a PDA is cheaper and more capable than an IPOD, will MS have to bail out Apple again?
  • Cygni - Wednesday, January 26, 2005 - link

    "figure out the case and internal hardware components to use such as those you suggest be used for an alternate base Wintel"

    Thats true, the shuttle will take considerably more setup time and prior knowledge. That does not lessen the bang/buck of the hardware, in my eyes, and i think thats what Anand is speaking of.

    "when it comes to downtime, system maintenance,"

    I am typing this on my G4 Powerbook, and i think this is an unfair comment. I have K6-2 machines running WXP that havent rebooted in months. I also have friends and coworkers with Macs that consistantly freeze (especially when opening a 3rd party program). In all honesty, if you have any type of downtime problems with ANY modern system, something is wrong. There doesnt seem to be any measurable difference to me... they are both quite solid.

    "I'd bet my daily income, that if you would install a good AV SW, many ,even tens of, viruses would be found."

    I havent installed an AV program since Windows 3.1, and i have never had any problems with viruses. I run HouseCall every couple of months, and its never found anything. Honestly, how do people get these viruses? I use P2P programs all the time, i open and install community made programs all the time... never gotten a thing. And i have yet to recieve any type of virus from all these amazing holes in XP where viruses just fly through the internet at your computer. If you DONT click anything on the screen on a shady site, you will never have any problems... doesnt matter what browser you use. If you drop all the security levels and click yes to everything, whose fault is that?
  • msva124 - Wednesday, January 26, 2005 - link

    I don't care what the PC costs, I already have plenty of PCs. I want to buy a Mac. First of all, I will need 512MB RAM ($75 extra). Second, I want to get a keyboard with apple keys so that I can get used to the new shortcuts ($30). It should also have a USB hub, or I will need to get one seperate ($15). Third, I need wireless, unless I never want to use the internet($79). Fourth, I need a two button usb mouse with scroll wheel ($20). Finally, the cheapest 15" LCD with good reviews on Amazon is the AG Neovo F-415 ($215 with shipping). That comes to $933. A similarly configured Emac is $953. And the lowest cost Ibook upgraded to 512MB is $1074.

    Why would I not want to upgrade to the Ibook and get full portability?

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