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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  • wildgift - Monday, September 19, 2005 - link

    I bought one, and it's nice. It's very quiet (meaning it doesn't add to the noise in the office), reasonably quick, and very easy on the eyes. It is a decent development machine, at least for smaller database driven websites, and is portable enough to tote to the office. There's definitely something to be said for carrying your entire development environment around, but without spending all the $$ for a laptop. The price/performance ratios suck, but the overall fit and finish, and very nice software, more than compensate for the approximaely $150 premium you pay for going with a Mac. A SFF PC / OS combo to match the Mini simply cannot be purchased. A fairly comparable SFF PC (like the AOpen that's quiet) with the same RAM and larger hard drive, and slightly faster CPU, costs almost the same, and lacks the software. (Yes, I'm getting one of those too.)

    Also, going with any Mac at all gets you the better aesthetics that Windows lacks, and Linux totally lacks. You get better typefaces. You get better color calibration. Printing is smoother (and the addition of gimp-print is a big plus). You can type in any language you know. Even the screensaver photos are nicer. With iWork, you get nicer templates. Even the old AppleWorks clip art is pretty good (not really good, but, ok for "free" clipart). These things matter a lot if you work with documents.

    If you're in the Unix niche, a Mac is nice because it has Unix under the hood. It's not quite the standard Solaris, BSD, or Linux environment, but it's close enough for most things.

    The Mini is a pretty good computer, and a very good *product*. It's not the monster of spec benchmarks, but, most people, including technical people who you might think would care, simply don't care about those numbers.
    Reply
  • steveo561 - Friday, April 01, 2005 - link

    Interested in a FREE MAC MINI???

    I just got mine FOR FREE...EVEN SHIPPING...NO JOKE

    Just copy and paste the link EXACTLY as you see it below:

    www.FreeMiniMacs.com/?r=16680884

    All you have to do is go to the link, sign up for one FREE offer, and have some of your friends do the same and it's all yours for FREE.

    www.FreeMiniMacs.com/?r=16680884
    Reply
  • steveo561 - Monday, March 28, 2005 - link

    Interested in a FREE MAC MINI???

    I just got mine FOR FREE...EVEN SHIPPING...NO JOKE

    Just copy and paste the link EXACTLY as you see it below:

    www.FreeMiniMacs.com/?r=16680884

    All you have to do is go to the link, sign up for one FREE offer, and have some of your friends do the same and it's all yours for FREE.

    www.FreeMiniMacs.com/?r=16680884
    Reply
  • MarshallG - Monday, February 28, 2005 - link

    I love Anand's Mac articles. It's great to see an obviously pro-Windows guy like Anand look at the platform with such an open mind.

    Our home PC just died and this looks like a great replacement. I like the fact that I won't worry about viruses or spyware. I might get my 70 year-old mother one for the same reason.

    But I'm surprised that Anand makes little if any mention of the Unix core of these machines. This is Linux for people who don't want to deal with driver problems. You can open a shell window, and run Perl or a zilllion other UNIX languages and apps. I'm really impressed by that! Now I can *really* teach my children how to use computers.
    Reply
  • WorkingHardMan - Friday, February 11, 2005 - link

    The way Tiger has been described by Apple is that Tiger will still handle the pixles if the GPU can not. Having said all that, the mini isn't really being marketed to the kind of people who want or need high quality 20" and 23" displays. One of the Apple desktop computers would make more sense for that crowd. Reply
  • Xmate - Thursday, February 10, 2005 - link

    I'm sorry if this issue has already been addressed, I'd apreciate if you could restate the solution if it has been:

    OS X Tiger is supposed to use to GPU instead of the CPU to render all the pixels on the display correct? Well, while the Mac mini seems to be a very good solution for a PC user wanting to try out OS X, but from what I can see, the mini simply doesn't have nearly enough power in the GPU to power any of Apple's Cinema Displays. I have currently heard that most people are happy with the mini 20" CD combination, and I might (not certain) have heard people being happy with it even with the 23". With Tiger this is almost definetly not going to be the case.

    I was wondering if anyone has any input on that, and if they know of some possible solution that could be implemented to solve the problem.

    Thank you for your help,

    Stefan
    Reply
  • Wightout - Tuesday, February 08, 2005 - link

    http://www.pbs.org/cringely/pulpit/pulpit20050120.... Reply
  • PhoenixPyre - Sunday, February 06, 2005 - link

    Yeah, that Dell configuration isn't normal. To get those specs normally, you would have to pay well over $499. Not to mention it would be under the Small Business section of Dell.com and you would probably have to pay a good amount for shipping (as noted in #189). Reply
  • jaxcs2002 - Thursday, February 03, 2005 - link

    Hey good aricle but you tried to discuss too many things with this article. Two notes:

    1)The comparison Dell and the mini is fair but Dell doesn't sell any standard configuration computers. Every week (really, not kidding here), they run some kind of a promotion. You were able to snag a free LCD when you browsed the Dell page that day, but did you get free shipping? I guarantee the next week, you won't be able to get an LCD but maybe extra memory and a larger hard disk. They do this obviously to make each week a sale and to induce you to buy immediately.

    2) You make note that the comp is not for Apple power users and then promptly seem to forget that fact. What user would buy a mini mac and hook it to a 23" Cinema Display? It is interesting to note that it would not do well, but the Dell standard vidcard (integrated probably) wouldn't either. Judgeing from your article, it would probably be fine on a 15 or 17 inch screen.

    I think it would have been helpful, especially since you hint at it anyway to talk about its utility in performing more "average joe" type taks such as usng it in conjunction with the apple air port as a music file server or as video server. You know, those tasks that a buyer of an ipod might do with a mac mini. In every way, you seem to perfer its bigger cousins but this a mini, what tasks does the mini do well?
    Reply
  • pitdog - Wednesday, February 02, 2005 - link

    sorry for the double post....new to the forums Reply

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