Intel Based Mac Mini Review
In a way, this is "Part II" of the Mac Mini review that I first wrote back in 2005. Back in mid to late 2005, news surfaced that Apple Computer would be transforming their computer lineup to feature Intel microprocessors instead of the PowerPC RISC microprocessor family.
Today, Apple computer is slowly but surely moving their entire product line to the Intel Pentium microprocessor family. As of recently, this also includes the Mac Mini. For those who don't already know, the Mac Mini is Apple's low cost computer offering.
In light of the Mac Mini's recent switch to Intel processor technology, I thought that I'd review one and see what I thought of it. There are a lot of similarities between the two reviews, so you may wish to read both of them. What this means is that I actually went out and bought one. I wasn't handed a free or reduced cost sample, nor was I promised anything in return for a glowing review. What you read here is the straight truth about what I experienced and what I thought of it.
NEW! Windows, you say? Oh, yes.
As you can see, the packaging has changed a bit. It has become more colorful and complex than the original Mac Mini's packaging.
So what's in the box? Many of the same things as were included with the original Mac Mini. You get a series of restore CDs, a small manual, DVI>VGA adapter, some other literature, a sheet of stick-on Apple logos, and a power cord. New to the box and the Mini itself is a remote control, which is used with the "Front Row" feature. (More on that later.)
There is no size change in the new Mac Mini. It still the exact same size, shape and thickness that it was before the switch to Intel.
Up And Running
(Hey, what do you know? I didn't set the thing up on my bed this time! But that is the same monitor!)
Just like the original Mac Mini, getting started is a snap. Pretty much all you have to do is hook up your monitor, keyboard, mouse and speakers if you have them. Other things, such as your printer, USB hubs or other devices may be hooked up later. After plugging in the power supply, you can power the computer up.
Initial startup time is much faster than on the original Mac Mini. Apple has clearly increased the speed at which the initial startup completes, which is definitely an improvement.
When the startup does complete, you'll be stepped through a set of instructions that guide you on how to move data from an older Macintosh, enter your registration information, and create your new user name. There seem to have been a few steps added to this process. For example, you can now enter wireless networking settings while going through this procedure. (I noted that in my previous review, Apple made the configuration of Wi-Fi a bit difficult. It is nice to see that this has been resolved. The same Wi-Fi setup I used when I configured my PowerPC G4-based Mini was also used to set this computer up. The key difference this time was that it worked the first time without any fiddling around.)
Another difference I noticed was the lack of any sign-up information for an ISP. Perhaps this is due to the removal of the onboard modem.
The software included on this computer was much more up-to-date than the software on my original Mac Mini PowerPC G4 based computer. The first time Software Update ran, it only had to find four updates.
Apple has changed and updated the collection of software included with the Mac Mini. You still get a pretty decent collection of software given the price of the computer and its intended market.
Included with the computer are Mac OS X (includes Spotlight search technology and Dashboard, which is collection of small applications known as "widgets"...), Front Row, Apple Mail, iChat AV, Safari (Apple's web browser), Address Book, QuickTime, iLife 2006 (includes improved versions of iPhoto and iMovie, along with iDVD, GarageBand, iWeb and iTunes), iCal, Quicken (for North America only), Big Bang Board Games, Comic Life (a comic strip maker), and OmniOutliner.
You will also find test-drive versions of Microsoft Office 2004 and iWork 2006. Office still watermarks your documents, but iWork is fully functional for a limited period of time.
Of course, Apple still includes their own programs, just as they did before. The majority of them are decent programs that work well and offer a good selection of features.
I still don't particularly care for Apple's Mail software. Version 2.0 (as featured in Mac OS X 10.4.x) is definitely an improvement...I just don't happen to care for it.
iLife '06 is included as well. iLife '06 is a suite of programs that can help you accomplish a number of tasks on your Mac Mini computer. You can do everything from authoring a DVD all the way up to making your own web page. Some of the programs included in iLife '06 are freely available or included with the Mac OS, but iLife does offer improved versions and a few exclusive tools, such as iWeb.
The included games have changed drastically, perhaps because Apple preferred to bundle programs compiled to run on the new Intel processor-based Macintoshes. Instead of Nanosaur 2 or Marble Blast Gold, a series of games known as "Big Bang Board Games" are now included. These are--as you'd expect--variations on several popular board games. I didn't play these games in depth, other than to fiddle around with the checkers game some. They do seem well written, but I didn't go into a great deal of depth playing any of them.
Finally, there is Front Row software included on the new Mac Mini. Front Row is Apple's answer to Microsoft's Media Center platform for PCs. When the included remote's "menu" button is pressed, Front Row zooms to the front of the screen and offers you a choice to play music, watch a DVD, use iPhoto or watch stored videos on your computer. This easy to read and use screen is very handy if you're using your Mac Mini as the heart of an entertainment center. When hooked up to a TV, this screen is easy to navigate and read, even from a distance.
Interestingly enough, while Apple has clearly tried to include software that runs natively on the Intel processor, the copy of Quicken 2006 that's included is a PowerPC program. Fortunately, you can run most PowerPC software on your Intel Macintosh, thanks to...
Rosetta is the name for Apple's new "on the fly" PowerPC emulation software. As you might guess, this software lets you use most unmodified PowerPC programs on your new Intel-based Macintosh computer.
However impressive Rosetta is, the technology does have its limitations. For example, there is no longer a "Classic" environment on the new Intel-based Macs. Also, device drivers and low level programs will very likely refuse to run under Rosetta.
Rosetta also has another slight drawback--it is an emulation layer. Like any other form of emulation, there is overhead in the process that translates instructions from one type of processor to another. This results in a slowdown that can range anywhere from barely noticeable to almost unusable depending upon the software you are running. As with most emulation layers, Rosetta also likes RAM...and lots of it. If you have a wide selection of PowerPC-designed programs, you'd better think about upgrading the RAM on your Mac Mini.
I had some interesting results with PowerPC programs that I ran on my Intel-based Mac Mini. In my tests, I found that programs like Microsoft Office were sometimes slow enough to be annoying, if not nearly unusable. Other programs, however, like Google Earth, seemed to work reasonably well. Mozilla Firefox and Mozilla Thunderbird both ranged from excellent to sluggish depending upon the tasks run.
If you have software for which there is no native Mac OS X version, you are out of luck with an Intel-based Mac. Apple did not port the "Classic" operating environment over to these computers, so you just cannot run old software. However, some hope may be found in "virtual machine" emulators, such as the Basilisk or SheepShaver projects. These programs offer a nearly-complete emulation of a 68K or PowerPC CPU, and as such, they can let you run an older version of the Mac OS. This in turn could allow you to run your older software.
Interestingly enough, I found that the software for my Samsung CLP-550n and ML-1710 printers seemed to work fine after installation.
The base Mac Mini is powered by an Intel Core Solo processor running at 1.5GHz. This model also includes 2MB L2 cache, 512MB RAM, AirPort Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, wired ethernet, a 60GB hard disk and a CD burner. You also get one 400 megabit Firewire port and four USB 2.0 ports.
The Core Duo version turns up the speed a little bit (to 1.6GHz), upgrades the hard drive to 80GB and also provides you with a DVD burner. You also get a second processor core.
Apple does still let you do a limited amount of custom building the new Mac Mini. However, there aren't as many options. Both models include Bluetooth and AirPort Wi-Fi hardware, so there's no need to add that. All you can really add to the base model is more RAM or the DVD burner. The higher end model already features the DVD burner, so RAM becomes the only Apple-supplied upgrade you can order.
Video has changed on the Mac Mini. The original Mac Mini featured a dedicated purpose video processor--an ATI Radeon 9200. The new Mac Mini uses an Intel Chipset Graphics system that steals some system RAM and may need CPU assistance to render some graphics. Given Apple's one-time stance on integrated graphics (they had a low opinion of them) it is odd that they have changed their mind. Some theories for this change include the possibility of the motherboard simply not having enough room to accomodate a standalone graphics system. Other possibilities include the integrated video being a further cost-saving measure.
Whatever the case, the new video subsystem does seem to be faster than the ATI 9200 used in the older Mac Mini. However, the ATI solution might be preferable in situations of high system load.
Another key difference in the new Mac Mini is the sound system. Apple initially only provided a headphone/line out plug on the PowerPC version of the Mac Mini. The new Mac Mini offers not only a headphone/line out plug, but also a line-in. Also, the two plugs can be used for digital optical output or input if so desired. The computer itself still contains an internal speaker that still sounds the same as it did in the PowerPC version of the Mac Mini.
512MB RAM is now standard. While this makes for a good minimum, those who are using Rosetta technology with PowerPC-native programs should consider upgrading. So should those who work with memory intensive programs or like to have many things open at once. The new Mac Mini features two RAM slots, and you can install up to 2GB of RAM by either custom-building or opening the computer yourself and installing it.
The increase in the number of available USB ports has not gone unnoticed. While I didn't consider the number of USB 2.0 ports on my original PowerPC-based Mac Mini to be lacking, some people wanted to have more than two USB ports. The new Mac Mini now has four USB 2.0 ports.
Finally, there is the remote control for Front Row. This remote resembles an iPod shuffle in size and layout. However, it has no docking point, no ability to play music by itself and the button layout differs slightly from that of the iPod shuffle. It is also perhaps a little small for the rigors of life in a living room frequented by people who are not always easy on remotes. The small size also means that it might get lost in a chair or underneath something. On the plus side, however, the remote is very easy to use. It also features a good long range, at least as long as you don't hide the Mac Mini inside a cabinet, which would block the IR beam used by the remote.
Something that I think has been on the minds of many people is "how is the heat output on the new Mac Mini?" Well, as best I can tell, the G4 version does operate without generating as much heat. However, the Intel version is still almost silent, and the only place it seems to produce more obvious amounts of heat is in the grey rubber pad that makes up the bottom of the computer. Apple has actually reduced the number of vent holes in the back of the casing.
I do have some reservations and concerns about the thermal design of the new Mac Mini. Informal (and quite probably inaccurate) tests by myself show that under 200% (yes, 200%) CPU load the system is putting out air that is hotter than 120 degrees Fahrenheit. (In all fairness, I have noticed no heat related failures so far. I'm just used to computers that actually moved a fair quantity of air and weren't designed for the lowest possible level of fan noise.)
I would make the recommendation not to set the Intel-powered version of the Mac Mini on any sort of a surface that can't stand getting fairly warm. I also wouldn't put it on a carpet.
In recent times, you can use a utility called smcFanControl to adjust the fan speed up if you so desire. It makes a large difference in the apparent external temperature of the mini, although I cannot say that the mini runs isn't already sufficiently able to cool itself. smcFanControl also works on various species of Macbook (including Macbook Pro systems) and iMacs. It may also work on the Mac Pro. Note that it "isn't supported" on anything other than the notebooks and maybe the mini.
So far I haven't seen many. Overall Apple has done an excellent job of pulling off such a massive platform switch. The new Mac Mini runs smoothly and does seem at least slightly faster than the PowerPC G4-based model.
I did run across one rather interesting bug, however. After Software Update installed the 6.0.4 update for iTunes, Front Row seemed to have some trouble with Shared Music. While it can see what's playing from a shared music library in iTunes, Front Row said that iTunes wasn't installed when I tried to navigate shared music on other computers. Given that this worked fine before updating to the latest release of iTunes, I feel this is a bug in Front Row. (This trouble has since cleared up.)
The Mac Mini still has many of the same advantages as its PowerPC based predecessor. It's breathtakingly small, has good performance for a budget computer, and now it offers more developed entertainment center capabilities in the form of the Front Row software and included remote.
Range on the built in Wi-Fi is still phenomenal. This computer still picks up a usable signal in portions of my home where nothing else seems to work reliably.
While Mac OS X has been the subject of some minor security issues lately, and finally does have some potential malware out there, it still represents a relatively secure method of computing, especially for those who don't have a lot of computer experience.
The provided software package is still quite comprehensive, and includes many of the programs the average user will need to accomplish some kind of work.
A Mac Mini also represents an inexpensive way to break into the world of computing on an Apple Macintosh. If you've ever wondered or been curious about a Mac--and whether or not one would be for you--this might be the way to find out. Even with the recent price increases, you'll still find that it is competitively priced for what you get.
I have only one real complaint, and that is with Apple Technical Support. I left my Intel mini running for a long time in my other house and the OS must have gotten lonely or starved, as it was dead upon my return. What should have been a simple procedure of inserting the restore CDs and running the machine back to factory state* was made more difficult by a set of discs that proved to be defective.
I called Apple right away and stated to them very clearly what the problem was. Only trouble is, while I was under the hardware warranty, I was not under the complimentary support period and every tech I spoke to was adamant that I would be charged $40 to diagnose the problem. I was equally adamant that I only needed the restore media (and that everything else was fine) but this only got me more punishment and at least one accusation that I'd be cheating Apple by having them send me restore media without testing the machine to make sure the problem wasn't elsewhere. (Cheating them out of what? $40?)
At the same time, I went to the Apple dealer where I bought my mini and plead my case there. Two DVD+R DL discs later I was up and running without further incident. I did finally get discs from Apple, but I've never tried them and don't know if they even work.
Quite frankly, the whole business of having to put up with this really mars an otherwise excellent system. My advice to you would be to find a good independent Apple dealer and buy from them. Then when you need support under the warranty period, go there instead. The hair you save might be your own!
It is my hope that this update to my original review has been useful to you. The Mac Mini is an excellent little budget computer that deserves your consideration if you're in the market for a computer, or have just become curious about the Macintosh.
For the most complete set of thoughts, I'd recommend looking at the original review that I wrote, in case you haven't done so already.
As always...if you have questions or comments, let me know!
*When running a restoration on the Mac, it is possible to install the Mac OS in the "archive and install" mode. This mode saves all your files, documents and user profiles so you can find them later after getting a new system set up and going. It can also pull in some settings from the old profile if it isn't too badly damaged. This can be a significant time/data saver and it does work most of the time.
"Devix" Mac Mac Mini icons (one is used as the "favicon" for this page)
created by Fernando Lucas Silva Lins Dos Santos. (this link does not work, check here)
Icons Copyright ©2005 Fernando Lucas Silva Lins Dos Santos. All Rights Reserved.