A few weeks with the Mac mini

I’ve had the Mac mini for a few weeks now so I thought I’d write a bit my thoughts on the mini and OS X in general. There is a lot to like about the mini and OS X but there are also a few items I’ve come to dislike which I’ll discuss below.

The Mac mini is a tiny computer that looks great. I am personally not aware of any sort of PC that is this small, includes the same features AND looks good doing it. That said, aesthetics are in the eye of the beholder and are a matter of opinion. With that in mind I’ll try to steer clear of personal opinion and concentrate more on practicality and usability.

The Positives

As far as hardware goes, the Mac mini is a great little machine. The specs alone are very respectable for what is actually Apple’s bottom-of-the-line model. It doesn’t get any cheaper than the model that I bought yet you never really feel that it is in normal use. One thing I feel Apple does very well (at least with the current lineup) is guarantee that you cannot buy a computer from them that is going to require immediate upgrades. Apple smartly bumped up the standard amount of RAM on the mini so that you can have great out of the box experience unlike a number of low end Vista based PCs on the market.

Along with a useful amount of RAM, Apple gives you built in 802.11b/g networking, bluetooth 2.0+EDR and something that really surprised me, a gigabit network interface. Since in the mini is targeted towards the home user built in wireless is a major plus. I would guess that most people do not have Cat5 strung throughout there house. In some ways I’d like it if bluetooth were an optional add-on but after having been “forced” into buying it I rather like that I have it. I’ve been able to play around with using my Wii remote as an input device and I have option of buying a bluetooth keyboard or mouse in the future. The gigabit networking allows me to use my existing Linux based file server with peak throughput speeds similar to an attached hard drive and indeed, probably faster than the 2.5″ drive built into the mini.

The mini’s size allows you to simply leave it on top of your desk, if you choose, or you can very easily hide it. If you do decide to leave it on your desk, you won’t have to suffer with listening to it run as it’s very quiet even when under heavy load such as video encoding. I can honestly hear a humming noise coming from my cordless mouse as it moves over the sound of the mini. Under full load and with the fan spun up it sounds a lot like some of the quietest full size PCs I’ve experienced.

Love it or hate it, all of the ports on the mini are all on the back. There are no USB or firewire ports on the front and there are no media readers built in unlike a growing number of Windows based PCs. While I initially thought this wasn’t necessarily a good idea, I’ve come appreciate the clean, non-cluttered look it gives the mini. In the case of USB, if you choose to buy Apple’s keyboard and mouse this isn’t an issue as they give you USB ports right on the keyboard but with firewire you are stuck having to reach around to the backside of the mini in order to it. There are of course add-on products that give you this ability but they are at an additional cost.

The Mac of course runs OS X and so far I’ve found more that I like about it than I dislike. OS X has a kind of polish to it that makes everything seem very fluid which never leaves you with a feeling of “where did that come from” or “what just happened.” Minimizing a window for example initiates an animation that shrinks and “pours” the window into the dock. The animation is slow enough for you to watch and allows you to see exactly where it went, but generally quick enough as to not be in your way.

The fluidity of the OS does present one thing that will stick out with a lot of power users, it makes OS X feel…different and sorta slow. Although Vista and Linux with Compiz Fusion have similar visual affects, OS X has been doing it longer and if you’re coming from XP or a non-gussied up version of Linux the animation and affects make interacting with OS X feel like your interacting with molasses or putty. It feels as if you’re working with something that has considerable heft, substance and purpose. It both feels slow and yet satisfying. Almost like an expensive ball point pen that has weight to it and writes smooth as if the ink were a gel.

There are a number of other small tidbits about OS X that stick out in my mind has being nice. One of them is how OS X remembers what monitor you are connected to and will remember the resolution you used on that monitor the last time it was connected. It even remembers what background you were using and displays it. This is handy if you move your mini a lot, which admittedly I doubt most people do, but if you’re someone like me where you’re maybe hooking it up to a projector from time to time it comes in handy.

The Negatives
While there is a lot to like about the mini and OS X, indeed, more than I’ve covered, there are also some things that I don’t like. Most of my gripes are with OS X itself and not the hardware because in reality, the hardware is nearly the same as any other PC you can buy. The mini’s one glaring issue is that it’s nearly impossible to service. There are no screws at all on the bottom and you must pry the thing apart even to upgrade the ram. This comes as a bit of a shock to a long time PC guy like me who is used to swapping parts with little issue. A person could say however that if you’re the type that is comfortable servicing a computer then you probably won’t have any issue opening up the mini. Despite that, I think the mini could be a bit more user serviceable.

OS X, for all of it’s great features, seems to lack some seemingly straightforward and obvious things. For instance. You cannot right click on a file and cut the file (aka, cut and paste to move a file). You can however do this operation from the edit menu or by keyboard shortcuts (more on this later on). It’s also just not possible to click a file and press the delete key. Nothing happens. Of course you can also drag files to the trash bin.

OS X and the iLife suite are also serious memory hogs. OS X itself seems to fit somewhere between XP and Vista in terms of memory usage. In fact, I’d say it’s very comparable to XP+an antivirus program such as Grisfoft’s AV. What’s strange is that I’m easily able to use the mini to run Firefox, Adium and iMovie at the same time, but iPhoto will basically make the whole machine feel unusable. I have maybe 30 pictures in iPhoto. Compared to my laptop with has 1.25GB of ram, this seems strange as I can honestly say I’ve never felt short of RAM on my laptop.

Some other things I’ve noticed during my short time with the mini and OS X are:

  • Network drives are not reconnected when the computer comes out of sleep
  • Home/End and Page Up/Down keys don’t work as you’d expect, instead, you must use the command+arrow keys to achieve similar affects.
  • When you use a Windows keyboard, the alt key is in the same place the command key is on an Apple keyboard, but PC and Apple keyboards are not mapped the same. You must swap the functions of the Windows and alt keys to make it work correctly.
  • OS X is not customizable in the way Windows, Linux or even pre-OS X versions of Mac OS were.
  • OS X seemed to designed so as to encourage the use of keyboard shortcuts. There are a number of things in OS X that feel clumsy and so make you irritated enough to find the keyboard shortcut.

Most of my negatives are due to my lack of experience with OS X and I believe after I’ve spent more time with it my workflow will change to suit the OS more. I’m OK with this as every OS requires this to some degree. Overall I feel the Mac mini is a great little computer that would fit the needs of most people, particularly if they are upgrading from an old PC and already have satisfactory keyboard, monitor and mouse. It’s quick, quiet, small and easy. It doesn’t come preloaded with ads to support it’s low cost and perhaps best of all, you get two little white apple stickers in the box.

1 comment

  1. It sounds like you’re liking the Mac. It does grow on you.

    I do hate having to know different hotkeys though, especially for programs like Firefox that should be platform-agnostic. I miss my CTRL+scroll and ALT-arrow keys, but I guess I am used to the differences by now.

    So, do you dual-boot it? If you do, and you ever want a decent bootloader for EFI, this one is much better than how Bootcamp does it:
    http://refit.sourceforge.net/

    Take it easy, drop me a line if you get some time.

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