updated 14 February 2005
A Review of Apple's Mac Mini
an article by Bryan Roberts
Getting the Mini Mac
Hello all, well here is the Mac Mini review I promised. First off, let it be known that I am not a Mac veteran but rather a Mac newbie. I've been forced to edit several projects on Final Cut Pro 3 and 4 on mostly Powerbooks the past year including a feature length 16mm film but as a Mac user, this is the extent of my experience so I don't have other Macs to really compare with but I did my best to objectively evaluate this thing.
As we all know, these things are in pretty high demand (or there's a shortage of supply) , either way they're hard to get and my online order was listed to ship on Feb 14th. I couldn't wait this long so I decided to post out the morning of the 22nd to wait in line at my local Mac store (20 minute drive). That morning it was around 23 degrees and I arrived 35 minutes before opening time to see around 7 people in line waiting. They were all male of varying ages but were engaged in flaming their windows using friends, spitting out Mac jargon left and right.
At this point, I began to question what kind of person I was to be standing around with these people, hung over I might add in 23 deg. weather. Within 15 minutes a horde of people had arrived adding to the line. Right before the doors were finally opened at 9am, I would estimate around 40 people were in a line that stretched as far as I could see and around the corner, I was feeling a little better now. I had brought a digital camera in case it was a spectacle but by this point there was already a guy with an SLR taking a million pictures and looking like a tool so I decided against joining in.
We flooded in the double glass front doors at 9am on the dot and strangely, everyone paused at the front checkout desk waiting to formally ask a store clerk for a Mac Mini (which were not in plain site to purchase) but all the clerks were busy setting up other stuff. After 30 seconds or so, I decided to shuffle my way to the closest clerk who was near the back corner of the store. "Uh, hey man could I get a Mac Mini?" I mumbled. He said sure, asked which variety and went into a back room and emerged with the little box. I said thanks and walked to the front of the store. Literally, all forty people or so in this huge mass at the front of the store stared at me as I walked back towards them. I heard whispering "he's got one", "there it is", "look at that" (seriously, I heard this). I couldn't get back to the front of the horde where I was originally to check out because the people were so densely packed so I just kinda paused towards the front off to the side. Finally someone spoke to me from the now silent and still staring crowd: "man, how did you do that?" to which I replied: "uh, I just asked that guy back there for one". Just then a clerk realized what was going on, alerted the crowd that they hadn't recieved a lot of Minis and no iPod Shuffles and started asking people in pairs which Mini they wanted. Then they would walk to the back and pull out a pair and check out that person. It was a very slow process. So I had to get to the back of the line which meant I checked out last but I was still the first to hold the Mini and I don't believe everyone was able to get one so it was ok. Final cost was $587.43 because those with student ID's received $50 off the 1.4 version and $25 off the 1.2, nice! The clerks also informed us that we were not supposed to install our own memory upgrades and that they hadn't received the official Mini Mac upgrade "tools" yet and didn't know when they would. I sort of smirked and knew my crucial.com 1 gig memory upgrade would hopefully be in there shortly.
Wow, this thing is really small. The box is tiny but until you actually hold this lil' dude and physically feel its dimensions, you can't understand. We obviously live in the future. Anyways, hooking up the connections were very straightforward as we all know. I wanted to make sure my Mini wasn't DOA before tackling the memory upgrade so I powered her up and was greeted with the classic Mac startup sound played from the tiny internal speaker. Other than that, this thing is silent, I literally couldn't hear a sound from it (I have a quiet pc fan running fairly close by though). Then I installed iLife 05' which includes the fun little Garage Band 2 program which I mettled in a bit before moving around the system. I must say, this thing felt smooth. I really enjoyed the Mac interface and everything seemed to just work well.
I had read using Garage Band with low ram (256 in my case) produced bad results but I had no problems with it and tried to add many tracks to choke up the system. Performance wasn't ground breaking but it seemed to handle it ok with some lag when previewing samples etc. The image quality was very good on my 19inch Sony hs94p LCD. My Sony has two inputs in the back, one for DVI and one for RGB monitors so I kept my pc on the DVI and the Mac on the RGB port (adapter supplied) and toggle between the two with my input select. I was excited to own a new operating system and its presentation and slickness was almost worth the price alone, but I really wanted this system to become adept in Final Cut Pro HD, so what about the function side?
Going against what the store clerk said, I decided I wasn't going to be their monkey and pay $50 for someone to pop in a memory chip (I don't think they'd install non-Mac brand chips anyways). A quick search on the net provided me with great information, pics, and a movie on what tools are needed to safely pop open the case. You'll need very thin putty knives from Lowe's etc. for this job (one or two depending on your technique). It's rumored that the official Apple ones will simply be thin plasticized putty knives but if you're careful, the metal ones are fine and don't scratch anything when used properly. I posted the links at the bottom to the intructions and movie file.
Getting the case off took some time initially. The first time, the little clips are very stiff and it takes a bit more coaxing and repeated attempts without applying to much force. If you're at all ok with your hands, following the video will be easy just stay patient your first time. I finally got the case off and was able to install my new 1 gig memory chip into the densely packed Mini Mac. Putting the case back on is straightforward, though lining up the back correctly might take a few times. It's nothing too tough, I would advise people buy their own memory from Crucial and install themselves. Spend the money on something or actually anything else rather than being a Mac store monkey.
Well, after getting used to having the Mac Mini and getting a little bored with garage band (which ran much much more smoothly with the gig of ram) it was time for the real test, FCP HD. This morning I finally had time to capture some footage from my DVX100A onto the 4200 speed internal drive. I have read everywhere that this is not an advised method and that video capturing should go straight to an external 7200 firewire HD (which I don't have yet). So, this was more for testing purposes.
Everything captured correctly on the video side without any dropped frames and I did a capture now for 28 minutes worth of DV footage to give it a real test (of course did scene detection after the fact). Audio wise, the sound was out of sync by around 1 to 2 seconds which after doing a search on our boards, realized is a fairly common problem with 24p footage. I couldn't find a clear answer in my initial searches but I assume this is not a major problem to fix. I then tested how the Mac would perform when layering video. A simple dissolve worked perfectly without any rendering. I added a few visual effects to the incoming and outgoing tracks and still no rendering needed for the dissolve or tracks. It took multiple effects on the tracks and a page peel effect for the rendering to be required (and only on the transition).
When I did render, it took a little longer than I expected but I think this was because it was rendering all the effects I had applied, even those that were real time previewing for me, which included one extremely long clip I had applied a sepia effect to. Clicking around in the timeline was very smooth and I felt little to no noticeable lag which was very nice. Again, I'm coming from using Powerbooks with 512 megs of ram and slightly slower processors.
Obviously, longer form projects will require much more than my simple tests but from what I was able to do this morning, the Mac Mini performed where I expected it to. This eased my concerns regarding the Mini becoming strictly a novelty item rather than a box I could use. I personally have full confidence in this unit for DV projects short or long (I would export a project to my PC for After Effects work after the fact) but anything HD or advanced I think is obviously not suited for this system.
Well, I'm not converting to a Mac but I'm coexisting as a Mac and PC user. Therefore, I didn't want to have two keyboards and two mice cluttering up my desk. So, after some research, I purchased the TRENDnet tk209i KVM (keyboard, video, mouse) switch from New Egg.com for $25. This device lets me use my PS2 keyboard and mouse (mine was optical USB but I popped a USB-to-PS2 converter on it) and share one monitor with two different computers even if one is PC and one is Mac. I didn't use the video switch part however because it only supports VGA monitor cables (a DVI KVM or DVI monitor selector is very expensive) and I wanted to keep the DVI coming from my PC, so again, I'm using a toggle input switch built into my monitor. I've read many horror stories about USB KVM switches and using them between a PC and Mac, but this thing has worked like a charm. There's no lag between the switch and the only small down side is the mouse control isn't quite as precise or responsive as my optical Logitech was before I popped the PS2 adapter on it. You almost can't tell, but because I was used to a higher end mouse for a while, I can slightly tell, but it's no big loss unless you're an avid gamer. This switch also supports microphone and speaker switching, however I don't have any mics for computer use and I wanted to hear the sound from both of my computers so I bought a little audio two-into-one adapter from Radio Shack.
Well, I haven't even added this up yet until now, so here we go (all items include tax and shipping if applicable):
$587.43 -- 1.4 mini mac
$250.38 -- 1 gig Crucial.com Ram
$45.44 -- KVM switch from New Egg.com
$10 -- dual female stereo mini to one female stereo mini from Radio Shack
Grand Total for the fastest Mini available (currently) and items needed to make things work: $893.25
Well this comes after only having it for a few days but I really like the Mini Mac. It performs where I thought it would, it's very high on the novelty value side (which I've never before even considered a product based on novelty but this one hits more on portability than novelty, or so I'd like to say) and it feels solidly built. Expansion as we all knew is a limiting side but I'm happy where it's performing now and don't plan to do much more with it than edit DV in Final Cut Pro. I also strongly enjoy the feeling of having a computer that isn't connected to the internet. I don't plan on ever connecting it online and want to really keep it "unscathed".
I think that the Mini will sell well and shouldn't become obsolete among those who use it for tasks it currently performs well. Editing DV on a computer has reached a point where higher specs are more for convenience and save a little time rather than adding that much additional raw function. Once uncompressed HD or HDV becomes a low budget standard, then current systems will become incapable. As long as DV (or HDV) remains the standard for low budget productions however, these machines that function well should stay current.
The Mini sure as hell hasn't converted me to a "Mac guy" but I respect the brand and system now, and I can easily see how PC users will purchase the Mini in droves and am happy to coexist in both realms now. Viva la Mini!
Written by Bryan Roberts.
Thrown together by Chris Hurd.