A Week with a Mac mini

In previous articles, I have written about my decision to “downgrade” from a Mac Pro to a Mac mini, and about my first impressions using the Mac mini. It’s now been one week since I got the Mac mini, so it’s time to write a report about how it works “in the field”, in normal usage.

Aside from the raw processor power, one of the biggest differences between the two computers is the amount of RAM they contain. I had put 8 GB into the Mac Pro – it came with, I think, 2 GB, but over time I increased it to 4 GB, then, at the end of last year, to 8 GB – mostly so I’m comfortable when using Windows (which I don’t use often, and not for work). With 4 GB in the Mac mini, I find little difference in the ability to open a large number of applications (large, for me, being around a dozen). They all respond well, and switching between applications is immediate.

As I’ve said before, my work does not involve any processor-intensive applications; as a writer, I basically write, using productivity tools (Word, Pages, Acrobat, BBEdit, Numbers, etc.). All of these applications function fine with the Mac mini, and I see no difference at all in their speed or response. If I were to do a massive find/replace operation, perhaps, I might see a difference, but I’m convinced that it would be minimal. In my work this week – a pretty normal week, using all the applications I use in my work – I didn’t see any differences in using applications, with the exception that some applications, notably Microsoft Word, take a bit longer to open, perhaps two or three seconds more.

One clear difference, however, is in the graphics response. There is a bit of a stutter when using Exposé, when invoking Dashboard, or when I display all my spaces. The graphics card is much weaker than that of the Mac Pro, and it is not dedicated video RAM: the RAM is shared between normal memory and the graphics card. While this is visible, it is not a major problem; it has never occured when working in any applications, and since I’m not a gamer, I won’t have any issues with applications that need fast graphics response. I’m running a 24″ monitor, which may be one factor; I wonder how the Mac mini would work with a 30″ monitor?

The main difference between the two is in ripping CDs and converting music files. Here’s what I wrote after the first day with the Mac mini:

The one place where I really see a difference in speed is when ripping CDs. I had a second optical drive in my Mac Pro, because I buy and digitize a lot of discs. It ran at 52x, much faster than the Mac Pro’s internal SuperDrive. The mini has a 24x CD read speed, and when ripping CDs, iTunes maxed out at about 14x, compared to 20 – 40x on the Mac Pro. So part of that is the processor, but much of it is the drive speed. I haven’t found an external CD drive at 52x here yet; the fastest I found is 40x. I may pick that up, because ripping CDs is something I do often enough that speed makes a difference. I also saw huge speed differences when converting some FLAC files from a Grateful Dead concert I downloaded to AAC. Using XLD, I would convert six files simultaneously at about 20x each; with the mini, I lowered it to four files at a time, and got about 10x each.

I’ve ordered an external drive that reads CDs at up to 40x, so I can speed up ripping. Over the past couple of days, I ripped a box set of 14 CDs, and it was slow. I buy enough CDs – and often large box sets of classical music – that this is important to me.

There’s not much else to say. To recap, it’s small, quiet, cool, and does everything I need. It has a couple of weak areas – graphics, CD ripping, music conversion – but that’s nothing that gets in my way when I’m working. At less than half the cost of the Mac Pro – even with my maxed-out version – it’s almost a no-brainer. I still wish Apple had something in between, maybe that could hold two hard disks and a second optical drive, but I’m more and more convinced that we won’t see that any time soon. If you’re hesitating between the two, and don’t use processor-intensive applications, and don’t need the fastest graphics, it’s a clear choice: the Mac mini is one heck of a little Mac.

Check out the Mac mini at Amazon.com