The [2005] Mac mini is a Lemon

I’ve had my share of Macs over the years, most of them good (fortunately). I’ve never been stung by any of the more serious problems that have resulted from poor design, such as the iBook logic board problems or others. But today I’m writing about what I think is truly a lemon: the Mac mini.The Mac mini is a great idea: for $500, you get a relatively fast computer, one that is, above all, tiny and quiet. Designed probably to attract switchers from the Windows world, the Mac mini offers a limited feature set, but one that is largely sufficient for most users.

The Mac mini, as you know, comes naked in its box: no screen, no mouse, and no keyboard. This, again, allows switchers to simply hook up their existing equipment, or even use a KVM to switch between a PC and a Mac. This means that you have to make sure your existing peripherals work with the Mac mini. For a mouse and keyboard, this is no problem; the Mac mini will work with just about any USB devices (I haven’t heard about any incompatibilities, but it’s likely that any devices, especially mice or trackballs, that require drivers, will only offer basic functions unless there are Mac OS X versions of their drivers.

However, the real problem comes from the display. I guess that, in most cases, your display will work. You probably have a better chance of it working if you have a DVI display, as opposed to a VGA display. In my experience, however, the Mac mini is just not up to par for VGA displays. I have two Sony CRTs, about 2 and 3 years old. The first Mac mini I got gave a very dim display on one of them, and a green display on the other. No amount of adjustments, to either the monitors or the Mac mini’s Display preferences, changed these display problems. (Both these displays work perfectly well on other computers, one connected to an old iMac and PC, and another to a PC.) I was disappointed, especially when I saw all the problems on Apple’s discussions boards about display issues.

At this point, I was ready to just send it back for a refund – which was possible, since I bought it from an on-line dealer here in France who provides a no-questions-asked guarantee. But friends suggested that I try again, thinking that it could be just a bad unit, or a bad DVI-VGA adapter. Alas, when the second unit came, I connected it, and the same problems were present. Not it is entirely possible that my monitors are not “compatible” with the Mac mini; however, they are name-brand CRTs, with no special features that would prevent them from working with other computers (as I see daily at home). It seems that this is not an isolated problem: here’s a page on xlr8yourmac.com showing how common the problem is, and pointing out that the Mac mini simply does not put out enough power to drive many VGA monitors.

So, Apple’s got another lemon, and they’re clearly aware of it, but they don’t seem to be reacting to this widespread problem. Shame on you, Apple; at least you could set up a page saying which monitors you’ve tested the mini with so users can save all these hassles. You do this for some other devices, such as printers that are compatible with the AirPort Express, or CD/DVD drives compatible with iTunes.

Update, February, 2011: It’s worth noting that, since I first wrote this article in 2005, the Mac mini has changed quite a bit. And I also have a DVI display. In fact, as I wrote in this Macworld article, the Mac mini is now my Mac of choice. So the problems I highlight in this article, regarding video display, are no longer an issue.

20 thoughts on “The [2005] Mac mini is a Lemon

  1. Kirk,

    I have a borrowed 15" Sony monitor with exactly the same problem. My room
    mate has a newer 21" CRT which looks brilliant. As you point out, it seems to
    be a badly constructed VGA port. What’s interesting, though, is that if I try do
    watch a movie, it’s well nigh impossible when using Apple’s QT or VLC (like
    trying to read in a coal mine); however, switching to Mplayer OSX made things
    much better. Compared to the aforementioned 21" it still isn’t up to par, but
    except for really dark night scenes, watching movies is actually enjoyable.
    That said, I expect to get a new TFT screen before long – and I WILL check
    that it is compatible before handing out the cash…

    Peter J. Pedersen

  2. Kirk,

    I have a borrowed 15" Sony monitor with exactly the same problem. My room
    mate has a newer 21" CRT which looks brilliant. As you point out, it seems to
    be a badly constructed VGA port. What’s interesting, though, is that if I try do
    watch a movie, it’s well nigh impossible when using Apple’s QT or VLC (like
    trying to read in a coal mine); however, switching to Mplayer OSX made things
    much better. Compared to the aforementioned 21" it still isn’t up to par, but
    except for really dark night scenes, watching movies is actually enjoyable.
    That said, I expect to get a new TFT screen before long – and I WILL check
    that it is compatible before handing out the cash…

    Peter J. Pedersen

  3. I’ve seen the green screen on two different minis with two different displays. One was a 17" Sony, and the other some off brand flat screen. In both cases the problem was resolved by tightening the vga adapter. In both cases, the adapter wasn’t tightened equally on both screws.

    I do think that there is some kind of design flaw with either the port or the adapter (or both), but I’ve also noticed that most of the people who reported display problems on the apple boards only posted once, which leads me to believe that they resolved their problem. It’s unfortunate, but on boards like that, that is usually the case.

    • I tried a variety of "tightnesses" for the adapter – in fact, on my second monitor,
      it was green all the time, no matter how tight it was, though on my first monitor
      (the one I had planned to use with the mini) it seemed to get greenish when the
      adapter was very tight.

      As for posters on the Apple boards, maybe they gave up, returned their minis, or
      maybe they simply ended up buying DVI screens? I was not planning to do this; I
      actually bought the mini as a second Mac to replace an aging iMac which I use
      for testing and writing books (with a virgin installation for screen shots).

  4. I’ve seen the green screen on two different minis with two different displays. One was a 17" Sony, and the other some off brand flat screen. In both cases the problem was resolved by tightening the vga adapter. In both cases, the adapter wasn’t tightened equally on both screws.

    I do think that there is some kind of design flaw with either the port or the adapter (or both), but I’ve also noticed that most of the people who reported display problems on the apple boards only posted once, which leads me to believe that they resolved their problem. It’s unfortunate, but on boards like that, that is usually the case.

    • I tried a variety of "tightnesses" for the adapter – in fact, on my second monitor,
      it was green all the time, no matter how tight it was, though on my first monitor
      (the one I had planned to use with the mini) it seemed to get greenish when the
      adapter was very tight.

      As for posters on the Apple boards, maybe they gave up, returned their minis, or
      maybe they simply ended up buying DVI screens? I was not planning to do this; I
      actually bought the mini as a second Mac to replace an aging iMac which I use
      for testing and writing books (with a virgin installation for screen shots).

  5. I bought a mac mini and boy talk about kernel panic, the store couldn’t even figure what caused the problem. It is really sad that you buy a mac mini and no matter how many times it was checked, nothing was found. What good is buying a mac mini and the people who sell the product can’t even figure out what the problem is. Apple is not going to look good for the future if this keeps up.

  6. I bought a mac mini and boy talk about kernel panic, the store couldn’t even figure what caused the problem. It is really sad that you buy a mac mini and no matter how many times it was checked, nothing was found. What good is buying a mac mini and the people who sell the product can’t even figure out what the problem is. Apple is not going to look good for the future if this keeps up.

  7. Your lucky you had no problems. But I had the kernel panic in two of the mac mini, they also gave me a new one only to have the same reply. So I gave up. I would like a mac mini. But I don’t see what the point. Kernel panic that keeps happening and no one knows, or they do know and not saying.

  8. Your lucky you had no problems. But I had the kernel panic in two of the mac mini, they also gave me a new one only to have the same reply. So I gave up. I would like a mac mini. But I don’t see what the point. Kernel panic that keeps happening and no one knows, or they do know and not saying.

  9. I was recently giving a new Mac mini to replace my rather old Quicksilver (G4 867MHz). Still running CRTs as I have far too many to afford the LCD switch-over (plus other financial obligations preventing even just 1 LCD purchase), I purchased the Mini DisplayPort to VGA adapter. The image looks great on my HP 19″ monitor, with no color or brightness issues; however, I do seem to have an issue that nobody seems to have mentioned online. Every now and then, numerous times during a single movie playback (streamed via LAN), the display acts like the horizontal sweep is going bad. At first, I thought it was the spare monitor I used on the Mac mini having that problem, since I saw the same problem while transferring my user data and apps from the old Mac. I even tried wrapping the VGA adapter with aluminum foil, thinking that was getting RFI from the LAN traffic.

    I guess I’ll be purchasing an LCD, as soon as possible. From the sound of things, even the older problems were fixed by simply using a non-CRT display. A real shame that the VGA issues were never truly fixed after all this time, though.

    • Correction, actually. The problem doesn’t seem LAN related at all. Instead, it seems to be SATA related. Foil wrapping the VGA adapter didn’t cure it, either, so that isn’t picking up RFI. It has to be an internal design flaw at this point. Since a software install had just finished, from a local dmg source, when the problem showed up, I’m guessing it’s either a power consumption issue (drive activity using a little too much) or a crosstalk issue (SATA noise disrupting the horizontal sync). Without the full schematics and appropriate test equipment, I can’t say which option it is. I can only assume that it’s not a problem on DVI/HDMI link displays.

  10. I was recently giving a new Mac mini to replace my rather old Quicksilver (G4 867MHz). Still running CRTs as I have far too many to afford the LCD switch-over (plus other financial obligations preventing even just 1 LCD purchase), I purchased the Mini DisplayPort to VGA adapter. The image looks great on my HP 19″ monitor, with no color or brightness issues; however, I do seem to have an issue that nobody seems to have mentioned online. Every now and then, numerous times during a single movie playback (streamed via LAN), the display acts like the horizontal sweep is going bad. At first, I thought it was the spare monitor I used on the Mac mini having that problem, since I saw the same problem while transferring my user data and apps from the old Mac. I even tried wrapping the VGA adapter with aluminum foil, thinking that was getting RFI from the LAN traffic.

    I guess I’ll be purchasing an LCD, as soon as possible. From the sound of things, even the older problems were fixed by simply using a non-CRT display. A real shame that the VGA issues were never truly fixed after all this time, though.

    • Correction, actually. The problem doesn’t seem LAN related at all. Instead, it seems to be SATA related. Foil wrapping the VGA adapter didn’t cure it, either, so that isn’t picking up RFI. It has to be an internal design flaw at this point. Since a software install had just finished, from a local dmg source, when the problem showed up, I’m guessing it’s either a power consumption issue (drive activity using a little too much) or a crosstalk issue (SATA noise disrupting the horizontal sync). Without the full schematics and appropriate test equipment, I can’t say which option it is. I can only assume that it’s not a problem on DVI/HDMI link displays.

  11. Hi Kirk,

    You might consider updating the title of this post to say something like “The 2005 Mac Mini…” so the scope of the issue would be clearer.

    Sincerely,
    Joel

  12. Hi Kirk,

    You might consider updating the title of this post to say something like “The 2005 Mac Mini…” so the scope of the issue would be clearer.

    Sincerely,
    Joel

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