Mac mini mini review

I'll preface my little mini-review with a bit of background on me and my intentions of my intel Mac mini. I'm a full-time web designer at an insurance company, and I do my work on a PowerMac G5 (dual 2 gHz processors with 1 gig of RAM). At home, however, my needs are a little different. I do web development in front of a computer 8 hours per day, so when I get home, sitting in front of another computer is one of the last things I want to do. I don't need a screaming fast computer at home. I'll be doing some web development on the side, and some Photoshop work. Mostly, however, I was interested in the mini because of the iLife suite. I'd had some experience with iPhoto and iTunes (I also own 2 iPods), but never had a chance to play with iMovie or iDVD or GarageBand on my computer at work. I knew they existed, and I knew what they did, but work always got in the way of me playing with the programs. However, I was fascinated. When I'd heard rumors about a Mac mini that was way faster than the previous generation, I was hooked. I knew it would be mine. This review won't be using actual benchmarks or stopwatches timing certain events, just my own thoughts and casual observations, as I think that's what most people will recognize if they choose to jump into a Mac mini.

When released, I got on the phone and ordered one right up immediately. Then a few hours later, while still beaming about my purchase, I starting reading all about the integrated graphics card and how that 1 minor change meant that my precious intel mini was as slow as a G4. I was heartbroken for about 15 seconds, until I remembered that my computers I had at home were both running off integrated graphics. 1 is an HP Celeron laptop with 256 megs of RAM that is mind-bloggling slow and annoying to use, if only because the hard drive is so cluttered. The other is a 2.something gHz Sempron with 512 megs of RAM. As you can see, I don't invest a ton of money into my home systems. As long as they get the job done, I'm not overly concerned with how fast they handle it. With my Sempron, I do web development, Photoshop work, and believe it or not, edit videos in Premiere. I manage to capture video, both analog and via FireWire, at DVD resolution without dropping frames or anything. I had a hard time believing my Duo Core mini would suck because of integrated graphics when my PC with integrated graphics does just fine.

So I got my mini, and I was pumped. The software licenses for my development apps extended to my home computer, so on my way out of work I picked up Adobe Creative Suites 1, Office for Mac, and Macromedia Studio MX to install on my new mini. I also had to pick up a USB keyboard and mouse, because I'm lame and only had PS/2 versions. The irony wasn't lost on me that I picked up a Microsoft keyboard. It was just the best deal I could find.

The setup process was so fast. I'd never set up a Mac before, as my OSX experience only started when I got my last job, and the G5 was all set up for me when I got there. It was so pretty, with the animations greeting me and flipping cubes as I typed in my information. The eye candy is one of the reasons I love OSX, so I was glad to see the eye candy started right from the get-go. The entire set up took all of about 5 minutes, which included immediate and automatic bonding to my wifi network and bluetooth phone. My G5 also lacks bluetooth, so I was surprised and impressed at the speed and accuracy of the contact transfers. iCal, however, didn't transfer information. I suspect this is because of my crippled Motorola 815 (which lacks OBEX and other bluetooth profiles) rather than a fault of OSX and iSync. I'd tried to synch on my PC before, but it was always a friggin' nightmare that required proprietary software and other nonsense. This was so easy.

My first impression was that it was... well... really fast. It certainly booted faster than my G5, although the G5 had a ton more files and programs, so maybe that wasn't a fair comparison. The preinstalled programs popped right up when I clicked them and responded very quickly. GarageBand was the odd man out here, taking quite a while to load. However, I was very impressed. If nothing else, this is a great tool for the loops and royalty free music for things like audio and video pod casts.

iTunes easily read my shared music from over my otherwise exclusively PC network. iPhoto easily imported my 1,200 or so photos from an attached network computer, although that took quite a while to do all in one chunk. And Front Row is just... wow... So awesome. That's the only way I can describe it. The pictures I'd seen online make it look neat and all, but don't do it justice one bit. When you see your desktop fade into the background and the large, beautiful icons take their place with some bizarre sound effect, it's just... wow. Awesome. Once I get my music and photos sorted out a little more, I'll certainly be using this feature. The remote is essential in Front Row. It's so easy and intuitive. It makes me wonder why my other remotes have so many damn buttons. This one can be used with one hand, without looking at the keys, completely intuitively. Apple knows what they're doing, for sure. Now on to the apps without the Universal Binary stuff.

Adobe Creative Suites installed with no problems or complications, although took considerably longer to install than on my G5, as was totally expected. It hung in some areas of installation, but always unfroze itself quickly and kept on the course to installing. There were no problems, other than trying my patience just a tad. Once installed, I started up Photoshop. It took quite a long time to get going. All in all, it probably took 2-3 times as long to get Photoshop running on my mini than it does on my PowerMac G5. However, once launched, I was surprised at how quickly Photoshop worked its magic on my images. For my little tests, I used a 3 megapixel camera image, which is probably about the largest sized images I'll ever work with on my mini, to be honest. Every tool I tried performed admirably, although it was noticeably slower than my PowerMac. Again, not a surprise in the least when comparing Apple's low end system with their high-end. But honestly, I was quite pleased with the performance. It did better than my Sempron and my Celeron machines do. I even did a batch convert to a folder of some images, which adjusted their levels, resized them, and saved them for web in another folder. It worked quickly and diligently.

I had nearly the same results with Illustrator, so no need to tread this ground again. To sum it up: The PowerPC versions of the Adobe products ran mostly okay on my mini. Certainly slower than my G5, but also faster than the mid-range PCs I use for the tasks at home. Launching the programs is what took the most time, and toggling between 2 non-Universal Binaries was sometimes an experience that tried my patience a little bit. Now on to Studio MX.

Again, installation was no problem. Again, launching the apps was a long and somewhat annoying process, although once launched, Flash performed great! I was a little worried about this one, as I know Flash has a whole lot going on and is processor intensive. Still, I created a few simple movies and Flash worked its magic with predictable results: slower than the PowerMac G5, but faster than my 2.something Sempron. Now, on to Dreamweaver.

This one is going to annoy the hell outta me. I wish I could say Dreamweaver performed as well as Flash, Photoshop, and Ilustrator. It doesn't. Not even close. Where Photoshop and Illustrator were slightly slow but still workable, Dreamweaver was a mess. A slow, frustrating mess that's almost a deal breaker for me and my mini, as much as I hate to say it. Like most web and PHP developers, I work on remote servers. Dreamweaver is great because it will upload my PHP documents to my server when I save, so I can go out to my website and make sure everything is working okay. This version of Dreamweaver on my Mac is frustrating slow to connect and to do... well... anything. Opening documents, closing documents, switching between viewing modes on the documents... it's all slow and virtually unworkable. I hate to say it, but because of this issue I'll probably end up doing my web development stuff on my old 2.whatever Sempron. It breaks my heart.

So, do I regret my purchase? Not one bit. I had fooled myself into thinking my mini would SERIOUSLY outperform my PCs, and for the iLife stuff, it does. It's incredibly responsive and quick and beautiful. However, on the PowerPC programs running through Rosetta, there's issues that may have me back on my PC for bigger tasks. The mini is an entry level, consumer machine. While fast enough for most of what I'll be doing, I don't think its up to every task on my plate every week.

What do I plan to do with it? iLife stuff, for the most part. It'll be a computer and an occasional media center, although it'll stay hooked up to my monitor rather than to a TV. I'll probably do basic Photoshop/Ilustrator designs with it, but will move them back to the PC if I need to do any web development. I haven't tried iWeb and don't intend to, although for simple stuff it may work okay for me. I'll use it to get the images off my digital camera and put music on my iPod. It performs admirably in most tasks, but the more "power-user" stuff, it looks like it may fall short. I do plan on using iMovie and iDVD in the near future. I have no projects or video right now that necessitate it, but I do believe those programs will run fine for me. They're already Universal Binary apps and, if the rest of the iLife suite is any indication, it'll run perfectly smooth with no problems. I'm even considering a video podcast, which could be put together in iMovie. I'm not sure my mini will be up to the task, but I have faith in it. I've captured and edited video way back on a Pentium 2 with 64 megs of RAM without dropping frames. I blame Dreamweaver's slowness on the PowerPC code rather than an underpowered mini. I don't regret my purchase, but if I had it to do again I probably would have bought the solo core version and not even tried my PowerPC programs, simply resorting to my PC to get my development work done.

Anyway, so back to the integrated graphics dilemma that have so many people pissed off. I don't believe any of the problems are related to the integrated graphics. I suppose its possible that the video card is taking away just enough RAM from my system to make Dreamweaver unbearable, but I have my doubts, as my PC with integrated graphics runs Dreamweaver just fine. In the near future, I will probably upgrade the RAM in this mini to see if that makes a difference. If Dreamweaver worked a little more smoothly, I suspect I'd be able to get rid of my Sempron machine.

I'm very much looking forward to getting a hold of Universal Binary versions of Photoshop and especially Dreamweaver to see if my mini can really outperform my PC and I'll be able to ditch it all together. For now, I'll have to get my hands on a KVM switch and be a "2 computers in the office" type of nerd. I can live with that.

Hope this little review has helped in some of your decision making process. If so, do me a favor and visit (nothing wrong with a little self-promotion, right?).

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