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REVIEW: Mac mini and "siblings" --
CPU intensive tests

Originally posted February 4th, 2005, by rob-ART morgan, mad scientist.

Okay. After two teaser articles, here's the full review of the Mac mini. I've compared it to various "sister" machines running at close to the same clock speed.

GRAPH LEGEND

Graph Notation
Processor
L2, L3 Cache
Memory Config
Bus Frequency
Graphics Processor
Optional Graphics**
Hard Drive used
iMac G5/1.6
G5/1.6GHz (PPC 970fx)
512K L2
1GB 400MHz
(two 512M)
533MHz
GeForceMX 5200 Ultra
n/a
7200rpm 80GB Seagate ST380013AS
PowerBook
G4/1.5
G4/1.5GHz (PPC 7447A)
512K L2
1GB
333MHz
167MHz
Mobility Radeon 9700
n/a
5400rpm
80GB
Toshiba
MK8026GAX
PowerMac
G4/1.42
Dual G4/1.42GHz (PPC 7455)
256K L2
2MB L3
1GB
333MHz
167MHz
Radeon 9000 Pro
Radeon 9700 Pro
7200rpm 120GB WD1200JB
PowerMac
G4/1.42 SP
"Single"* G4/1.42GHz (PPC 7455)
256K L2
1MB L3
1GB 333MHz
167MHz
Radeon 9000 Pro
Radeon 9700 Pro
7200rpm 120GB WD1200JB
Mac mini G4/1.42
G4/1.42GHz (PPC ???)
512K L2
1GB 333MHz
167MHz
Radeon 9200
n/a
7200rpm 60GB Hitachi 7K60
Cube G4/1.5
G4/1.5GHz (PPC 7455)
256K L2
2MB L3
1GB 125MHz
100MHz
Rage 128 Pro
GeForce3
7200rpm 160GB Maxtor DM9
iMac G4/1.25
G4/1.25GHz (PPC 7455)
256K L2
1GB 333MHz
167MHz
GeForceMX 5200 Ultra
n/a
7200rpm 80GB Seagate ST380013A

* "Single" means I used C.H.U.D. tools to disable the second processor
** We included the listed optional graphics cards in the GRAPHICS INTENSIVE tests
There are other optional cards available for Power Mac such as the Radeon 9800 Pro and GeForce4 Ti; There are other cards standard and optional for the Cube such as the Radeon Edition, GeForce2 MX, Radeon 7000, and Radeon 9000.

INSIGHTS
The Mac mini is a credible performer when running "normal" productivity applications. Unless you are a speed fanatic with demanding, resource hungry applications, you should be very happy with your mini.

The mini will certainly make switching less painless to Windows PC users who already have a display and USB keyboard/mouse. For about the price of a CPU upgrade, you can replace your old, slow Mac with something smaller and faster. Cube owners, for example, should give it a serious look. (More on that later.)

But.... the mini has weak spots. If you play 3D accelerated games, it won't do as well as its "siblings," especially at extreme settings. Check out the GRAPHICS PAGE.

The biggest weakness is the hard drive speed. As you know, the size, weight, and price design goals dictated that it have a sluggish 4200rpm 2.5 inch drive. If you aren't on a tight budget, I recommend either upgrading to a 5400rpm or 7200rpm drive. Or, if you don't want to crack open the case, an external FireWire 400 drive would give a boost. But then, you just doubled the footprint on your desktop. Anyway, if you are curious what difference faster drive will make, check out the HARD DRIVE PAGE.

It's a scandal that Apple still considers 256MB as adequate for entry level Macs. They must know better since they send out review units with 512MB. Mac OS X is a virtual memory operating system, but I don't think you want constant virtual memory hits on your mini. I'm reminded of the lady who was asked her shoe size by a salesman. She said, "I wear a 7, but an 8 feels so good, I buy a 9." I think your mini will "feel better" if it had 1GB of memory.

If you order the 1GB memory with the Mac mini at the time of purchase, Apple charges $425. I suggest buying the mini with the default 256MB module and getting the 1GB module from a third party. You don't want to buy it from just anyone, since I found out with the iMac G5 and G5 Power Mac that not all memory modules are compatible with the Mac. I suggest purchasing from "Mac aware" companies like Other World Computing and TransIntl who test the modules in each model of Mac, then sell them at reasonable prices (like $189).

REALITY CHECK
Of course, adding drives and memory can drive the price of the mini up quickly. If you don't have a keyboard, mouse, and display already, you can find yourself spending as much as the cost of an iMac G5/1.6 -- which is a faster machine as you can see from the test results above.

"Maxed" mini G4/1.42
iMac G5/1.6
Base price
$599
$1299
1GB memory (third party)
$190
$168
7200rpm drive
$176
included
Installation of memory and drive
$99
n/a
Apple keyboard and mouse
$60
included
17" LCD DVI display (equal to a 19" CRT display)
$300
included
TOTAL
$1424
$1467

THE G4 CUBE LIVES!
The Mac mini begs for comparison with the G4 Cube. That's why we included results for a G4 Cube running the PowerLogix G4/1.5GHz upgrade. We dusted off our GeForce3 graphics card when we heard it is the fastest card that fits the Cube. Those upgrades put it in the thick of the fight. Fiercely loyal Cube owners should take heart.

Intech has a patch that lets you use drives in the Cube larger than 137GB in the Cube. Watch for a follow-up article on the Cube where we add a 300GB drive and dual 1.5GHz processors.

Of course, in a recent cost comparison, it proved to be much cheaper to sell your Cube and buy a Mac mini than to spend money on Cube upgrades -- but with many Cube fanatics, it isn't about the cost.

DON'T MISS OUR OTHER PAGES ON THE MAC MINI
Tests with Halo, Unreal Tournament 2004, Quake3, AppleWorks scrolling, Quartz Extreme Bench, and Cinebench flyby
Tests with stock versus alternative hard drives

MAC MINI ARTICLES ON OTHER SITES

Macintouch compares the Mini mac to the iMac G5, eMac, and iBook using xBench, Cinebench, iTunes, and other tests.

My favorite PC Performance site (Anandtech) has an extensive article on the Mac mini. On page 8, he explains in detail how to disassemble the Mac mini.

SmashDot has the complete technical scoop on the mini including disassembly instructions. You can also download their QuickTime movie of the same instructions.

MacMiniHacks has a way to open the Mac mini without using putty knives.

Macworld has a good article on disassembling the mini including a photo showing an example of the two thin putty knives you need to pop the case open without damaging it.

WHERE TO BUY THE MAC MINI
Order the Mac mini from the online Apple Store or visit your local Apple authorized dealer. You can also order them from Small Dog Electronics and PowerMax.

Again, I suggest buying the 1GB memory upgrade from Other World Computing or TransIntl or FastMac at less than half the price that Apple charges. They also have the Hitachi 7K60 7200rpm and Seagate Momentus 5400.2 5400rpm drives we tested.

If you do the upgrade yourself, you'll want some instructions like those posted by MacWorld. And you'll want to have two THIN, clean putty knifes handy. If that is too scarey, there are two companies that will do the memory and/or drive upgrades for you:

Other World Computing has a memory and drive upgrade special. For $99, you can send your Mac mini to OWC to do both upgrades for you -- and pay bargain prices for the drive and memory you choose. (They have a high quality movie on their site.)

FastMac is offering a similar "send it in" upgrade for memory, hard drive, and 8X SuperDrive.

Need a snazzy but low priced LCD display for your Mac mini? PowerMax has a large selection of LCD displays at good prices. Ditto for Small Dog Electronics. Check also with WalMart Online. I've seen 17" LCD displays for as low as $228, and 19" LCD displays for as low as $300. I recommend one with a DVI port and response time of 16ms or less.

Need a mouse for your mini? The right mouse can make it seem faster than it really is. See my mouse article.

WHERE TO BUY CUBE UPGRADES
Other World Computing carries the PowerLogix upgrade I used in this test. They also have memory and hard drive upgrades. They also carry graphics card upgrades including the Radeon 9000 AGP. The GeForce3 I used is the envy of all Cube owners. The only place you can find them is in the used market.

TransIntl has processor, memory and hard drive upgrades for the Cube.

Small Dog Electronics for GigaDesigns and Sonnet CPU upgrades for the Cube.

If you want to add a slot load 8X SuperDrive to your Cube, visit FastMacs.

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2005 Rob Art Morgan
"BARE facts on Macintosh speed FEATS"
Email , the webmaster and mad scientist