Derek England
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Wasting Brain Cells On Computers

The Latest Fruity Computers February 2005

So Apple came out with the Mac mini in January, and since in most of my social circles I'm known as a Mac guy (or perhaps the Mac guy), quite a few people have asked me either what I think of them, and/or whether I'll be getting one.

The answer to the second question is quick and painless so I can answer it first. I doubt it. My current machine runs at 667 MHz, and unless there's a drastic shift in bang-for-clock speed, I don't generally upgrade to a speed less than 2.5 times what I already have. So my starting point is 1.67 GHz, and the mini clocks in at 1.42 GHz at the high end. I also do a lot of graphics work in my home life, and I'd like to be able to go well beyond 1 gigabyte of RAM.

As for what I think of them, I think they're great in concept. There's been a lot of clamoring in the Mac press over the past few years for a so-called headless iMac, an iMac G4 without the display. The idea behind this was that Apple would then have something to compete with the ultra-cheap PCs. With the mini they haven't hit the lowest of price points, but then they also don't sell a big noisy box with a hot-running processor, questionable video and shared video memory.

I personally didn't want to see a headless iMac so much as a headless PowerBook. The Mac mini is, however, fairly close to what I was looking for. Here's what I mean....

Since 1998 my machine of choice has been an Apple PowerBook of some sort. I've liked the PowerBook because, especially at the times I acquired mine, the raw megahertz wasn't far behind the tower model Power Macs. Obviously the architecture beyond the megahertz had more oomph on the desktop models, but for my purposes the PowerBook fit the bill of pro desktop machine, with the added bonus that I could also use it as my primary work machine.

Now, I've taken my PowerBooks apart, especially the 250 MHz PowerBook G3. I've added RAM, upgraded the hard drive twice, replaced the backup battery and replaced the display hinges. I know what's inside. Under the palm rests we have the battery, the optical drive, the backup battery, and the trackpad/button circuitry. Under the keyboard we have the motherboard, the daughter card, the RAM, the hard drive, the modem, the speakers, and whatever circuitry goes into making the ports and display work.

What I thought Apple could do that would really rock for a guy like me, who uses a Mac at both home and work, would be to essentially take the PowerBook, and gut it of all the things I already have at work or don't need on a desktop-away-from-home. Work provides me with a display, a keyboard, and a mouse. I can plug in and forgo the battery. And I very very very rarely touch a CD at the office. Essentially we're left with all the stuff that's under the keyboard plus the backup battery. Now... don't change the shape! Just leave it as this thin, long, flat thing so I can carry it in my oversized inside jacket pocket. Give me a little box I can leave at home that has the gutted stuff in it (well, sell it to me as part of the package), and give me an elegant means of connecting it to the portable part of the computer.

What's the point of all that? To let me take my PowerBook to work without lugging the big laptop case around. Believe it or not, but carrying around a big black case everywhere I go on a work day is not exactly the most convenient of lifestyles. The Mac mini is similar to what I was looking for, except that it includes an optical drive and it's... well, not long or flat. So it can't be carried around in an oversized pocket. But if viewed as a portable device to be lugged around in a laptop case, it is quite a bit lighter than any current PowerBook or iBook, which is pretty cool.

As a Mac user in a large organization that tries to use the one-size-fits-all approach to desktop computing (i.e. cheap Windows boxes), the Mac mini is a welcome addition to the Mac line. It gives us something we haven't had before: a bare-bones Mac reference model. For the type of work I do (primarily Unix software development, web and database stuff, and almighty documentation), the main things I need on my desk are:

  • Mac OS X
  • an LCD display wide enough to display 80 column terminal windows in Monaco 9 and a web browser sized to fit, say, this page without overlap
  • about a gigabyte of RAM

The mini can handle this, and for me, the power of the hardware is secondary. For years, Apple made it difficult to spec out a machine that would suit my requirements at a price that wouldn't look downright scary next to the cheap corporate standard Dells with the cheap corporate standard 17" CRT monitors. To me the OS itself is worth the entire price difference, but that's difficult to relate to someone who hasn't used it. The typical human judges a computer by its hardware specs and perhaps by what applications (i.e. big standalone software packages) are included. When I mention that I do primarily Unix work, the inevitable question is couldn't you use Linux? (The answer being yes, I could. In fact I do. The problem is that determining which distribution to use and keeping the OS properly patched takes a lot of effort and I still end up with a system with crappy fonts and spotty support for little things I rely on such as consistent keyboard shortcuts, drag and drop, and copy/paste. Apple force-feeds me patches and delivers on all the GUI details right out of the box.)

So yeah, the eMac was no good because of the screen; the iMac was an all-in-one, and the screen didn't come across as being all that cheap; and the Power Mac G5s had hardware fit for producing an animated feature film. Unfortunately, since my work doesn't involve graphics (something that puzzles a lot of people — why does he use a Mac for work if he doesn't do graphics? ;) ), a Power Mac G5 would seem like an extravagant luxury.

In the longer term, I think a low-to-medium end Power Mac G5, despite it being suitable for producing animated feature films, is a better value than a Mac mini as a Unix development box because the RAM ceiling is much higher. I already feel RAM-constrained on a 1 GB PowerBook, but at least I have the Mac mini as a reference point now. It's a machine I could use at work, albeit with a bit of frustration, for a couple of years. When justifying a new piece of hardware at work, I can start at the mini and explain why a midrange G5 tower represents a better value. Before the mini came along, all I had to compare with were the cheap Dells.

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