Much-improved Mac minis debut in the nick of time
Apple had pushed out much-improved Mac minis.
Special to The Seattle Times
Last fall, I suffered from heartbreak of Lion. My 2007-vintage Mac Pro had been running Snow Leopard just fine, but as my primary computer, it needed to be up to date with Mac OS X 10.7 Lion for my writing and testing.
And thus began my travails. Lion worked at first, and then the Pro started seizing up unexpectedly or running exceedingly slow. Eventually, I diagnosed a bad hard drive and replaced it.
But Apple's Lion installer wouldn't allow me to migrate my old files into a fresh copy of Lion installed on a clean drive after a backup failed to work. Lion insisted I was running a server version of Snow Leopard. We argued for days. I eventually gave up, and, with the pressure of many deadlines, bought a Mac mini to replace the Mac Pro.
I agonized briefly about the decision. Like many folks who use multiple monitors and regularly run graphics programs, a Mac Pro has long been necessary to have the extra oomph to avoid spending half of one's time waiting.
That includes fast processors, but also easy installation of larger-capacity hard drives, the capability of boosting memory simply and often far above allover Mac models, and support for two or more monitors. Piles of input/output ports don't hurt, either.
Over time, those advantages have slipped away, as Apple has put powerful CPUs into the iMac, and boosted performance on laptops and the Mac mini. The Mac Pro also hasn't been refreshed for nearly two years, making the comparison increasingly more on par as other machines receive updates.
(Rumors abound that Apple will finally provide a path for developers who need internal card slots and more than 8 GB of RAM on Monday at the Worldwide Developers Conference at which Mac hardware is sometimes announced.)
I was fortunate about my failure point, however. Apple had pushed out much-improved Mac minis just weeks before the Mac Pro made its defiant stance. The new models ($599 and $799 for standard configurations) featured both a Thunderbolt port, a new industry standard pushed most heavily by Apple and Intel so far, and an HDMI port, the format used to output video to a high-definition television set. With a little bit of effort, that allows the use of two monitors, and that's an absolute requirement for me. I'd considered an iMac, which can support a second monitor, but didn't need such a big main display and the cost was out of scale with my budget.
HDMI is compatible with the DVI interface used on nearly all modern computer monitors, and Apple includes an HDMI-to-DVI adapter. Thunderbolt was designed to be backward compatible with the earlier mini-DisplayPort standard for monitors. There are some limits, but a $29 mini-DisplayPort-to-DVI adapter (sold by Apple) provides the second monitor connection.
The Mac mini also solves a problem from earlier models in both disk and RAM capacity. Instead of a relatively tiny drive of 250 GB, the standard model comes with 500 GB and may be upgraded to 750 GB. Apple also offers a 250 GB solid-state drive (SSD), and sells a mini with Lion Server preinstalled with two 500 GB drives.
Base models of mini ship with either 2 GB or 4 GB, and Apple charges its usual ridiculous price to upgrade to as much as 8 GB: $300 to go from 2 GB to 8 GB and $200 to go from 4 GB to 8 GB.
However, Apple provides a way out. Instead of requiring a putty knife, screwdrivers, and nerves of steel to pop the mini case and swap out a drive or memory, the latest model has a circular plastic vent assembly that twists off to reveal memory. RAM from other sources costs as little as $60 to upgrade to 8 GB.
The downside to the redesign making memory access easier is you'd need an electrical-engineering degree to feel comfortable replacing the hard drive. In previous Mac minis, I have swapped the hard drive, and even put in a replacement optical drive when the original failed. (The latest minis don't have an optical-drive option.)
In practice, I find the Mac mini responds and carries out tasks just about as quickly as my 2007 Mac Pro. I'd picked the Intel i5 2.5 GHz model, which uses separate video RAM instead of borrowing memory from the main system.
With memory added, total cost pretax was roughly $900, as opposed to the $4,000 I'd spent on my Mac Pro in 2007.
Benchmarks back up that feeling, with third-party tests putting the Mac mini at more or less the same results as the 2007 machine.
The 2010 Mac Pro scores 2 to 4 times better than the Mac mini, depending on the number of processor cores in the Pro. (A faster i7 model is also available as a custom order for $100 more than the 2.5 GHz version.)
Months after making my switch, and being generally delighted in having a modern machine that made less noise and took up less space that worked, I tried again to install Lion on my Mac Pro.
A later version, 10.7.4, installed just fine, and I sold the old beast. I took it to a UPS store to mail out: 53 pounds in its original box compared with 3 pounds for the Mac mini.
Times have changed. If rumors prove out, Monday will show us just how much.
Glenn Fleishman writes the Practical Mac column for Personal Technology and about technology in general for The Seattle Times and other publications. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/practicalmac