Mac Mini/OSX

By Pete | @kingpetey | 25 Feb 2005

I have wanted a Mac (www.apple.com/uk) for some time now but could never justify spending £550 for the cheapest eMac. When the Mac Mini (www.apple.com/macmini) was announced in mid January the Mac was finally more affordable and soon after the launch date I ordered one.

Apple say 3-4 weeks building and delivery online but mine came within 5 working days which was a pleasant surprise (ordered Monday afternoon came 9am Friday morning). The Mac Mini comes without a monitor, keyboard or mouse so in essence its just the desktop box.

The first thing you notice is its size, I have seen plenty of pictures on the net but its not until you hold one that you realise how small it actually is. I have had a Shuttle PC (shuttle.com) for quite some time yet the Mac Mini brings a whole new meaning to small desktops.

All of my Mac Mini Photos:

Photos

(When I refer to a PC in this article I mean a computer running either Windows or Linux, when I say Mac I'm referring to my Mac Mini.)

Technical Specification

1.25ghz PowerPC G4.
512mbs DDR Memory.
ATI Radeon 9200 32mb Graphics Card.
40 GB Hard Drive.
CDRW/DVD Drive.

(Complete specs)

By default the Mac Mini doesn't come with 512mb of memory but for any heavy handed multi-taskers such as myself it is recommended to upgrade from the standard 256mb.

There is a slightly more powerful Mac Mini available (as shown on the specs link above), with a larger hard drive but I'm not sure if the processing power would make a lot of difference and I already have an external hard drive with the majority of my data on.

As well as being small the Mac Mini is almost silent in fact my external hard drive drowns out any noise from the Mac and even that is fairly quiet. If it wasn't for the start-up jingle or the white power LED it would be hard to tell the machine was actually running.

OSX

Looking at the specs the Mac Mini doesn't look as powerful as similarly priced systems from PC manufacturers but after using the system for a while you realise that you cant compare a Mac's hardware to a PC's hardware like for like.

As OSX is made specifically for certain hardware, programs tend to run faster (Rather than Windows or Linux made for a range of compliant processors and motherboards etc), this along with the way OSX caches running programs you get what seems as programs running just as fast as they would on higher specification PC hardware.

On the down side open up too many programs at once and you soon run out of memory. Even with 512mbs once you have your web browser, mail client, audio manager, office suite and messenger program running your soon run out of memory.

When first booting your Mac Mini you are asked to fill in a few details about yourself and you get asked some basic questions to help configure your Mac. This is also the first time you see some of the 3D effects used. Each screen of the form is on the side of a cube, every time you press next the screen animates the cube turning. While its nothing really important its something your don't see in Windows or Linux.

The different animated effects go through all different areas of the OS from icon zooming in the dock to the minimising of windows.

The dock is where you find most of your common day applications, if you have come from Windows or Linux then its quite a different way of doing things. In a way its an interactive quick launch bar, interactive because it tells you which programs are running. Any programs you minimise go to the right side of the dock along with your recycle bin.


The Mac screen has a constant menu bar at the top, this changes based on which application you have on top. If you are on the desktop you have the finder menus and if you are in iTunes then you then have the iTunes menus at the top and so on.

By default on the menu bar there is the time, language and volume control, this gets added to for instance by plugging in a Bluetooth device you get a little Bluetooth icon with various options.

It takes a bit of getting used to as you expect the menus to be at the top of the application window rather than the top of the screen though once you familiarise yourself it adds to standardising the layout.

Another nice feature of OSX is Expos? which can be best described as an organisational tool for your desktop. By pressing f9, f10 or f11 you get to see different views of your desktop and the windows on it. For instance f9 zooms out all the windows on your desktop allowing you to select one which is then zoomed back in on. F11 on the other hand clears all the windows to the edge of your desktop.

There is a nice Quicktime video on the Apple site which explains this better. Expose Video.

Burning CDs was very easy and fast on the Mac Mini. Audio CDs can be burnt in iTunes and data CDs can be done through dragging and dropping in the finder.

The final section I want to cover for OSX is the Finder, this is the square face icon found in the left of the dock and is sort of a ?My Computer? for OSX. Down the left are all your drives (including network), applications and documents then you get the contents displayed on the right.

Applications

The Mac Mini comes with a range of software including Apple Works 6 and iLife 04 and iLife 05 (05 comes on a separate DVD while 04 comes installed ? I'm guessing iLife 05 was finished after the Mac Mini's software image was made)

Out of the iLife suite I found iTunes and iPhoto to be the most useful. GarageBand, iDVD and iMovie are great if you have the time and creativity and they are easy to get to know for even someone with little prior experience.

I loaded up GarageBand and quickly produced something that most people would say sounded nothing like music. However it was fun to use and at least I was happy with my ?song?.

GarageBand comes with over a thousand different music samples, its then upto you how and where you position these on your score to compose a song. This can then be exported to iTunes and converted to an mp3 to send to your friends (or record studio executives).

iTunes has been a favourite of mine in Windows and I have used the store excessively. In Windows I always thought it didn't quite fit in with other programs but on the Mac it fits right in.

iTunes is one of the best audio players and managers for a number of reasons. First I like the way you can create as many play lists as you want (displayed down the left hand side). Then with the library at the top which is able to search through your music instantly.

That combined with the music store that lets me listen to music in OSX, Windows or Linux (through Crossover Office which is much better than any windows media based service can boast.

iPhoto was another program I enjoyed using, while it was a bit slow with my 2000+ photos, I found the enhance and crop tools very useful. I don't normally use photo organisational programs but because of the similar interface to iTunes it was easy to pick up.

There are a lot more comments I could make about the iLife suite but more detail would make this article longer than it already is.

I installed a few essential programs, one being Firefox and another Thunderbird. Not that there is anything wrong with Safari or Mail its just that I'm used to the Mozilla applications in Windows and Linux, making comforts such as favourites and mail boxes easy to import.

Firefox didn't work as well in OSX compared to Windows or Linux, for instance the middle mouse button would not open new tabs meaning you had to use the command key + left click. Not really a big issue and I believe its being fixed for Firefox 1.1.

Both Firefox and Thunderbird look at home in OSX, Thunderbird especially has a nicely polished design being uncluttered and simple.

I had a quick look through Appleworks 6 and wasn't too impressed though it has now been replaced by Apple's iWork this however did not get shipped with the Mac Mini. I use OpenOffice on my other machines so it was an obvious choice over the others just for compatibility purposes.

OpenOffice itself requires x11 to run and looks out of place (like most X11 applications in OSX) while it retained the functionality and was perfectly usable it didn't fit in. Fortunately I came across NeoOffice, an OSX specific of OpenOffice that cuts out the need for X11 and makes a good effort to make OpenOffice look nice (I'm writing this article in it currently).

NeoOffice is still in its beta stage, I have not seen any major problems though it can be ?laggy? at times. Even as a beta I would recommend NeoOffice over OpenOffice simply for the reason it fits in better yet providing the same functionality as OpenOffice.

Along with buying my Mac Mini I also got an Apple keyboard and mouse. The keyboard is fine and the main difference is in the command button which is used in a lot of cases as a ctrl replacement (in Windows) for short cuts such as copying, pasting and program menus. Some of the keys are in funny places, such as the @ and the ? have been swapped and the hash key has to be done through alt + 3.

The mouse on the other hand only has 1 button and no scroll wheel. While the lack of scroll wheel is slightly annoying for the majority of OSX apps the need for a right click button is minimal (If needed can be simulated with the ctrl button).

However in the case of NeoOffice and to a certain extent the Mozilla applications there is a greater need for the right click button. For instance on spelling mistakes in NeoOffice the right click is most useful for sorting out quick spellings (no excuse for the poor grammar in this article) or in Firefox viewing the properties of an image.

Most of these options are available in other menus but the right click menu just speeds things up. It wasn't long before I went back to my Microsoft Intelimouse though I could see the one button mouse being useful for people who do find two buttons confusing.

For my Mac to become a complete media PC one part was missing, a video player. OSX does come bundled with Quicktime and Windows Media Player is available for download however in order to to play a wider range of videos VLC is the best option. VLC comes with an OSX port that sits nicely into OSX and plays pretty much all types of common video files.

There is also DivX for Mac which includes the DivX player and a plugin for Quicktime. I preferred to use Quicktime where possible as it has a bigger bar for skipping through to specific parts of the video compared to VLC.

Video plug-ins for browsers was another area I was impressed, I installed Real Player then booted up Firefox and instantly I could listen to Radio 1 online. It was similar with WMP and the videos on Mp3.com and Quicktime for the new Star Wars trailer. This used to be a nightmare with Firefox in Linux (hours I spent trying to get Real Player working in SuSE and can also be a hassle in Windows.

Networking

Networking is similar to as in Windows and to some extent some Linux distributions (SuSE's YaST for instance) and if your getting settings through DHCP everything should work fine. OSX isn't full of conflicting networking wizards like Windows and (for me anyway) connecting to the network to get an Internet connection was easy.

Accessing files off a Windows machine was just as easy though if the file list in the Windows directory changed after viewing them I often had to remount the drive to see the changes. Network printing worked fine for my Epson printer but neither of my HP printers would work.

I have had a D-Link Bluetooth adapter for about 18 months and its hit or miss whether it works in Windows, sometimes you plug it in and it works with the D-Link drivers, other times it wants to use the Windows drivers. SuSE included support for it in 9.2 of their distribution though the functionality is limited.

On the Mac though it works straight out of the box. You plug it in, set a password and can then send and receive files or use a phone (tested with a Sony Ericsson K700i) as a remote control. There is no hassle, no installing drives, no hours of playing with settings it just works.

Conclusion

I have used so many different operating systems, from Windows, to Mandrake, to Red Hat, to SuSE and each has its various problems. OSX is based on BSD so if you look at the underlying file structure and console it shares a lot of similarities with Linux.

These similarities with Linux do give it a unique advantage as there are so many good programs available for X11 that the Mac can make available but OSX doesn't feel anything like Linux for the simple reason it takes so much hassle out of everything that Linux seems to add in.

Its so easy to get lost in getting things working or configured properly in Linux or Windows that you loose so much time that you could be using creatively. The Mac puts this back into the computer experience by taking out the hassle.

Most of all about the Mac Mini is that is looks cool, Apple didn't just bring out a desktop PC like everyone else they innovated to produce something that looks unique. Its the perfect size to pop into your bag and go to a friends house or to work and plug in an existing monitor, keyboard or mouse.