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Mac mini Core Solo: First Impressions


It may surprise you, based on my initial and following response to the news of the new Mac mini, that I acquired one for myself.

My initial reactions were largely in response to the elevated price of the entry level model in comparison to the new features offered. Nevertheless, I like the mini as a development box to run odd experiments on, so I placed my hands on a Mac mini Core Solo this weekend. This initial post will be my first impressions of the device after having toyed with it for the better half of a day. I can sum up the experience in one easy to understand sentence: I'm considering taking it back before the Apple Store's 14 day return period expires.

There are several little oddities and one big problem that are making me think that either I got a dud, or Apple let this little Mac out into the wild a bit too soon. If you look at the picture accompanying this post, you'll see the Mac mini doesn't fully comprehend what it is. It thinks it is an 1.5Ghz Core Duo in the About this Mac panel, but the System Profiler, pictured to with this paragraph, knows the secret truth. This could be a very minimal glitch, and not something over which to return the machine, but if you read on after the break, you'll see more reason, including Front Row performance that is much below what any of us, I think, expected.

More after the break...

It looks like the Safari that comes with the new Mac mini is slightly newer than the one that was rolled out to my new iMac in the recent surge of updates, and as a result, my favorite little Safari helper, Saft, isn't working. This, again, is no big deal, and in fact is not even a glitch in the Mac mini, but just something that I thought worth noting for the curious amongst you.

The real disappointment with this device is Front Row's performance. Although you may be able to install Front Row on any Mac, I'm not sure if you'll want to. All the shows I purchased from the iTMS play fine streaming through Front Row, as do all the video podcasts I've downloaded, but absolutely none of the other iPod and iTunes compatible videos in my iMac's iTunes Library—which by the way play fine on my iPod, in iTunes, and even on the new Mac mini if I go to the trouble of manually transferring them over to it—will stream over the much praised magic of Bonjour savvy Front Row. Instead, the screen goes blank, and if I am lucky after about 30 seconds to a minute a screen comes up saying that the server couldn't play this particular file. If I'm not lucky, I have to hit Option Apple ESC to jump out of Front Row and find iTunes spiraling a multi-colored beach ball of death. I then have to force iTunes to quit. The problem could be associated with the miniscule 512MBs of RAM included with the Mac mini, but these files vary from the easily managed 3 minute clip from a local news affiliate featuring my father-in-law all the way to full length DVDs that I own and have ripped to be viewable on my iPod, so it would appear to be some other problem. Why does the $1.99 purchased episode of Lost stream fine, but an episode of Arrested Development that plays fine locally in iTunes and on my iPod not?

This is not unique to videos. iPhoto streaming has some pictures coming through fine, while others just return a black screen. Also, Front Row cannot connect to any of this media if you don't have iTunes and/or iPhoto running on the machine hosting the media and actively sharing the media. You'd be better off to fake it all with something like a Linksys NSLU2, a large USB hard drive, and a SMB share.

On the upside, World of Warcraft, though not as fast as on the iMac, is playable on the Mac mini, and better yet the small form factor of the Mac mini means it can sit nicely underneath my 32-inch LCD TV and I can play via my bluetooth keyboard and mouse in large, while reclining on my couch. Overall, I'm disappointed, and hoping that there are some Software Updates in the works that will fix these problems before I end up returning the Mac mini. I want to keep it. I mean, I already have VNC up and running and have started testing a few ports of things on it. It works well as a nice little UNIX-based box for me to experiment with away from my production machine. Unfortunately, if Front Row continues to languish with these problems, why would I keep this more expensive model, when I could buy a PPC version on the cheap for a good $200 or more less?

Stay tuned, as I intend to do a full video review of the device over the next several days to show you all the problems and cool bits I've discovered.

Update: I forgot another image in the original post. As you can see, it depicts Internet Connect clearly showing the Mac mini connected to my Airport network while also saying that I am connected to the Internet via Ethernet. That plus the Core Duo misreading make me feel a bit uneasy about the hardware in this mini.

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