Kiff, We Have A Conundrum!

by Christopher Paul on October 29, 2006

So my wife, hot on the heels of getting her 24″ iMac, asked me if I wanted to stop into Tekserve, the real place to shop for Mac hardware in New York City, while walking around town. We had bought her new computer there and, knowing that I am very much interested in the Mac Mini, she thought they might have one to my liking. And while I would love a Mac, I am not sure the Mini is for me anymore. Making the idea of getting a Mini harder is that I’m not convinced I need it and, for some reason, its making me hesitant in buying one.

When I say the Mini might not be for me, I say that not because its small, or doesn’t have its own display like my wife’s shinny iMac. On the contrary, I like that about Apple’s entry level PC Mac; I have a 20″ LCD from Dell which I like very much and while not a wide screen like the iMacs, it does everything I need and I see no need to replace it yet. But what I do mean by ‘not sure it’s for me’ is that its not state-of-the-art technology and not the best of the best.

For starters, the video is an Intel 950 chip; not the nVidia or ATI cards offered on other models. It can support 1600×1200 resolution with the DVI interface (which I use) but that’s the max it can go. If I did upgrade to a widescreen display, the highest I could go is the 23″ screen which does 1900×1200 – a perfect resolution – but, as far as I know, reaches it in analog mode… Yuck! What’s worse is that the video memory is shared with the main system memory!! In my PC world, that’s a mortal sin!!! I wouldn’t even think to build a PC with an on-board video chip unless it was for the car, kitchen, bedroom, or bathroom. I’m sure it can display DVD video – HD video too – but not very well with that kind of video card.

The second thing that makes me nervous about getting the Mini is the speed of the hard drive. At first, I thought it was a miserable 4200 RPMs but my research tonight makes me feel a little better but not great; the speed is 5400 RPMs – which once was the standard speed for PCs having been replaced by 7200 RPM in all but the cheapest models. I’m concerned that even a 5400 RPM drive isn’t going to be fast enough. All my data will be on 7200 RPM serial ATA drives that I’ll cannibalize from my RAID’ed XP computer so I’m not concerned about my video or music not playing properly; I’m worried about the swap file. I don’t want the swapping to be slow and a 5400 RPM drive isn’t going to perform as well as the 7200 RPM drive I have in my XP and Ubuntu computers. I don’t even know what the cache size is and I imagine its not the 8 MB (or is it 16 MB?) I have on my current hard drives. I could just increase the RAM to make swapping less frequent but that’s another problem.

The Mini comes with what I consider a small amount of RAM. Even though Ubuntu and Linux/Unix like OSs can run on less, they obviously run better with more. The 512 MB of RAM just doesn’t do it for me. When started building my computers, I always made sure I had (at least) double the recommended RAM installed to make the computer as fast as it could be. And on my XP and Ubuntu images, I have 4GB. I don’t mind upgrading to more RAM – I’d gladly go to 1GB which is what most OS X systems have these days but with the shared video RAM eating into that, I will never fully use whatever RAM I have for applications (meaning more swapping). Even if I go to 2GB which is the max the Mini can handle, I still lose some of it. So I don’t know if paying the premium for more RAM really nets me all I’m paying for.

And that’s another thing. Even though the Mini is cheap, its not a big value. Add upgrades like the RAM, the keyboard (which isn’t included), the SuperDrive, the Bluetooth, and a few other things, you quickly approach the 17″ iMac price. When you do, get the iMac, you get a widescreen display, a faster CPU and a better video card with no shared memory. I really don’t think the 17″ iMac is for me either but you can’t deny the fact that for almost the same amount, you get a better computer. It makes it harder to justify paying almost as much as an iMac but with inferior video capabilities and a slower hard drive.

The last thing making this hard for me is what i will use it for. I intend to make this my main computer and will do everything I do on my XP and Ubuntu computers but it isn’t much. I don’t play games anymore and all I do is surf the web, write email (web-based email), play DVDs, buy, download, and listen to music on Apple’s iTunes Store, and occasionally I’ll do some word processing and spreadsheet work; I’ll never tax a computer like I did when I played Call of Duty 2. And since I do that already with my Ubuntu box (minus the iTunes), I don’t know if its worth spending the $850 dollars for a new computer. The only thing besides iTunes that I would enjoy out of OS X is Flash for my web browser.

My Windows XP box is in bad shape. The hardware is fine but like all XP computers, the software sucks. I’ve hated XP ever since it came out. In my mind, Windows 2000 was where it was at and if I wasn’t so keen on the Media Center software and games, I’d probably still run it. But my TV tuner is shot and Media Center doesn’t natively support FairPlay or my iPod so M$ loses out. Let’s not forget that my PC crashes often and I’m very, very, very very good at not installing stuff on my computers because I know how prone Windows is to crashes; I sweep for spyware and never install anything unless its absolutely needed because I don’t want to take the risk. So all I use XP for is the music part.

My Ubuntu box is great! Now that I got over the hassels of upgrading to Edgy Eft and installing my video drivers, I’m very happy. The 64-bit version is so much faster than the 32-bit; Firefox 2 was a big help in the speed department but I notice applications loading more quickly than ever before. Ubuntu has just about everything I need, too: office suite, FTP software, IM, BitTorrent, and 1000’s of free and/or open source software to pick up where the distribution ISO left off. But it doesn’t have iTunes which I mentioned and it doesn’t have Flash Player for Firefox. It’s not Ubuntu’s fault – it’s Adobe’s – but I can’t visit some sites at all because of it (also a fault of the web designers). So this fantastic piece of hardware & software has two Achillies’ heels that detract from the overall experience.

So the Mac Mini will step up and let me buy my music and browse flash enabled websites while letting me do everything I do on my Linux box now. I won’t miss anything from Windows, really, as most PC applications have a counterpart in the Mac world. I’ll still keep my XP image active for the rare times I need it and I’ll turn my Ubuntu desktop image into an Ubuntu LAMP server for my wife who wants to start coding (and I want to host my own blogs). But is it really worth the $850 to do all that? Should I spend a little more and go with the iMac? Will I notice the slow HD of the Mini? Will I care that some of the 1 GB (or should I go 2 GB) of RAM is used for the crappy video card? Will the next version of OS X need even more video RAM or application RAM? Should I get anything? If so, what should I get?

Will rock ever beat paper? Will paper beat scissors?? And will scissors ever beat rock???

I definitely have a conundrum…

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