The Mac Mini Experience

The following is the experience of a user of Linux for the desktop who got a Mac Mini. Is he making the switch?

The box arrived at my home in the Southern US two days after leaving Shenzhen. It was light, as if I had orderd a new hard drive. When I opened it, the package was neat and trendy, with a cute little setup book I didn’t need. For the first time since the power supply in my beloved Mac Plus had gone wonky back in Ô93, I had a Macintosh.

After the Plus died I was lured over to the Windows world by the promise of cheap multimedia, and was bitterly disappointed by the horroble gui of Windows for Workgroups 3.11. I upgraded to Windows 95 but was still unhappy with the instability of the OS, so I switched to Red Hat Linux, and have been using Linux ever since, although like many of us I still fix my relatives’ Windows machines every few months. Currently I have a box with Fedora Core 3 and a laptop with Simply Mepis.

So how does the Mini compare to desktop or laptop Linux?

First there’s the machine itself. My old box was noisy like an old hoover. The Mini is quieter than many so-called ‘silent PCs.’ The fan came on briefly (and quietly) when I turned the heat up to test it, but other than that there is only the faint chirp of the hard drive – my monitor is louder. I have room for my feet, and I don’t have to reach under my desk to stick in a CD. There aren’t even any keyboard/mouse wires to get tangled up in, as mine are wireless. You can buy small crappy PCs, or small expensive PCs, but you can’t buy something this small and elegant and stylish except from Apple. Especially if your PC is in a public space like a living room or kitchen, this is not an irrational consideration.

The Mini recognized my HP printer and I only had to click a box to share it. It set up my monitor properly with better refresh rates than Xorg ever managed. After one polite soft-sell (for .Mac, $99 a year, no thanks), reminding me that this is indeed a proprietary system, I was on my way.

The gui differences between OS X and the Gnome and KDE desktops I’m used to are not overly significant. I have two complaints: First, the Dock doesn’t stretch all the way across the screen. When you launch another program its icon is added to the Dock and makes the Dock stretch slightly. This ruins any chance of using motor memory to launch apps with the Dock. You have to look for and interpret icons every time. What are we supposed to do with that empty screen area on either side of the dock anyway? I finally just set the dock to autohide. And the program menu at the top of the screen makes more sense on smaller monitors than it does on my 1792×1344 one. Sure the target is infinite, but it’s also sometimes very far away. And I have found myself looking for menu options when the wrong window is active, forcing me to have to go click the correct window to activate it, and then back up again to the menu. I wish top-of-the-window menus was an option.

I also had to install a pager program right away. I used the freeware Desktop Manager for OS X. ExposŽ is very handy, but it does
n’t let you group windows into organized ‘work stations’ like seperate desktops does.

Overall, though, the desktop is beautiful, fast and very smooth. It’s more responsive than a Gnome or even a KDE desktop on a much faster machine.

So I moved my old loud workhorse (‘black’) downstairs and turned it into a server, planning to run X apps on it using ssh from the Mac. I installed an X server on the Mac (XFree86 is included on the install CD. It installs with a click.) You run X by double-clicking the Xtools icon and then you can start an xterm from the file menu. I opened port 22 in the built-in firewall by clicking a checkbox under ‘Sharing’ in the System Preferences utility. I also enabled windows sharing (cifs) in the same dialog. I added the name of my server to /etc/hosts manually. I enabled X11 forwarding in the Xtools preferences menu. Then I started up an X program – Pan – by typing ssh -X black.

It worked, but running X programs over ssh is somewhat sluggish, and mousewheel scrolling doesn’t work. There are other options, but I decided to go looking for native OSX apps.

I’m used to downloading whatever I want from Fedora or Debian repositories, so finding software for the Mac was a trip back in time to my old Windows days. The Mac’s apple menu has a link to a good download site hosted by Apple. Some of this software is free, but most of it is shareware. And there is less of it available than for Windows or, say, Debian. The good news is that installing is usually just a matter of dragging an icon into your applications folder, after downloading it and watching it uncompress. I found and installed some familiar stuff: Mplayer for Mac OSX and Firefox. I’ve heard the quality of Mac software is better on average, so what did I find to replace Pan?

My Mac Mini

click for a larger view
MT-NewsWatcher ($0) was very basic. Instead of one program window like Pan it had many, like the Gimp, each with its own function. I wasn’t used to that. It also had no quick way to find newsgroups – just a long tree list of them. To read a post, you double-click on it and it opens up a new window every time. I tried another program.

Hogwasher ($49) has most of the features of Pan and them some, such as combing several news servers to ensure completion. It follows the apparent Mac tradition of lots of windows, which I arranged roughly into place as if they were pieces of Pan’s main window.

I finally started to like Hogwasher, but I still missed Pan, so I decided to install Pan under Mac OSX using Fink. Fink is an installation of Debian PPC. It replaced the Mac XFree86 that I had just installed. There was a problem setting up pango at first so I apt-getted some more Gnome stuff. Eventually I got the twm window manager running alongside my pretty Mac apps. Pan worked, the scroll wheel worked, but the primitive appearance was jarring. I could have run Gnome or Kde but I felt that would be too much overhead just to run a single non-native program, so I went back to Hogwasher.

The real stars of the Mac OS, of course are the native apps from Apple. I’ll mention a few of them:

Itunes

I tried Itunes under Crossover Wine once, and it was unuseably slow. They’ve improved it since then, but it goes without saying you can’t beat Itunes on a Mac. The radio works, the store works, sharing over a network works, syncing with an Ipod works. Burning to a CD works too.

Garage Band

Garage Band is very polished. I had to unplug my printer to plug a midi keyboard into the Mini, as it has only 2 USB ports. Unlike Rosegarden (I haven’t tried Muse) Garage Band doesn’t have notational input, which is what I prefer. Alas, the professional music notation software Noteability Pro for Mac OS X costs $225; Finale costs $600, PrintMusic costs $70, and so on.

IDVD

Unlike a certain open-source disk-burning program, IDVD does not pop up a diolog box assuring you that the default settings are correct for most people – of course they are, it’s a Mac! You make a DVD by dragging files onto the DVD screen. There are plenty of templates. It even makes scene menus for you automatically. Wow, it works. I’ve made video DVDs under Linux using command-line tools, but I never will again!

AppleWorks

‘That file could not be converted to an Appleworks Document’ is what the Mini told me when I tried opening an Excel file, even though the Excel Win file type is listed in the open file dialog. The word processor has tables, outlines, and styles, but few advanced features (like generating indeces). Of course you can buy MS Office ($399 for the Mac Standard Edition) or install Open Office, or wait for Apple’s upcoming new office suite. If your needs are more than basic, you will have to get something besides AppleWorks.

Conclusion

So what can a (relatively) cheap Apple offer desktop Linux users? Linux already has stability, beautiful desktops, and at least as much software.

Ease of setup of course makes the list. Things just work on the Mac. Software installs just by downloading it. Your digital camera unloads just by plugging it in.

Cool software also makes the list. Many open-source equivalents are still behind Apple in terms of features and maturity. But some of it will cost you money, even more than the Mini itself. That’s especially painful for someone accustomed to apt-getting software for free. A lot of open-source software is available for the Mac, just a recompile away, or with Fink. But if you decide to use non-native open-source stuff then the ease-of-use advantage of the Mac begins to melt away.

What the Mini Mac does not offer is a pure open-source environment, unless you wipe the drive and install Linux or BSD. If you’re a software-libre evangelist, or If you enjoy the game of compiling and modifying and endlessly fixing your own computing environment, then you won’t be happy with a partly closed system that’s already done it all for you.

The relatively small and slow (4200 rpm) hard drive and lack of audio input prevent the Mini from being a Tivo-killer. This box also doesn’t offer heavy computing power for large databases, scientific programming, heavy-duty graphics, or gaming. For that you would need a G5 or an AMD 64.

On the other end of the scale you can get cheaper, albeit uglier and noisier, boxes. But they don’t look uber-cool on your coffee table.

In the end, although I’ll still use Linux on my laptop and server, I have to say I’m extremely satisfied with my Mini. It does everything a desktop user like me could want. And it does it without hassles and how-to’s and RTFMs. And if I can talk my relatives into buying Mini Macs, I won’t have to fix their computers any more.

Now to see about partitioning this drive and installing Ubuntu…


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