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Apple Mac mini 2011 (i5 2.3GHz 2GB RAM 500GB HDD) review

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Features

  • Intel Core i5-2410M CPU
  • Intel HD Graphics 3000
  • 2GB DDR3 RAM (1333MHz)
  • 500GB HDD
  • 4x USB 2.0
  • 1x Firewire 800
  • 1x Thunderbolt
  • Bluetooth 4.0
  • 802.11n Wi-Fi (a/b/g compatible)
  • HDMI
  • Ethernet
  • Built-in audio, 1x output, 1x input (1/8" jack)
  • Built-in power supply
  • Mac OS X Lion (10.7.3)
  • DMI to DVI adapter, printed documentation, power cord, Apple Remote (apparently not every mini comes with it, mine did)

This Mac has plenty of fantastic features especially for such a small device. It works with bluetooth keyboards and mice, but also with any USB keyboard, mouse and UVC compliant webcam. One could say that it could have had USB 3.0 (5Gbps), but fortunately it has one Thunderbolt (10Gbps) port and you can add USB 3.0 and other additional ports with an adapter such as Belkin Thunderbolt Express Dock.

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The Apple Remote is capable of controlling master audio volume, playback in media players but also of navigating in Garage Band and Logic as well as starting recording and playback in those DAWs.

Performance

I was concerned that this Mac wouldn't meet my performance needs as previosly I had been using a decent, Windows 7 based PC with an Intel i5-2500k (3.3GHz to 3.7GHz with TurboBoos, 4 cores) and 4GB of memory. This Mac is built around a significantly less powerful CPU (2 cores/4 threads, 2.3GHz to 2.9GHz with TurboBoost), but the overall experience is unbelievably good. 2GB of RAM wasn't enough for me - the system was choking while browsing the internet as I like having lots of tabs open. Upgrading to 4GB was a good move.

Temperatures inside the mini are mostly low, unless there's a heavy workload that lasts for more than a minute. When pushed, the CPU gets really hot which makes the chassis also very hot. You can't hear the fan unless the CPU temperature exceeds 90 degrees Celsius. If you're working with movies, rendering audio or playing 3D games, sometimes it sounds like a hair dryer. The fan seems to be somehow controlled also by CPU usage, because the same second you've finished your work it gets quiet again, despite the fact that the CPU is still hot.

OS X Lion

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I migrated from Windows 7 directly to Lion with an attitude that things might be different and possibly I would have to learn new things. I read some comparisons of both systems before, but after using it for more than 6 months I can tell you that the list of its advantages is still growing and I really liked the latest Windows in the first place. Here are few reasons to like the Lion:

  • it does not ask you stupid questions like "Are sure you want to quit? Because there's something you didn't save!" - built-in applications back your work up automatically and only if you close a particular document they're going to ask if you want to save, if you want to close the app it closes instantly,
  • after restarting, it re-opens applications and restores their previous window positions and temporary data, so late at night you can quickly shut down the computer and the next day everything will be back where it was, including last results in Calculator
  • it gives a lot possibilites while working with files - for instance, you can create a new document in TextEdit, save it to Desktop, continue editing, in the meantime you can move it somewhere else, change its name and you won't get that annoying information that you can't do so because the file is in use by another application
  • it's flexible while working professionally with audio - there's no issue of audio drivers sharing, there's only one driver architecture (CoreAudio) which sounds great and allows achieving very low latencies
  • most applications do not require any sort of installation process, usually all it takes is to drag an icon to the Applications folder and that's it, uninstalling anything means draggin its icon the Trash, there are no situations in which you cannot uninstall because there's something missing, which happens from time to time in Windows OS
  • like in Linux, you can have as many desktops as you like, also there's a Dashboard with thousands of free widgets available
  • file system is journaled, it keeps previous versions of documents, so it's not really possible to lose your work by mistake, you can always choose Revert document... from the File menu and bring back one of its previous versions
  • Time Machine is a wonderful back up system, it's really like a time machine as it allows you to browse through your stuff in the past, like for instance if you lost something from your Desktop and you can't find it anywhere - you can take a look at your Desktop and Documents as they were yesterday or the day before... You can also exclude some folders from back up... Also you can restore your system fully using the Time Machine
  • iCloud lets you access your documents, contacts, photos and music on all your Apple devices, you can take a photo with your iPhone and it will automatically become available on your Mac or iPad, it can be used to back up lost data and also you get 5GB of free storage
  • it has an unique system-wide desktop search system called Spotlight, just hit command and space and start typing, the results appear rapidly and they're divided to categories with "Top hit" on top
  • built-in apps include a lot, there's Garage Band which is an easy to use DAW for music production, there's a safe web browser (Safari), a mail client (Mail), a flexible address book, easy to use calendar; with Preview you can add comments to PDF files and edit many photos at once,
  • it's stable, it didn't crash once and it's been 6 months since I started using it... Built-in apps crashed a few times but everything that I was working on was somehow saved and restored
  • it's bulletproof, there are no signs telling me that I would benefit from a new installation, I use different audio interfaces, install lots of software
  • there aren't many malicious programs or viruses that could hurt it that I know of

These things you might consider as small drawbacks:

  • NTFS - you can read, but you can't write (native NTFS support can be enabled, but is not advisable, due to instability)
  • UVC compliant webcams work nicely, but there's no possibility to adjust their parameters like exposure and white balance
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Audio

For all audio professionals and enthusiasts CoreAudio is really great, because whether you're just listening to music or watching movies it sounds better than WDM and DirectX. In Windows there are WDM and DirectX drivers and there's ASIO to the rescue because the first two aren't capable of working with low latencies useful to musicians. It's also known that ASIO sounds better as it bypasses poorly sounding Windows audio engine and it sends audio data efficiently and directly to an audio interface output. If you'd like to have better experience while listening to music on a PC, get Foobar (advanced free audio player for Windows) with ASIO support component and ASIO4ALL drivers if your audio card does not come with ASIO drivers. But, there's audio driver sharing issue for those who use other audio software which utilizes ASIO, like music production software or an amp sim like Overloud TH2. With CoreAudio it's simple as it's the only driver there is and it's shared between apps automatically. So suppose that this sharing issue under Windows OS doesn't concern you, but still you can't tell your internet browser, flash player or system movie player to use ASIO and these days there's more and more high quality audio stuff in the internet.

Latency is another thing. ASIO is something that bypasses Windows audio drivers, but it's not a part of the system and that's why the system is an obstacle with its processes, services that take CPU time making it difficult to make the most of it. That's why there are tutorials out there on how to optimize Windows based machine for low latency. It's about turning off certain system services, changing processor scheduling, turning off wireless connections. On a Mac there's nothing to do there and it works great. The lowest buffer size for ASIO is 32 samples, but only few expensive audio interfaces allow that setting. CoreAudio buffer size does not depend on specific audio interface. It can be set to 14 samples and it's being set in software that uses it.

The built-in audio sounds fine and does its job also for recording guitars through di-boxes. Its minimal latency is awesome - 1.9ms at CoreAudio buffer size of 14 samples, 2.7ms at 32 samples and it's works nicely with amp sims even on that i5-2410M. It's hard to beat that, because most interfaces don't go below 6ms with actual round trip latency. I mean actual, measured and not advertised or calculated from buffer size.

Latency and recording guitars - Mac vs. PC

3-pin power supply would be better for professional audio, especially for recording guitars, but it seems typical that devices which consume little power use only 2-pin cords.

Some VST audio plug-ins don't have OS X versions and sadly this is the case with most free amp simulators. There's another audio plug-in format introduced by Apple which is Audio Unit (AU). In DAWs such as Cubase and Reaper both standards are supported, so you can choose between using AU and VST versions of the same plug-in.

Another interesting aspect of using audio in probably every version of OS X is possibility to create aggregate devices. Such device combines physically seperate audio interfaces into one virtual device that can be used by any program. User can select which device to use as a clock source.

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Garage Band

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The Garage Band is very intuitive and quite useful DAW. It has some plug-ins like compressor, eq, reverb but also there's an amp sim for guitarists. It can be used for recording guitars with software monitoring and programming virtual instruments. It looks like a really basic app, but it's pretty much capable of doing a lot of stuff. It's capable of exporting songs to MP3 files (up to 320kpbs, VBR, CBR plus some quality options).

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RAM upgrade

This one's very easy, you don't need a single screwdriver. The bottom cover can be removed by rotating it counter-clockwise. What's inside are typical SODIMM slots, if you're not certain what to do next take a look to the manual, where it's well explained.

HDD upgrade

There are many tutorials on how to upgrade the hard drive in this computer and most of them suggest removing the logic board but it's not necessary. I managed to quickly replace the HDD with a SSD using only Torx and Hex wrenches. It was difficult for me to remove the HDD because the logic board was in the way, but clearly it was not a problem for my wife. We removed only the fan, the antenna plate and a plastic element covering the heat sink. We didn't disconnect the fan, I just put it aside.

If you're replacing the original drive with a SSD by yourself, you'll most probably have to enable TRIM support. It's quite simple and there are some tutorials explaining the process. It's done through the terminal.

Before replacing the drive I did a backup using the Time Machine. I installed the Lion from the internet just to check how it works. It takes some time (about an hour?), but anyway it's a really good option to have. The next thing to do was to migrate user profile with apps, documents from a Time Machine backup, which was very quick.

Overall

It's the most affordable Mac ever, but it has plenty of useful features and a well designed product.

Advantages

pic It's small
pic It's ultra quiet unless you use it as a workhorse
pic It's wireless (wi-fi, bluetooth, Apple Remote)
pic Features - Thunderbolt, Firewire 800, audio I/O, HDMI, memory card reader, ethernet
pic Flexibility, real low latency, stability, performance and sound quality of Core Audio
pic File system that keeps journals of files, allows reverting them and doesn't require HDD defragmentation
pic Time Machine
pic iCloud
pic Large set of useful system built-in apps and tools
pic OS can be installed from the internet
pic Thousands of free applications and widgets available for download
pic No activation code, sticker or verification of the operating system authenticity there
pic OS is crash resiliant and practically virus proof
pic It works with any keyboard, mouse and UCV compliant webcam, also with cheap bluetooth mice and keyboards
pic Windows OS can be run via Bootcamp
pic It's easy to expand memory, clean cooling system and replace HDD

Drawbacks

pic NTFS support
pic Limited UVC webcam support
pic 2GB of memory isn't enough for anything
pic It gets quite noisy when pushed
pic No power supply grounding
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