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The 'Book Mystique

Is The New Core Duo Mac mini A Practical Notebook Substitute? - Plus 'Book Mystique Mailbag

by Charles W. Moore

Along with unveiling the latest iMac update last week, Apple also quietly announced that it has increased processor speeds on both models of the Mac mini, delivering dual-core performance across the line while holding the price point. The $799 Mac mini now includes a 1.83 GHz Intel Core Duo processor, up from 1.66 GHz Intel Core Duo processor, and the $599 model now includes a 1.66 GHz Intel Core Duo processor, up from a 1.5 GHz Intel Core Solo processor.

This is moderately big news for the littlest Mac, and it baffles me as to why Apple chose to downplay the announcement, relegating it to a single short paragraph in the iMac news release.

The Intel Core Duo, delivering unprecedented power in such a small package, powers the the Mac mini to run up to four times faster than previously. According to testing conducted by Apple in August 2006 using preproduction Mac mini units with 1.83 GHz Intel Core Duo; all other systems were production 1.42 GHz G4 units. Estimated SPECint_rate_base2000 score: 30.8. Estimated SPECfp_rate_base2000 score: 26.3. SPEC is a registered trademark of the Standard Performance Evaluation Corporation (SPEC); see http://www.spec.org for more information. Benchmarks were compiled using the IBM and Intel compilers for Mac OS.

Inside its charmingly tiny 2-inch tall, 6.5-inch square anodized aluminum enclosure, Mac mini houses that fast Intel Core Duo processor, a 60 or 80GB hard drive, slot-loading Combo or SuperDrive, as well as built-in wireless. In some respects, the mini appears to be a potentially satisfactory alternative to a notebook computer for those who use their notebooks primarily as a portable desktop substitute computer, in many instances perched on a laptop stand and with an external keyboard, input device, and connected to peripherals like printers and scanners, in some cases even hooked up to an external monitor.

Back in 2000, the same thought occurred to me when Apple unveiled the spectacular G4 Cube, and in early 2001 my curiosity got the best of me and I bought a Cube. Unfortunately, the reality fell somewhat short of the theory.

The whole rig, not including the necessary external monitor, weighed in at about 31 pounds, so it wasn’t something you would want to lug around all day, but a (very bulky) custom case supplied by now-defunct Willow Design did make the Cube as conveniently transportable as was possible — sort of in the tradition of the the original, 17 pound, compact Macs, which were available with a carry case, and many Mac-heads did carry them around to Mac User Group meetings, or back and forth to school and work back n the ‘80s. While the complete kit weighed something in excess of 20 pounds, portability was possible, and I have even seen a photo of someone transporting one on a bicycle.

I still have that Willow Cube Case, and if I ever end up owning a Mac mini, I expect that it can be adapted to carry the mini with all its peripherals and a 17” display quite comfortably. The 2.9 pound Mac Mini, a keyboard and mouse, and the 17” monitor should weigh in at about 14-15 pounds total, less than the old Mac Portable, and less than half what the Cube rig weighed.

Of course the mini can’t qualify as a real portable because it has no internal battery power, but with a small power inverter that costs about 30 bucks you can be good to go anywhere, say in cars, RVs, or boats where you have access to 12 volt power.

The Mac mini actually has a lot more in common with the MacBook than its desktop Mac stablemates. For instance, the mini has a laptop-type 2.5” hard drive, a typical laptop array of I/O ports, a laptop-style optical drive, and the mini CPU weighs a pound and a half less than the lightest laptop Apple ever made.

So, is the Mac mini a viable laptop substitute? It depends. Not if you need a really portable computer of course. In that case get a MacBook or a MacBook Pro. However, for the past half-decade or so, an awful lot of laptops have been purchased for use mainly as desktop substitute computers. My ‘Books go for months at a time without ever being called on to run on battery power. For mostly desktop laptop users like me, the “transportable” Mac mini presents a practical alternative to a ‘Book.

Now, personally, I wouldn’t want to be without a real, portable laptop, but I already have three of them. A mini could arguably be an excellent compliment to serve as a general-purpose workstation that’s still doesn’t take up much space and can be relatively easily moved around.

As noted above, I’ve been down this road before, sort of. IG4 Cube with its satellite speakers and speaker amplifier, external power supply for which “brick” was more than just a metaphor, along with a keyboard, mouse, and display, needed almost as much desktop space as my SuperMac S-900 tower. However, the tiny Mac mini has an internal speaker, a more reasonable, laptop-sized power adapter, and is itself about one-fifth the volume of the Cube CPU, so it should size up quite favorably compared with an iBook or PowerBook on a laptop stand connected to an external keyboard and mouse, at least provided you connect it to an LCD monitor.

I love small computers. Compactness is the essential quality of a laptop -- even my mighty 17-inch PowerBook. Light weight is also an attractive characteristic. I much prefer handling my 4.9 pound iBook to my 8 pound WallStreet.

For me, the principal deficiency of the mini is the lack of battery power, not so much the lack of real portability, but because I live in a rural area where power outages are fairly common. This in addition to desktop real estate occupied, was one of the reasons why I never really got comfortable with the Cube as a workhorse computer. I had become accustomed to the PowerBook’s being able to cruise through power outages seamlessly, sometimes without my even noticing that there had been a power failure until the little lightning bolt charge indicator caught my eye.

The workaround would be some sort of uninterruptible power supply (UPS) and/or the aforementioned power inverter and a 12 volt automotive battery or power pack to run the mini rig off of during power interruptions. With its 2.5-inch hard drive and an LCD display, the mini should be able to run for a good long time from a portable 12 volt power source.

I haven’t said much about the economics of this concept so far, so let’s take a look. The 1.66 GHz dual core Mac mini starts at $599, and Apple’s wired Keyboard & Mighty Mouse Kit is $78. Apple’s cheapest 20” Cinema Display sells for a whopping $699, but you can get a plain vanilla 17” flat panel display from Philips, Sony, Dell or Acer for around $200 which would bring you up up to just $877 - or $222 less than the base 1.83 GHz MacBook. If you want clock speed parity with the MacBook (you also get a SuperDrive), the difference shrinks to just $22, and you still need to buy a UPS of some sort if you want battery backup. IMHO, the 1.66 GHz Core Duo should provide ample real world performance to satisfy most folks. It certainly would me. Looking from the other side, to use a notebook in desktop substitute mode, you’ll still need a keyboard and mouse, and a laptop stand.

Consequently, the 1.66 GHz Mac mini especially presents a bit of a price advantage over a MacBook, although not overwhelmingly so. A 17” monitor is of course larger than the MacBook’s 13.3” unit, but a $200 display may not deliver equivalent image quality.

Another option that should be considered is the 15.5 pound, $999, 1.83 GHz Core Duo iMac (although I’m not sure that weight includes the keyboard and mouse).

So, is Moore losing the laptop faith? Not at all. if I were to be limited to owning just one computer, it would without question be a conventional laptop/notebook. However, the Mac mini offers as close to the laptop virtues as we’ve seen yet in a desktop computer. The latest category trend in automobiles is the “crossover” - a sort of melding of the SUV concept with conventional sedans and stationwagons. Arguably, the Mac mini represents a computer crossover category - the “transportable” computer.

Whether it’s for you will depend on your individual needs and tastes

Mac mini At a Glance

• 1.66 GHz or 1.83 GHz Intel Core Duo processor
• 2MB L2 Cache
• 667MHz Frontside Bus
• 512MB memory (667MHz DDR2 SDRAM) expandable up to Up to 2GB
• 60GB or 80 GB Serial ATA hard drive
• Combo drive (DVD-ROM/CD-RW) or Double-layer SuperDrive (DVD+R DL/DVD±RW/CD-RW)
• Built-in AirPort Extreme and Bluetooth 2.0
• Apple Remote with Front Row
• Intel GMA 950 graphics processor
• DVI connector, VGA adapter
• Built-in Gigabit Ethernet
• Analog and digital audio
• Expansion via USB and FireWire
• iLife ’06, Mac OS X Tiger

For more information, visit:
http://www.apple.com/macmini/

Mac mini photos:
http://www.apple.com/macmini/gallery/

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'Book Mystique Mailbag

MacBook vs. MacBook Pro | Kensington 70W AC/DC power adapter for PowerBooks/iBooks

MacBook vs. MacBook Pro

From Maria Langer

Thanks for this article. I'd been trying to figure out what the real difference is (other than the obvious: screen sizes, processor speeds, case material) and was coming up blank. This explained it for me. It also confirmed the option I was leaning toward: a refurbished MacBook Pro. My old G4 eMac "test mule" is ready for replacement and a laptop will enable me to take my work on the road.

Thanks again.

Maria

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Hi Maria;

Delighted that you found the article helpful. :-)

Charles

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Re: MacBook vs. MacBook Pro

From Maria Langer

I also found an online reseller offering a rebate on the MacBook Pro that puts it right in line with Apple's refurbished models. But if it weren't for that, I'd go refurbished.

Maria

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Hi Maria;

Hey, new for a refurb. price is a no-brainer. :-)

You didn't say which model you're getting. Be aware that Apple made a significant change to the motherboard of the MacBook Pro after a few months of production. My inclination would be to avoid the pre-revision units. For info on how to tell the difference, see:
http://blogs.zdnet.com/Apple/index.php?p=168

Charles

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Kensington 70W AC/DC power adapter for PowerBooks/iBooks

From Chris Houston

Hello,

Read your review and liked your points, just wanted to add something that I've found using the 70W AC/DC (the white one) with my 15" G4/1.67 Hi-Res PowerBook: the Kensington adapter doesn't seem to able to wake the PB from Safe Sleep, aka "Hibernate" mode.

I've tried this on 3 different occasions, always with the same results. The PB screen remains black, no internal sounds of anything working; pressing the Tab key (to wake from Sleep) or the power key (to wake from Hibernate) do nothing.

I have to reconnect the original 65W Apple adapter to get the PB to wake from Hibernate. This works flawlessly.

Strange, as the Kensington works fine everywhere else and provides a higher Watt rating. My guess is that there must be some sort of sensor in the Apple adapter; perhaps connected with the indicator LED ring at the end of the Apple adapter. No idea, but this problem seems to be 100% repeatable.

It's a shame, as the Kensington is a very solid, flexible adapter. But I like to run my PB batteries down to zero and have the PB go into Hibernate, as it seems to extend the batteries' useful life: e.g., I have an 8-month old battery that is still at 99% capacity.

I will keep experimenting, to see if this problem persists. I have contacted Kensington support but have not heard back from them.

Regards,
Chris Houston

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Hi Chris;

Thanks for the report. I've never used "hibernate" mode, so didn't notice this issue - definitely a significant one if it's general and one uses that feature.

Battery husbandry is a controversial topic. One authority says the ideal is to keep them about 2/3 charged and out of the computer in a cool, dry environment. Not very real-world practical.

Personally, I just leave 'em in and keep the computer plugged in most of the time. The original battery in my old WallStreet after nearly eight years of this still gives about 45 min-1 hour runtime. After just short of four years, the battery in my G3 iBook is still charging to high-eighties percentage capacity.

Charles

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cmoore@powerbookcentral.com

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