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Apple’s new MacMini — good for photographers?

I discussed the new iMac a few days ago.

Photographers are under financial pressure (who isn’t?!), and so some look towards the MacMini as an alternative to higher priced Apple offerings. My goal in writing this blog entry is to lay out the issues with the MacMini for those who might be considering such a move.

I reviewed the spring 2009 MacMini in Apple MacMini 2009 — the Green Machine. According to OWC, that spring model and this fall’s updated model can both use 8GB memory with Mac OS X Snow Leopard (see review). While that memory is currently expensive, it’s nice to know that an upgrade path exists.

The updated October 2009 MacMini adds appeal: more memory, more storage, dual displays and a faster CPU. The small form factor appeals for uses such as a low-power file server in a nook. The MacMini can plausibly work for a photographer, but there’s a catch: configuring it for solid performance means an escalating price tag.

After adding a keyboard, mouse, monitor, extra memory and storage, the cost balloons relative to the cost of the MacMini itself. Consider the total cost carefully before committing to the MacMini, especially as compared with an iMac or MacBook/Pro. Here’s what I see for those of us in the USA:

MacMini 2.53GHz, 4GB, 320GB: $799
2.53GHz => 2.66GHz: + $150     (5% faster at best for 19% more money)
320GB => 500GB: + $100         (5400rpm = slow, see Green Machine)
8GB memory: + $476             (from OWC, Apple doesn't offer it)
Apple keyboard and mouse: $98
Applecare: $149
Monitor: $300 - $1800

You can get the MacMini the same place you get your camera gear: B&H Photo .

Don’t waste your money on the CPU speed upgrade or the 500GB drive upgrade. The 500GB drive upgrade is overpriced and underperforming, you can get a 7200 rpm 500GB drive for about $135, install it yourself and get 25% faster drive speed. With the shared video memory, the $150 for a 5% faster CPU is something you won’t even notice except when you pay your credit card.

If you already have a keyboard and mouse and monitor, the cost equation might work for you. But even forgetting the monitor and AppleCare, the pimped-up price goes to $1623. You can get an Apple-certified refurbished MacBook Pro for about that price, and the $1623 figure is in striking range of a $2149 refurbished Mac Pro (neither comes with a monitor). Or a lightly used Mac Pro from someone you can trust. The great MacMini feature set defeats itself on a cost basis.

CPU speed and memory

Clock speed is now up to 2.53GHz (2.66GHz option). The shared-with-video main memory means that you won’t see 2.53GHz performance on memory intensive tasks. Think Photoshop and Lightroom here: memory speed matters, because the CPU will twiddle its thumbs waiting for it.

You can install 8GB memory as two (2) 4GB modules, same memory type as the iMac and MacBook/Pro. You can get 8GB as 2 X 4GB at OWC. At about $476 as of this writing, that jacks up the total system cost substantially, but perhaps the cost will decline over time.

Dual internal drives

One attractive feature of the new MacMini is with dual 500GB drives. You could use them as a RAID 0 stripe for high speed and 1TB capacity, or a RAID 1 mirror for reliability (500GB). With a stripe, speeds approaching 200MB/sec are possible with 7200rpm 500GB drives, such as the Seagate Momentus 7200.4. The big appeal of two internal drives is speed; running off SATA internally is much faster than Firewire 800 (2-4X faster with a RAID 0 stripe). Apple supplies 5400rpm drives, so the Apple solution will offer performance well below what is possible with 7200rpm drives (about 25% slower).

There are two catches with the dual drive setup. The first catch is that an external USB superdrive is another $99, so it’s really a $1099 purchase in all (plus keyboard, mouse and display). Also, the only configuration offering this is with Mac OS X Snow Leopard Server. I’ve purchased and tried Mac OS X Leopard Server, and it just gave me headaches for my purposes, so I wiped it out and used regular Mac OS X. Third-party vendors might offer kits to accomplish the dual-drive thing at lower cost anyway.

On the horizon soon are 1TB laptop drives. Assuming they fit into the MacMini, you could have a screaming-fast 2TB RAID 0 stripe inside a MacMini. Now that's a nifty little server.

Dual monitors

The MacMini has both a Mini DVI and Mini Display Port. Why you’d want to buy two monitors for a MacMini escapes me (ones you already have I suppose), and the memory to drive those displays is shared main memory. The sharing is a drag on performance, and it reduces usable memory for applications by 256MB or more.

Caution of the need for video cable adapters; I’ve had bad luck with them myself on the 30" Apple Cinema Display.

Your smart move

Consider the total system cost. The MacMini might not be so cheap with add-ons. It’s a dead-end Mac; that’s fine, but don’t assume it’s anything else, buy it for the right reasons with your eyes open.

The MacMini has two CPU cores, a seriously limiting factor for Photoshop or Lightroom. Any used Mac Pro with 4 cores will run rings around it; find one from someone you can trust that’s still eligible for AppleCare (and get AppleCare), or get one refurbished.

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