Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Mac OS X vs. Linux, PPC vs. x86

My original intent for this blog was to share what info I could about the Mini and my experiences with it. Along the way I have stimulated some interesting Linux PPC discussions both here and in other forums. I have been frequently emailed and/or flamed regarding running Linux instead of Mac OS X, and just as often with people wondering why I don't just use an x86 box.

Basically I prefer Linux becuase:

- Everything I want/need to run is available for Linux. Yes, most of it is available for Mac OS X too, but sometimes the effort to get it to run there is significantly greater than the effort on Linux. I should point out that I don't need anything in iLife, and that features like Expose' may be cute but from my view they just consume CPU cycles, something Mac hardware doesn't have to waste.

- Linux is rock solid. I run it on PPC, x86, and ARM. The OS never fails. For any multi-platform application like Firefox, my experience is that it run's best on Linux with less crashes than elsewhere. While Mac OS X is far more reliable than Windows, it can be pretty unpredictable. I've owned a number of Mac machines over the last several years, I base these comments on my personal experiences as both a user and an admin for several family members. BTW, Safari is the most unreliable software I have ever used. Why Apple chooses to provide that POS instead of a far superior open source alternative I'll never understand. Perhaps it is so that siwtchers use to Internet Exploder have the same experience on Mac OS X?

- Linux is considerably faster. Run the same app on the same hardware with Linux and Mac OS X. It is observably faster under Linux.

- I don't have to give anyone $100+ per year to remain current, I just download stuff I need.

- I get the source, all of it, not just the Unix core.

Assuming you are going to run Linux, and you don't need cutting edge performance, Mac machines are great. The hardware is purpose built and it shows. The commodity x86 market takes a least common denominator approach. Every machine I have owned has had a pile of PCI, MCA, or ISA slots. I never used more than one. Yet because some customers need five (I guess) I have a PC that is at least twice as big as it needs to be. Mac's are small, quiet, well built, and have very reliable hardware. The design effort that goes into them shows. They also cost about 2x for equivalent performance.

I keep hearing from Mini ITX guys about how that platform is the best of both worlds. While it is promising, there are only a few signficiant players and when all is said and done it approaches Mac pricing at similar performance. Hopefully the Mini will stimulate more competition, and more importantly innovation in the smaller/quieter x86 PC market.

Bottom line though, is that running Linux on x86 is the easiest approach. You just need to carefully choose the best of the hardware that is available, and have a little more space and cooling.

Who's Reading the Blog, Switchers?

Since putting up my Blog the operating system of visitors breaks down to about:

47% MacOS
39% Windows
14% Linux
0.11% Solaris

You can interpret this however you like, but it seems good for the Mac that there are so many Window's visitors. I suspect the Linux visitors are here to read about Linux on the Mini, not because they want to switch.

The browser breakdown was interesting too:

41% Mozilla
36% Safari
19% Internet Exploder

There was one hit from Lynx too. :-)

Sunday, January 23, 2005

The Verdict

48 hours after receiving my Mini I have decided it is not the machine for me. If you would like to purchase my Mini, it is on eBay, Item # 5746435828.

What, why not keep the Mini? I bought the Mini to run Linux because it was small and likely quiet. It turns out that it is pretty slow, especially the hard drive, and it isn't that small when you included the massive power supply. I'll just shove an x86 PC under my desk with basically twice the performance at the same price.

Now, I believe the Mini is the perfect machine for a switcher who already has a monitor and PC. If you are starting from scratch I really think a $999 iBook is a better deal.

Anyway, thanks for reading, I hope the details I share here will remain userful for other Mini owners.

Display Issues

Last night I needed some bandwidth (I only have ISDN at home) so I decided to take the Mini on it's first outing. I grabbed the biggest laptop case I had and piled the Mini, ac brick, keyboard, mouse, etc. into it. It wasn't too bad, but I wouldn't want to regularly cart the thing around. I suppose if one wanted to move it between two places, you could duplicate all the peripherals. (at some point it makes more sense just to get an ibook though)

Anyway, I connected it up to the 21" in monitor in a drop in work area at the local Sun office and fired it up. I didn't get any display, and the monitor was indicating it was out of scan range. Not a big deal I assumed, it probably was trying to do 1600x1200 @ 85hz and maybe this monitor didn't handle it. So I tried a PRAM reset, a PMU reset, booting in safe mode, booting in single user mode, etc. None of this worked I could not get anything on the display. I even booted the Ubuntu Linux install CD and couldn't get anything from it either. I returned home and everything worked fine. Luckily I had taken my iBook along and used that to do the downloads I needed.

I am hoping there is magic key sequence that tells the mini to use minimal display resoution during boot, but I sure can't find it.

The Nasty Fan

In an earlier post I mentioned that the Mini was basically silent. Well that's true only until the fan kicks in. During my recent linux install and a couple of other times when the system was very busy the fan has ramped up quickly and gets very loud. So loud that it I easily hear it over the PC on the floor next to my desk. While it might actually be quieter than the PC, it is perceived as much louder becuase it is much closer to your ear when it is sitting on your desk.


Linux Sound Issues

An email from a reader describes sound issues with a Debian Sarge Install:

I installed Debian Sarge on it just yesterday. Everything works, except the sound. Funny, my iBook 1.2 GHz has working sound, I would have figured they would be same chipset.

Sure enough, I don't have any sound with Ubuntu either. There is an alsa message during boot that indicates that no sound cards have been found.

Ubuntu Linux Install

I decided to try Ubuntu Linux as my Linux distribution for the Mini. I downloaded the iso from a US mirror using my iBook. I attempted to burn it using disk utility but it kept crashing. I then reverted to using hdiutil, but it kept segfaulting. This seemed broken as I had recently burned some other CDs without any problems. Googling resulted in learning that others were having similar problems with the Ubuntu image, but using cdrecord things worked fine. I downloaded cdrecord and sure enough I was able to get a successful burn.

I booted the Ubuntu CD in the usual manner and it lead me through a text based installation with no issues. At one point if it asked me if I wanted to get the latest updates from the web and I said yes. It then wanted to download about 80MB of updates so I went to bed. I live in the middle of nowhere and only have ISDN, so I didn't want to wait the two hours for the download.

It finished the install and there I was right in the middle of Gnome login screen. The display was at 1600x1200 @ 60hz which is not great, but I assumed I just need to help the XFree86 configuration. A quick look at the Xfree86 config file confirmed that it had not recognized my monitor. The Ubuntu version I installed was 4.10. It was definitely the quickest and easiest Linux install I have ever done on a Mac. Ubuntu installs the Firefox browser, Evolution email, Open Office, and a postscript viewer among other things. It is based on Debian, and my first impression is very positive.

This blog entry was created on the Mini, using Firefox on Ubunto Linux. Things are progressing well. :-)

Saturday, January 22, 2005

Mini Hard Drive Performance

Comparing the Mini's hard drive performance to my x86 Linux box was a little disappointing. The PC drive is almost twice as fast with buffered disk reads. I have a WD1600JB 7200RPM drive in my x86 box. Testing with hdparm under linux 2.6.9 shows:

Timing cached reads: 1244 MB in 2.00 seconds = 621.47 MB/sec
Timing buffered disk reads: 170 MB in 3.01 seconds = 56.47 MB/sec

Performing the same test with the Mini under linux 2.6.9 shows:

Timing buffer-cache reads: 1416 MB in 2.01 seconds = 705.99 MB/sec
Timing buffered disk reads: 94 MB in 3.02 seconds = 31.08 MB/sec

The tests are very repeatable. The info on the Mini drive that hdparm returns is:


Model=ST940110A, FwRev=3.07, SerialNo=3KW4VLHC
Config={ HardSect NotMFM HdSw>15uSec Fixed DTR>10Mbs RotSpdTol>.5% }
RawCHS=16383/16/63, TrkSize=0, SectSize=0, ECCbytes=4
BuffType=unknown, BuffSize=2048kB, MaxMultSect=16, MultSect=off
CurCHS=16383/16/63, CurSects=4228907259, LBA=yes, LBAsects=78140160
IORDY=on/off, tPIO={min:240,w/IORDY:120}, tDMA={min:120,rec:120}
PIO modes: pio0 pio1 pio2 pio3 pio4
DMA modes: mdma0 mdma1 mdma2
UDMA modes: udma0 udma1 udma2
AdvancedPM=yes: unknown setting WriteCache=enabled
Drive conforms to: ATA/ATAPI-6 T13 1410D revision 2:

One difference is the Mini drive has 2MB of cache, as opposed to 8MB on the WD drive in the x86 PC. Searching the Seagate site for ST940110A does not return anything. Plugging the model and serial number into their warranty info page results in a page explaining that it is an OEM drive and to contact the system manufacturer for service.

Dropping the last zero from the model number, ST94011A, turns up these specs for a 40GB Momentus drive with 2MB cache, 5400RPM, and 12ms access time. I suspect this is the drive that is in the Mini.

Is the Mini Too Big?

Walking into my home office this morning I looked at the mini and thought "Wow, it sure takes up a lot of desk space!" It is just over 42 sq inches. This made me wonder why Apple didn't orient the Mini with the longest dimension vertically. It's pretty solid, so I don't think it would really need feet. If placed vertically it only occupies 13 square inches of space, a savings of 70%! Other thin clients, like this Sun Model and these Neoware models took the vertical approach. Even my inexpensive Netgear Wireless Access Point is designed to go vertical if that is what the user prefers.

I suspect that heat was a motivating factor. The Mini has intake venting around three sides of the base, over nineteen linear inches of it. The air flows in through those vents and out through a vent that goes completely across the top of the rear panel. If they oriented it vertically the venting would be more difficult. They might even need some openings on the side, or, gasp, the top. This would really break up the smooth clean look.

Another problem might be the slot loading drive. I gave it a quick test, and it works fine vertically, but I don't know if it would be reliable in that orientation.

My PC, which is on the smallish side, occupies 136 square inches of floor space. Over four times as much, so there is considerable progress here. One thing other thing I noticed this morning was that my feet were cold. Likely the result of the fact that my space heater, umm, I mean PC, was off and not blowing hot air into the area under my desk.

It will be interesting to see if some of the aftermarket vendors come out with vertical mounting feet. It would be even more interesting to see what happens to the internal temperature with the Mini oriented vertically. I however, plan to give up the forty two square inches it needs in the orientation it was designed for. It is well deserved space.

Friday, January 21, 2005

Keyboard, Mouse, and Monitor

My USB keyboard, which has a built in USB hub, hotplugs between the PC running Linux and the Mac Mini with no problems. The keyboard has the equivalent of the Apple command key, so it works perfectly.

The monitor support is great. I have no trouble outrunning my 21" Hitach CRT. It will go 1600x1200 @ 120hz, 1920x1440 @ 96hz, and maxes out at 2304x1728 @ 60hz.

My Logitech mouse works great, with the right button click defaulting to the equivalent of a CTRL-click.

It's Quiet

The Mac Mini is very quiet. I turned off everything in my office and then had to get right next to it to hear it. I would say that the hard drive generates the most noise, but I could be mistaking the fan. Anyway, it is much, much, quieter than a PC. The fan moves a little bit of air, I have not heard it change speeds, not sure if it does.

Preliminary Linux Results

I booted a Gentoo livecd to see how things looked from Linux. It had no troubles at first glance. I was able to run some commands and ssh out of the box with the results of a few commands. I look forward to a full install.

The gentoo kernel is:

Linux livecd 2.6.9-gentoo-r1-g4 #3 SMP Fri Oct 29 04:54:30 CEST 2004 ppc 7447A, altivec supported PowerMac10,1 GNU/Linux

Other info:

dmesg output

lspci output


It's Here!

The Fedex man dropped off a small box about an hour ago. I've been busy taking pictures. Only surprise out of the box is the power adapter. It's huge. With the cables the power adapter weighs 1lb 7ozs, it measures 6.5 x 2.5 x 1.5. I am bummed, as I was hoping for something like the ibook adapter.

The pics can be view here.

Keyboard, Mouse and Monitor

I didn't order the Apple keyboard and mouse, I plan to use the same one I use on my x86 system. It will be interesting to see if I can just hotplug them back and forth. Not long ago I discovered the Happy Hacking Keyboard made by Fujitsu. I bought one of these and is the best keyboard I have ever owned. I have the Happy Hacking Keyboard Lite 2, it has a built in USB hub that I connect a Logitech optical mouse to.

My monitor of choice is a 21" Hitach CM821F CRT. I picked this up from Monitors Direct, their service and warranties are great. I've tried a few LCDs in my day, but I really prefer the CRT for now. I run the Hitachi from x86 Linux at 1600x1200. The integrated Intel Graphics on my motherboard drive the Hitachi at 85hz. I am anxious to see how well the Mini does. One cool think about the Hitachi is that it has two VGA inputs, so I will be able to switch from the Mini to the x86 system with a button on the front panel. That is, of course, until I move the x86 system out of the office.

You may wonder why, with several Macs in the house, I need a Mac Mini to use as my desktop. Bottom line is that if Apple didn't artificially limit the VGA out resolution on the iBooks I would just use one of our iBooks. Instead, Apple chooses to limit the VGA resolution on those to 1024x768, not near enough for my daily use.

The Day of Arrival

I got up this morning and checked the tracking number that Apple provided in the shipping notice email. Sure enough it is on the Fedex truck and headed my way. I spent about 30 seconds clearing a 6.5 x 6.5 inch place for the iMac to go when it arrives.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

It's Shipped!

I just received an email from Apple indicating that my Mini is on the way. It shipped Jan 19th, three days early, and they shipped it via Federal Express two day service. Not bad for "Free Standard Shipping." If Fedex executes I should have my Mini by 4:30PM Friday.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Placing the Order

No big deal here. I went to the Apple Store and went through the process of ordering the basic model # M9686LL/A. It was showing a ship date of January 21st when I placed my order. I opted for "standard shipping" as I was in no particular hurry.

Shortly after the order I received an acknowledgement via email. It showed a ship date of January 22nd.

Which Model of Mini?

I didn't think very long on this. The extra 40GB of storage and the bump to 1.42Ghz were not enough for me to justify an extra $100 for the higher end configuration. I stuck with the basic $499 model with no upgrades.

Why a Mac Mini?

I'm a professional software engineer by day, paying the rent as a software architect doing embedded software at Sun Microsystems. Many years ago I abandoned the Microsoft world and pursued alternatives for my day to day evironment. For me this means a Linux environment, currently Fedora Core 3, as my primary place of business. For my family, including my wife, sixteen year old daughter, and twenty year old son this means Mac OS X. My wife and daughter have iBooks, one G3, one G4. My son has a 12" Powerbook. They all use Mac OS X as their only compute evironment. From time to time I have used Mac OS X, including desktops and laptops, but I find myself migrating back to Linux for compatibility with what I do at work.

I use a homebuilt x86 system for my Linux machine. It has 512MB RAM, a 160GB hard disk, 2.53Ghz Celeron processor, basic Intel motherboard with integrated graphics, and a DVD Burner. I used an Antec case and for a PC it is relatively quiet, but far from silent. I spend most of my day in Firefox, Evolution,Star Office, ggv, and at the bash prompt. I don't play games, use IM, do much graphics work, etc. The x86 system is more than adequate. I work from home almost 100% of the time, so I use this machine for my work as well as my personal stuff.

Why bother with a Mac Mini? The theory is that it is sufficient to do what I do on a daily basis, while taking up much less space, generating far less heat, and making much less noise. Plus it's cool. I started this blog to record my thoughts and experience as I see about using the Mac Mini as my primary environment.