The Mac Experiment

It was waiting for me when I got home from work.  A nondescript cardboard box on my office chair.  Inside, a 2012 Mac Mini.  It’s a base model with the i5, 4GB of RAM and a 500GB hard drive.  Almost sounds like I’m talking about a car here.  If it were a car, it would probably be a BMW 3 series.  A BMW 3 series that has all the same features of a Honda Accord, but in a much prettier package and twice the price.

Unfortunately, like the mighty Honda Accord, Mac computers hold their value.  I’m not going to say what I paid for this computer, but I will say that a comparably equipped PC that doesn’t have an Apple logo on it is roughly half the price.

First Impressions

My first thought was “this thing is tiny”.  Much smaller than any other “desktop” PC I’ve seen.  While Apple calls it a desktop PC, there is nothing desktop about it.  Inside, is a mobile CPU, hard drive and RAM.  Essentially, I have a 2012 Macbook Pro without the integrated screen, keyboard and touchpad.  Sure, Apple could have used a desktop grade CPU in a standard Mini-ITX form-factor, but that would undoubtedly add bulk to the chassis.  Function takes a back seat to form.

A great example of this is the Magic Keyboard.  The only thing magic about it is how I didn’t smash it to pieces from typing on it.  I demoed one in the local store and it was abysmal to type on.  I’m very heavy on the keyboard.  My daily driver is a Unicomp Classic 104.  For the Mac, I’m using a Logitech K760.  It’s a bit bigger than the Magic Keyboard due to the solar panel but key pitch and key size are the same.

It seems that third party wireless keyboard manufacturers follow the same design scheme as Apple.  Keys have the same pitch.  They all use the scissor switch commonly found on notebook PCs to make them as thin as possible.  Overall, I didn’t find a whole lot of options for Apple keyboards outside going to custom route.

If you’re a long time Windows user like me, the layout of the Apple keyboard is slightly different.  If you plug in a PC keyboard, this may not affect you.  CTRL maps to Control, Win maps to Command and ALT maps to Option.  On the Apple keyboard, though, the Command and Option keys are switched from their respective positions on the PC keyboard.

I got the Mac set up and powered it on.  Booted into Mavericks.  Downloaded and installed El Capitan and performed a recovery.  Any time you buy a used computer, I strongly recommend formatting the drive and reinstalling the OS.  With a hard drive spindle speed of 5400 RPM, this process took about 45 minutes.

Settling In

Once I finished installing the OS and setting it up, it was time to install programs.  I first installed my web browser of choice.  Next was the anti-virus.  Now, I know there may be debate on the need for antivirus on a Mac.  After removing viruses from OS X, I tend to think it is more necessary.  Final install is Microsoft Office.

This is a standard configuration for office productivity.  In this setup, I find that the Mac struggles.  Startup takes ages and Outlook moves at the rate of continental drift.  This isn’t exactly old hardware.  While it doesn’t help that Apple has historically used CPUs from the previous generation, Ivy Bridge is no slouch.  It should not be this slow– oh wait, 5400 RPM hard drive.

More Power

Channelling my inner Tim “The Toolman” Taylor, I decided to throw some upgrades at the mini.  Since this is basically a laptop, upgrade options are limited to the hard drive and RAM.  On newer models, the RAM is no longer upgradable.

My upgrade list consisted of a 500GB Samsung 850 Evo and 16GB of Crucial 1600Mhz RAM.  The mini has room for two internal 2.5″ hard drives.  This allowed me to add the SSD rather than just replace it with the help of a kit from iFixIt.

Despite the instructions being clear and very well written, installing the drive was exceedingly difficult.  To install the second drive, you have to literally remove every component from the chassis.  Apple wants you to upgrade their products by throwing them in the garbage and going out and buying shiny new Apple products.  Apple wrote the book on planned obsolescence.

About 2 hours, a lot of swearing and a stripped screw later, the drive was in.  It was time to install the RAM.  One of the clips that hold the module in broke.  In all my years of installing RAM, this has never happened.  Poor quality?  I can’t say for sure since I am not the first owner of this Mac.  Luckily, this did not affect the function of the slot or module.

Once I buttoned everything up, I powered on the machine and reinstalled OS X to the SSD.

The Payoff

OS X boots much faster now thanks to the SSD and overall performance is greatly improved.  This might actually be a viable computer.  Considering the Mac Mini is meant to offer Windows users a sip of the Kool-Aid, I think it does a pretty good job of luring unsuspecting Windows users.

What do I like about the Mac Mini?  Well, it’s the most affordable Mac you can get.  Second-hand 2012 models can be had for as little as $350.  Apple also did a good job with system recovery; which is true for Macs in general.  The recovery utility in the firmware will download and install OS X for you, without the need to boot of any recovery or installation media.  This is where my praise for the Mac Mini ends as upgrading anything other than the RAM is a nightmare.  Another problem I have is multiple display support.  I have three monitors on my primary computer.  The Mac Mini only supports 1080p on the HDMI interface and 1440p on the Thunderbolt/Mini DisplayPort interface with a maximum of two monitors connected.

OS X takes some getting used to as well.  One of the first things I noticed is scrolling with a scroll wheel.  Similar to scrolling on a touchscreen device, you roll the wheel up to scroll down and vice versa.  This is the opposite of how the scroll wheel functions in Windows.  This can be easily changed by going into Mouse in System Preferences and unchecking the option for Scroll direction: natural.  Funny they call it natural as it didn’t feel natural to me.

Another gripe I have is the window control buttons.  Close only closes the window, but doesn’t quit the application.  Minimize will minimize the window but not to its icon on the dock, but rather a separate icon which is a thumbnail of the window state.  Maximize enlarges the window to a full screen interface, hiding the dock and any toolbars.  This can be overcome by holding Option and clicking maximize.

It’s worth noting some differences with keyboard shortcuts.  On Windows, the Windows key is the modifier for shortcuts within the OS itself while Control is the modifier for shortcuts within applications,  With OS X, Command is the modifier to rule them all.

Right now, I don’t see myself becoming a full time Apple or Mac user.  For now, I have to daily drive OS X in order to better support it.  Have a first time experience with a Mac?  Share it in the comments.