This page was last updated 5 March 2009.

When an Apple Mac mini user gets disenchanted

Two years ago, when the Mac mini computer became available, I bought one, and wrote a report on my early experiences. Now, over two years later, I still use it every day but my initial excitement has worn off a little.

In my early report, I have already complained about a fatally weak operating system underneath a quite excellent GUI. The GUI has a few inconsistencies as well, such as unpredictable reactions to drag-and-drop of icons (delete, move, copy? Depends on what is dragged where), but I got used to them and after a while I no longer made a lot of mistakes. Actually just one recently - dragging a removable device from the left side of the Finder to the desktop is a truly Bad Idea - this doesn't copy the contents but deletes the icon, and it's very difficult to get it back later even after re-plugging the device.

But this page isn't about the little inconsistencies and traps, it's about taking stock of what a Mac is, and isn't.

Hardware

My Mac mini has a G4 processor. That's not bad in itself but it conspires with the outdated operating system that has great difficulty doing two things at a time, and a Finder that definitely can't do two things at a time. The result is beach balls. Beach ball cursors are Apple's way of telling you that the desktop or an app is busy and doesn't accept input. A harmless action like selecting a window can easily take 20 seconds of beach ball time if the machine is doing something. iPhoto and especially iTunes are so demanding that they completely monopolize the computer (even after the 10.4 update, which improved matters somewhat).

But the G4 Mac mini is totally outdated. Apple now sells Mac minis with the Intel Core Duo processor, and says it's up to five times faster. As all marketing claims I take this to be a guaranteed-not-to-exceed hype number, with a smaller advantage in practice. Does that mean that my 20-second wait time is now 4 seconds? That's still very unsatisfactory so I never upgraded.

Besides, it's a Core Duo. That's Intel's previous generation and outdated for quite some time now. The current Intel chip is the Core 2 Duo. Where is the Mac mini that uses one? I have been waiting for a long time and I have pretty much given up hope to ever see a Core 2 Duo in a Mac mini. In fact, rumors abound that Apple will cancel the Mac mini line altogether. I would have bought a Core 2 Duo mini, but without the mini, Apple's bottom-end desktop computer costs over 2500 Euro, and there is absolutely no way I am going to spend that much money.

Apple also sells iMacs for 1000 Euro and up, but that product is based on the notion that the useful life of a computer is the same as its LCD display. My computers typically last three years but my displays last at least twice as long. And I am definitely not going to retire my excellent Apple Cinema 23" HD display together with my now hopelessly outdated Mac mini!

Apple's notebooks go for 1200 Euro in a useful configuration, but they are quite large and heavy, and that central dogma of the Mac religion, the single-button trackpad, makes it unattractive to me. Besides, a notebook that's never going to move as a desktop replacement isn't what I am looking for.

As I said elsewhere, the Mac isn't good with hardware devices. USB devices such as flash memory, external USB disks, and TV receivers often get the Mac stuck so that the Finder dies permanently or the whole system freezes. I usually have to pull the power plug in this case because the Mac always finds a reason why it can't restart safely. I do that once or twice a day. The built-in DVD drive can also kill the Mac if the disk is too scratched or otherwise unreadable. My Firewire drive has never caused problems though.

So, what to do? Let's look at what a Mac is good at, and what it isn't good at.

Software

Here is the software that I run. I'll color-code the list: green means that the Mac does it best; yellow means it's fine on either platform, and red means that Linux does it best.

Podcasts. I have an iPod that I use for podcasts. The iTunes integration is beautiful - it deletes podcasts I have already listened to, and downloads and installs new ones. No such thing on Linux. Support for my Archos is poor though, and just playing music (or DVDs) is easy everywhere.
Photos. I have over 22,000 photos and I like the way Apple's iPhoto organizes pictures, allows easy rating, syncs them with my iPod, builds slideshows, and so on. Linux has decent photo album software too but it's not nearly as smooth as iPhoto. It's quite slow but an Intel Mac should be ok.
Television. I watch very little TV so I don't use a TV set. I have a little Cynergy XS USB stick from Terratec with Elgato EyeTV software. It's really well done. Maybe if I dig around I could get it to work on Linux but hacking doesn't count. Unfortunately the Mac runs into USB trouble after a while and I need to pull the power plug, but as I said, I watch very little TV. TV Browser is a great free tool BTW.
Tools. There are a lot of nifty third-party Mac tools that don't have a Linux equivalent that I am aware of. (Now I'll get hundreds of mails telling me how wrong I am :-). Such as Weatherdock, Disk Inventory X, Delicious Library, MPEG Streamclip, various menu bar tools, and others. If a Mac mini were powerful enough to run widgets I might have found a few gems here too. I'll refrain from adding a few pages of red items for nifty Linux tools - this paragraph is here to remind me why I like to keep my Mac.
File management. The Finder is pretty but its behavior is often unexpected, and it's single-threaded (the beachball syndrome). Linux file managers temd to be crowded with features and amenities, but they are not as easy to use. Apple's device bar is better and I like the column layout mode. Spotlight is better than Beagle and Locate - but only if you stick to Apple programs like Apple Mail.
Address book. Apple's address book is quite good, and it syncs my iPod and my cell phone easily. Linux can sync a cell phone but the road is more bumpy and the tool (xgnokii) is an eyesore. Apple just barely wins this one though because I had to buy a third-party product to get support for my phone - why can't Apple support a generic Nokia E60 that's been on the market for a year?
Messaging. Apple's iChat is very solid and easy to use. It also does audio and video chats, but the novelty wore off rather quickly and nobody I chat with does it. My iSight camera is just an expensive brick. Chat clients are a dime a dozen for all platforms.
Browser. Safari is terribly weak, especially when filtering junk. Surfing without ad killers and flash blockers is like walking underwater. So I use Firefox. The Firebug extension alone is so brilliant that no other browser can replace it. But I found that Firefox is slow as molasses on the Mac, and blazing fast on my Core 2 Duo Linux box. So I now browse with Linux.
Email. Apple Mail is the only mailer that integrates both with the address book and Spotlight. But it's quite slow, and it uses a proprietary storage format that makes backups difficult, and it once crashed on me and lost a large amount of mail. I immediately switched to Thunderbird, and have used it ever since. But Thunderbird is much faster on my Linux box, so I use it there.
Watching movies. Quicktime is a world of its own. Even after paying money to get Quicktime Pro, and then paying money again to support MPEG-2, the number of supported codecs is pathetic. So I almost always use VLC or Mplayer. Both work better on Linux, and there is Xine too.
Google Earth. You are kidding, right? On a Mac mini, Google Earth is a slide show with frequent intermittent raster artifacts. On a Linux with a cheap passively cooled nVidia board it's smooth and beautiful, and you can even turn on 3D buildings without having to reboot the Mac afterwards.

There is a pattern here - Apple has analyzed user behavior and found which operations are most important for users, and worked hard to create a smooth workflow for them, and omitted all the rest. Linux seems to pack programs with features and luxuries first and thinks of workflow second, if at all. Projects like KDE and Gnome, and distributors like SuSE and RedHat do a great job at unifying Linux tools, but the Linux world is huge and diverse and has nobody who enforces common guidelines. You can use just KDE tools or just Gnome tools and get a nice consistent system, but there is so much useful other stuff that both SuSE and Gnome include and expose other tools too.

Return to Linux?

So I use my Linux box much more than my Mac mini these days, for all the red items above and some of the yellow ones. How does it feel to return to Linux?

Conclusions

I still unreservedly recommend Macs to people who have a job to do and don't care about becoming a computer expert in the process. The lack of an acceptable entry-level product raises the bar considerably and may price Macs out of reach though, so I don't actually expect people who are just looking for a home machine to buy a Mac anymore.

Macs still shine in the GUI department. They don't come with a lot of programs; the shipped set including iLife is superior to Windows and lets people unpack the machine and enjoy it without any administration.

Linux is an enormous treasure of software. The quality is not as even, and despite the efforts of the distributors it takes much longer to feel at home for beginners than it does on a Mac. But for someone who looks beyond the carefully crafted software package that Apple ships, using Linux is like being locked in a candy store at night.

Also, the Linux kernel is an extremely solid and powerful foundation that Apple's kernel can't begin to compete with. And it never crashes.

I still have both systems on my desk. But 80% of the time I use Linux, like I wrote this web page on Linux. If Apple gets its act together and gets something other than this overhyped but technically primitive iPhone done, I am ready to spend money on a better entry-level Mac. I am getting restless though. I wonder how many others who got lured into the Apple world by the Mac mini feel the same way...

Should I buy a Mac?

Keep in mind that I am someone who spends more time at a shell prompt than any other program. The Mac remains the best platform for people who just want to get a job done. It's more like a well-designed appliance than a collection of gizmos that make up a traditional PC. Everything in a Mac was designed by the same company, and one that is second to none when it comes to designing GUIs. What it does, it does well and with a minimum of technical fuss. A Mac is like a limousine with driver, while the Linux people driver much bigger and faster cars but they tend to have oil on their hands and are constantly looking for the keys.

But you pay for the privilege. If Apple doesn't replace or upgrade the Mac mini in its 700 Euro price segment, a decent machine costs 1500-2500 Euro if you upgrade to a usable configuration, like 2 GB of memory. Why they even offer machines with one gigabyte of memory is beyond me.

Speed: the Mac mini performance is CATASTROPHIC. Macbooks too. They claim that there is a Core Duo in there, but a 386 is more likely. It must have taken real talent to build something so stunningly slow with transistors. One program is sort of ok but two, or any form of disk, USB, Firewire, or network access brings it to its knees instantly. Friends claim that iMacs and Powermacs are faster, so better look at those!

This was part 2 of my life with MacOS X. Continue to part 3 - I am now the (kind of) proud owner of a MacBook notebook.

Tell me if you found this information interesting or useful, or if you have comments.