It may seem odd to buy a computer intending to upgrade it right out of the box, but so it was with me when I snapped up a new 2009 Nvidia-powered Mac Mini. I had been waiting for Apple to update the aged Mini line, saving up my pennies, but the out-of-box specs for RAM and hard drive space were underwhelming.
Unlike the old Mini, where the $799 model netted a SuperDrive as well as additional memory and disk, the new Mini’s $200 upmarket model was seriously overpriced. So I decided to pick up a base model and upgrade it myself right away.
Now that my upgrade is complete, I’m pleased to say that my Mac Mini is a whole new animal! Where the spec base Mini was sluggish, exhausting its meager 1 GB of RAM and swapping to a crazy slow hard drive, my Mini is now snappy and quick. Launching iTunes (with 13,000 songs) took upwards of 30 seconds before, but the song list is now visible before the dock icon bounces twice!
Desktop computer performance is a product of four variables:
- CPU speed
- RAM capacity
- Hard drive performance
- Graphics capabilities
Other things matter a great deal, but only these four can be changed in a given system. In other words, although the chipset, memory speed, and system bus all have a massive impact on overall performance, you can’t swap these things out! The majority of computers are limited to upgrades in the four areas listed (CPU, RAM, hard drive, graphics), and each must be balanced for satisfying system performance.
Apple designed the Mac Mini as an integrated unit, however, so the graphics and CPU are not upgradable. But these are the system’s strong suits: The Nvidia 9400M chipset gives solid graphics performance, matching or beating the integrated Nvidia 8600M GT graphics in my late-2007 MacBook Pro, and the Intel Core 2 Duo CPU is easily quick enough for general computing tasks. Frustratingly, Apple ships the Mac Mini with inadequate RAM and a very, very slow disk. So upgrading both is a sure-fire way to an excellent system!
The Nvidia chipset is up to date as far as RAM goes. The Mini uses fast 1,066 MHz DDR3-8500 memory and has two SO-DIMM slots. These chips are still hard to find in stores (Fry’s doesn’t carry them!) but they aren’t expensive. Thankfully, rather than filling up both slots with useless 512 MB parts, Apple uses a single 1 GB SO-DIMM in base Minis. I was lucky enough to find another Mini upgrader on Twitter who sent me his leftover RAM for the cost of shipping after taking his Mac all the way to 4 GB (thanks, Joe!) and I bet that most folks could do the same. Otherwise, Other World Computing sells leftover 1 GB DDR3-8500 SO-DIMMs from aluminum MacBooks and Mac Minis for just $12.95! They also have upgrade instructions.
As of Friday, my Mini was rocking 2 GB of RAM, enough for general desktop computing. One side benefit of upgrading was graphics performance: The Mini will use 256 MB of system RAM as a frame buffer if at least 2 GB of RAM is installed, speeding up user interface windowing operations by about 20%, according to Xbench. Overall memory performance also improved with two SO-DIMMs installed, with streaming operations up by 20% to 25%.
Driving It Home
The Mini’s hard drive performance was especially disappointing. The stock 120 GB Hitachi TravelStar 5K320 was a special Apple OEM unit with a single platter and 8 MB of cache. Its slow 1.5 Gb SATA interface wasn’t the bottleneck, though – this drive just poked along, maxing out at about 35 MB/s in sequential operations. This compares favorably to previous-generation drives, but can’t hold a candle to the latest disk drive mechanisms. Apple’s upgrade option for the new Mac Mini is a 320 GB 2-platter version of this same drive. I expect it will perform only slightly better than the 120 GB unit. The stock 320 GB drive seems to perform much, much better than the 120 GB unit in sequential operations!
I decided to upgrade my Mini to a 7200 rpm high-performance drive, and my research led me to Hitachi’s 7k320 series. With just two platters, this 9.5 mm high drive unit remains slim enough for the Mini (or any laptop), and the power specs look great! Hitachi claims only a half-Watt difference between the 7k320 and miserly 5k320 in spin-up and negligible differences in most other operations. Comparison tests showed that the Hitachi was a solid performer against competing offerings from Western Digital, Seagate, and Samsung, and ZipZoomFly listed the 320 GB drive for just $59 after rebate!
I couldn’t be happier with the 7200 rpm Hitachi drive’s performance. It blows away the stock drive, delivering 32 MB/s in large random write operations, and even beats the solid 5400 rpm Western Digital Scorpio Blue drive I use in my MacBook Pro.
The new Hitachi blows everything else away in sequential operations, too. It delivers a solid 80 MB/s while reading and writing large files while the stock unit could barely reach 35 MB/s! These differences are magnified by the 7k320’s large 16 MB cache, which makes the most of its 3 Gb SATA interface.
Although it doesn’t have to conserve battery power like a laptop, heat is a major concern in a small computer like a Mac Mini, and disk drive power requirements translate directly into heat generation. It turns out that the Mini has such an excellent cooling system that I thought Bjango’s iStat Server was broken: It almost always reported 1,500 rpm fan speed and 120-130° F temperatures. Under sustained load, the Mini’s fan never reached 2,000 rpm and no sensor reported greater than 150° F. The 7200 rpm Hitachi drive has had no impact on in-box temperature or noise levels.
The Mac Mini: Transformed!
Apple delivered a solidly-designed general-purpose desktop computer with the new 2009 Mac Mini, but crippled its performance with too little RAM and a too-slow hard drive. In short, Apple failed to balance the four key pillars of computer performance!
The relatively simple task of upgrading the RAM and hard disk drive transforms the Mac Mini: In normal operations, the upgraded Mini is easily two or three times as responsive as the stock machine! My total cost (for the Mini, the RAM, and the hard drive) was $701. Apple’s $799 2 GB RAM/320 GB disk Mac Mini may look similar on paper, but it won’t touch mine in terms of disk performance. I could have gone all the way to 4 GB of RAM for less than the remaining $98 price difference.
One final word: Apple assured MacWorld that they will continue to honor their warranty on upgraded machines as long as nothing is damaged in the process. The Mac Mini is not that difficult to work on, as long as you have proper tools. Use a static strap, be careful with internal the wires and connectors, and take your time. Once upgraded, the Mac Mini is a satisfying desktop or home server.
Interested in building a home server with Apple’s Mac Mini? Watch my blog over the coming months for detailed reports like this one covering setting up iTunes for whole-house audio, integrating Roku’s SoundBridge music systems, serving video to a TiVo, and configuring Mac OS X as a home server. I’ll also be experimenting with Microsoft’s Windows Home Server and VMware ESX on the new Mini!