Busman's Holiday
A Mini Takes Over
by Steve Wood
February 28, 2012

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I pretty well knew the handwriting was on the wall when my seven-year-old Macintosh dual 1.8 GHz G5 tower cooked its motherboard. Although I had a backup unit that I quickly switched over to, and eventually bought a whole "new" seven-year-old Macintosh dual 2.0 GHz G5 tower, it was getting to be time to move to something much newer and more reliable.

Trio of computersRebuilt HP SlimlineWhile the G5 was still powerful enough to do my daily computing tasks, most of the new applications I wanted to review for Educators' News required an Intel based Mac. I was able to partially get around that by using the HP I recently rebuilt. It's owner abandoned it after a lightning strike took out the power supply, but a new, beefier power supply, a dual core CPU, and a wireless card allowed me to test many applications under Windows 7. (And yes, I was just flat out lucky the lightning didn't cook the HP's mobo, too.) But I was still out of luck on testing new, Mac-only applications that almost universally require an Intel chip and at least Snow Leopard (Mac OS X 10.6).

After receiving the necessary spousal approval for purchasing a new computer, I quickly suffered sticker shock. The total cost of even the least expensive new Macintosh, when I considered all the options I wanted, plus the cost of new software, was way over the means of a retired school teacher. Having put off moving to a new box for far too long, almost all of my software was PowerPC only, and Apple's Lion (Mac OS X 10.7) operating system that currently ships on all new Macs from Apple doesn't support such applications as it did under Leopard and Snow Leopard's Rosetta.

My MiniHaving recently mucked about a good bit on eBay looking for motherboards and power supplies, I wandered into their Mac Mini sales, just to see what was available and for how much. I'm not a rookie with the Mini, as I was one of the thousands who overwhelmed the Apple Store in January, 2005, to order one on the day the model was introduced. I quickly outgrew my Mini, selling it just ten months later when I moved to a PowerBook. But my first Mini had been a solid performer.

As I looked, I became intrigued by the 2010 Mac Mini. Checking it's specifications on Low End Mac, I found that it still had a built-in DVD player/burner that was dropped in the latest version, could handle 8 GB of incredibly inexpensive RAM, was reputed to be quite fast, and could run either Snow Leopard or Lion or both. Having such a machine would also allow me to run Windows 7 on it using Parallels 7 for Mac.

But as I looked around at Mini offerings from lots of vendors around the web, I found that lots of other folks apparently had the same view of the 2010 model as I. They currently fetch a price close to and sometimes exceeding a brand new Mac Mini from Apple! Undaunted, I began bidding conservatively on Mac Minis. I lost the first one I bid on, but hit on the second. The machine had already been upgraded to 4 GB of RAM and had a 320 GB hard drive and all of its original documentation, disks, and adapters.

Having parted with a sum approaching a new Mac Mini (with no upgrades), I quickly doubled down on my investment by ordering all the extras I would need to make the Mac Mini measure up to and hopefully exceed the G5's performance. A no brainer was the surprisingly inexpensive Kingston 8 GB RAM upgrade. Since the Mac Mini uses a 2.5" laptop drive, the maximum size I could do was a 750 GB Seagate Momentus. Samsung currently offers 1 TB laptop drives, but I've had good luck with Seagates and brand loyalty won out. The Seagate's 7200 RPM rotational speed also was more attractive than the 5400 RPM of the bigger Samsung drive.

Since I planned to run Windows 7 on the Mini, a copy of Parallels Desktop 7 for Mac was in order. Fortunately, I had an unused, legal copy of Windows 7 on hand, or running Windows on the Mini would have been a deal breaker. And in what felt like a true moment of impulsivity, I ordered a G-RAID 2TB Dual External Hard Drive to speed moving files from the G5 to the Mini. I have a 1.5 TB external drive, but it's enclosure only supports Firewire 400 and USB 2.

Moving to a computer with Snow Leopard or any Intel chip meant that I would loose access to all of my old Classic Mac applications. While the original plan had been to clear my computer table of all of my older computers (the G5, a G4 QuickSilver, and a very old HP Pavilion that I only used to reset my GardenWatchCam), I realized that I would still need the G5 to access files I'd missed in the transfer and several Classic applications I still used (Claris Home Page, TypeStyler, and I'm embarrassed to admit, Risk II, to which I'm totally addicted). Eventually, I hope Sheepshaver, a Mac Classic emulator, will allow me to shunt the G5 into the computer workshop storage area.

Mini opened upWhen the Mac Mini arrived, I quickly hooked it up to my KVM box and gave it a couple of hours of testing. Everything worked correctly, so it was time to begin the upgrades. Since I didn't have an Apple service manual for the 2010 Mini, I ended up using a video of how to upgrade a hard drive and RAM from Other World Computing. The video was pretty accurate, although I found one area, moving the motherboard to pull the old hard drive, to be either outdated or inaccurate, or I was just too dumb to figure out. I also found that despite all the computer tools I'd bought over time, I lacked the required T-6 Torx screwdriver. I ended up scarring some screws by using pliers and other screwdrivers. (Note: The tools required are a T-6 and T-8 Torx screwdrivers, a nylon prying tool, and one I didn't use, a 2 mm Allen wrench.)

Swapping RAM in the Mini is quite easy, far easier than it was with the original Mac Mini. But the hard drive swap was a little dicey, as getting the new drive back in is a very tight fit.

Once I had the machine reassembled, I partitioned the new hard drive with 500 and 250 GB sections. I did a quick install of Snow Leopard on the smaller partition which I'd named "Lion." (You can guess what's going to happen to that partition!)

Carbon Copy ClonerThe larger partition, named "Snow Leopard," received a clone of my Leopard drive from the G5 that I'd made on the G-Raid with Carbon Copy Cloner. It took almost 9 hours for CCC to make and transfer the clone to the G-Raid using a Firewire 400 to 800 adapter cable. Transferring the drive clone from the G-Raid to the Mini using Firewire 800 took just under 2 hours!

Since the Leopard operating system on the clone was PowerPC code from my G5, I wasn't totally sure upgrading the clone to Snow Leopard's Intel code operating system would work. But with my fingers crossed and booting from the Lion partition (which was really running Snow Leopard), I began the Snow Leopard upgrade of the clone using the Mini's original software DVD. Fortunately, I managed to stumble across the custom option of installing the essential Rosetta to run my old PowerPC applications. When I fired up the Mini under Snow Leopard, nearly everything worked (Fie on Norton Antivirus, which didn't transfer well.).

Then came hours and hours of downloads and installs with Apple's Software Update.

After a bit of configuration fun (sharing, firewall, etc.), I began upgrading browsers and such to Intel based versions. I quickly found that my copy of Creative Suite (the original) ran rather poorly under Rosetta. My even older copy of Macromedia Dreamweaver MX 2004 had become rather quirky on the old G5, so the two together induced me to pop for a new copy of Adobe CS5.5 Design Premium. (Actually, my wife, who is still taking computer courses at a community college, ordered an education copy of CS 5.5 for "our" Mac Mini!) Since I was already spending some big bucks on software, I also downloaded the new OS X version of TypeStyler, and, of course, Mac OS X Lion (10.7) (now OS X Mountain Lion - 10.8) for the Lion partition.

Current office setupOnce I had everything in an initial setup that I could use, the G-Raid was partitioned with one section that received a bootable install of Snow Leopard, with the rest going to general file storage and Time Machine backups. While I thought the G-Raid to be a bit of a luxury when I bought it, it has turned out to be worth every penny I spent on it.

I should mention here that since I've kept the G5 around, the G5 and Mini both share the same keyboard, mouse, and a still lovely Apple 23" Cinema Display my wife gave me for Christmas several years ago via an IOGEAR 4-Port DVI KVMP Switch.

At this writing, everything is pretty well set up with the exception of Sheepshaver to run the Classic Mac OS. Parallels (and Windows 7 under it) were a snap to install. The new version of Photoshop is okay, although I really liked having browsing integrated in the application, rather than the current Bridge. Dreamweaver has some things moved around and is a bit more stable than my old version, but Adobe obviously hasn't spent a lot of time and money on maintaining and improving that program.

As time and funds permit, I'll begin installing essential software on the Lion partition, still relying on the larger Snow Leopard partition for file storage. I do want to try Apple's latest and greatest operating system, but for now, Snow Leopard carries most of my workload. I'd also like to pick up one of Apple's new Magic Trackpads, so I can take advantages of some of the gestures built in to Lion. But that and a lot of other stuff are a ways off as yet, as I'm still selling off a lot of accumulated computer hardware on eBay to help offset some of the cost of this adventure.

As to speed, the 2.4 GHz Core 2 Duo makes web browsing (with the latest browser versions which were no longer available for the G5) a bit quicker. Surprisingly, most other stuff is only slightly faster than on the G5! I do enjoy the security of now having hourly Time Machine backups being made. With the G5, I had to boot to Leopard regularly, which I rarely used because I liked Tiger so well, to let Time Machine do its backup magic. Now, the Mini gets backed up to the G-Raid regularly and usually without affecting my work. I have noticed slowdowns when I've made big changes to the main drive, such as software installs, but otherwise, Time Machine doesn't slow things down much.

Possibly the most pleasant change with the Mini is the absence of fan noise from it when compared to my old G5. Even when I have the G5 turned on in the background now, its fans don't wind up to turbine volume unless I have it doing some serious work. And the G5 mostly stays turned off...until I get the itch for a Risk II fix.

No, I take that back. The most pleasant change is knowing that I have a newer Mac that is far less likely to suddenly fail than my old G5.

Buyer's Remorse?

At this point, some potential buyer's remorse might creep into my thinking from time to time. I read Steve McCabe's excellent Puzzling Through Mac Replacement Possibilities on Tidbits last night and really appreciated his similar struggle of whether to buy new or repair and repurpose his old Macs.

All in all, I'm still glad I went used. Had I popped for the iMac with 16 gigs of RAM that I really wanted, I wouldn't have been able to afford the new version of Creative Suite and several other software and hardware items I've picked up. Of course, my "new" Mini isn't covered by Applecare, so if it goes down, it's my dime for repairs. And if my Cinema Display fails, I'm simply screwed. But had I bought a new Mac Mini, there would have been the additional cost of Applecare (a good thing), a video adapter, an external DVD drive, and RAM and hard drive upgrades. Every time I priced a new Mac Mini with all the upgrades I wanted, I kept coming up with a final price of over $1,400, considerably more than I spent for the mid-2010 Mini and all its various hardware and software upgrades.

So for now, I'm a happy camper with a "new" (to me) Mac Mini.

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Update (3/28/2012)

G5 and MiniAfter a month with the "new" Mac Mini, I've found one big thing I could have done differently to create a better setup. Instead of going with the standard mid-2010 Mini with one hard drive and an internal DVD drive, I would go with one of the same vintage Mac Mini server models with two hard drives. That would have allowed me to install Lion and Snow Leopard on separate hard drives with a lot more total storage, instead of my current and quite satisfactory two partitions on one hard drive.

The Mac Mini's internal optical drive is obviously a rather cheap laptop drive. It doesn't perform nearly as well as any of the standard Superdrives in my various G5s. Going with a quality external DVD drive would have made things considerably easier, although it would have put one more external drive on my computer table. I've already had to go to the old G5 to copy slightly marred CDs to iTunes that the Mini's drive couldn't handle.

And yes, after a month or so, the G5 I bought as a stand-in for my original G5 still sits behind the Mini, ready for use. It gets fired up several times each week, often for old photo files, mostly screenshots, that didn't get transferred to the new machine.

I also found it convenient, if not necessary, to dig out an old, powered, 4-port USB 2 hub. While the Mini's rear USB ports are fine for the keyboard, printer, etc., they're just not accessible enough for things that I plug in and out regularly, such as thumbnail drives, my camera, and my iPhone.

And one last tip about a big mistake I made in setting up the Mini. Be sure to check the browser plug-ins you bring along to a new setup if you upgrade an old drive image as I did. I ended up spending a lot of time chasing down what appeared to be some nasty problems with the Mini, only to find out they were caused by a couple of really old plug-ins in Firefox that came over from the cloning of the G5's drive. I wrote about it in Troubleshooting My "New" Mac Mini.

About Busman's Holiday, Educators' News, Senior Gardening, and Odds 'n' Ends

For over forty years, I always had some kind of a direct connection to the classroom. I taught for 34 years, was a tech consultant for Indiana teachers for a college K-12 outreach program for three and a half years, and subbed for several more years. I gave up subbing a couple of years ago after getting crossways with a local superintendent over his cancelling some of my scheduled subbing days and found myself blacklisted from the classrooms where I wanted to sub. Even as a lowly substitute teacher in a moderate-severe special ed room, I still managed to piss off school administrators! But then, the super's actions prompted a good posting on Educators' News, Another Turkey, or Maybe Just Sour Grapes, and a continuing feature story there, Turkey of the Week Award "Winners." Grin

While supposedly fully retired now, I still publish my Educators' News page about three times a week and do frequent postings on our newer (and much more successful) site, Senior Gardening. Most of my recent columns have been pretty political and have appeared as Educators' News Feature Stories. But for tech stuff not educationally related, I still fall back on the Busman's Holiday series, started way back in 1998.

Even with all those outlets for my writing, I found I had a number of off-the-wall things I wanted to write that didn't seem to fit any of those venues. So last year I began yet another column series, Odds 'n' Ends, that contains just what the title says. There are a couple of nice rants about Walmart and Lowes, and even one about charities who feel free to pester previous donors with frequent, unsolicited phone calls. (That one turned out really well, though, as I now donate our Educators' News ad banner space one day a week to charities.) There's also a story about my search for an elusive 11 1/2 inch pork chop I could swear I saw advertised on the outside sign of our local grocery!

It's a good life!

Related Columns

  • Troubleshooting My "New" Mac Mini - I went for a month with virtually no problems on the used Mac Mini I'd switched to. Then everything slowed down and stuff started crashing, but it was all due to some really old browser plug-ins I'd brought along to my new Mac in its setup. (3/28/2012)
  • Working with Sheepshaver - I 'd tried, unsuccessfully, to use Sheepshaver years ago. This time around the Classic Mac OS emulator installed flawlessly...twice. (6/27/2012)

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