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Mac Mini Eye for the Linux-Windows Guy

by Todd Ogasawara
04/19/2005

The Apple Mac mini has been out for a couple of months, and you've probably read or skimmed a dozen reviews of it by now. Don't worry, this isn't another Mac mini review.

You've also probably read or heard comments by the so-called Switchers who switched from (usually) Microsoft Windows to Mac OS X. Don't worry, this isn't a switcher article either. This article is for the current Linux or Microsoft Windows user who has been watching and trying to figure out this Mac thing for the last couple of years. So, this article is for other people like me, who I place in the category of Curious Try-ers.

Although this article is in the Mac DevCenter, it should also interest readers of Windows DevCenter and Linux DevCenter. The goal of this article is to let other Linux/BSD and Microsoft Windows users know what to expect if they decide to become a Mac Try-er too.

I haven't used a Mac since 1989. Since then my desktops have been split between various versions of Microsoft Windows and UNIX (Linux these days). Right now I have Microsoft Windows XP Home and Professional and a couple flavors of Linux (Fedora, Mepis, and Ubuntu at the moment) running on my desktop and notebook PCs. I'm pretty satisfied with my Microsoft Windows and Linux boxes. Software like Mac OS X, GarageBand, iPhoto, and iMovie have intrigued me for a while, but not quite enough to spend $1,500 for the iMac G5 or iBook hardware configuration I thought I would need to try these applications. The Mac mini's lower entry barrier convinced me that the time had come to buy and try a Mac OS X box. I'm convinced that a large percentage of first time Mac buyers buying a Mac mini are Try-ers like me.

The Mac Mini May Be the Lowest Priced Mac, But it Isn't Cheap!

I looked at the $499 Mac mini with the 1.25GHz G4 and a 40GB hard drive and decided to up-sell myself to the $599 1.42GHz model with an 80GB hard drive. I upgraded the RAM to 512MB and added the integrated Bluetooth and Airport Extreme (802.11g WiFi). This brought the configuration total to $733. I looked around my home and found a bunch of spare PS/2 keyboards but no spare USB keyboard. This meant I had to go out and buy a keyboard. I had spare CRTs but no spare LCD monitors. The cost of this little Try-er experiment was going up fast.

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What to Do While Waiting

I'm actually still waiting for the Mac mini to arrive as I type this portion of this Mac mini article. The local Apple Store can configure upgrades for 512MB RAM memory and wireless LAN. However, it does not sell either the Mac mini or iBook with the combination AirPort and Bluetooth card. So, I opted to order the Mac mini directly from Apple's Web store. The high initial demand outstripped Apple production capacity. This meant that I would have wait more than a month for the Mac mini! I decided to use that time to prepare for the mini's arrival, and soon found that the preparation was beginning to resemble that which took place before the arrival of an even more important small package years ago: my daughter. I found myself preparing a space for the mini and buying the add-ons that I knew I would need once it arrived.

Not a One-Way Trip

Before I get carried away, I want to make it very clear that I am not making a one-way trip to Mac mini-Land. I will continue to work on Linux and Microsoft Windows based platforms too. So, the configuration of my Mac mini is focused on keeping me productive as I move among the various computers I work on. This includes handheld devices like my Motorola MPx220 Windows Mobile Smartphone and my Dell Axim X50v Pocket PC.

The Preparation List

I had a couple of products in my home that I used with a notebook PC running Microsoft Windows XP Home. My goal was to use these items with the Mac mini and let my notebook become a mobile tool again. Here's the list of existing items:

Legacy Products

As I continued to wait for the Mac mini to arrive (the wait would eventually stretch to five weeks), I found some Web resources and purchased books, software, and hardware.

Web Resources

Books

Software

Hardware

I ended up spending as much for accessories and software as I did for the upgraded Mac mini itself! You can see some of the hardware and software I had to deal with when the Mac mini finally arrived in Figure 1 below.

Figure 1. Mac mini and accessories. Figure 1. Mac mini and accessories.

The Mac mini Arrives!

Initial Setup

You can see the basic configuration of my Mac mini in Figure 2 below.

Figure 2. Mac mini unpacked and setup. Figure 2. Mac mini unpacked and setup.

Getting the wireless LAN, wireless keyboard, wireless mouse, DVI LCD interface, and printer working was my first goal. After turning on the Mac mini, the LCD showed a No Signal message initially, which caused a moment of anxiety before the screen came to life and displayed the start sequence. The initial user setup and wireless LAN connection was painless. But, once the Mac mini found its Internet access, it began a system update process that involved 81MB of downloads. I guessed I would not be able to actually use my Mac mini for a while even with a fast cable modem connection. So, I booted up my Windows XP notebook and did other work while waiting. After the upgrades were applied and Mac OS X itself was upgraded from 10.3.7 to 10.3.8, I found two more security upgrades were required. These upgrades required a 17MB download. 98MB of upgrades have been required so far. More waiting.

Getting Hardware Accessories Working

Keyboard and Mouse: The Microsoft Wireless Optical Desktop Comfort Edition keyboard and mouse worked as-is out of the box with the Mac mini. The mouse's scroll wheel worked as expected, but the keyboard's Keyboard Zoom slider and special buttons did not work. This meant another 5.4MB download of the most current version of Microsoft Intellitype 5.1 for Mac. More waiting. The most important thing I learned at this point is that the ALT key on a Microsoft Windows keyboard functions as the Mac Command key which is used for many keyboard shortcuts.

Printer: Mac OS X acknowledged that I had an HP Photosmart 7760 printer but did not seem to know what to do with it, nor did it advise me what to do next. I visited HP's Web site and found a 77.2MB printer driver to download. Ack! I'm now up to nearly 181MB of downloads and installations. The printer driver installation seemed to proceed fine. However, the printer driver reported that it could not find any printer. I tried a number of things including unplugging the USB cable from the hub and plugging it directly into one of the Mac mini's two USB ports. That didn't work either. I then found that the printer's power button did not respond. I ended up unplugging the printer's power cable and then plugging it back in. The printer driver finally acknowledged the presence of the printer and let me print a test page. Phew. That was a couple of uncomfortable minutes.

USB 2.0 Memory Devices: I plugged in a storage card reader into the hub and placed CF and SD cards from a pair of digital cameras into it one at a time. The JPEG photos on the cards were imported into iPhoto as expected. I then inserted a 512MB USB flash drive into the USB hub and saw a drive labeled NO NAME appear. I opened the folder and found the files I had placed on it from a Windows XP PC.

Firewire Digital Video Camera: I plugged in my Firewire-enabled miniDV video camera and brought up iMovieHD. It recognized the video camera right away, and I was able to import video that was automatically segmented into video clips.

Firewire DVD Recorder: I plugged a TDK DVD Recorder into the firewire port. The operating system seemed to see the drive, but I either did not understand how to burn a DVD on it or the drive is not completely compatible. I'll return to this when I have more time.

Bluetooth and Microsoft Windows Mobile Devices: I paired the Mac mini with both a Motorola MPx220 Smartphone and an HP iPAQ 2215 Pocket PC. I was able to copy files between the two portable devices and the Mac mini easily. I must admit that it was easier to pair both Windows Mobile devices with the Mac mini and Mac OS X than several Microsoft Windows XP desktop and notebook PCs I've tried.

Installing Familiar Software

Cross-Platform Software

Pre-installed Software: I found familiar Open Source tools like SSH, Perl, PHP, Python, and xterm pre-installed with Mac OS X. This was great, but I still wanted a few more familiar cross-platform tools.

Firefox: Safari looks like a decent browser. But, I wanted Firefox and its familiar extensions and themes. Another 8.6MB to download. The download total is now 190MB and counting. Firefox for Mac OS X worked great once it was downloaded and installed. The Mac mini is starting to become more familiar and comfortable now.

X11: I headed over to http://www.apple.com/macosx/features/x11/ to download and install the X11 windowing environment. With both SSH and X11 on the Mac mini, I can securely access X11 applications on my Linux server. This was a huge help in becoming productive on the Mac mini even before installing native Mac OS X applications.

jEdit: My favorite editor, jEdit (an Open Source project), is found at http://jedit.org. This Java-based editor is what I used for text-editing on PCs running Linux and Microsoft Windows. Since the Java 1.4.2 runtime comes pre-installed on the Mac mini, jEdit now also runs on my Mac mini. It's great to be able to use the same text editor with the same add-on modules on all the operating systems I use.

Microsoft Windows Comfort Software

The Microsoft Windows user side of me wanted a couple of applications from that world on the Mac. The Microsoft Office 2004 Professional Edition for Mac that I obtained includes Microsoft Virtual PC 7 for Mac that should let me run many native Microsoft Windows applications on the Mac mini. However, it may be that the Mac mini, with its relatively slow CPU, slow hard disk, and (in my case) 512MB RAM is a bit underpowered to run such an emulation software. It turns out that Microsoft has an area of its Web site focused on software for the Mac. It is called Microsoft Mactopia. The three free Microsoft products for Mac OS X I wanted and found were:

Using the Mac mini

Some of the Microsoft Windows-centric hardware was not able to make the trip over to the Mac mini. An old Intel USB-connected Web cam was not even recognized by the Mac mini. The external Firewire DVD recorder was problematic but can probably be made to work. The Mac mini, like the iBook, does not have a mini-plug microphone jack. Fortunately, while in Japan recently, I found a product that, like the Griffin Technology iMic, provides an interface that lets you use a standard microphone with miniplug and a Mac mini USB port. However, in general, Steve Jobs' BYODKM (Bring Your Own Display Keyboard Mouse) approach to Microsoft Windows (and Linux) users worked out for me.

The Open Source applications and aging Microsoft applications really helped to create a productive, familiar work environment on the Mac mini while I familiarized myself with the unique Apple software.

Here's a short list of some of the things that I think Linux and Microsoft Windows users need to know before becoming a Mac Try-er.

Final Thoughts

It took a while to configure and test hardware and software on the Mac mini, but the time and effort spent was worth it. My still-brief experience with the Mac mini has confirmed a suspicion I've had since I attended the O'Reilly Open Source Convention in 2002. I was surprised to see so many Open Source developers using Apple iBooks and PowerBooks there. I had expected to see mostly Linux- or BSD-powered notebooks with a smattering of Microsoft Windows-powered notebooks. It occurred to me then that the Apple Mac environment might bring me the ease of hardware configuration (wireless LAN, audio, video, etc.) that I have in Microsoft Windows and the developer-centric flexibility, power, and security associated with the Linux kernel, and the command line shells and Open Source tools available for Linux. That has been my experience so far.

I still have not installed Microsoft Office 2004 Professional Edition because I want to force myself to use the pre-installed Apple Works and get comfortable with Mac's common native applications.

I'm convinced that my Try-er approach to working with the Mac mini served me better than a Switcher approach would have. There are still many Microsoft Windows applications on my PC that are not on my Mac mini, either because I have not had the chance to find an Open Source analog or because I have not yet purchased the proprietary commercial counterpart. If I had been dead-set on moving completely from both my Microsoft Windows and my Linux desktops to the Mac mini, I would not yet be able to do everything I need to do on a daily basis.

Now, I have to go figure out how the Mac OS X Tiger upgrade fits into my new Mac world.

Editor's PS Note -- I just learned that Todd has purchased an iBook too. I think the experiment is going well...

Todd Ogasawara is the editor of MobileAppsToday.com. He has been named a Microsoft Most Valuable Professional (MVP) in the Mobile Devices category for the past several years. You can find his personal website focusing on Mobile Device Technology at www.mobileviews.com.


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