My Mac mini, first impressions

I want to preface this review by saying I’m a windows user, have been since 93 or 94 when I bought a 75ish MHz Intel chip (my memories foggy), a barebones case and had a co-worker build me a ‘windows machine’. It blew obviously, and had little of the geek appeal of my first computer an Atari 1200XL (1983’ish). But even back in those days of new wave and Reaganomics, I lusted for an Apple, but apparently St. Nick never got any of my letters pleading for a IIc. Well times have changed and I don’t rely on fat men in red suits for my toys anymore, err today it was a skinny man in a blue uniform, but never mind that. Luckily when I actually set out to buy my own Mac the stars aligned, or at a minimum Steve Job’s bent my reality to make them appear aligned.

First off I guess it’s no coincidence that Apple introduced one of their least expensive computers right around the time I was getting serious about an ‘entertainment solution’ for my living room. Rather (I got serious when I saw the price) that and the fact that the very sight of the mini ‘said’ home theater to me. I don’t mean this in a ‘hey it kinda looks like a DVD player’ sense but in a broader ‘I do home theater for a living and I can see one of these in my living room’ sense.

After seeing the first images of the mini on the web and later watching the keynote, my mind was made up, I would own an Apple and I’d place it in the living room, some 14 days after ordering mine it arrived Thursday morning, and oh man was it tough making it through work yesterday, knowing it was waiting on me at home. During down time and lunch I thought about all the years that have passed since the original Macintosh and would OSX still hold that ‘different’ appeal that Mac OS’s did for me so many years ago, but it’s my nature to obsess, I’ll be ok after I eat.


Un-boxing:
First things first as it were, as previous reviews have stated, un-packing the mini is a similar experience to un-boxing an iPod. The same clever inserts inside of the Styrofoam deal, and whatnot. Everything is logically laid out. The first thing I grabbed was the users guide, because for once in my life I figured I’d actually reads it first. The manual is adequate but doesn’t really go into a lot of ‘OSX’ detail, at first I was a little concerned with this, but shortly after booting into the OS I knew that a manual over 20 or 30 pages long would have been unnecessary anyway, OSX really is easy to use, at least for the cursory things I was after.

Booting up:
After the refreshingly simple feel to the preliminary configuration questions, OSX asks you in setting up everything, I was on my way. I made an administrator account and a few personal accounts (just I case I screwed anything up) and began to sort out basic DVD playback and networking. Like I said in the beginning I’m a windows user so there were a few things that made me scratch my head, nothing that really brought down the house in technical difficulty but, interesting nonetheless. For example when I selected the ‘Go’ drop down command and selected my networked drives, and mounted them, all worked fine, but after I rebooted I had to do the same process again.

I can only assume there’s a way to ‘map’ or permanently mount them, but that’s just something that time will have to lend it’s self to. After all I had videos to watch! I had initially planned to just use the stereo out to my receiver during the first phase of set up, and then add my M-Audio Sonica Theater, but things were going so smoothly I figured ‘why not’. In retrospect I should have just continued on with my first plan.

Issues: With my ‘DVD’ drives mapped and ready to go I decided to go ahead and add the Sonica, I attached it and installed the driver and initially I had ‘some’ luck with sound playback. I picked a few concert DVD’s and had a generally good audio experience, everything ran smoothly and I noticed no visual stuttering. But then I decided to check out iTunes, ok first snafu. The only way I could get a digital stream out of the Sonica to my receiver from iTunes was to select 96k ‘playback’ I have no idea why 44 or 48k wouldn’t work but needless to say once 96k was selected (and working with iTunes) I could no longer playback DVD’s (the audio portion) this isn’t a bug per say as the M-Audio manual clearly states that 96k only delivers 2 channels, but the problem comes into play with the Sonica Theater’s apparent difficulties in switching back and forth between the two modes.

It got worse, after a while of this back and forth business with the two modes that worked for Audio and Audio for Video, the whole card just seemed to lock up. It was as if it couldn’t be forced to work in an audio mode that had just minutes prior worked without a hitch. The rest of the night became a song and dance of swapping settings and giving it another try. At one point the hitches with the Sonicas audio playback became so bad it crashed OSX, at least that’s what I assume the (you must reboot your computer in several different languages, message meant) kernel panic or otherwise it looked like a crash to me. I place no blame on OSX what so ever as these problems only manifested during the ‘Sonica’s flake out period’.

Moving forward: Even with the previously mentioned issues, I have zero plans to give up on the mini as a simple HTPC. to the contrary, what I saw that did work, more than made of for these few glitches. Streaming DVD’s from my remote drives (the ones without multi-channel audio) played back flawlessly, and the video quality was even better than I’d hoped for. So where I’m left now is to either just bear down and work out this Sonica Theater issue, or two (and more realistically) is to find another USB audio adaptor that will pass through Dolby Digital and DTS, I think the later makes a lot more sense as the Sonica Theater’s analog outs are really wasted in my system, I just need a simple USB in digital audio out adaptor, that actually does just that, without all of the futzing around with different sample rates and channel selection, as I believe this switching back and forth is what’s causing the Sonica Theater to flake out.

What I need is a plain ol’ spdif out, you know kind of like the spdif output on just about any PCI sound card…. If anyone else has had better results with the Sonica or another USB to digital audio adaptor, please share.

B.Greenway

**Update**
With a little configuration setting help from Jonathan, I now have iTunes and DVD playback in DolbyIIx (only) Working consistently, not 100% there yet, but an improvement nonetheless.

**Edit Deux**
Success finally!

Well after re-installing the latest drivers, selecting digital out on the M-Audio panel and apparently most important of all, verifying that the M-Audio was selected as the playback device from Apple DVD player, all is working as expected. It looks like I had it right a few times by accident, but never went back and checked. Having to switch settings in two different places was the problem.




9 Responses to “My Mac mini, first impressions”

  1. Steve Ross Says:

    You can automatically mount your drives at startup by creating a simple AppleScript and then putting it into your Login Items. Here is an example:

    tell application “Finder”
    mount volume “smb://Domain;User Name:Password@Server/share1”
    mount volume “smb://Domain;User Name:Password@Server/share2”
    end tell

  2. B.Greenway Says:

    Thanks much, thats on the list of to do’s without a doubt.

  3. grovberg Says:

    To mount the network drives at startup, go to System Preferences/Accounts/Startup Items and drag them in.

    The switch problem with the Sonica is well known. I believe the company makes another device that does this much better, but if I remember correctly it’s more expensive than the mini and overkill for something like this.

  4. grovberg Says:

    You can also just drag the disks into the same startup items area (system prefs/accounts/startupitems).

  5. Jonathan Greene Says:

    If you don’t know jack about applescript you might want to try Automountmaker – http://jm.marino.free.fr/SMacAutomountMaker.html

    You simply define what you want to open in it, save the config and add it to your startup items. I use it on a few systems and it works great. It’s free too!

  6. Zeno Says:

    “Sonica Theater’s analog outs are really wasted in my system, I just need a simple USB in digital audio out adaptor”…. Yeah exactly! If your sourround system has a digiltal audio input, the Sonica Theater is a waste of money… I think you’ll be happy with the M-Audio Transit… (I use it everyday to get Dolby Digital or DTS…works great with both DVD Player and VLC…). Feel free to ask me if you have any questions before buying it… 😉

  7. Tony Says:

    This is straight from the Macs inbuilt Help pages [Apple key + ?}:

    “In the Finder, choose Connect To Server from the Go menu. Connect to the server, log in, and select the volume.

    Open System Preferences and click Login Items. Click Add and locate the server in the Recent Servers folder in your home Library folder.

    Each time you log in to Mac OS X, the login dialog appears for you to connect to the server.”

    Connecting automatically to a network may seem “handy”, but doing so without your express permission is courting suicide. Likewise your Mac comes with all its ports closed – you choose which ones to open. IMHO far safer for everyone, rather than unknowing bending over for the whole world to see. My 2c…

  8. Tony Says:

    This is straight from the Mac’s inbuilt Help pages [Apple key + ?}:
    “In the Finder, choose Connect To Server from the Go menu. Connect to the server, log in, and select the volume.
    Open System Preferences and click Login Items. Click Add and locate the server in the Recent Servers folder in your home Library folder.
    Each time you log in to Mac OS X, the login dialog appears for you to connect to the server.”
    Connecting automatically to a network may seem “handy”, but doing so without your express permission is courting suicide. Likewise your Mac comes with all its ports closed – you choose which ones to open. IMHO far safer for everyone, rather than unknowing bending over for the whole world to see. My 2c…

  9. B.Greenway Says:

    I’ve got the ‘standard’ gamut of firewall protection, and to be 100% honest, if the worlds hackers want to view my vob files, I won’t lose much sleep.

    But I do hear what your saying, and appreciate the comments.

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