One Month with a Mac mini

If you’re a regular visitor to this blog, you’ll have noticed my recent articles about downgrading from a Mac Pro to a Mac mini, my first impressions about the Mac mini, and my first week with the Mac mini. So now, one month after getting the Mac mini, it’s time to sum up my experiences, and, perhaps, explain why this is probably the best Mac your money can buy.

I started writing this article with the best of intentions, but I realized, after I wrote the first paragraph that there’s not much I can add to my one-week review. The switch has been, for the most part, seamless. I miss my fast CD drive, for ripping music (though I’ve only bought one box set – 14 CDs of Schubert piano music – since I got the mini). The graphics card is visibly inferior: the display “stutters” a bit at certain times, such as invoking Exposé, Dashboard, or viewing my four spaces. However, given the work I do, that’s just an aesthetic weakness. I’ve hooked up two external hard disks, so the actual capacity of the internal disk is not an issue (and the FireWire 800 transfer is fast enough). Having less RAM only affects when I run Windows, which is not very often.

So, to sum up, I wonder why I didn’t get a Mac mini before? I could have saved half the cost of the Mac Pro (though I did get a good price for it selling it used), and had a computer that takes up less space, makes less noise, and gives off less heat. If Apple keeps the Mac mini up to date, this will be my Mac of choice in the future, both for me and, probably, my wife who currently has a 2+ year old white 17″ iMac, and will need an upgrade soon. I’d strongly recommend the Mac mini to all Mac users: unless you have special needs (especially concerning RAM), it’ll probably do everything you want.

A Week with a Mac mini

In previous articles, I have written about my decision to “downgrade” from a Mac Pro to a Mac mini, and about my first impressions using the Mac mini. It’s now been one week since I got the Mac mini, so it’s time to write a report about how it works “in the field”, in normal usage.

Aside from the raw processor power, one of the biggest differences between the two computers is the amount of RAM they contain. I had put 8 GB into the Mac Pro – it came with, I think, 2 GB, but over time I increased it to 4 GB, then, at the end of last year, to 8 GB – mostly so I’m comfortable when using Windows (which I don’t use often, and not for work). With 4 GB in the Mac mini, I find little difference in the ability to open a large number of applications (large, for me, being around a dozen). They all respond well, and switching between applications is immediate.

As I’ve said before, my work does not involve any processor-intensive applications; as a writer, I basically write, using productivity tools (Word, Pages, Acrobat, BBEdit, Numbers, etc.). All of these applications function fine with the Mac mini, and I see no difference at all in their speed or response. If I were to do a massive find/replace operation, perhaps, I might see a difference, but I’m convinced that it would be minimal. In my work this week – a pretty normal week, using all the applications I use in my work – I didn’t see any differences in using applications, with the exception that some applications, notably Microsoft Word, take a bit longer to open, perhaps two or three seconds more.

One clear difference, however, is in the graphics response. There is a bit of a stutter when using Exposé, when invoking Dashboard, or when I display all my spaces. The graphics card is much weaker than that of the Mac Pro, and it is not dedicated video RAM: the RAM is shared between normal memory and the graphics card. While this is visible, it is not a major problem; it has never occured when working in any applications, and since I’m not a gamer, I won’t have any issues with applications that need fast graphics response. I’m running a 24″ monitor, which may be one factor; I wonder how the Mac mini would work with a 30″ monitor?

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My First Day with a Mac mini

I recently wrote about why I decided to downgrade from a nearly-three-year-old Mac Pro to a Mac mini. Well, the mini arrived yesterday, and it’s up and running. I thought I would post my first impressions about this computer, and, especially, compare it to the Mac Pro that I’ll be selling soon.

First, unboxing any Apple product is a fun process. The packaging is always attractive, intriguing, and parcimonious. There I was with this tiny box, weighing about two kilograms (less than five pounds) in my hands, thinking, “Wow, this is going to replace that big, bulky Mac Pro under my desk.” And the Mac mini takes up about half of the box; the rest of it is for the power supply and cord, and the installation discs and small manual.

If you haven’t seen a Mac mini in action, then you may not realize that there’s more to the computer than what Apple shows you in its pictures. The power supply is a white brick that is about 1/4 the size of the computer itself. Having the power conversion (AC to DC) in this brick does two things: it keeps the actual computer smaller, and it makes it much cooler, eliminating the need for a fan to cool the power supply within the computer. The power supply cools passively, just dissipating its heat, and this contributes to the low noise level of the mini.

Setting up the mini was easy, though it took a while to get all the cables together and in the right place. My Mac Pro was (well, still is…) under my desk, but I put the Mac mini on a shelf next to my desk. Since it’s so low, if I put it on my desk it would be hard to insert optical discs in its drive. So I needed to move some cables around that were just a tad too short to get everything connected: mouse and keyboard (well, their wireless adapter), scanner, headset, iPod cable, USB hub, as well as a FireWire 800 cable that goes to three drives in a daisy chain, the monitor connection, and an Ethernet cable. (For the latter, I could probably use AirPort, since I have a wireless network, but I’ve always kept my desktop Macs connected by Ethernet.) The back of the mini is a bit of a tangle with all those cables, but it works out well enough.

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My New Mac: Why I’m Downgrading from a Mac Pro to a Mac mini

Almost 8 months ago, I wrote about how my Mac was fast enough, and how I wasn’t planning to buy a new Mac for a while. Well, my Mac Pro is now within a few months of the end of its AppleCare contract – the one thing that will get me to buy a new Mac – and I’ve decided to buy a new one. This time, I’ve opted for a Mac mini.

It all started as the weather got warmer. My Mac Pro gives off a lot of heat, and not having air conditioning (here in France, with “French windows”, you can’t just stick an air conditioner in a window) means that this computer heats up my office too much in the summer. I wanted to consider replacing it, in part because of the heat, but also because of that looming AppleCare deadline. Knowing that it’s easier to sell a used Mac if it has AppleCare – even a few months – meant that my upgrade window was fast closing.

My first consideration was an iMac. But Apple only sells iMacs with glossy screens, and, looking at my son’s iMac, I realized that I couldn’t work if I saw myself on the screen all day. In addition, I already have a 24″ Dell monitor, so buying an iMac would mean either using two monitors (nice, but I don’t have the desktop space), or putting the Dell in the basement.

I actually hadn’t considered the Mac mini at all, until my fellow Macworld author Rob Griffiths suggested it. There always seemed to be something missing in the Mac mini; it seemed to be a stopgap designed for switchers who didn’t want much in a Mac. But looking more closely at the specs, and comparing its speed with my MacBook Air, I realized it would be more than fast enough for what I do. As I said when I wrote about my Mac being fast enough, the only time I really use its processors is when I rip CDs or convert music. I do these things often, but not that much that it would change my life if they were slower. Another thing I liked about the Mac Pro was the ability to have four internal hard disks. But as the Mac mini has FireWire 800, I could daisy chain two big externals (1 TB each), and have all the disk space I need.

I ordered the maxed-out model of the Mac mini: 4 GB RAM, a 320 GB hard disk, and the faster 2.26 GHz processor. It will be faster than my MacBook Air (2 x 1.8 GHz), which is more than sufficient for most of what I do. I could have tried to upgrade the RAM and hard disk myself, as Dan Frakes recently wrote about in Macworld, but I didn’t want to bother with it, and didn’t want any worries about my warranty.

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Book Review: Marcel Proust by Jean-Yves Tadié

Buy from Amazon.com | Amazon UK | Amazon FR

Buy in French from Amazon.fr: Volume 1 and Volume 2.

[Note: I wrote this review back in 2000, and just stumbled on it. I haven’t edited it, other than correcting a few infelicities in the writing. I read this book in French, and the review discusses the book’s content, not its translation.]

I was expecting to read a real biography of one of the 20th century’s greatest authors, but it turned out to be a long book of little more than intellectual masturbation.

I find some of the pre-publication comments on the Amazon.com site quite perplexing– “critically acclaimed, best-seller in France…” Critically acclaimed, for this sort of book, means only that the author’s friends, and his publisher’s hirelings, wrote excellent reviews of the book–in France, it is all too common to see reviews written by writers who publish or act as “series editors” for the same publisher as the book they are reviewing. Unlike in the US, where reviewers are independent, at least in some periodicals, these reviews are nothing more than advertisements. And best-selling, well, that is of course relative. Having worked in a French bookstore for several years, and being involved in publishing in this country, I know that this means only that the book sold better than expected. When you read the term “best-seller” in English, you tend to think of such books as Tom Clancy or John Grisham, and I can imagine that this biography sold nowhere near one tenth, even perhaps one one-hundredth of what those books sell in France.But I wonder exactly what the critics acclaimed in this book? Was it the overlong lists of people Proust knew, the thousands of footnotes, the never-ending quotes with which the author peppered his text? This is a fine example of a biography that was written for scholars and is, as is often the case, poorly written; it inspired, as I read it, nothing more than a desire to get to the end. The author writes like a scholar, which is fine if you like that style (although I feel sorry for the translator who has to put this work into English). But this is a minor problem compared to the total lack of character that he develops.

For me, the benchmark for literary biographies is the Richard Ellman biography of James Joyce . Not only does Ellman examine the author’s life and work, but ties the two of them together. At the end of the book, the reader has the feeling that he or she “knows” Joyce, that he understands his personality. In this book, the personal aspect is totally missing–if I hadn’t read other biographies of Proust before, I would undoubtedly not understand his life. While Tadié mentions often enough Proust’s illnesses and anxiety, and mentions his homosexuality more than enough, the reader learns very little about Proust other than the people he met and added to his novel. For while La Recherche is a roman a clé, and it is useful to know who the characters represent, it is also a highly introspective novel where a better knowledge of the author is far more valuable to its understanding.

One example: those who know about Proust know about his cork-lined room at the end of his life, but Tadié mentions this only in passing. I would think that this part of Proust, the anxious, obsessive part, is far more important than the number of times he ate dinner at the Ritz.

Reading this book was a real chore. Hardly a paragraph goes by without one or several quotes from Proust’s correspondence, from works written by others about him, or texts by the many people he met. This cuts the text up, giving the author no room to stake out a voice for himself. And when he does try and use his own voice, it is in the excessively pedantic, and overly “precious” style of French pseudo-academic writing.

The author is clearly writing to defend his own approach, one that has not been unanimously accepted. Roger Shattuck’s review of the latest Pléiade edition in French, published in the New York Review of Books, points out how Tadié has taken the work and turned it into a huge mass of sketches and drafts. [Unfortunately, this review is no longer available on the web, unless one has a subscription to the New York Review of Books.]

Tadié, in this biography, often refers to these drafts rather than to the actual work, in order to show not only what Proust thought about the people he met, but also to remind the reader just how important he thinks these drafts are. I would rather he refer to the text of the work that we know and read, rather than attempt to defend his approach in this manner. But he is the author, and this biography, published by Gallimard, the publisher of the Pléiade edition, obviously sees the value in trying to hype their over-priced and over-thick version.

It can be difficult to take a person like Proust and make him more human, to make readers understand who he was. Growing up in a bourgeois family, independently wealthy, at least until the First World War, Proust is not the kind of person that I feel great sympathy for, at least not when reading this biography that sounds like the very long society page of a newspaper. Yet, when reading La Recherche , I feel such incredible affinity with this lonely man whose life was full of suffering. It is a shame that there is such a difference between the Proust of his work and the Proust of this biography.

In the end, I gave up and skipped over the last few hundred pages, out of lassitude. I found little in this book that was interesting. For a biography that better depicts Proust as the person he was, and gives insight into his life and feelings, the book written by William Carter, Marcel Proust: A Life , is far more interesting. The Tadié book is useful perhaps if you want to look up who was the source for a given character, but other than that, read Proust’s work–you will learn far more about his life in A La Recherche du Temps Perdu.

Read more about Marcel Proust in this article.