Saturday, December 9, 2006

First experiences with my new Mac Mini

Five days after placing my order, my Mac Mini arrived on Thursday November 30th, 2006. First some details about the system I configured and the accessories I orderd:
  • Mac Mini with 1.83 GHz Intel Core Duo processor, 2GB RAM, 120GB HD, SuperDrive 8x, and OS 10.4 [Tiger] (~$1200)
  • Apple Cinema Display 23" LCD (~$1000)
  • Miglia TVMax TV Tuner/PVR USB device ($260 from Apple's Store)
  • 500GB NewerTech MiniStack USB drive ($260 from Other World computing)
I didn't bother with buying a new keyboard or mouse -- I have a couple extra USB keyboards and a USB 900 MHz (but not Bluetooth) wireless mouse lying around that I figured I could use until I decide if I want something more Mac-specific. I've since found the MS Wireless Keyboard for Mac and might try it (except I'd really prefer a wired keyboard -- since it doesn't move, I'm happy to trade the cord for not having to change batteries).

That Thursday night, I eagerly opened the packages (everything except the external drive, which was due to arrive the following week) and set it all up. Within a half hour, I was booting. Comically, the one time I briefly paused was in trying to figure out how to turn it on! My non-Mac keyboard lacks a power button, and I had located the stylish Mac Mini box and matching PVR device atop my old PC (magnifying the amazing contrast in design). In that location, it was hard to find the power button on the back of the Mini. My short search was rewarded with the recognizable and satisfying Mac-booting sound... it's surprising that PC manufacturers haven't duplicated that strategy and provided an equally distinctive and comforting audio snippet as the BIOS takes off.

Once booted, I got started with the requisite configuration and software upgrades. Tiger (i.e Mac OS X 10.4) was very user-friendly in asking me questions to set itself up properly, and it took little time. What then took longer was installing all the updates since the software was installed at the factory. There was about 400MB of updates needed, which took about 45 minutes to download and install. (I should point out that the Mini first detected the Internet via my somewhat flaky Hawking 802.11g Wireless Bridge it was connected to via a router, rather than using its built-in AirPort to talk directly to my Linksys WAP downstairs -- it was a reasonable decision, but I've since switched my default route to use en1, the AirPort interface.)

While the OS upgrades were in process, I downloaded other essential software: Firefox, various Firefox extension (especially the Google toolbar), and Google Earth. I also tried getting a Yamaha USB Midi adapter to work, only to discover that Yamaha hasn't yet updated the drivers to work with Intel-based Macs (wow, PowerMacs already seem so old! I solved that problem by just buying a different USB Midi adapter made by M-Audio from Amazon -- I downloaded the driver for it first to double-check that it was Intel-ready!)

After a reboot or two, I had what Apple claimed was the latest install of all the Right Stuff. I only had another hour or so that night to experience the new system and had just a few significant senses and discoveries:
  • Having a Unix-like terminal program with all my comfortable Unix and GNU tools available out of the box was great (of course, Linux distributions have perfected this long ago, but somehow it felt different because of the snazzy Aqua interface)
  • The modifier keys were a bit confusing to me... not only was my Windows-intended keyboard mis-labeled for a Mac, but certain shortcuts for, e.g., Firefox were switched from being on Control to being on Option or some other button. I'll have to spend some time customizing the keys, but I'm betting this is surmountable.
  • The Cinema Display is somehow even more amazing than the Dell 24" widescreen displays I have at work... its brightness and the sub-pixel rendering of text that the OS does makes it simply extraordinary! (To be fair, Vista's rendering on the Dells is comparable -- my RedHat-based X distribution at work [from 2004ish] just looks lots worse.)
Now, between getting my Mac Mini setup and writing this post, it's been over a week (and a hectic one at that). With that extra time to reflect, I can now confidently point at my top two complaints so far:
  • Why, why, WHY can't I resize a window by dragging on arbitrary corners of the window?!? I shouldn't have to move and resize just to keep the bottom-right of a window in the same place and make the window smaller. [Disclaimer: I spent a fair amount of four years earning my Ph.D. working on the Scheme Constraints Window Manager (SCWM) which supports amazing capabilities for window arrangement and which I customized to my personal preferences very heavily. It's safe to conclude that I do not have typical requirements in terms of windowing support.] There are a couple of shareware tools that let you resize windows without having to grab on the control at the bottom-right, but they all still seem to only resize from that corner. Ugh!
  • I don't like the Application menu being on the top of a giant screen. That design decision made sense on a 9" screen in the mid-1980s, but it's clearly wrong now: when I have an application window in the bottom right of the screen, I shouldn't have to drag the pointer all the way across all that screen real estate in order to tell the application what I want to do. I've held off looking for a solution to this so far, thinking maybe I'd get used to it and like it, but I'm becoming more skeptical that I'll ever come around.
I'm looking forward to digging in more to the Darwin Unix side of my Mac this weekend and over the holiday. I'll write more when I have a sense of how that's going.

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