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Summary:

There’s been lots of talk about the Mac Mini being a great PVR or media device, or how it could take the place of many an iMac and even a G4 desktop in businesses across the country. However, I see the Mac Mini as providing a different solution to the problem of computing power and flexibility.

For the last two years my main machine has been a first generation, 1GHz 17″ PowerBook and for nearly all of that time I’ve used it in combination with a 19″ Trinitron monitor. It’s been great and, even with the advent of the G5, I really haven’t felt the need to upgrade. However, just occasionally I have sometimes felt like a faster computer would make my life easier. It just feels, sometimes, like my the PowerBook was too busy and overworked.

Now, don’t get me wrong; I haven’t forgotten the usefulness of multi-tasking, and it’s not a single application that is causing the problem. While I’m writing, I could be watching a DVD, importing more music to iTunes, downloading software (and sometimes operating systems), as well as reading email and browsing numerous websites. Even with a top of the range G5 and four monitors, I think I’d struggle to do everything at the same time that I sometimes have to do to keep my deadlines.

Just occasionally, I’ll be playing a game that has to work full screen, but I still need to keep on top my email from clients. Most of the time I’d have to keep saving, quitting and flipping between the game and my email to get everything sorted. This not an ideal situation, and wouldn’t be solved, no matter how CPUs and monitors I had on hand, because those games flip you into single monitor mode and stop you from switching applications. Then it hit me. What I really needed was another machine; one that had it’s own monitor and which I could use simultaneously with the Powerbook; using the Powerbook for my email, web browsing, project management and research, while using the new machine for writing the books and articles, software development and that occasional game.

Step in the Mac Mini. It has all the power I need for what I do (writing isn’t that complex a task), fits in (through a USB switch) with my existing keyboard and I now use the monitor with the Mini, going back to only the built-in panel on the PowerBook. Now I have the ultimate in a 2-way SMP box. Well, OK, I have two separate machines, but they don’t take up much more space than the PowerBook and monitor did before.

Thing is, I can imagine other people finding the flexibility just as liberating and useful. I used to work in an ad agency (in the days when an 8100 was the fastest machine, and 136MB (a) seemed like a lot of RAM and (b) cost twice as much as the machine itself), and many of the designers would use Photoshop, set a process like Gaussian blur, or RGB->CMYK running and then go and make a cup of tea. The fact that their machine did more than one thing simultaneously was irrelevant; once Photoshop was running anything else would run so slow it wasn’t worth it.

Now imagine the same situation. Two Mac Minis and let’s say, for argument sake, they use one monitor and a KVM to switch between them. OK, it’s gonna be slower than a G5, I’m not suggesting anything else, and the 1GB RAM might be limiting, but with two smaller, cheaper machines at hand they might be able to make better use of their time than with one fast one. Use two monitors and a USB switch (so they can use just one keyboard, and save desk space) and you’ve got the ability to use one machine for reference (ever so handy for viewing the art designers notes) while you use Photoshop and Quark Xpress on the other.

What am I getting at here?

Well, the Mac Mini could be used to spur a completely different way of working. Rather than the endless chasing of bigger, more powerful machines, why not smaller, simpler machines that when combined, could provide a much more useful version of multi-tasking. We wouldn’t have to worry about the loading on a machine and how it affects other applications, nor we would have to worry about the effects of updating software, or rebooting one system and losing down time. When used with multiple monitors we even have a kind of digital copyboard which we can use for reference when working on documents and projects.

With a stack of Mac Minis (and I’m already trying to find ways of justifying another Mini myself) we can increase the power and flexibility by a factor of one each time. And at $599 a throw, it’s cheaper than than upgrading to a new G5. Rather than scaling up, scale out. Add more power, rather than trying to replace and upgrade it.

The solution isn’t going to suit everybody, I know, but give it a thought.

Now let’s move on and think about the direction IBM (and others) are following with multicore CPUs and the new cell technology. In a nutshell, these companies are moving away from always chasing the fastest CPU and instead embedding the equivalent of multiple computers into a single box. Combine it with an updated edition of OS X that allows for multiple partitions in one machine (and ergo, multiple OS running simultaneously; one on each core) and we’ve got the next generation of my Mac Mini scalability solution. Obviously this is pure conjecture at this stage, and it would require some changes to the way OS X works and Apple deploys it, but it’s not beyond the realms of possibility.

Until this technology comes out, think about how you use your current set up and give some thought to how you might be able to improve it by adding another machine, even a relatively low power one like the Mac Mini.

  1. obligatory cliché: “imagine a beowulf cluster of these!”

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  2. Seriously though, thought-provoking post. We’ve been thinking along similar lines here at work.

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  3. Yes, but….

    the real reason we see all the hubub about multicore is because higher clock speeds are increasingly difficult at the moment. Not because they are inherently better. Chip designers are being forced to go multicore because of the “wall” they are hitting with fab limitations now limiting clock speeds. As for the cell, I think we’ve seen this hype before: iTanium, RISC, etc. When we see REAL products with REAL gains in productivity (natural lang voice recognition anyone), then we can talk about paradigm shifts. Having said all this, your point is well taken. One mini to run photoshop, the other for email, web and other “mundane” tasks to run concurrently. Of course, you can’t run Motion or Core Video/Audio on G4′s though!

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  4. Great point MC – it’s the argument I’ve been trying to make to my wife (but my wording lacked the focus and process that you clearly state) about a Mini.

    When it comes time to burn a dvd, or render a movie – while I COULD use the computer for something else – I let it alone to do it without any potential hiccups. Leaves me high and dry for a few hours. A Mini is just what the doctor ordered!

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  5. One big flaw I see in this, is one I run into whenever I work on multiple computers – and that is easy access to shared files, etc…

    You can multitask on the computers, but if you need a file from one computer on another, it’s a huge pain to send it over, etc.. Even when on a network.

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  6. This is great! Thanks.

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  7. Is it possible to set up mirroring on the two 500gb hard drives?

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