Transforming a Mac mini into a great desktop workhorse

Transforming a Mac mini into a great desktop workhorse

Summary: Don't discount the Mac mini when you look at the Mac lineup. It might be small in size, but there's a lot of power packed into that aluminum housing.

SHARE:
TOPICS: Hardware, Apple
93

My shift from Windows to Mac continues, but I'm now shifting my focus from notebooks to desktop systems.

See also: Why I've all but given up on Windows

Apple's iconic Mac is the all-in-one iMac, but I happen to like its little brother, the Mac mini. Why do I like the Mac mini? Bottom line, I like the fact that I'm not tied to the iMac display, and I'm free to pick and choose a panel to suit my needs. I also like the fact that the Mac mini is such a compact system, yet it comes with an Ethernet port, a Thunderbolt port, and a handful of USB 3.0 ports.

Another thing I like about the Mac mini is that it's cool and quiet. It doesn't make the office stuffy, and it's a pain in the rear when I'm on the phone.

But it's also quite a powerful beast, especially if you go for the quad-cored Core i7 edition. Throw in 16GB of RAM and a fast drive – such as a solid-state drive (SSD) if you want real speed and have deep pockets – and you've got yourself the beginnings of a sturdy system.

And that's exactly what I've got.

OK, so you've got the Mac mini, what else do you need? Well, I don't have a camera in your office to see how you work, but I do know how I work, and I can tell you what I've added to my Mac mini to turn it from a dinky little system into a beast of a desktop.

Display

Over the Thunderbolt/Mini DisplayPort, the Mac mini can output 2,560 by 1,600 pixels, while using HDMI it is limited to 1,920 by 1,200.

I like the sound of getting an image that's 2,560 pixels wide, but I want to make the most of those pixels.

There are a lot of nice big displays out there in the 27-inch range, but given my background with multi-monitor systems, I decided to take a different approach and go for a 29-inch widescreen display that features a 21:9 aspect ratio as opposed to the more run-of-the-mill 16:9. This gives me a wider display than normal, allowing me to adopt a dual-monitor workflow on a system with a single screen.

I chose to go with a 29-inch LG UltraWide IPS display. Not only is this a really nice panel, but it also comes with software that allows me to virtually split the screen to make better use of it.

The display also features Dual Link, allowing me to connect two devices to it, for example, the Mac mini and my MacBook Pro.

The display is attached to an Ergotron LX wall mount for convenience.

The only drawback is that in order to pump all those pixels I have to dedicate the Thunderbolt port as a DisplayPort port, which means it can't be used as a Thunderbolt port. This isn't a bother for me since I mostly use USB 3.0 or NAS storage devices, but if you have Thunderbolt hardware then you might want to opt for a display that can be powered over HDMI of DVI-D instead.

Input devices

I'm a big fan of Apple's Bluetooth keyboard, so that takes care of the typing side of things, but when it comes to a pointing device rather than go for a regular mouse I instead went for an Apple Magic Trackpad.

And guess what? It's great! It's especially great for me because I can take all those gestures I learned using the MacBook Pro and apply them to the Mac mini.

There's also nothing stopping me from connecting a mouse to the Mac mini also, and I've also got a Wacom Intuos Pro tablet for times when I need high precision.

Storage

Being a pro-am photographer I have bags of storage, ranging from USB 3.0, Thunderbolt and NAS boxes on side, to cloud storage.

My favorite storage options at present are Western Digital and G-RAID hardware. Both are robust, secure and powerful, and come in a range of storage options to suit most needs.

The bottom line

Don't discount the Mac mini when you look at the Mac lineup. It might be small in size, but there's a lot of power packed into that aluminum housing.

If you opt for the high-end version, and back that up with high-end peripherals, you can turn what some consider to be a toy into a beast of a desktop computer capable of handling high-end applications such as Photoshop, Lightroom and so on.

I've also got a lot of screen real estate to play with, and the 21:9 aspect ratio gives me a pseudo dual-screen arrangement without the hassle of having to add a second display.

I get all that, along with the stability, convenience and ease of OS X.

See also:

Topics: Hardware, Apple

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.

Talkback

93 comments
Log in or register to join the discussion
  • I have to say the mini intrigues me

    The fact that it is so tiny really appeals to me. Right now, I've got a bit of a monster Dell tower as my current "fixed" computer, and making that basically disappear would be nice.

    However, people who use our fixie would expect to be able to run Windows. Anyone got recent experience with Boot camp? How well does it do 8.1? (Haven't run Boot camp in a while.)
    Mac_PC_FenceSitter
    • Lenovo Tiny

      Have you consider the Lenovo Tiny? Is smaller than a Mac Mini and the experience my customers have with it has been very good.

      http://shop.lenovo.com/us/en/desktops/thinkcentre/m-series-tiny/
      dvm
      • Is that smaller?

        the pics make it actually look a bit bigger. Specs on that are really good though! :)
        Mac_PC_FenceSitter
        • Dimensions

          Based in the website specs,

          Lenovo Tiny is 7.0" x 1.4" x 7.2”
          Mac Mini 7.7", 1.4", 7.7"

          Is not a big difference, but still smaller.
          dvm
          • Is not a big difference, but still smaller….

            A shallow argument and pretty pointless.

            The same case can be made for the 13" Retina MacBook Pro. and 13" MacBook Air plus many other products from other manufacturers. Why the Lenovo Tiny should be given special note is puzzling.
            5735guy
          • I think it was a reasonable thing to mention

            I did note that the Mac Mini might help me get rid of the big monster Dell, and mentioned I would probably need to run Windows on it. The Lenovo Tiny is a PC I didn't know about, and one that fits the bill.

            I am better for knowing it than not knowing it!
            Mac_PC_FenceSitter
          • I bet it would matter if the Mini were smaller.

            Just sayin
            ye
          • Size….

            Not at all. The size is not what matters (excuse the pun) but the productivity that can be achieved whatever the manufacturer or platform be it OS X, Windows or Linux.
            5735guy
          • You're the one who said:

            "Is not a big difference, but still smaller….
            A shallow argument and pretty pointless."

            Are you not?
            ye
          • exactly

            Fanboi maybe?
            Koymik
          • not really

            I mean it doesn't need to be smaller, all the mini computers are small.
            Jimster480
      • I like both

        The Lenovo is nice for corporate use because it allows card expansions for serial ports and such. There is also a bolt-on case to allow DVD drives if needed. We use these at work, bolting them on the backs of monitors.
        Rann Xeroxx
      • Lenovo Tiny

        It's a nice machine but this time I'm voting for the Mac Mini. They are approximately the same price but the advantage with the Mac Mini is that I can Boot Camp a dual Op/Sys. I have two of them now. One runs Apple/Windows Server 2012 and the other Runs Apple/Windows 7.

        I have a third one. But's it's an older model and only used as a video box for the TV.

        I'm not normally an Apple fan, but I find for this price they really allow me a dual feature.
        fldbryan@...
        • I always get a kick from people who advocate platform A over platform B...

          ...by saying platform A can run platform B. It's amazing how many of you miss the irony in such a statement.
          ye
          • And if fldbryan had said anything remotely like that....

            You might even have a point. He didn't. He said "really allow me a dual feature", which means he's not buying "platform a to run platform b", but a computer specifically intended from the get go for dual boot.

            Is is his computer after all, so what do you care?
            Mac_PC_FenceSitter
          • I put the IRON in IRONY

            The point is not petty squabbles over
            Platforms.
            The point is someone can use a Mac for a Primary Purpose such as Music Recording with minimal problems and still use Windows or other PC based software without needing two different Computers.
            robertkoa
    • small size PC

      another option would be be a an Intel NUC or Gigabyte Brix.

      http://arstechnica.com/gadgets/2014/04/review-gigabytes-amd-brix-gives-intels-mini-pc-a-run-for-its-money/
      sm108
      • yep

        Both of those are good too. if you want to build one yourself though there are alot of options, especially for the AMD side with AM1.
        Jimster480
      • Too many missing technologies & not P&P.

        NUC's & Brix's both lack Thunderbolt, Bluetooth and 802.11ac and depending on the model you only get USB2. When you get them you still have to install memory, SSD, bluetooth, and OS, etc.

        Just the extra time makes them much more expensive.

        The Mac Mini is take it out of the box, plug it into power, internet, and a monitor, and go.
        nrkmann@...
    • Tunderbolt

      None of these small PCs (e.g. Lenovo) have Thunderbolt, so I can't use Universal Audio's Apollo interface ... http://www.uaudio.com/interfaces/apollo-twin.html

      Sure, Pro Tools and Cubase run on both platforms, but only Macs have the hardware compatibility to run a music studio.
      davidr69