Last week, the old gaming laptop that my wife and I had repurposed for a media center PC decided to overheat and fry. I chose to replace it with a late 2012-edition Mac mini server I bought last week from Apple. I had highlighted the Mac mini in my recent gift guide and it does have a heck of a lot of bang for both the buck and space.
In a future article, I’ll talk more about my reasoning for the choice and steps to set the system up. For now, though, I want to share with you my first impressions (and some questions) after spending the weekend installing Windows 8 and migrating or reinstalling all my applications.
How the machine is used
Because we work from home, the PC we use in the media center is as much conference and collaboration system as it is a media center. We use it as a whiteboard when we have planning sessions, I often do my morning reading on it (sitting on the couch, while drinking my first cup of coffee). And I write a lot of articles on it, including this one.
It is not (much) used as a gaming PC, because we have Xboxen and a PS3 that do a great job. I might want to play some World of Warcraft on it (if I ever get back into the game), but that’s the extent of the gaming needs. However, we do watch a lot of video on this, especially YouTube videos (I watch a lot of technical videos and conferences), and so video performance is important.
Of particular note is that this PC supports two keyboards and two mice. My wife and I long ago figured that coordinating who had the keyboard was a royal pain, so we each keep our own personal keyboard and mouse on our own side of the couch. This also works well, because she likes different sized keyboards and mice than I do, and – apparently – there’s also “boy crud” from time-to-time on my gear.
Mac as BIOS
I’m still trying to get a handle on the relationship of the Mac environment and its Bootcamp Windows loader. I bought the Mac mini server, which comes with two drives and configured the machine to dual-boot.
I left Mac OS X Mountain Lion on one drive and dedicated the second drive to Windows 8. After installing, I set (from the Mac OS X side) the machine to use the Windows drive for startup, and so the machine boots directly into Windows on power-up.
During initial setup, I bound theBluetooth keyboard to OS X and when I installed Windows, I didn’t set up Bluetooth, but I still had access to the keyboard. This gave me the impression the keyboard (and probably a lot of what we would have once-called BIOS-level components) was being driven by either Mac OS X, or at least from the Mac’s firmware.
However, once I finished setting everything up, and I put the machine in the rack by our big screen TV, I ran into some problems. I added my wife’s keyboard and mouse, and suddenly the original keyboard wouldn’t work when I booted Windows.
I had to shut down Windows, boot into OS X, and rebind both keyboards to Mac OS X’s Bluetooth. At this point, both keyboards worked on OS X. I then had to restart, this time into Windows 8, and then using Windows 8’s Bluetooth, bind both keyboards to Windows 8.
This is all well and good, and both keyboards work nicely (as I said, I’m writing this now using the machine), except for one problem. Every so often, the keyboard seems to stickkkkkkkkk. It will suddenly insistttttttttttttttttttttt on typingggggggggggggggggggggggggggg a letter over and over. A few hits of the Escape key and it stops, but I’ve never seen this behavior before, and I’m not sure how to solve it.
Because I know there’s some interaction between the Mac firmware and the keyboard, I’m not sure if the problem needs to be solved on the OS X side, the Windows side, or somewhere in between.
Start Menu and Modern (Metro) apps
I’ll describe this in more depth in another article, but Start8, set Windows to boot into the Desktop, and all was much, much better.. It’s very difficult to configure. I spent five bucks, bought
I did try out a few Metro, er, Modern UI apps, just for kicks. I found the Netflix app to be pretty nice (actually, much nicer than the desktop app, but not as nice as the Apple TV implementation). My wife didn’t like the AllRecipes app as much as the Web page equivalent, and I found myself completely annoyed by the Evernote app.
Evernote in the Modern UI appears to simply display all your notes in a stream across the page. There doesn’t appear to be any organization or rhyme or reason to it. Worse, even though I had the Evernote Windows Desktop application installed on the Windows 8 Desktop (and it has synchronized my many gigabytes of information), the Modern UI app insisted on doing a complete sync on its own, presumably because it doesn’t share the database with the desktop application.
One other annoyance about the Modern UI apps: our password manager didn’t know of them. For every Modern UI app (and almost all of them require one password or another), I had to switch back into the desktop, load up my password manager, search for the login credentials, and then switch back to the Modern UI and enter the information in.
It felt very hacky.
On the other hand, one thing that is intriguing is the idea of splitting the Windows screen. If you take a Modern UI app and drag it over to the right of the screen, you can shrink the Windows desktop a bit, and have a Modern UI app in its own pane on the right or left side of the screen. I’m not yet sure what benefit that would be, but it’s cool. I had originally thought I’d keep Evernote in that side pane, to be able to constantly take notes, but, as I mentioned above, Evernote’s app is a little disappointing.
I use this machine from about a 10-foot distance. Because text was way too small at 1080p, I set up my previous media center PC to 720p resolution (which means 720 pixels tall). Windows 8, as it turns out, doesn’t like anything less than 768, and the standard resolutions that are 728 tall are not wide-screen.
More of a challenge, the Intel HD4000 chipset in the Mac mini didn’t really groove on the idea of working at anything other than the TV’s native 1920x1080 resolution. I found the HD4000 configuration panel wouldn’t let me adjust overscan unless I selected the 1080p resolution option.
This results in two problems: seeing the screen, and more work for the video processor. So far, the video processor seems generally up to the task, in that I only noticed a small amount of degradation vs. the performance of the gaming laptop, and that was just subjective (and without tweaking video playback). It helps that the Mac mini has quad-core i7 processors and 16GB of RAM.
I (generally) solved the it’s-too-far-away-to-see problem by upping the text size in the Windows 8 Display control panel to 150%. This uses a snazzy feature called display scaling to make things moderately readable.
There is a gotcha, though. If you set the text size in the Display control panel to 150%, when you watch a video and want to full-screen it, the Windows taskbar shows at the bottom of the screen. There’s a compatibility option that can be set for applications like VLC to turn off display scaling, and that allows full-screen video to display at full screen.
Unfortunately, if you want to watch a full-screen YouTube video, you have to turn off display scaling in your browser, and then all the browser text gets real small. Still digging to find a work-around for this. If anyone out there knows of one, feel free to share.
I have noticed that – from time to time – my mouse seems to track less accurately than I’d like. It’s like a car where the tires are slipping. I haven’t yet tracked down what’s causing this, although I have the weird feeling it might be Chrome.
When I first installed Windows 8 and started using it, I noticed that there were a ton of Chrome processes running right after I booted up, even if I hadn’t yet run Chrome in that boot iteration. I also found the PC to sometimes seem quite sluggish. When I disabled Chrome from running on boot, I found that that the PC seemed less sluggish, even with Chrome running after hand-launching it.
A few times, I’ve noticed that when Chrome is running, Windows 8 seems to become a little less responsive. I haven’t been able to objectively verify this, but subjectively, this does seem to be the case. I’ll let you know if I find anything out, and if you’ve noticed anything, please share below.
Another thing I noticed was that the machine seemed tangibly less crisp once I installed Office 2010 and Acrobat 9 Standard on the system. I haven’t had a chance to see what these guys dropped into the background and are running, but I’m sure there’s some detritus I can clean out and might decruft things a little bit.
A few other strangenesses
I use HDMI to output audio and video from the Mac mini (as I did previously with the now-dearly-departed gaming laptop). The HDMI signal goes through my amp and an HDMI switch, before it gets to the TV. I have a bunch of other devices I switch between, including each of our Tvios, the gaming consoles, and the Apple TV.
Last night, we noticed the strangest thing. I switched from the PC (technically the Mac mini) to the Apple TV, and suddenly we started hearing voices, very quietly coming from the Mac mini. I recognized the voices as from an IBM technical YouTube video I’d been watching earlier in the day – but that video hadn’t been opened for hours. Curious, we switched back to the Mac mini, looked at all open windows, and couldn’t find anything related to that video open or running.
It’s still a mystery.
Another, minor strangeness is the “ENG” keyboard indicator that lives in the system tray. Even though I keep customizing the Notification Area and keep turning the system Input Indicator off, it turns itself back on. Why? Your guess is as good as mine.
Windows 8 comes with its own native antivirus protection, in the form of Windows Defender. It’s not a half-bad tool that’s, essentially, the old Microsoft Security Essentials, bundled into the OS. What’s weird is the little MSE tray icon, the little house, is now gone. So there’s no visual indicator that everything’s good or potentially problematic. Windows 8 also removed the “Scan with Security Essentials” context menu, although I hacked a little batch script that does the same thing.
It’s a shame, though, that you can’t (without hacking) just right-click and scan something. I’d think keeping systems virus-free would be a top Microsoft priority.
My last two observations relate once again to the so-called “Modern UI,” which is somewhat jarring in Windows 8. It just randomly shows up. For example, if you want to configure a Bluetooth device and you’re happily working in a standard Windows window, all of a sudden the entire screen will turn white and you’re blasted into full-screen Modern UI mode to add a device.
But not all device configuration involves seeing the white light. Many device setup options remain normal Control Panel operations. The inconsistency is weird.
Finally, the live corners are distracting, especially when aiming for a Save icon or the red X that closes a window. More often than not, a quick mouse traversal will display a rectangle (on the left, when saving). This is whatever app the Modern UI thinks you might want to run. When you move to the top right, to close a Window, the moderately useless “Charms” bar shows up.
Neither of these is anything like a deal-killer, but they are a bit annoying. Start8 can turn them off, and I may well do so if they prove to be too intrusive.
So there you are. The jury is still out on this little adventure. After devoting three full days getting this system up to snuff and migrating all our applications and data over, I’m hoping this is a workable solution. I also very much like having the option to reboot and have a Mac environment for some of the tools I use on the Mac side of the computing world (I don’t like OS X, but some applications are invaluable).
I’m disturbed by some of the weird behaviors (the keyboard repeats, the sound issue, the occasional slow-downs, and the challenge of getting video to full-screen properly), but overall, it’s a crisp system that works surprisingly well.
And, despite all our hand-wringing, Windows 8 doesn’t seem to be nearly as bad as we’d all worried it would be – at least once you put the Start menu back in place.
Stay tuned. I’ll have more to say, including details about setting this all up to begin with. But, for now, I’m just going to see if the machine behaves itself for a few days.
POSTSCRIPT: I’ve typed about 12,000 characters and the keyboard hasn’t gone into repeat mode. Let’s hope it continues to behave itself.
Special thanks to Ed Bott for his hints for getting this set up.