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A Quick Review of the Mac Mini with OS/X Lion compared to Linux

A client just lent me a new Mac Mini with OS/X Lion to play with. I think it’s interesting to compare it with regular PCs running Linux.

Hardware

The Mac Mini is tiny. It’s volume can be compared to that of a laptop. The entire outside apart from the base is made from aluminium which helps dissipate heat, it’s not as effective as copper but a lot better than plastic. The ports on the system are sound input/output, 4*USB, Ethernet, Firewire, Thunderbolt (replacement for Firewire), SDXC, and HDMI. It ships with a HDMI to DVI-D adapter which is convenient if you have an older monitor (or if you have a recent monitor but no HDMI cable as I do).

To open the case you unscrew the bottom, this is much like opening a watch. Also like opening a watch it’s not particularly easy to screw it back on tightly, I will probably return the Mac Mini without managing to completely screw the base in.

The hardware is very stylish and intricately designed, what we expect from Apple. It’s also quiet. In every way it’s a much better system than the workstation I’m using to write this blog post. The difference of course is that this workstation was free and the Mac Mini cost just over $1000 including the RAM upgrade. A Mac Mini could be a decent Linux workstation and if I see one about to be recycled I’ll be sure to grab it!

Installation

The Mac OS comes pre-installed so I didn’t get to do a full installation. When I first booted it up it asked me if I wanted to migrate the configuration from an existing server, I don’t know how well this works as I don’t have a second Mac system but the concept is a good one. Maybe having full support for such a migration process would be a good release goal for a Linux distribution.

After determining that the installation is a fresh one I was asked for a mac.com email address or other form of registration. I skipped this step as I don’t have such an email address, but it could be useful. Red Hat has “Kickstart” to allow configuration of an OS install based on a file from a server (via NFS or HTTP). Debian supports “preseeding” to take OS configuration options from a file at install time [1] and the same option can be used for later stages of OS autoconfiguration.

One thing that would be really useful is to allow the user to enter a URL for configuration data for an individual account or for all accounts, so someone with an account on one workstation could upload the configuration (which would be either encrypted or sanitised to not have secret data) and then download it when first logging in to a new system. I can easily take a tar archive of my home directory to a new system, but people like my parents don’t have the skill to do that.

One of the final stages of system configuration was to identify the keyboard. The system asked me to press the key to the right of the left shift key and then the key to the left of the right shift key and then offered me three choices of keyboard. That was an interesting way of reducing the list of possible keyboards offered to the user and thus preventing the user from selecting one that is grossly incorrect.

Cloud Storage

When first logging in I was asked for an iCloud [2] login. iCloud doesn’t seem like a service that should be trusted, it’s based in the US and has been designed to facilitate access by government agencies. Ubuntu One [3] is a similar service that is run by a more reputable organisation, but the data is still stored by Amazon (a US corporation) which seems like a security risk. Ubuntu One isn’t in Debian (which is strange as Ubuntu is based on Debian) so it was too much effort for me to determine whether it encrypts data in a way that protects the users against US surveillance.

The cost of Ubuntu One storage is $4 per month with music streaming. A better option is to use a self-hosted OwnCloud installation for a private or semi-private cloud [4]. A cheap server from someone like Hetzner (E49 per month for 3TB of RAID-1 storage) [5] is a good option for OwnCloud hosting. A cheap Hetzner server is about $US64 per month (at current conversion rates) which is equivalent to about 16 users of Ubuntu One for music streaming. So if 20 people shared a Hetzner server they could save money when compared to Ubuntu One while also getting a lot more storage. I’ve got about 300G of unused disk space on the Hetzner server that hosts my blog and when the system is migrated to a newer Hetzner server with 3TB disks it will have 2.5TB of unused space, I could store a lot of cloud data in that!

The main features of iCloud and Ubuntu One seem to be distribution of random data files (anything you wish), streaming music to various playing systems, and copying pictures from phones as soon as they are taken. These are all great features but it’s a pity that they don’t appear to support distributed document storage. Apple Pages apparently allows documents to be immediately saved to the cloud. I’d like to be able to save a file with Libre Office at home and then access it from my netbook using the cloud, of course that would require encryption for secret files but that’s not so hard to do. One advantage with such distributed storage is that when combined with offline-IMAP for email it would almost entirely remove the need for backups of the desktop systems I maintain for my relatives. I could have all their pictures and documents go to the cloud and all their email stay on the server so if their desktop PC dies I could just give them a new PC and get it all back from the cloud! OwnCloud supports replication, so if I got two servers I would be covered against a server failure. But I think that for a small server with less than a dozen users it’s probably better to just take some down-time when things go wrong and do regular backups to an array of cheap SATA disks.

App Store

Apple has an “App Store” in the OS. The use of such a store on a desktop OS is a new thing for me. It’s basically the same as the Android Market (Google Play) but on the desktop. I think that there is a real scope for an organisation such as Canonical to provide such a market service for Linux. I think that there is a lot of potential for apps to be sold for less than $10 to a reasonable number of Linux users. A small payment would be inconvenient for the seller if they have to interact with the customer in any way and also inconvenient for the buyer if they are entering all their credit card details into a web site for the sale. But for repeat sales with one company being an intermediary it would be convenient for everyone. A market program for a desktop Linux system could provide a friendly interface to selecting free apps from repositories (for Debian, Ubuntu, Fedora, or other distributions) and also have the same interface used for selecting paid applications.

Conclusion

This isn’t much of a review of Apple OS/X or the Mac Mini. Thinking about ways of implementing the best features of Lion on Linux is a lot more interesting. I admire Apple in the same way that I admire sharks, they are really good at what they do but they don’t care about my best interests any more than a hungry shark cares about me.

Update

I got the currency conversion wrong in the first version of this article. It seems that to save money via a shared Hetzner server instead of Ubuntu One about 20 users would be needed instead of 10. But that’s still not too many and would still give a lot more storage. It would be a little more difficult to arrange though, probably anyone who is seriously into computers knows 10 people who would want to share such a service (including people like their parents who want things to just work and don’t understand what’s happening). But getting 20 people would be more difficult.

8 comments to A Quick Review of the Mac Mini with OS/X Lion compared to Linux

  • Josh

    Personally, I look forward to the IntensePC: http://www.fit-pc.com/web/intensepc/ . Better specs than the Mac Mini, and much more open. Seems preferable for running Linux.

    I agree with you about using a Hetzner server as a giant pile of storage. Works great.

    I’d love to see a standardized Debian service for storing and syncing encrypted data. The Debian installer could connect to the network, ask the user for their email and password, and then grab piles of useful information to streamline the rest of the installer and set up the system according to the user’s preferences. Combine that with some helpful tools to set up preseed files based on one of the user’s existing systems, and a good runtime file sync system, and you have a strong, secure competitor to iCloud and Ubuntu One.

  • Julian Andres Klode

    Software Center (in the software-center package) is an app store for desktop linux. On Ubuntu, it also sells you applications, on Debian, it only presents free software.

  • Roger Lamotte

    “A Mac Mini could be a decent Linux workstation and if I see one about to be recycled I’ll be sure to grab it!” -> LOL, Macs don’t get recycled, they get sold used for almost the same price they have been bought

  • etbe

    Josh: Yes, that looks like a nice system. A little under-powered for the CPU when compared to the latest Mac Mini but still powerful enough for everything other than games and high resolution video decoding.

    Julian: Thanks for that info.

    Roger: eBay has some silly prices for Macs. But I can always hope for stupidity. I recently got a high spec PC from a rubbish pile with a failed RAID-0 array – presumably they dumped the entire system because RAID-0 lost their data.

  • Dave Anselmi

    I think you did the conversion the wrong way. 49 euro seems to be more like $63US. Still a good argument though.

  • nona

    I’m not sure if you ended up installing debian on it, but if you did would you mind filling in http://wiki.debian.org/InstallingDebianOn/Apple for the appropriate Macmini5,X?

    You can use f.e. http://wiki.debian.org/InstallingDebianOn/Apple/MacBookPro/7-1 as a template.

    Even just adding lspci -nn / cpuinfo / lsusb information is already useful.

  • etbe

    Dave: I did the conversion a couple of weeks ago (it took a while to get this article finished). But even that probably doesn’t account for the discrepancy between $37 and $63. I guess I just stuffed up when calculating it. I’ll edit the article.

    nona: Good suggestion, but unfortunately I ran out of time and have to return the system.

  • etbe

    http://wolfgang.lonien.de/2012/05/quote-of-the-day-3/

    Wolfgang Lonien awarded me “quote of the day” for my comment about sharks.

    http://wolfgang.lonien.de/2012/05/f8-and-be-there/

    He also wrote an interesting article about camera focussing which isn’t related to my post or Apple in any way.