Adventures With My Mac Mini

As a Mac user, up until a week ago, I have only owned Apple laptops. I began with an iBook just a week after VoiceOver was first released in OS X 10.4 Tiger in the spring of 2005, and I moved onto a Mac Book after that. Then, when the multi-touch glass trackpads became available on the Mac Book Pros, I bought the laptop I currently have a few years ago. However, I have always desired to own some kind of Mac desktop computer, and the Mini has always been a model I have frequently considered for purchase at some point.

When Apple announced that the Mini line was being refreshed a month or so ago, my interest in buying one was reborn. I read the updated specs and really found myself interested in finally taking the plunge. I have very much wanted to phase out my Windows desktop, since I am no longer in the reseller end of the adaptive technology business. I want to keep my Windows screen reader skills somewhat sharpened, but I simply do not use Windows enough to warrant the need to keep a desktop around here. Frankly, it has just been taking up space, and visiting family members have used it more than I have over the last year by a long stretch.Well, a couple of weeks ago on the 13th of August, I got off the fence and went to the Apple Online Store. At first, I told myself that I was just going to “price out” a model and see where the final price tag would put me. The online store for configuring a Mac is pretty straight forward and quite accessible. In fact, it’s probably TOO Accessible as far as my wallet is concerned ….. I should have registered the signs of danger while I started configuring a Mini, but I did not do so.

I selected the middle range model, the one with the 2.5 GHz Intel Core i5 processor and a 500 GB hard drive. At first, I upped the RAM to 8 GB, but I went back to 4 GB when I noted the $200 difference. I decided to get a Magic Trackpad and a MINI DISPLAYPORT TO VGA ADAPTER as well. I had an Apple USB keyboard I’ve been using for a few years, so that was, thankfully, one item I didn’t need. A friend of mine talked me out of selecting the external DVD player since, according to him, one could share the player of another Mac and use the drive quite successfully that way. Of course, though, I took the Apple Care option, because that has always proven to be an important piece of warrantee coverage to possess. Using
I later bought an 8 GB RAM kit which will upgrade the current 4 GB I have in the machine, a $58 hit compared to the $200 Apple was going to charge for 4 more GB of RAM.

I really was just pricing out the system. I was only just curious to see what the total damage would be. At least, this is what I kept telling myself as I configured it and then sat back to consider the whole package. I figured that I’d buy it in October or November as a birthday present to myself or early Christmas present when I had more money to use. Again, this is what went through my mind …. even as I next found myself checking out and buying the package.

I didn’t actually make the purchase without doing some initial research, however. To take a few steps back from the moment I bought my Mini, I spent some time reading and asking questions. I had heard a lot of conflicting information, for example, in regard to using a Mini without a monitor. At first, the setup I had in mind would not be with a monitor, so I was particularly concerned about this circumstance. I was told that earlier models could be used without the need for a monitor and only required an VGA adaptor. However, I read that later models could not be operated in this way, and that a monitor was necessary. Safari busy signals and general sluggishness were reported issues one would encounter if one did not attach a monitor to the Mini.

Fortunately, along came a post on the Mac-Access mailing list written by Chris Blouch in which he mentioned a particular setup he was using that enabled him to utilize his Mini without a monitor. At that time, I was informed by three different people that the mid 2011 Minis still were having issues if used without a monitor, which included System Preferences not being saved, VoiceOver not starting automatically with the system and serious sluggishness in Finder. Apparently, one can use the server model of the Mini without a monitor, but the non-server models were still going to be a problem without a monitor. Chris wrote that he had found a way around this problem, and he kindly went into more detail when I wrote him privately for more information.

There were two items needed, according to him, to “fool” the Mini into thinking it had a monitor connected. This would be a mini display port VGA adaptor sold by Apple and a VGA to NTSC converter. He recommended the converter that can be found
This combination was allowing him to happily use his Mini without the need for an adaptor, so this was exactly what I chose to do for my purposes as well.

I ordered the converter box, but the Mini arrived before anything else. In fact, it got here two days before the converter box and four days before the Magic Trackpad and the VGA adaptor. Thus, I got to try the Mini out without the setup I intended and, therefore, could find out for myself if it could run without a monitor.

I am aware that reports of various issues from very minor to more troublesome have been presented on the blind Mac user email lists in regard to utilizing a Mini without a monitor. For me, I had the following 3 oddities that cropped up right away, which mirrored a report a gentleman emailed me through the Macfortheblind site.

  1. VoiceOver would not start automatically with startup or reboot.
  2. System Preferences settings, like the option in the Keyboard pane to “use all F1, F2, Etc, keys as standard function keys”, would not be saved the next time the system was started or rebooted.
  3. Finder became quite sluggish to the point in which it had to be relaunched.

If I connected one of my external hard drives to the Mini, Finder would really get bogged down to the point of needing to be relaunched. I was able to actually set up the Mini and even configure my Mail accounts, but I did a lot of my transferring of folders from the Mac Book Pro to the Mini via the MBP with the Mini’s User folder shared. I would not go as far as saying that the Mini was “unusable”, but I don’t believe that I could utilize it like it was on a daily basis, especially with Finder being so sluggish. Oddly enough, though, Safari was not really a problem as far as the reported sluggishness some had mentioned. It got a little bogged down, but not serious enough to be annoying.

Once I received the rest of the necessary items, I am happy to report that the Mini works like it should. Note that the HDMI adaptor that comes with the Mini will not work to fool the Mini into thinking it has a monitor connected. Once I connected the mini display port to VGA adaptor into the unit, and then connected that to the converter box using the appropriate cable that is shipped with the box, upon starting the Mini, VoiceOver came up automatically and my system preferences were all as I had saved them. Additionally, there was no sluggishness in Finder or Safari, and I could immediately begin to put the Mini through its full paces.

So, thanks to Chris Blouch, who I want to publicly thank for his advice and his recommendations, I am a very satisfied Mac Mini user. Obviously, if you plan to use the Mini with a monitor, you won’t have to concern yourself with any of this information, but for those who might not want to have to have a monitor present, there is a very nice solution that will cost you only an extra $60 or so in total.

The Mini is a fantastic little machine that takes up little space on ones desk, measuring 1.4 inches tall and with a width and depth of 7.7 inches. With 4 USB ports, the NTSC converter box, which uses a USB port for power, is not a big deal to have connected. The Mini only weighs 2.7 pounds, so you can realistically take it with you if you really wanted to use it as a portable without a monitor. An audio line in minijack (digital/analog), and audio line out/headphone minijack (digital/analog), an HDMI port, a Firewire 800 port, an SDXC card slot, a Gigabit Ethernet port, and a new Thunderbolt port only give this tiny machine, which, btw, also has a built–in speaker and both Wifi and Bluetooth, a lot more power.

Overall, if you are looking for a small, inexpensive desktop model Mac, I would highly recommend the Mini. The prices for configurations are quite reasonable, and since it is Apple hardware, you are getting the best quality compared to the garden variety PC systems that might be cheaper. As my friend had indicated, sharing the DVD drive with another Mac to install applications works like a charm as well. I am definitely enjoying my Mini, and whether you choose to use it with or without a monitor, I am sure you will find the machine equally satisfying.

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