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The Daily Whim

The Daily Whim

Mon. Aug 01, 2005

Mac Mini Makes Multi-Monitor Madness

It started nearly a decade ago, with one 15 inch monitor. When I turned it on, Windows 95 appeared (In hindsight, it was probably best served small). Soon it became Windows 98, and a dual monitor setup (a new 17 inch next to the old 15 inch), to better accommodate apps like Photoshop, Dreamweaver, Fireworks, etc. that have lots of palettes that eat up screen space. The palettes all went onto the second monitor, and my productivity went up.

Eventually, it became a 19 inch monitor with a 17 inch by its right side running Windows XP, and the old 15 inch moved to the left, hooked up to an AVermedia TV Box 9. Though it appeared slightly insane, and I called it “Multi-Monitor Madness” at the time … well, it’s gotten worse. Not just because I replaced the decade old 15 inch CRT with a 17 inch LCD. But because last week, I got a Mac Mini.

And the result is so wicked cool. Three monitors, two operating systems, and one mouse to rule them all.

Rather than deal with multiple mice and keyboards, or even a KVM switch, I’ve gone the route lovingly detailed by Matt Haughey: “How to turn your dual-monitor PC into a dual mac-PC system.

It took a bit of futzing around with the settings in Synergy, the software that performs this seeming miracle of input manipulation. But the end result is that I can start my mouse cursor on the extreme right side of my right most PC monitor, move it across to the central PC monitor, and when it reaches the left edge of that screen, it passes smoothly onto the right edge of the left monitor … which is MacLand. When the cursor is on the PC side, the keyboard works for Windows. When the cursor passes into MacLand, the keyboard switches, too. You can even copy and paste text from one side to the other. It’s entirely intuitive, and just a rockin’ good time.

As Matt said, “Simply put, I get the best of both worlds [...] I can run any app that comes out and catches some buzz and I have the ultimate web browser testing environment. In a matter of seconds, I can tell you if a new design will work in any of six popular browsers across both platforms.

That’s pretty much what I was doing on Friday, the day after the Mini got here. And I have to say, the whole Apple experience, as hyped as it has been over the years, pretty well lived up to the promises.

I’d been hemming and hawing about spending the money for a couple of months, but I finally decided to do it, and placed the order online on July 20. This, of course, insured that mere days later, rumors would start floating about an imminent new line of Minis. But the rumors also noted that ship dates had been bumped to August 1, and sure enough, I saw online that mine had been bumped back, too.

So I waited. After Apple had made the deal with Intel, and it looked like the consumer line (iMacs and Minis) would be the first to be switched over, I’d decided to save a few bucks and get the low end Mini configuration. I figured in a couple of years I’d just be upgrading to the Mac-Intel Mini, so a newer faster Mini in the current lineup wouldn’t alter my purchase.

Then on Tuesday the 26th, I awaken to an e-mail informing me that my Apple ordered has been changed to “reflect new pricing.” Sure enough, the custom configuration I’d ordered was now $50 cheaper (nearly 10%). But when I looked online at the new Mini lineup, I saw that for a mere $21 more (still $29 less than my original purchase), I could get the faster processor, double the hard drive, and Bluetooth.

So I pounced, and called Apple. “er, um, is it too late to cancel my order and order one of these new configurations?” No, it wasn’t. She walked me through it, and noted that my old order had included a dialup modem, while that was a $29 add-on option for the new configuration I was ordering. I decided it was time to buy my first computer without a modem (it’s got wireless and Ethernet, and if my DSL goes down, I dialup on the PC). For some reason, that felt particularly good.

She also informed me the ship date would move up to July 28, two days later, because I was now ordering a stock configuration. Kewl. But it got Kewl-er. I checked my order status page religiously looking for signs it had shipped, but by noon Thursday the 28th, there’d been no sign. Still “preparing shipment.”

Then about 1pm, there was a knock on my door. Mr. FedEx had a Mini for me (photo of Bosco welcoming it). 48 hours after I’d changed the order on the phone (I didn’t pay for expedited shipping, either). Later that night, I got an e-mail from Apple saying that my order had shipped … in case I hadn’t noticed.

Now, I’m always excited when a new computer arrives (here’s evidence from April). So excited that the common utilitarian packing is almost unseen, it’s just the stuff I’ve got to get out of the way to get to the goods. Opening the Mini was somehow a much cleaner experience. I was struck immediately by a small box that strongly reminded me of the large filter boxes you get for a 72mm lens. Simple. Grey. Clean. It had all the software, manuals, and notices. All tucked into one neat box. Even the styrofoam surrounding the Mini was a bit more designed than might seem necessary. But the overall effect was a notable difference in the Mac vs. PC experience. And I hadn’t even plugged it in yet.

Putting aside the complexity of my current setup, the first boot was a breeze. I had a second keyboard and mouse hooked up (I knew getting Synergy to work might take a while), and the process is dead simple. It detected the wireless network (and/or the lack of an Ethernet connection), asked me for a password, and otherwise didn’t ask me anything harder than my name and address. It self registered with Apple, and less than ten minutes from “power on,” I was looking at the desktop, connected to the Internet. For that most basic experience of opening up a box and being able to quickly and easily get set up, booted up, and on the Internet within minutes, it’s hard to beat.

I’m still trying to find the “Start” button, though.

Seriously, I’m not exactly a MacVirgin. I’ve used and worked on Macs since ‘96, just not regularly, and not within my home. Still, I have Mac based friends and clients who will call me to ask about a problem they’re having with their Mac. I remind them, “you know, I can’t really walk you through this, because I don’t have a Mac,” but then I suggest a few things to try, if anything comes to mind.

So it’s not like I’m lost. I’m just getting better acquainted. Still, there’s some differences that take some adjustment. As intuitive as it is to move the mouse from one OS to the other, the keyboard shortcuts don’t follow. On the PC, I can Ctrl+C and Ctrl+V in my sleep. But if I Ctrl+C on the PC, I have to Command+V on the Mac (Command is the squiggly Swedish road sign thingey). However, on my Dell keyboard, Command is Alt. So it’s Ctrl+C, then Alt+V. Due to years of built in habit, that for some reason makes my brain short and my fingers tremor in uncertainty.

I’ve got an Honest-to-Steve Apple keyboard. It’s plugged in, and still works with Synergy. But I’ve always hated Mac keyboards. I Am One with my current keyboard, so I’ll just have to overcome the brain shorts.

So … what do I intend to do with this new addition? Well, like I said, I was doing it Friday. Thursday night, in an act of near sacrilege, the first thing I downloaded was IE 5.2 for the Mac. It has been the bane of my professional existence for some time, and in a fitting act of irony, Apple decided that with the Tiger release of OSX, it would no longer include IE. So I had to download it.

You see, I find myself building sites, and when I e-mail the client with a draft layout to view, they say “it looks great, except the text overlaps on the top right, and there’s hamsters dancing across the bottom of the page.” I ask them what browser they’re using on their Mac. “Internet Explorer.” I have to tell them, well, in the six browsers I tested, there’s no hamsters, but if you’ll send me a screenshot, I’ll see what I can do.

Now, I’ll be able to see the hamsters myself.

Safari is obviously a far more code compliant browser than IE, but it, too, has its quirks, and I can now view any design, in any browser, Mac or PC. That’s a solid tax deductible reason for getting a Mini.

But it will also be the “multimedia machine,” as little demand as I have for that kind of thing. The Mac monitor is also connected to the TV Box, which allows me to view cable TV in a Picture-in-Picture window and still use the Mac, or go full screen TV with one push of a button. And after I got IE running, the second thing I did was transfer 8 GB of MP3’s from my PC to the Mac, and import them into iTunes. Since I tend to have music playing while working (meaning, while Photoshop, Dreamweaver, Fireworks, etc., are all open), it’s good to get that load off the PC. And though I’m not sure everyone would hear the difference, the sound is better to my ears (not that my PC has a high end sound card). It seems rounder, and less compressed.

Otherwise, I’ve just been piddling so far. I installed TextWrangler, because I’m a plain text kind of guy, regardless of operating system. But not much else. The software crack on the system so far appears to be Garageband. I downloaded the two tracks that Trent Reznor has made available as Garageband tracks, and playing with them is just an absolute hoot. I think I’ve got a good ear, but I have no musical skillz whatsoever … so I imagine I’ll be making some real noise with Garageband. The software instruments are pretty amazing … the kitties really don’t like the gong.

Yes, in that little 6.5×6.5×2 inch box, I’ve got a gong. And a grand piano. And lots more.

So that’s the level of my interaction with the machine at this point. I eventually hope to get under the hood more, install the developer tools, get a proper faux-TextDrive server running with Apache/PHP/MySQL and all that command line goodness. But so far all I’ve done is drag Terminal out of the Utilities folder into the dock. It has a nice welcome message.

I’ll get there. I haven’t finished with the GUI Goodness yet. I’m still getting acclimated. So if you are an experienced Mac user and have advice or software pointers (preferably of the free or open source variety), I’m all ears.

If I can hear you over iTunes and Garageband.


Peanut Gallery

1  rturner wrote:

Pretty neat, and tax deductible to boot. On the other hand, I can see the IRS auditor now….”Und vat is zis Garageband?.....und vat percentage of time do we think zis I-Tune sing might be running, hmmmm?”

Although my future lens is somewhat cloudier than our buddy Phattboi, I’m getting into some of this new-fangled stuff too. I’ve got some I-Tune stuff running off a pc in another room, a movie running in a sub-window from a Tivo upstairs while it burns to DVD on my pc. At the same time I’m scheduling stuff to record on the Tivo remotely while I justify it all testing php/mysql pages on the linux box upstairs.

I’m working, really I am.

2  Reid wrote:

I’m working, really I am.

Uh-huh. I’ve found that “knowledge for the sake of knowledge is a noble quest” makes a better sounding excuse.

Tivo is another technological arena we haven’t yet entered here at Bunker PD. My TV Box is display only, it won’t feed to a hard drive. And I figure I eat enough hard drive space with still images, without getting into those movin’ pitchers.

3  John wrote:

I’ve toyed with the idea of adding something Mac-ish to my collection of computing wares. Your Mini experience has inspired me!

4  emcee fleshy wrote:

I’m frightened. Just reading rturner’s comment made my processor start smoking.

And Reid, now that I finally know somebody who uses all of the different browsers on both platforms, I can finally ask: which one is the best?

Comment by emcee fleshy · 08/01/2005 10:52 PM
5  Reid wrote:

Well, I don’t know that I use them … I have them. I have to start by restating that IE 5.2 for the Mac is a ancient schizophrenic piece of crap browser. I’ve found bugs I didn’t even know I had … because I don’t. The browser does.

Safari would probably be my second choice for a browser. But it is not as customizable as Firefox, which wins hands down despite its memory leak issues (which supposedly will be fixed in 1.1 or 1.5 or whatever they’re calling the next release).

Internet Explorer 6.0/PC is a distant third. And from the screenshots I’ve seen of IE 7.0, I don’t expect that to change.

6  Noah wrote:

I’d love to have a setup for sharing my PC and my Powerbook on one monitor, being able to use the same keyboard, mouse, speakers and other peripherals between them with easy switching. You wouldn’t have happened to run across a site detailing how to do that, would you?

7  Reid wrote:

Noah, I have no idea how you’d get both OS’s to work on one monitor. I think that might be called a “Mac-Intel,” and is still 12 to 18 months off. But if your PC and your Powerbook have IP’s on the same network, the Synergy solution detailed by Matt ought to allow you to set your Powerbook next to your PC monitor, and use one mouse and keyboard to operate them both. Trust me, it’s heavenly.

As for speakers and peripherals, that’s a problem. I’m switching my audio plug when needed (luckily, the two inputs for it are mere inches apart). And I got an external Firewire DVD burner so I could use it on both systems, but have hardly had the Mac long enough to need to burn a DVD.

And we have to remember, it wasn’t that terribly long ago that the only place you could get a Mac and PC to read/write the same document was on the web.

8  Sunny wrote:

Congratulations on the Mac Mini. I just recently turned to the dark side myself with a PowerBook.

On the browser front, give Camino a go. You will like its simplicity and responsiveness. I have forgotten Safari completely (don’t dig the metal interface). Download the Camino alphas. I have been using them without a hitch.

9  Peter wrote:

Actually, it’s perfectly possible to get Mac and Windows running on the same monitor, assuming you want to; it’s called VirtualPC, and it’s currently sold by Microsoft (who bought it off long-time Mac developers Connectix). Windows (or Linux) in a window; I haven’t figured out yet how to install an instance of Solaris/x86 under VirtualPC.

The memory leaks in Safari 1.3 finally drove me to Firefox, which behaves better (so far) under OSX 10.3. I haven’t tried dragging Safari 2 over from 10.4 yet, but who knows?

Other Mac browsers: OmniWeb, iCab.

Text editors: BBEdit. Accept no substitutes. The coolest text editor on earth. I don’t use 5% of its features; but I pony up my money every year for each version upgrade, just to make sure they keep working on it.

Graphic editors: GraphicConverter by Torsten Lemke. Imports/exports to a ridiculous number of formats. Eminently scriptable. If it had a layer feature, I’d have no further reason to use Photoshop. There have been periods when Torsten was releasing a new version every few days. He seems to have slowed down in recent years; maybe he got a girlfriend.

The most important advantage to getting the second-generation mini, for a Graphics Guy, is the updated video card; the previous Radeon 9200 did not support the CoreImage technology in 10.4, the newer Radeon 9550 does. All the other stuff (bigger hard drive, more RAM-even 512MB isn’t enough, included WiFi/Bluetooth) is just gravy.

Although the specific timing of this new machine is a modest surprise, its appearance is not; the mini (and the iBook, which uses a similar motherboard) were the only items in the product line which didn’t support CoreImage. I remember cornering Apple’s OS 10.4 product manager at Macworld Expo San Francisco in January, demanding a definitive statement on whether CoreImage would work on the newly-introduced mini’s video module; he weaselled for a minute, and then said: “Well, it would be a really bad thing if it didn’t…” In that sense, Apple’s been playing catch-up since the release of Tiger in late April, and they’ve had to update the eMac, the iMac, the iBook and the mini just to get the full product line supporting the current OS.

And hey: on Tuesday, Apple released that multi-button mouse that PC people have been whining about forever…

10  Reid wrote:

Peter, first, thanks for all the software tips. I’m slowly checking out the various alternatives I’ve been missing on the PC side. I’d forgotten about Virtual PC (my one experience with it was painfully slow, but that was some time ago), but I think Noah wants a “two free-standing boxes on one monitor” solution, and I’m not aware of one.

The memory leaks in Safari 1.3 finally drove me to Firefox

Ah, the irony. I haven’t paid much attention to memory leaks with Safari 2.0. But you’re right about 512 MB. It’s … adequate … but I can’t imagine the old baseline of 256 MB. If I want to run Garageband with one of Reznor’s big files, I have to make sure everything is shut down. That’s when I discovered what absolute hogs some of the widgets can be (nearly 30MB to render one world clock … then nearly 30MB more to render a second world clock … with only the hour hand different?). So I have the calculator and weather widgets working, but that’s it. A gig of RAM would be nice, but Apple’s price up front was nearly a third of the machine cost. Maybe later from a lower priced vendor.

But on the video front, system info says mine has a Radeon 9200, not the 9550. Still, as I’ve said, I see myself upgrading to one of the Mac-Intel Minis in a couple of years. I know it’s probably quite un-Mac-centric to say this, but I bought in based on planned obsolesence, and an attractive price point for it. Two years use equals ~$300 per year, then get a new one. If I run the same numbers on the PC side based on my past history, it’s more like ~$750 per year of use. Not quite as “disposable.”

11  Matt McIrvin wrote:

The memory consumption of widgets is still significant, but it seemed as if it became much less dire with OS 10.4.2. I think they plugged a huge memory leak in Dashboard.

12  Peter wrote:

Right. Buying any more memory from Apple than you’re forced to buy is a sucker’s bet, and any custom config means you can’t return it. But after loud, angry protests over the 256MB stock setup in the first-generation mini, Apple finally caved in: you can bring aftermarket RAM in to the Apple Store (or any Apple Authorized Service Center) and have them install it without voiding your warranty.

In the real world, 512MB seems to be a magic number for all versions of OSX; the system speeds up considerably once you go over that point. Poisonnally, I would drop the hundred smackers on a 1 gig stick and get it put in, just to eliminate RAM as an issue (it may still be an issue at 1024MB, but there won’t be anything further you can do about it).

9200 instead of 9550? Uh-oh; looks like you got the first-gen, not the second-gen. The practical test of CoreImage capability is dropping a Widget on the desktop; do you get the ripple effect?

Noah – if Reid is right, and your objective is two computers swapping control of a single monitor, that’s what a KVM (keyboard/video/mouse) switch is for. Dr. Bott in Portland, OR makes a wide range of rugged passive switches, but there are comparable ones from several companies. Plug the video and USB on 2+ computers in, and plug a single USB keyboard/mouse and monitor into the output, then switch between the various computers. I run three Macs and an Athlon XP off a single monitor, an Apple keyboard and a Microsoft Intellimouse.

Unless, of course, your desire is to get the video output of the PC to show up on the display of your Powerbook. That isn’t possible; nor is it possible to get Mac video output onto the display of a Windows laptop. The display of a laptop shows only the output of the CPU it’s physically attached to. However, if you have a fast network (and you could have-the 15” and 17” Powerbooks have Gigabit ethernet, and gigabit cards for PCs are cheap), you could run Netopia’s Timbuktu a remote-control application that allows you to control another computer through the graphical interface.

13  Reid wrote:

Matt: “The memory consumption of widgets is still significant, but it seemed as if it became much less dire with OS 10.4.2

Hmm. The hoggish behavior I’ve seen used to be worse? Because the upgrade to 10.4.2 was one of the first things I did. Honestly, the whole widgets thing seems a bit forced to me. Even before I knew the RAM implications, I just didn’t find much that appealed to me. But I’ve never been a widget kind of guy. I like it simple.

Peter: “9200 instead of 9550? Uh-oh; looks like you got the first-gen, not the second-gen.

According to the current Mini specs page, all the Minis still have the 9200.

The practical test of CoreImage capability is dropping a Widget on the desktop; do you get the ripple effect?

Well, I don’t see anything odd or unexpected, but since I don’t see anything that qualifies as a “ripple” (I’m not sure what I should be seeing), I’d guess not.

As is the case in a lot of areas, I don’t know what I’m missing because I have no comparison.

14  Robby Suttman wrote:

I’m a mac mini owner and have been thinking about dual monitors for a while. what would be the easiest way to have two monitors hooked up to my mac mini?

15  Reid wrote:

Robby, it’s a common question, judging from the number of search returns I see where people end up at this page looking just that.

As of now, I don’t believe there’s a way. But Tritton Technologies makes USB video cards for PC’s, and their home page currently claims that a new one for the Mac Mini is “coming soon.”

I have no idea about the quality of such a setup, or if it is vaporware (it was first mentioned at Engadget months ago).

16  Peter wrote:

I’m a mac mini owner and have been thinking about dual monitors for a while. what would be the easiest way to have two monitors hooked up to my mac mini?

Since there are no expansion slots in the mini, and so no way to add a PCI/AGP card to drive a second monitor, the only way I can think of is to split the analog video signal from the digital video signal coming out of the DVI port. Somebody on eBay was selling a DVI-to-DVI+VGA splitter dongle for attachment to stuff like ATI’s All-In-Wonder cards; in theory, that might work. As for what you’ll actually see on the monitor, I’m guessing there won’t be any option other than mirrored display (same image on both monitors). I think it makes more sense to either get a bigger monitor, or a more tweakable computer.

USB video? [choke]; [gasp]...

Reid: I see from the mini specs page that you’re correct; it is a Radeon 9200 still. Either my misconception was a wishful hallucination, or Apple changed the specs between the initial announcement and the release. I still think this is a very bad thing, even though CoreImage doesn’t do much yet.

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