I have been using a Mac mini to port my C++/Qt based code to Mac OS X for the last 3.5 years. This is one of the early PowerPC based Mac minis, upgraded to 1GB of RAM. Being Apple hardware, it is expensive for what you get. But it has served me well. The small form factor (approx 17 x 17 x 5 cm) has also been useful in my cramped office, where I have it attached to the same monitor, mouse and keyboard as my Windows box through a KVM switch. But it is struggling to keep up with PerfectTablePlan’s ever increasing code base. A clean build of the PerfectTablePlan source into a Universal (fat) binary now takes an eye-watering 36 minutes to compile and link on the Mac mini. Building a PowerPC-only debug version still takes nearly half that time. That is painful, even just for occasional porting work.
As my main development environment is Windows, I can’t really justify the cost (or office space requirements) of a Mac Pro. So I decided to buy a new Mac mini, with an Intel Core 2 Duo processor. I did look around to see if I could find one at a discount. However, this being Apple hardware, no-one dares sell at anything significantly less than Apple’s RRP. I bought the smaller (120GB) disk variant and had the dealer upgrade it to 2GB RAM, which tests on my old Mac mini indicated should be plenty for compiling and linking. I didn’t want to do the memory upgrade myself as I know, from experience with my first Mac mini, that removing the case involves putty knives and some very worrying cracking noises.
I had all sorts of problems trying to get the right cables. Firstly I wanted a Firewire cable so I could copy the set-up across from the old machine to the new machine using Apple’s Migration Assistant software. But it turns out that the old Mac Mini has a Firewire 400 6-pin socket, whereas the new Mac Mini has a Firewire 800 9-pin socket. I ordered a 6-pin to 9-pin Firewire cable cable. Then I discovered that there is more than one type of DVI cable. The old Mac mini was attached to my KVM switch with a DVI-I cable. The new Mac mini only accepts mini-DVI or (via a supplied adaptor) DVI-D. So I ordered a dual link DVI-D to DVI-D cable as well.
Once I had the right cables things went relatively smoothly. The Migration Assistant software copied almost all the apps and data across from the old machine to the new one. It even preserved settings for the apps, e.g. the email accounts in my Thunderbird email client. I just had to re-install XCode (which wasn’t copied across) and rebuild my Qt libraries (to avoid copious warnings due to the fact they had been built with an earlier version of XCode/gcc).
To use the migration assistant you simply:
- connect the 2 machines with a Firewire cable
- start-up the old machine with the ‘T’ key depresses to put it in ‘Target’ mode
- start-up the new machine
- follow the on-screen instructions
Nice. If only it was was that easy to set-up a new Windows machine.
A quick test shows that the new Mac mini is nearly 6 times faster at compiling and linking a Universal binary of PerfectTablePlan from scratch:
The time the new Mac mini takes to compile and link an Intel-only debug release of PerfectTablePlan also compares favourably with a similar build on my Windows 2.13 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo box with 4GB of RAM.
This isn’t a fair hardware comparison, as the two machines are using completely different compilers and linkers and the Windows box was running various background services. But it certainly shows that Intel-based Mac minis are worth considering for use as development machines.
 The newer machine is using a newer version of XCode/gcc.
 The Windows box is using Visual Studio 2005.