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Review: Mac mini Hard Drives
Posted Jan 4, 2006 Print Version     Page 1of 1

Synopsis: After a fast and powerful CPU, the next thing any video editor needs is storage. So we brought in a few of the hard drives designed to match the Mac mini to see how they, um, stacked up: the Maxelerate from WiebeTech, the MiniMate from Micronet, the Mini from LaCie, and the MiniStack from NewerTechnology.

The Mac mini is winning attention with its compact construction and admirable capability. For instance, it ships with iMovie HD and iDVD 5. For editors with gear just a few years old, the mini's single 1.42GHz processor and internal DVD±R/RW burner is pretty capable. The small size and near-silent operation of the mini—compared to a big, old, multi-fan tower—is also pretty desirable.

After a fast and powerful CPU, the next thing any video editor needs is storage. The size of the mini precludes cramming a 3.5" drive inside. Since some editors work with clients in the editing bay, storage that looks as good as it works has its place. So we brought in a few of the hard drives designed to match the Mac mini to see how they, um, stacked up.

We tested (from top, as shown above) the Maxelerate from WiebeTech, the MiniMate from Micronet, the Mini from LaCie, and the MiniStack from NewerTechnology. Another entry in this category is the Pal from AcomData, but we were unable to secure one in time for this review.

Stacking Up
All four drives that we tested are designed to stack conveniently under or on top of the Mac mini (second from top). Some maintain the look of the Mac mini better than the others, but all are very similar in appearance. Three of the four drives offer both USB and FireWire hubs on the back of the drive enclosure. Having both connectivity options is critical to augment the mini's limited space for ports. If you are used to the plethora of ports available on most towers, you may be surprised that the mini only has space for one FireWire and two USB 2.0 ports, so the amount of peripherals you can connect is more limited than what you'll find on most desktop editing systems.

All the external drives rely on external power supplies. While handy in terms of saving space, external adapters create a morass of wires that have to go somewhere. Though they all played nicely on a single power strip in testing, "wall warts" would have helped to reduce this clutter; small, switching "warts" that plug into power strips are available.

Each of the packages also includes FireWire and USB cables. Newer Technology's bondi-blue cables are 17" long. Micronet provides two cute little cables: an 8" USB and 7" FireWire that are mini-matching white. Wiebe includes standard, black, multi-foot-length cables. LaCie includes branded white 9" and 15" FireWire cables that are the only ones to have in-line toroids for isolation and protection. While we really like the ultra-short 7" cables, and wish they were available separately to use with pocket drives, they turned out to be less practical for the stackable drives than we thought. More on this later.

The NewerTechnology MiniStack's bundle includes Intech Speed Tools and EMC/Dantz Retrospect. The MiniStack has an internal, multi-speed fan that the user can set to automatic or manual control, high or low speed—a unique feature among the group. It also has a heat sink on the bottom of the enclosure to help radiate heat from the drive.

MicroNet's MiniMate is a completely "silent" system with no fan. However, the hard drive mechanism inside is clearly louder than the MiniStack's. As we used the drives, the Newer MiniStack fan kicked on and made the two drives equally annoying, but at different pitches.

Wiebe's Maxcelerate has a continuous fan and a vent going from side to side, quite a departure from everything else blowing out the back. The top is also slightly smaller than the bottom, making it look sort of like an ingot of silver. It has four rubber feet, whereas the other units have bases very similar, if not identical, to the Mac mini itself. It is also unusual in that the Wiebe logo lights up when the connected Mac mini turns on, even when the Wiebe is off. Color differentiates between modes and activity.

LaCie's Mini does not have a fan and is thus very quiet. The industrial design and metal case has air vents underneath and four corners that lift up and provide space between the LaCie Mini and whatever is on top of it. We'll see if this space was enough to do the job. The LaCie has only two FireWire ports. You can connect this drive and pass on the connection, but there is no USB.

The Heat Is On
We played a DV clip from each of the hard drives, simultaneously, for three hours. As we did this, each of the systems, including the Mac mini itself, heated up considerably. As the drives under the mini heat up, this heat rises into the air intake vents of the mini.

By using a digital thermometer, we measured a 10-15 degree drop in the temperature blowing out the back of the mini when it was lifted above the drive beneath it by less than an inch using two thin styrofoam "rails." This opens the market for someone to develop a mini spacer that allows for, or deliberately creates, airflow between stacked mini peripherals.

The LaCie raised-corner design puts air between the units and avoids direct physical contact. However, I measured the space to be just 3 mm. That's a hair higher than two stacked pennies. If there were a constant breeze—like in front of a fan—this would be useful, but not silent, which the LaCie certainly is. My tests indicate that more space is required to achieve a cooling effect on stacked components.

If you plan on operating WiFi or Bluetooth, you can't put the drives on top of the mini because its antennas are in small cutouts in the metal shielding just under the plastic on top. Put a metal-cased drive on there and you've effectively killed wireless connectivity. However, if you're not wireless, drives on top are acceptable. Just be aware that the mini creates heat that will affect the drives above it.

Unlike enclosures at the dawn of FireWire, which had internal power supplies and cooling fans, most single-drive enclosures made today rely on passive cooling and external power supplies. This can cut costs but may come at the expense of your drive. Passive cooling is fine if the drive is all alone in a well-ventilated, cooled area. But we know better. Look in our edit suites and you'll see stacks of drives, piled up, in a corner, on top of the hot computer, etc. Pro users need enclosures that actively cool the drive and play well with other drives—lots of other drives. Either that, or suffer the consequences.

This is important because neither the case nor the drive manufacturer's warranties will be much consolation if your drive dies of heat stroke the night before a massive project is completed. I really like enclosures that actively dissipate heat. NewerTechnology and WiebeTech are the clear leaders here.

The Need for Speed
I used Intech Speed Tools to provide a comparison of all the drives connected to the same computer the same way. As USB 2.0 gains popularity and, in some cases, replaces FireWire, it is important to note that my tests showed that every single drive was fastest through FireWire, consistently testing at 30-35Mbps. The drives were significantly slower via direct USB connection at an average of 14-18Mbps, and slowest through a USB 2.0 hub, failing to achieve even 13Mbps when all were connected simultaneously.

Also, USB drives act differently when the Mac mini sleeps: they disconnect themselves. If you like to leave all your apps and projects in place when you sleep your machine, know that the computer wakes before the drives mount and the timelines will initially show the media as missing. This doesn't happen over FireWire.

For these two reasons, I strongly recommend digital video users to stick with FireWire for your primary drives. If you are making the migration to HDV or HD, throughput becomes even more critical. You can string your backup or extra media drives off USB if you like.

I also challenged the MiniStack by putting four different captured clips into separate corners of the screen and looping playback. This forced the drive to read from several different portions of the disk as fast as it could. In addition, the computer passed an additional 3.6MB stream back out through the MiniStack's FireWire hub to the deck. The MiniStack and its internal FireWire hub passed all this data flawlessly. A digital thermometer registered only a ten-degree increase in temperature of the MiniStack's fan output over ambient temperature.

The Mac mini is the biggest source of heat when rendering a lot of video. Keep this in mind when selecting the hard drive that will accompany it. When doing any processor-intensive task, the Mac mini fan will kick in. While it's nowhere near as loud as a G4 tower, there is no need to select a perfectly silent companion drive if the Mac mini itself is whirring away—you won't get the silent editing environment you're hoping for.

The Mac mini internal hard drive can be erratic in terms of performance even though it is an internal IDE. Part of this is due to the fact that most laptop drives are not made for the pounding digital video editors will give them. Also, different Mac mini computers are outfitted with different drives—only certain specifications are guaranteed. Apple can, and has, changed drive speeds and manfacturers without notice. So the best bet for your digital video is, as always, a separate drive dedicated to your media.

NewerTechnology's MiniStack is a very good physical match for the Mac mini. It offers user-controllable fan cooling and a heat sink on the bottom of the enclosure. These help keep the drive cooler, longer. For me, that's a good thing.

MicroNet's MiniMate matches the mini perfectly. Depending on the drive mechanism, it can be perfectly silent. If you won't be beating the hell out of the drive, then the MiniMate is the perfect mate.

WiebeTech's Maxelerate offers unique side-to-side cooling that is always on. The case is not as close a match as the others. Performance numbers were also a bit lower than the other drives. However, job one—a drive enclosure that offers ventilation—is done very well.

LaCie's Mini continues their high-build quality and design. The unique raised corner keeps hot surfaces from making contact, but more space and active air movement are needed for it to really make a big difference. It does not offer any USB connectivity.

These Mac mini-like enclosures are well suited to their primary task of providing massive storage that physically matches the Mac mini. Most also provide very useful FireWire and USB hubs that make up for the Mac mini's limited space for ports.

Drives get hot. Stacking the units directly on top of each other compounds the problem. So stacking them next to each other across a table is a better, and cooler alternative to vertical stacking. However, not all of them come with wires long enough for side-by-side use. This is where longer wires are more useful.

This also means that the drive doesn't really have to match the Mac mini's form factor, so you are free to choose the enclosure and the drive of your liking, perhaps in an enclosure that offers active cooling.

Given the affordability of the Mac mini, and the potential for one user to work on multiple machines, we'd love to see a Mini SAN (storage area network) that would allow two Mac mini computers to connect to the same enclosure and share the same data on two computers. But that doesn't exist, just yet.

Sidebar: MINI PRO?
After hammering the mini with two dance DVD projects, a stage play DVD project, and a wedding edit and DVD authoring, I have come to admire its capability. With just four tweaks, Apple can make a miniPro for pro users who don't need a lot of slots.

  1. Dual Core G4. Both Freescale and IBM have announced them. G4s work in laptops with passive cooling, so a dual core G4 in a mini with a quiet, efficient, multi-speed fan can stay cool while churning out the video. Make it look like a G5. Vent the thing sideways. Use several quiet fans. It can be done.
  2. SATA ports. FireWire 400 is good for video, but SATA is great for data. Even better: give us a PC card slot so we can add whatever we want—and then change our minds! We still feel the need for speed.
  3. Video Power. With Apple Motion and other apps relying more on video horsepower, the Powerbook's ATI Mobility Radeon 9700 with 128MB SDRAM is far better than the mini's current ATI Radeon 9200 with just 32MB SDRAM. Today, video capability is critical.
  4. Easier access. Next year, Pro users will want to put in a faster burner, better hard drive, more RAM, etc. Pro G4 and G5 computers opened with a door. The miniPro needs the same.

Apple once had a "box" concept for their computing products. Each corner of the box offered desktop or portable solutions for consumers or professionals. While consumers can pick from several different laptop or desktop models, and there are several pro laptops, pro users have only one desktop machine. Yes, it is a very capable machine. But it is also very big and expensive. It's time for Apple to put more products in our corner of the box. A miniPro would help fill this space nicely.

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