Taking it for a spin…

cheapskateIt could be argued that building a CustoMac mini represents a false economy in that time is money and a lot of time and frustration could have been saved by just going to the Apple store and buying one of their products from their minimalist shelves. You walk away from their pleasant robots and sterile storefronts with a warranty and a piece of equipment that just works.

But it really didn’t take that much time thanks to the shopping lists and instructions at Tonymacx86. I had a false start or two being that this was the first PC I’ve ever built, and I flubbed the OS installation, but the folks at Tonymacx86 encourage you to not get frustrated and stick to it. I stuck to it, and as I wrote the last time, I wound up with an ugly little shoebox that runs Mountain Lion and thinks it’s a 2008 Mac Pro. That’s pretty good for about $350 and maybe 8 fairly leisurely hours spent over the course of a few days.

Screen Shot 2012-12-12 at 1.54.33 PMSo how does it run?

Very well.

My collection of workstations at home are starting to look like an exhibit in a museum. My oldest computer is a G3 Powerbook known as the Lombard, and my newest Apple is a Mini I purchased in 2006. They are all showing their age, and are sort of pokey particularly on the internet. The Shoebox as I call it with it’s Intel i3 processor and 8 GB of RAM smokes them all. It is so pleasantly speedy on the internet that it spoils me for the other machines including my beloved HP Pavilion ZD8000 running Linux which is my main surfing machine. What amazes me is that this Customac mini is the budget build!

Coincidentally to building the Customac mini, we switched from DSL to FiOS for our internet. I had the modem placed near our television so that I could hook up my Roku directly via ethernet. The computers would all go wireless rather than stringing ethernet cable hither and yon. I wanted to really run the machine through its paces before I turned the machine over to my buddy Dan who bankrolled the whole project. The motherboard has Wifi built in, but the OS won’t recognize it. There’s a workaround. Tonymacx86 recommended a PCI Express Wifi adapter that  claiming that it works natively. I bought it although Dan was going to stick with ethernet. I figured it would go into my eventual build.

wifi-cardI popped the cover from the Shoebox and plugged the card into the PCI-E slot, powered it on and:

airport-wifi…it worked! It thinks it’s an Airport card and works natively. It worked beautifully with my new FiOS setup.

Sadly, I don’t have a version of Photoshop new enough that will run under Mountain Lion so I couldn’t conduct a torture test that would properly sate my curiosities, but I did install GIMP which I’m having fun with. I really need to spend more time with it. Maybe play with a tutorial or three.gimpI went a little further and plunked down some money on an optical drive with a SATA connector. I have a few older, IDE optical drives floating around, but they weren’t going to work with the Shoebox. I popped it in.
opticalIt was a tight fit, and I had to readjust the cables from the power supply so everything would fit. I powered it on and the optical drive reads and writes DVDs as advertised.

I used HandBrake to RIP some DVDs I own and the Shoebox is unbelievably fast. I would RIP movies for my iPod or for AppleTV or Plex on my Roku and would let Handbrake run overnight on my Dual G5 PowerMac. It takes about 20 to 30 minutes to RIP a n average movie with the Intel i3 processor in the Shoebox!

It’s not all a bed of roses. There are a few cons:

  • Not all of the ports work. The USB ports below the PC keyboard port don’t work.
  • No internal speaker. I use an external speaker through the headphone port. A battery operated speaker that I got a while back on a closeout special works very nicely. I use rechargeable Eneloop batteries in it, and while it isn’t the most elegant solution, it does work nicely.


    Altec Lansing Orbit Speaker attached to an old iPod Nano

  • AppleTV will work as external speakers but the Airplay/mirror function doesn’t work.
  • The Shoebox doesn’t like VGA monitors. I tried one with a VGA/DVI adapter, but all I got was distortion. It’s fine with a DVI connection. It worked well with a DVI to HDMI cable as well.

There are probably other issues that I have yet to uncover. So far, none of these are deal breakers. Otherwise this is a Mac for all intents and purposes and I am perusing the more advanced builds, essentially window shopping for a CustoMac of my own. I will probably go with a bigger case for increased airflow.

This will fall on deaf ears, but I wish Apple would build their computers this way. Rather than their slavish devotion to industrial design, it would be interesting if they took a modular approach to their computers where the user could easily swap out worn, defective or obsolete parts with new parts. Old boards or power supplies could be returned to the Apple store for recycling. The final product would not be as sleek and impossibly thin as the new iMac, but it would be a hell of a lot easier to fix and/or upgrade. There would be less to recycle so the environment would benefit as well. The designers could put on their thinking caps and come up with something fairly attractive.

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11 Responses to Taking it for a spin…

  1. c10273 says:

    Thanks for these articles! Makes me feel better about making one. I just wanted to tell you that I found another article that mentioned airplay/mirror & setting the system definition as a macmini will make it work. http://www.macbreaker.com/2012/09/how-to-enable-airplay-mirroring-on.html

    One question though. When you say that you couldn’t get sound to work were you referring to the HDMI?

  2. Joe_Williams says:

    No, the HDMI works fine. I meant the little speaker that came with the enclosure. It provides system beeps. The way I have it set up now works fine.

    I am a novice to this, and I suppose that this is the build that I will make my mistakes and learn on.

    Thanks for the link and thanks for commenting!

  3. Joe_Williams says:

    CORRECTION: I don’t seem to have the HDMI working. I just tried hooking up a monitor to the Hack via HDMI and it didn’t work. I’ll have to tinker with it.

  4. c10273 says:

    What did you have to change on your BIOs on the motherboard? I was wondering if I had another hard-drive with a windows OS on it and set it to boot the OSX first that it would work. This is just incase if there were problems with it that I could boot to windows just so I had a computer still if things went bad.

  5. Joe_Williams says:

    Here’s a link for the build:
    I did the top, bare bones one.
    Here’s another link for DSDT settings and the like:
    I have to dig around for my BIOS settings. I can’t find the link and I think I have them printed out at home.

    The comments and forums at Tonymacx86 are real helpful. These guys have been around the block a few times and I am a newbie.

  6. c10273 says:

    Thanks for the reply! Most of my parts should be here by the end of this week. Excited to give this a try.

  7. c10273 says:

    Are you just using DVI for hooking to a display? That is what I plan on using but was curious about yours.

  8. Joe_Williams says:

    So far. That’s what works. I tried a VGA with an adapter, but that didn’t work out. I tried HDMI last night and it didn’t work. I thought it would since I had tried a DVI to HDMI cable earlier, and that did work.

  9. c10273 says:

    I got the main stuff to get the computer at least running last night. I can’t believe how easy it was to get going. Everything worked, even the airplay/mirror. I install a solid state hard drive and can’t believe how fast it boots up and loads applications. I will most likely do this again.

  10. Joe_Williams says:

    What Mac Mini profile did you go with – 5,1 or 6,1?

  11. C10273 says:

    I am not sure. I just clicked on Mac mini.

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