Sunday, March 04, 2007

Is there an Intel Mini in the house? Part I

About a month ago, I decided I would finally get myself an Intel Mac, mostly because I needed a reliable computer in the DNA lab to run some molecular analysis apps via Windoze. But I admit having Intel Mac envy that I couldn't quite satisfy with an overweight MacBook.

I had gone back and forth trying to decide between a 17" Intel iMac and the Mini. I felt the new 17" iMacs were a better deal, given the faster Intel chips and the built in monitor. However, my desk space in the lab is very limited, and there is already a monitor I could switch to the Mini when needed. I also felt better about spending under $1000 US on a Mini, with the idea of getting a truly compact MacBook Pro in the coming months. Now the problem became getting one in Japan for a decent price.

Apple refurbs in Japan are tough to come by. If you check the Apple Japan refurb page often, you'll see jack shit there 99% of the time. They usually have a MacBook or two, but only once int the last 6 months have I seen anything else offered. And those disappeared quickly. I also considered purchasing a used Mini (or even iMac) from the retailer SofMap. But the problem there was the lack of more than a month's warranty on anything bought used.

So, I asked my brother in the US to order a refurb Mini from the US Apple store and send it to me. At that time, they had plenty - but I knew supplies were limited. My brother checked with a MicroCenter near his work place, and found that they had a 1.83Ghz Intel Mini for a comparable price as from the Apple store. Apparently, it was a return, but it came with a full warranty and was supposedly 'complete'. They also gave us a good price on upgrading the RAM (to 1.28 Gb total). He bought the Mini and was able to send it quite quickly to me via my APO address.

When I brought the Mini home and unboxed it, I was amazed at the small size of the CPU, but a little dismayed at the size of the power brick. ('Brick' is appropriate in this case, BTW.) I was also disappointed that the MicroCenter people forgot to include the DVI to VGA adapter - so I couldn't use it out of the box on my spare VGA monitor. Strike one. I wasn't able to get a replacement adapter for another couple of days, due to my work schedule - so I had to wait further. After getting an adapter, I hauled it all to the lab and happily set it up. I really enjoyed the looks from my lab mates when they saw it set up and running next to their boring Epson desktop machines.

Unfortunately, I became aware that something was wrong... namely, that the freaking fan was constantly on. I downloaded all the OSX updates, including a firmware update for Intel Macs.
No change. I followed the instructions to reset the hardware manager (shut down and unplug everything for a few minutes). No change. I then came to the conclusion that something was very wrong - and began to worry I and my brother had been hosed with a lemon Mac.

At home, I found no evidence of a warranty for the Mini in the box, further increasing my stress. And a quick search on the internet for fan problems with the Mini suggested all kinds of horror stories. However, one article on MacWorld's site struck a chord. The venerable Chris Breen had taken apart a Mini and reassembled it, but forgot to connect a cable correctly. He found that reseating it completely solved the fan noise problem that appeared after he had upgraded the RAM. Breen went so far to say that anyone who got their RAM upgraded recently with fan problems should check out this cable, and even shows the location of the plug. A quick peek through the vents of the Mini and poking around with a dissecting probe (I'm a biologist...) showed me that, sure enough, this cable was not connected.

So, these idiots at MicroCenter didn't do their job. They closed the case without connecting the plug. Is this what we should expect from Apple certified techs? Strike two.

Now the problem was opening the case. The Mini is not supposed to be opened by customers, only by Apple service people. So, all RAM upgrades have to be done by service people. In fact there aren't any screws or bolts to open the case. When I started reading about how to crack open a Mini, I saw all sorts of horror stories about dinging up the case with the recommended case opener - a PUTTY KNIFE! This didn't sound good at all. Without a clear warranty, I was reluctant to take the Mini to a Japan Apple store. Yet I didn't want try this procedure myself
and mess up any chance at having any warranty. I had almost decided to pack the thing up and send it back to the US for a refund.

Then, a Pizza cutter changed everything. Continued in part II.

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