Iain Plays
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2007 Mac mini (1,1), a fixer-upper journey (January 2018)

This is a tale about how I received a 2007 Mac mini (1,1) from my closest and dearest friend, how I’ve fixed it up, and what I intend to use it for.

Background #

In Scottish schools, from Primary 1 (around age 5), the students learn to read and write. Every bedtime in our home consists of reading a few new books, thanks to regular use of the local public library. As my eldest of two daughters nears her sixth year and started school last autumn, I thought it high time to introduce her to a traditional computer for her to develop mouse and keyboard skills, because I doubt these user interface technologies will go away any time soon, so will prove useful to her.

Indeed, I am convinced mouse and keyboard will be around for many more years. Blade Runner came out almost forty years ago, yet voice recognition still isn’t reliable enough to manipulate an image based on commands from a surly, mumbling voice. I’m not familiar with Amazon’s Alexa but hear it’s another step closer to machines understanding human speech patterns. Siri is quite limited in parsing natural language, and modifying my own speech to (or teaching my daughter to) speak in command-line grammar does not seem intuitive.

My daughter is competent enough with my iPad. She can navigate the Operating System and controls, and surf YouTube Kids for awful toy unboxing videos conducted by adults with sparkly-painted nails, glittery hands, and faux-sincere excited accents. But she also plays a selection of excellent games by Toca Boca, and doodles using some BBC apps for children.

Selection #

Initially, I pulled down two old iBooks from the loft (tangerine and blueberry), however the batteries were stone dead. One ran OS 9, and the other OS X 10.4. Both were incredibly noisy; a cacophony of chittering hard disks and leaf blower frequency fans.

It was then that I considered the mid ’90s PowerBook that I received as a birthday present many years ago from the same friend mentioned in the introduction to this post, but I treasure that too much to give to my daughter, who is still learning mechanical sympathy.

Having exhausted the Apple options—I have a lot of love for nineties and aughties Apple products, not so much for ’10s (except iPhones which peaked at 4S and 6Plus for me)—I found a couple of old laptops from the early aughties, which would be serviceable as Linux machines, however could not find/rescue the power supplies from the Akira-like sprawl of decades of accumulated technology in my loft (ranging from Fostex four-track and Acorn Electron to PS4 Pro cardboard box).

Finally, my mind turned to the Raspberry Pi matchbox machines gathering dust in a drawer near my main PC. A pretty good option, but still a bit fiddly for a first computer.

It would have been easy at this point to bite the bullet and buy a secondhand machine. I’m quite fond of Lenovo ThinkPads and Windows 10, but it was at this stage that fortune smiled upon me.

My good friend came into a 2007 Mac mini (not literally) from an acquaintance via a niche internet user group (I think), and learning of my plight, found a good home for it with us.

Bring your own Mouse, Display and Keyboard #

Knowing that I would soon have a Mac mini with a DVI connection, I set about researching monitors, as I quickly learned that you cannot buy a simple adapter to convert port and signal between 27″ Apple Cinema Display with Mini DisplayPort into the Mac mini’s DVI.

Newer monitors were coming in at around £80 online, whereas an old HP, or Dell, etc. would have been around £20. But the older Apple Cinema Displays are very, very good screens. Searching eBay, the 20″ model can be found for around £50 at time of writing, however this is without a crucial component (the power supply), with the fashion being to list this part separately for a further £28–50.

I wrestled with the decision for a day, but decided the aluminium frame would look better in my home sat next to the silver and white Mac mini, and it really does look quite beautiful. The 16∶10 aspect is pleasing to the eye, the brightness is impressive, and the 1680 by 1050 pixels are very nice and not too demanding of the system to push around the screen.

Preparations and first boot #

The monitor and supply both arrived separately on 03 Jan 2018. I paired the monitor with a tangerine accented USB Apple roller mouse and a white Apple bluetooth keyboard, crossed my fingers and booted it up.

It booted, and I was grateful to be presented with the purple star field background and glass-shelf dock of OS X Snow Leopard (my personal favourite of all the variants of OS X, perhaps for nostalgic reasons of it being on my 2008 unibody MacBook when I said goodbye to Windows at home in the Vista-era, right up until building a gaming PC with Windows 8 during August 2013).

My daughter and I started downloading Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing from the Mac App Store (I bought it in 2012, also for nostalgic reasons). I went to create a new user for her and then…

Crash and Do Not Burn #

The machine froze up. I left it for a good twenty minutes and tried all the GUI and keyboard commands to force quit or restart, but to no avail. I killed it by smothering the power nubbin at the back of the machine with my index finger. When I restarted it, I was not greeted by the star field, but by a flashing folder with a question mark.

Oh, no. Recovery by holding Command-R on boot up didn’t work. Holding the alt-key on boot up just brought up a grey screen. Thankfully, I had the original retail disc for Snow Leopard in my loft (along with iLife and iWork ’09).

The Snow Leopard DVD was popped in and back to alt-key on boot up, but the mini wasn’t recognising it, and ejected the disc in a worrying, stuttering manner. I also noted the sound of the hard disk was just the arm moving every few seconds but the disk failed to spool up.

So I opened the mini to dissemble it for clues, sadly breaking the interconnect board optical ribbon cable port by not having the right tools (being too rough). After cursing my stupidity for not reviewing the instructions on iFixIt first, and receiving a set of tools from Amazon, I reviewed iFixIt and completed disassembly.

Then I replaced the hard disk with the one from a dead 2009 MacBook Pro; one not so careful lady owner (my mother) had killed the trackpad and display, with numerous bashes and dents to the casing, and three of the four black feet missing. Miraculously, the hard disk works (though I may replace with an SSD in the near-future to be safe and for the speed boost).

Reassembly complete, I jumped onto my PC running Windows 10, ripped the discs using imgBurn and transferred the ISO images to my trusty old Western Digital MyBookLive 1Tb NAS drive. I then used Disk Utility on my wife’s 2012 MacBook Air to restore the Snow Leopard image onto a 16Gb USB.

Fingers were crossed once more and back to the Mac mini and alt-key on boot up.

It saw the USB as Snow Leopard install media and off we go!

Final Furlong #

I completed the OS install, then installed iWork ’09 and iLife ’09 by mounting the ISOs from the Apple desktop. Finally, I updated via software update to 10.6.8 and once more downloaded Mavis Beacon via the Mac App Store.

The computer and monitor lack speakers. It is pleasantly surprising to note that this pre-2011 Mac mini supports digital audio output via a TOSLINK mini-plug adapter, but I’ll need to do some more exploring. Ideally some cute little aluminium and white speakers would do the job, and 2.0 speakers will be more than enough.

The 2007 Mac Mini (1,1) can only support 2Gb RAM, which is enough for Snow Leopard. Web browsing is okay on Firefox 47, though it labours like a small-engined car up a steep hill if it encounters too many ads on a page (ad-blocker incoming).

I may put an SSD into it, but this is not essential, and I may reapply thermal paste, as smcFanControl is reporting 45–75ºC typing this up in MultiMarkdown Composer with a single Apple support page open in Firefox, and I think it could run even quieter than it already is with a thorough de-fluffing and blow through with condensed air and new paste.

Conclusions #

And that pretty much wraps it up. I am delighted and must admit to being smitten by this tiny wee old machine and its matching monitor. I need to resist the urge to perfect the machine as its main purpose is to serve my daughter, and once it’s in situ with speakers, I’ll need to think of it as her PC.

Given that my wife has the 2012 MacBook Air, I have a five year old big rig gaming PC, as well as a family iPad Air and phones for grown-ups, we’re more than set for general computing. But this compact, light and airy setup (with a full-size keyboard mind), might be the future of my own desktop setup.

I’m mulling over getting a 2011 Mac mini for myself and relegating the gaming machine to another room. Gaming, however, is a whole other story which I look forward to covering in my next post.