Mac Mini “Pro”

From the completely different than what I normally post on my blog department…

While most of my blog is comprised of sermons audio/video of me, I’m also a pretty serious computer geek who likes to mess around with video editing.  And that’s what I am going to talk about today – my latest computer project.

I’ve been a Mac fan for a long time – and by a long time, I mean 30 years.  I was using a Mac IICX (look it up) in my Uncle’s office during Thanksgiving 30 years ago.  Obviously, Macs have changed a lot since then, and for some years, my favorite line has been the Mac Mini.  While the iMac line has a lot to offer, I’ve preferred to use my own monitor instead of a built-in one.  But, the Mac Mini line has limits – quite a few of them actually, especially the 2014 Mac Minis.

However, after owning a 2014 Mac Mini for a few years (and setting it up to be a 4K Video Editing Machine), I ended up buying a late-2012 Mac Mini.  Why?  Because it checked three boxes

  • Fast Processor (Quad Core i7 @ 2.3 GHz) which is faster than anything in the Late 2014 Models
  • Upgradeable hard drive and RAM.
  • Modern Ports (USB 3, Thunderbolt)

I found one on eBay, purchased it, and upgraded it the hard drive and RAM.  I already had my fast drives from my Mac Mini 2014 setup, so I was good to go.  Along the way, the combination of external hard drives became annoying and took up a lot of space, so I consolidated my hard drives into some enclosures to simplify things.  But there was a problem – the internal graphics on the Mac Mini were slow… really slow and underpowered.  And there is no way to upgrade the internal graphics on the Mac Mini.  But I got to reading about External graphics cards.  While not officially supported by Apple, external graphics cards use the Thunderbolt connection on a Mac to connect to an external PCI enclosure to containing a modern, upgradeable graphics card.  While I knew it would take some monkeying, I wanted to give it a try.  So I bought the following items

  • Akitio Thunder2 PCIe Enclosure
  • ZOTAC GeForce GTX 1050 Compact Graphics Card

I went with the ZOTAC for a couple of reasons (1) It was available directly from Amazon so if it didn’t work, the return would be easy (2) I knew the mini/compact version would fit nicely into the external enclosure (3) It was a lower power consuming card and I had read online that this card didn’t require you to connect an additional power supply (4) I had read the NVIDIA has recently released drivers for the MacOS that included the 1050.

Everything arrived yesterday and here’s where the steps I took

  • Plugged in the Akitio Thunder2 PCIe Enclosure (empty) to make sure the Mac recognized it. (No problem)
  • Installed the graphics card into the enclosure and booted up while still connected to the internal graphics (No problem)
  • Attempted to run this script to enable the external graphics card (didn’t work – turns out I had to turn off System Integrity Mode)
    • This shouldn’t have taken so long, but it did – I couldn’t get my machine to boot into recovery mode.  Eventually, I had to finish an update to MacOS 10.12.5, and then it let me boot into Recovery mode.  I followed these instructions, and it worked fine
  • Re-ran the script – it ran fine, and the drivers installed fine.  Rebooted the system.
    • Things got weird here, and I think I figured out why.  I wanted to use the DVI port on my Acer monitor, but the DVI port on the card was too low in the enclosure, so I had it connected via an Apple HDMI to DVI adapter.  That was a mistake.  Once I connected it directly from the HDMI port on the card to the HDMI port on the monitor, it was fine.  
  • And I did a little comparison testing.  Long story short, I’ve just about tripled my graphics performance based on some benchmarks I did.  I also opened up Final Cut Pro, switched to “Best Quality” and started playback of a 4K 305 Mbps Canon XF file.  This used to push my system a bit – it would play it but not well (around 380-400% CPU usage).  With the new card installed, the usage dropped to less than 200%, and everything in Final Cut worked seamlessly.

Long story short, I had a few problems that were related to my setup or adapters, but all in all, it took me a matter of hours of messing with it to have it up and running.  Would I recommend buying a Mac Mini and doing this – probably not.  There are better options in the iMac line if I’m honest.  But if you own a Mac Mini and want to add external graphics?  Definitely.

Here’s the final setup

  • Apple Mac Mini (Mac Mini 6,2)
    • Intel Core i7 (Quad Core) @ 2.3 GHz
    • 16GB RAM
    • 960GB SanDisk Ultra II Solid State Drive
  • Storage
    • 4TB Akitio Thunder2 Quad 4-Bay ThunderBolt 2 Drive Enclosure with 4 1TB Western Digital 7200RPM Hard Drives used for video editing.
    • 2 x 8TB Western Digital My Book Duo Drives configured RAID 0 and used for archive and general storage.
    • Mediasonic HFR2-SU3s2 ProRAID 4 Bay Hard Drive Enclosure (2 x 4TB Hard Drives, 2 x 6TB Hard Drives) configured for RAID 0 (16TB) used for Time Machine.
  • Graphics
    • Akitio Thunder2 PCIe Box
    • ZOTAC GeForce GTX 1050 Compact Gaming Graphics Card
    • Replaced with 6GB EVGA GeForce GTX 1060 GAMING Card – Although this card didn’t improve my benchmarks a whole lot, it does have it’s own power input so I don’t have to worry about the card drawing too much power and crashing the whole system.  
    • LG 27-inch UHD Display.
    • Monoprice 28-inch UHD Display