Mac mini + gaming PC?

Discussion in 'Buying Tips and Advice' started by TheChekt, Nov 4, 2013.

  1. TheChekt macrumors newbie

    TheChekt

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    Location:
    Nova Scotia, Canada
    #1
    I have a 2009 3.06 GHz Core 2 Duo iMac with a Radeon HD 4850 card. I use it for programming as well as for games, running Windows 7 with Boot Camp. The iMac has been good enough for the past few years but it's getting old for both gaming and programming.

    The way I see it, my options are either getting one of the new iMacs, or getting a Mac mini for programming and building a PC for gaming.

    If I had to choose an iMac the minimum I'd settle on is the 21.5-inch 2.9GHz iMac, upgraded to 3.1 GHz. With AppleCare that's $1948 for me, plus whatever I'd pay for the inevitable RAM upgrade (which I assume I can find for less than $200). Not glamourous, and the screen is smaller, but at least the CPU and video card is better than what I currently have.

    A Mac mini/gaming PC combo sounds like I might be able to get more bang for my buck, but I'm still working out the actual costs. In addition to the two computers I'd also have to pay for the components needed to hook them up together so that they can share the same monitor, keyboard, and mouse. I'd also want the two computers to share an external hard drive and an external DVD drive.

    While the Mac mini wouldn't have to handle the stresses of a modern video game, I'd still need it to withstand the use of development and graphics tools like Xcode, Eclipse, Photoshop, Illustrator, and Blender. Would the 2.5 GHz mini be good enough, aside from a RAM upgrade, or should I invest in the 2.3 GHz/2.6 GHz mini? The latter would be between $948 to $1048 for me (with AppleCare).

    And given that I wouldn't want my total costs to be any more than what I'd pay for a single new iMac, I'd limit myself to a max budget of $1000 for the gaming PC. I came up with this for a possible build. I don't intend to overclock; for that reason I wasn't sure if I needed a new CPU cooler. The list includes a monitor and keyboard; I took the opportunity to splurge on a mechanical keyboard. And with the cheapest valid motherboard already being MicroATX-sized, I opted for a MicroATX case since years of Mac desktops has not left me room for a full PC tower. I should probably note that I've never assembled a PC myself before. :confused:

    Is my reasoning sound? Is my proposed PC build any good? What are your thoughts on getting a single iMac vs getting a Mac mini and gaming PC?
     
  2. Pakaku macrumors 68000

    Pakaku

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    #2
    You might also want to consider an older Mac Pro... 2009 is the earliest model that supports modern components like DDR3 RAM and SATA 3. Otherwise, OS X can support non-Apple graphics cards (I'm running a GTX 560), you just lose your EFI bootscreen, so if you can live without that it's about as close as you can get to a Mac gaming tower without going full hackintosh.
     
  3. ArchAndroid macrumors member

    ArchAndroid

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    #3
    First things first, I would think that the best solution for you is definitely Mac Mini + HomeBuilt PC.

    With regards to the Mac Mini, I would definitely advise to go with the quad-core at a minimum. With the type of work it sounds that you are doing, these programs are becoming more and more multi-threaded and limiting yourself to a dual-core for the next few years doesn’t make much sense. There is no need to get a higher speed quad-core than the 2.3GHz as the chip can turbo boost to 3.3GHz anyway. For sure, the more powerful CPU may bring you an extra FPS or 2, it may save a second or two in certain programs, but it won’t ever be tangible and is a bad upgrade in terms of price-performance. I would recommend a 2.3Ghz Quad-Core Mac Mini.

    For the PC, do not hesitate to build your own computer, the most important thing is pre-planning to make sure all your components are compatible. Actually building it is not difficult at all.

    I had a look at your list and there a few things that may be worth considering:

    1) You may want to add another $50-$100 to your budget to allow for buying fans for the case you order, a DVD/Blu-Ray drive, a mouse (unless you have one already) and maybe thermal paste as well.

    2) I don’t know whether you intentionally meant to pick a 2.5” HDD but desktop builds can use 3.5” HDD which perform much better. This Seagate 500GB HDD 3.5” is $3 more but performs much better than the one you chose as it operates at a higher speed (7200 vs. 5400 RPM)

    3) The PSU is a good choice but it will leave you no option to upgrade in the future. For example, the system you have planned will likely draw about 200W at load. If you in two years decide to go for a top of the range GPU, that can consume about 250W on its own which could push your system beyond the wattage of this PSU. Also, the EarthWatts 380 only comes with one six-pin which means you wouldn’t be able to power a high end GPU with it as they need two connectors. I know its easy to cheap out on PSUs, but it makes sense to just get something quality to begin with rather than having to replace both your GPU and PSU in the future. The Seasonic G 550 is around $90 but has numerous advantages:

    * Higher wattage – Future proofed for high end GPU upgrade
    * Gold Rated – higher efficiency
    * Larger fan – spins at lower RPM, more efficient
    * Modular – no extra cables blocking your case (which is even more of a problem in mATX cases)
    * 5-Year Warranty
    * More compatibility – two 6/8 pin connectors to attach high end components

    4) GPU + Monitor

    It may sound weird but the monitor you have chosen doesn’t really go with the GPU. The Asus 144Hz is a monitor which demands a high-end GPU to run at that frame rate and the R7 260X is a lower mid-range GPU. It would struggle to run modern games at native resolution and refresh rates today let alone in the future.

    I would recommend getting the Dell U2412M instead of the Asus monitor for around the same price. It is also 24” but has more vertical pixels (1920x1200 vs. 1920x1080) which is good for programming, a manageable refresh rate (60Hz) which isn’t too demanding on GPUs, and it is an IPS (like all the new iMac screens are) whereas the Asus is inferior TN. IPS is about quality (better colour reproduction, better viewing angles, clearer images) and TN is about quantity (higher refresh rates, lower response times). If you are using a monitor for being productive as well as gaming, it is IPS all the way.

    Lastly, it may be worth stepping up the GPU ladder a bit. AMD GPU hierarchy currently goes like this:

    R9 290X > R9 290 (Über-high end)

    R9 280X (7970) > 7950 (High end)

    R9 270X (7870) > 7850 (Mid-Range)

    R7 260X (7790) > 7770 (Lower Mid-Range)

    other R7s/other 77x0s (Budget)

    The best GPU in terms of price-performance-longevity is currently the 7950. It was part of the high-end cards of AMD’s last generation (7000 series) and it is quite cheap now as it has just been replaced by the newer R9 290 series. Take it from someone who currently games on a U2412 + 7850 (one tier lower than the 7950), the 7950 is the GPU you should try to aim for. I can play even the most challenging games on Medium (Crysis 3, Batman Arkham City) at 1920x1200 @ 60Hz with a 7850, so a 7950 should be able to do even better. Most normal games I can max out with anti-aliasing. It’s also worth keeping an eye out for a R9 280X/7970 if there are any special discount offers on them.

    I hope you will take what I have written as constructive as I am trying to give you as honest an opinion as I can, coming from someone who games on a similar platform to the one you want to build.

    Good luck with your decision!!!
     
  4. TheChekt thread starter macrumors newbie

    TheChekt

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    #4
    Ah, I forgot about the dual-core/quad-core distinction. I would be better off with the 2.3GHz Mac mini.

    I've modified my PC build with ArchAndroid's suggestions. There wasn't a price for the Dell monitor though. Did you mean this monitor?

    In addition to my two computers, I also want an external hard drive and an external optical drive, which would be shared by the two computers. The hard drive would be partitioned in three; two partitions for the Mac and Windows backups, one partition for general storage. I was thinking of the Seagate Expansion for the backup hard drive and the Samsung SE-208DB for the optical drive.

    As I said earlier, I'd want my PC and Mac mini to share my mouse, keyboard, monitor, and the external drives. I already own a USB mouse, both external drives would use a USB, and the new keyboard and monitor will apparently also support USB connectivity. Would I therefore just need a USB hub to share everything?
     
  5. ArchAndroid, Nov 5, 2013
    Last edited: Nov 5, 2013

    ArchAndroid macrumors member

    ArchAndroid

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    #5
    ^^^

    The monitor that you have added to your planned build is exactly the one I was talking about: The Dell U2412M.

    If you want to share many peripherals, then you will need to get a KVM to do so. You plug everything into the KVM and flick a switch to send it to one computer or the other. I haven't got a lot of experience with KVMs but you'll be wanting to look for one with DVI/VGA and (at least) 2 USB ports.

    Your layout would look like this: (> means plugged into)

    Monitor > KVM (DVI/VGA port) > {split} Mac Mini / {split} PC

    Keyboard, Mouse, Hard Drives, Optical Drive etc. > Powered USB Hub > KVM (USB Port) > {split} Mac Mini / {split} PC

    Higher quality KVMs will allow you to use a hub to connect more than 2 USB devices to both computers. From there, it is just a flick of a switch and everything will change from one computer to the other. Just be sure to do your research on buying a good KVM. Also, remember you will need to purchase a HDMI-to-DVI/VGA adapter to plug your Mac Mini into the KVM.

    Last little thing, I would go with this Gigabyte 7870 OC for $20 more. It is a bit more expensive but it comes with 3 fans which means they will operate at a lower RPM than the XFX with one fan and should be more effective while being quieter. Also, the Gigabyte is pre-overclocked to 1.1GHz, which will give you 10% more performance out of the box.

    Again, good luck!

    -------------

    Just had a browse on Newegg CA and this IOGear KVM with Built-in Cables seems to be what you would need. From browsing the comments, there is no problem to adding a (powered) USB hub to this KVM allowing you to have several USB devices switch from one computer to the next. With this solution, you would still need to buy a HDMI (male) to VGA (female) cable to connect the Mac Mini
     
  6. EpicBlob macrumors member

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    Mid-West
    #6
    Might think of getting a Mac Mini with an external graphics card. I have 2012 quad core mac mini with a nvidia 660 and have been playing games on it without any issues. At 1080p medium settings, battlefield 4 has been running almost always 60+fps. The difference between a 660 with my bandwidth and the full pcie x16 is maybe 20% difference. And because the external gpu will work in both OS X and Windows, you can have a single system that will do everything for you. Also takes up very little space.
     
  7. Djlild7hina macrumors 6502a

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    Mar 28, 2009
    #7
    I thought they don't sell thunderbolt eGPUs anymore? At least the TH05, I wouldn't mind using an eGPU with my mbp instead of my Hackintosh.

    To OP, have you considered doing a Hackintosh?
     
  8. EpicBlob macrumors member

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    #8
    I actually use a ViDock with my Mac Mini. Bought the sonnet TB/expresscard adapter. Here's a picture of my setup:
     

    Attached Files:

  9. Djlild7hina macrumors 6502a

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    #9
    ^ I was just looking at that combo on some forum. Now i'm tempted... lol
     
  10. TheChekt thread starter macrumors newbie

    TheChekt

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    #10
    I've tweaked my possible PC build, updating the graphics card and also throwing in a case fan.

    I guess I might as well start thinking about my Mac mini's RAM. I suppose this iRam model is as good as any? I've also heard of Crucial a lot.

    With regards to the KVM switch, I'm having trouble finding an appropriate hdmi-to-vga adapter. It seems most only support monitor resolutions up to 1080p vs my (proposed) 1200-high monitor. Also, what KVM switches would you recommend that have an audio port (i.e. for headphones)?

    I honestly didn't know that external graphics cards existed. Considering that it's really the graphics card where the Mac mini lacks the most with regards to gaming, the idea of getting an external graphics cards is appealing.
     
  11. ArchAndroid, Nov 7, 2013
    Last edited: Nov 7, 2013

    ArchAndroid macrumors member

    ArchAndroid

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    #11
    ^^^

    For the RAM, I would certainly go with Crucial. I don't know much about the other company but Crucial always test their RAM with all kinds of systems, so it will just work. Especially since the prices are similar, Crucial all the way.

    As far as KVMs with audio are concerned, the best one I can see on Newegg CA is the iOGEAR GCS632U KVM. It will allow you to pass through sound from either computer to your headphones/speakers.

    This HDMI-to-VGA adapter ought to do job for connecting a Mac Mini to the KVM. If anything states it can do 1920x1080, it can 100% do 1920x1200. They only state 1080 because it is the most popular resolution.

    As far as external GPUs, this is still very much in its infancy and not worth thinking about. Even if you could get a GPU running externally, where would the drivers come from? AMD and nVidia don't write drivers for OS X and Apple aren't going to support GPUs that aren't in their lineup. It's simply infeasible as things currently stand.

    ------------------------

    I was looking up on the Noctua website (as I have their fans as well) and you should read this. The best case fan your case would be the Noctua S12A PWM instead of the one you have chosen. This would go at the front of your case and be more efficient and quieter. Also, you will need an exhaust fan to get rid of the hot air. This would be the Noctua NF-B9 PWM. These two fans will provide the case with a good airflow and minimize noise by making sure the GPU and CPU fans don't have to ramp up. If for any reason you decide on any other fans, make sure they are PWM; it means the fan will run as slow as possible and only speed up when the computer needs it. Fans without PWM are louder and use more energy as they are always at full speed.
     
  12. EpicBlob macrumors member

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    #12
    Did you read my post lol? Imagine a Quad Core Mac Pro for $1400 but with a stonger gpu. Games like Battlefield 3 go from 5fps with the intel hd4000 to 45fps with my ViDock e-gpu. Yes, this is still a relatively new thing but the performance increase is insane. Works flawlessly in both Windows bootcamp and OS X.
     
  13. LeandrodaFL macrumors 6502a

    LeandrodaFL

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    Apr 6, 2011
    #13
    Dude, keep your iMac

    Bro, I have one very important thing to tell you. You dont want to get rid of your iMac. What you want to do is build a gaming PC and keep your Mac for your "life stuff". Let me explain in detail:

    First of all, you are probalby running Snow Leopard, and a current Mac will come with either Mountain Lion or Mavericks. You may not be aware of this, but the current OS X versions are hated by Snow Leopard users. They run slower (even on better hardware), have a uglier visual interface, had some key features removed, and last but not least, are incompatible with a lot of software that runs on Snow Leopard/Leopard. I have no idea with Mac apps you need, but they may not be compatible with a current Mac.

    Moreover, sharing keyboards/mouses/display/external drives with 2 computers is a mess. Keep your computers separate. There will be occasions when you want both ON at the same time, a scroll whell mouse is better for gaming, while a touch mouse is better for Mac, Windows machines dont have bluettooth hardware by default, and the externla HDD should be HFS+ for Mac and NTFS for Windows. Sharing would mean FAT32, and this is not a good idea, as data may get corrupted. Keep your computers separate.

    To conclude, you only need the money and the headache of choosing 1 computer. Build a gaming PC now and keep your iMac. Im sure after removing the windows partition and doing some cleanup, your iMac will run like new. Next year, if you still feel the need, get a new Mac.

    PS: Since Mavericks is free, I sugets you try the new OS. But do make a COMPLETE system backup. You will be back to Leopard/Snow Leopard in 3 days.
     
  14. TheChekt thread starter macrumors newbie

    TheChekt

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    #14
    You're right that I'm using Snow Leopard. If I might explain though, my iMac itself is getting a bit old. I can't use the latest version of Xcode, including its updated C++ compiler. My iMac also has the habit of heating up like a stove when it needs to do heavy lifting. Moving my gaming to a separate PC may alleviate the heat, but the iMac is still kind of suspect. Finally, I had to replace the hard drive this summer and I suspect my video card is starting to die; this week my monitor locks up sometimes with red squares peppered over it.

    All right, I'll go with the Crucial RAM since it's more well known and proven. And thanks for the suggestions about the HDMI-to-VGA adapter and case fans.

    My shopping list now looks like this:

    Total cost is $2328.52, which is about the price of an upgraded 3.5GHz iMac. Unless someone can point out something wrong it, these would be my final purchases.
     
  15. EpicBlob macrumors member

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    #15
    Not to start an AMD/NVIDIA war started, but have you thought of getting the 660ti or 760 instead of the 7870?
    The biggest upside is that Keppler GPUs come with built in H.264 encoders. So you can record your gameplay without losing any frames at all (maybe 3-4) compared to a program like dxtory that has a huge impact. If you don't capture gameplay then just ignore this post lol.
     
  16. TheChekt thread starter macrumors newbie

    TheChekt

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    #16
    It's just a price issue for me. The cheapest cards I've seen (on PCPartPicker) have all been AMD cards.
     
  17. ArchAndroid macrumors member

    ArchAndroid

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    #17
    Both the Mac and PC look like strong systems that should suit your needs for the forseeable future. The last things you need to double check:
    - thermal paste for the CPU (although it does come pre-applied so the first time you use the cooler you won't need it)
    - antistatic mat for building your computer
    - surge protector (if you're gonna drop that kind of money, you'll want a plug to protect it)
    - powered USB hub if you plan on connecting more than 2 USB devices to the KVM

    Beyond this, you have the basis for two killer computers. Good luck with the build! PM or post back here if you need any more advice.
     
  18. TheChekt, Nov 9, 2013
    Last edited: Nov 9, 2013

    TheChekt thread starter macrumors newbie

    TheChekt

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    #18
    Good catch. I figured the Arctic Silver 5 paste and the Rosewill RTK-ASM mat would be good choices. I already have a surge protector and a powered USB hub.

    Edit
    I've just noticed that the Dell monitor isn't available in Canada. So I swapped it out for the Acer H236HLbid (making sure to check the refresh rate and IPS support this time) and shrunk the total price a little in the process. Here is the final list PC parts where the monitor is shown.
     
  19. ArchAndroid macrumors member

    ArchAndroid

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    #19
    The thermal paste and mat you have chosen should do the job nicely. Don't forget to thoroughly clean the pre-applied paste off the cooler before adding your thermal paste on the CPU.

    With the U2412 monitor not available it really comes down to a choice between two 1080p monitors: Acer H236HLbid or Dell U2312HM.

    I cannot answer this for you as the decision is entirely subjective; both will serve you equally well. The only thing is do you prefer glossy (in which case it would be the Acer) or matte (in which case it would be the Dell)? If you were rating glossiness on a scale of 1-10, the Dell would be about 1.5 out of 10, an iMac screen would be about 7 out of 10 and the Acer would be a 9 out of 10. It is one of the glossiest most reflective monitors out there. Check out this vid on the Acer. Bonus point for the Acer is its super-thin bezel and a bonus point for the Dell is its ability to raise, tilt and swivel 90 degrees. The choice is yours.
     
  20. TheChekt thread starter macrumors newbie

    TheChekt

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    #20
    All right then. I stuck with the Acer due to being $25 cheaper and having a lower response time. I'll start ordering things tomorrow and see how everything goes.

    Thanks. :)
     
  21. ArchAndroid macrumors member

    ArchAndroid

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    #21
    No problem. ;)
     
  22. TheChekt, Nov 16, 2013
    Last edited: Nov 16, 2013

    TheChekt thread starter macrumors newbie

    TheChekt

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    #22
    Thought I'd give an update. My Mac, keyboard, monitor, external hard drive, external DVD drive, KVM switch, and HDMI-to-VGA cable arrived.

    The HDMI-to-VGA cable doesn't work. I've tried both connecting it to the KVM switch (Mac -> HDMI-to-VGA -> KVM -> Monitor's VGA cable -> Monitor) connecting it directly to my monitor (Mac -> HDMI-to-VGA -> Monitor's VGA cable -> Monitor). All I get is a black screen. The HDMI-to-DVI cable works with the Monitor's DVI cable and port though, which obviously can't go through the KVM switch.

    The external drives when connected through my USB hub (which is connected to my KVM switch) don't work either. I can see "Remote Disk" under devices in Finder when I connect the DVD drive, but nothing happens when I put a DVD in. The hard drive never shows up at all. I've only got the hard drive to show up when I connect it directly to my Mac mini. Meanwhile, my mouse is connected through the USB hub and works fine. I'm using a D-Link DUB-H4 hub. I've also tried connecting my external hard drive directly to my KVM, and it didn't work there either, so I guess what's really happening is the KVM not working with any USB device that isn't a mouse or a keyboard. Which makes a depressing amount of sense. I guess what I really need to do is use the KVM switch only with my keyboard and mouse, while using separate connections between my Mac, PC, and USB hub that will hold all the external drives.

    Not the worse things that could happen, though things aren't going as smooth as I hoped either.

    Update

    So it turns out I needed a Mini DisplayPort to VGA Adapter instead of the HDMI to VGA Adapter. I got a new adapter from the local Apple Store and now I'm able to use my monitor through the KVM.

    I still don't know what I'm going to do about my external drives though. They evidently don't work through my KVM and I've recently heard that two computers wouldn't actually be able to share external drives without some kind of ethernet network.
     
  23. EpicBlob macrumors member

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    #23
    Do your drives work if connected to the USB ports on the Mini? Also it might just be a power issue with your USB hub. I used to have a USB hub that whenever I plugged in a ton of stuff to it (drives, mouse, keyboard, dvd drive, headset) it just shut off.
     
  24. TheChekt thread starter macrumors newbie

    TheChekt

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    #24
    The drives work fine connected directly to the Mac.

    I've decided to just skip the hub. I'm using the hard drive for the Mac's Time Machine. I'm getting a second external drive for the PC's backup (they're both small enough to not be that big a deal). Transfers between the Mac and PC can be done with a USB stick. And I can plug the DVD drive into whatever computer just whenever necessary.
     
  25. boomdog macrumors regular

    boomdog

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    #25
    You should look in to mycloud drives, they don't cost all that more than standard externals and you can access them from anywhere. Maybe even from both mac and PC but can't confirm that.
     

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