Heterogeneous Computing Environment

October 14, 2023

Synopsis

This paper describes the components used to install and configure a heterogeneous computing environment consisting of a Microsoft Windows-based Mini PC and an Apple Mac mini.


Background

After running Microsoft’s PC Health Check app on my Dell XPS-8700 desktop computer back in 2021 it reported that my hardware wasn’t eligible for an upgrade to Windows 11, so I had to think about a suitable replacement.

I was impressed with the new Mac mini and particularly the Mac Studio both running Apple’s new system on a chip (SoC) architecture. Since I’ve had many Windows-based PCs over the years I was inclined to try something different other than Linux since I already had, at the time, a Lenovo IdeaPad running Kali.

What should come as no surprise to anyone is that Apple’s hardware is cost prohibitive. The base Mac Studio costs about $2K and to get a Mac mini configured with the amount of memory and SSD capacity that I wanted would also run near $2K and that’s not including the monitor. The reason I wanted a fully decked out Mac mini was that I also wanted to run an instance of Windows under Parallels Desktop (a hypervisor) and 16GB memory is the minimum needed along with a 1TB SSD. I just wasn’t able to justify the expense for basically a backup or secondary system given my primary system is a Lenovo P17 mobile desktop running Windows 11 Pro.

Nevertheless, if I had to go with another Windows-based PC then it was going to be a mini.

Part I: PC Component

Mini PC Selection

After searching the Web for “mini PC” I discovered a slew of PCs brands that I never heard of before, e.g., Beelink, CTONE, KAMRUI, TRIGKEY, ACEMAGICIAN, and MINISFORUM, along with some new terminology. A lot of online mini PC reviewers throw around the term “NUC,” an acronym for “Next Unit of Computing,” without defining the term or why it’s applicable to their review. Nevertheless, I found one particular brand, Beelink, on Amazon that seemed a popular choice based on reviews.

I quickly discovered that most units priced around $400 had similar features such as available ports, memory (16GB), and SSD capacity (500GB). What appeared to be distinguishing features were the CPU and the graphics processor. For example, many Beelink units include AMD Ryzen CPUs and AMD Radeon Graphics. Based on Beelink’s slick product video and case branding, I added the Beelink SER5 Pro Mini PC Ryzen 7 to my Amazon wish list.

Still not being 100% convinced, I searched for alternatives and found many industrial oriented systems configured with dual Ethernet ports which I didn’t need. However, along the way I noticed a GEEKOM mini-PC which looked interesting, so I navigated to their website.

After landing on their website and clicking the Mini PC menu option, I was immediately impressed with the features and price point of their Mini IT11 11th Gen Intel Core i5 unit. The following were the deciding factors:

  • Intel 11th Gen i5 CPU
  • Intel Iris XE Graphics
  • Windows 11 Pro pre-installed
  • 16GB/500GB memory/SSD storage
  • USB4 ports (data and power)
  • Display Port interface
  • Clean metal frame

Even though I selected the base Mini IT11 model, I determined the CPU/memory/storage and overall system specifications were more than adequate for my needs. Considering my work laptop is an i5 8th Gen, 8GB memory, 235GB SSD running Windows 10 Enterprise, I’m still able to run multiple browsers with multiple tabs open, MS Word, Outlook, Excel, and Visual Studio concurrently without any problems. Bottom line is the Mini IT11 has more power than my office laptop.

I was convinced so I ordered the Mini IT11 directly from the GEEKOM website for $429.00.

Monitor Selection

Hands down, my primary choice for monitor was the Apple 27-inch, 5K retina Studio Display. But as with the Mac mini and Mac Studio, the cost was prohibitive. I would be more inclined to spend $1599 for my primary system but not for a backup.

I checked out a few Dell monitors before deciding on a Lenovo ThinkVision. My minimum requirements were as follows: 27-inch UHD (4K) display, Thunderbolt 4 support, and factory calibrated color accuracy. The ThinkVision P27u-20 monitor satisfied all my requirements at $534—$1000 less than the Apple Studio Display.

Since I plan on using the Thunderbolt 4 connection for a Mac mini in the future, I decided to connect the monitor to the Mini IT11 using DisplayPort. While Lenovo provides a DisplayPort cable, the Mini IT11 only offers a Mini DisplayPort connection so I purchased a Cable Matters Mini DisplayPort to DisplayPort 1.4 cable from Amazon.

Peripherals

While I continued to use a Logitech M525 mouse, I became obsessed with trying to find an alternative mouse from Razer. Since I almost purchased one of their mechanical gaming keyboards, I decided to give one of their wireless mobile mice a try. I settled on the Atheris which is promoted as part of Razer’s productivity suite, meaning it wasn’t a pure gaming mouse. Initially, the mouse worked fairly well but over time, it became evident that the batteries don’t last very long and for some reason, maybe due to the shape and/or button sensitivity, I would inadvertently click the right mouse button more often than I would like to admit. Since I never seemed to have these problems with the Logitech M525, I decided to purchase another one.

As far as keyboards go, I’m using the same Logitech G Pro keyboard for the Mini IT11 that I was using on my Dell XPS-8700. There is something comforting and reassuring about the sound and feel of mechanical keys. I describe this keyboard and Logitech M525 mouse in more detail in my Dell XPS-8700 writeup.

Hint: generally, Bluetooth wireless devices won’t work until the operating system is loaded. So, it will not be possible to boot into the BIOS to change settings using a Bluetooth keyboard. I found myself in this predicament once so henceforth I will only use a wired keyboard.

Obviously, since the Mini IT11 is only about 4×4 inches square, an optical drive is not included. Since my Lenovo P17 also doesn’t have an optical drive, I decided to purchase a Buffalo MediaStation 6x Portable Blu-ray™ Writer with M-DISC Support – TAA Compliant from Amazon. Since I plan to try out some computer games, I purchased an EasySMX® KC-8236 2.4G Game Controller in black from Amazon. I’ll discuss my impressions of the game controller and some PC games I downloaded from Steam in the User Experience section of this document.

For headphones, I decided on the JVC White, Flat and Foldable, On Ear Headphone HAS160W. I purchased a pair a few years ago for use with my remote work laptop. So, for only $12.95 on Amazon how can you go wrong?

Network

Replaced a single TP-Link TL-SG1005D 5-Port Gigabit Desktop Switch with two Netgear unmanaged series 300 switches daisy chained in the following configuration: GS305 5-port placed on the bench top and placed a GS308 8-port on the lower bench shelf. Connected port 5 on the GS305 to Port 1 on the GS308 and port 8 on the GS308 to port 1 on the Wireless Gateway/Cable Modem Router.

Connected the Mini IT11 to port 1 and the Mac mini to port 2 on the GS305. All other components are connected to the GS308.

Software

I already use a licensed version of MS Office Home and Business 2021, so I wasn’t inclined to buy a second license for use on the Mini IT11. I also avoid subscriptions, so Office 365 was not on the table. Some time back I picked up a copy of WordPerfect Office 2020 that I installed on my Dell XPS-8700 but never really used.

I thought WordPerfect would have been improved since the MS DOS days, but I was wrong; WordPerfect is still everything I don’t like about a word processor. In addition to its clunky interface, support for the new MS document standards (.docx) is somewhat lacking. Since LibreOffice came preinstalled with the ParrotOS I have installed on my IdeaPad, I decided to try LibreOffice as a more suitable alternative to MS Office. In addition, MS Office 2021 supports Open Document Format (ODF) that LibreOffice utilizes.

As far as browsers go, I decided to install the Opera GX gaming browser. I’m not a gamer but I thought having a gaming browser would work nicely with my Logitech gaming keyboard. I configured Opera GX with the Dark Theme which automatically applies the theme color to my Logitech RGB keyboard which nearly matches my Logitech M525 mouse color. Additionally, Opera GX provides tracker blocker and ad blocker privacy features and free built-in VPN that are not currently provided by two of the big three: Chrome and Firefox.

For a PDF editor, I chose PDF Candy Desktop a “feature-packed” free editor. I decided I can live with the limitation of performing one task per hour. Besides, MS Edge has a built-in PDF viewer.

Part II: Mac Component

While in Winter Park recently, I stopped by Costco since my daughter mentioned that she purchased a new MacBook Pro 13” laptop with the M2 chip marked down with no sales tax. So, I was able to acquire a Mac mini with the M2 chip, 8GB memory, 256GB SSD for $499.99, a savings of $138 off the full price.

Since I already have a white Razer Atheris mouse that I’ll be using with the Mac, I only needed to find a suitable keyboard which satisfied my requirements as follows:

  • Corded (no Bluetooth)
  • Mac specific layout
  • 78-key mini
  • Mechanical keys
  • Price less than $50

As it turned out, these requirements were a tall order to fill given that corded mechanical keyboards are mostly used for gaming and Macs are still not recognized as being gaming machines. However, in the future this reality may change as more units built around the new Apple silicon proliferate. But for now, most keyboards for Macs are either wireless and/or compatible with both Windows and macOS. I narrowed my search down to the following five keyboards—all available on Amazon:

  1. Perixx PERIBOARD-332MW Wired Backlit Scissor Keyboard – Compatible with Mac OS X and iOS Device – Mini 11.22×4.57×0.83 Inches, White Backlit $26.99
  2. Macally 78-key Scissor Switch, Backlit Mac Keyboard, Wired (Space Gray) $39.00
  3. Macally USB Wired Keyboard for Mac and Windows PC, 78 Scissor Switch Keys (Silver Aluminum) $39.99
  4. Keychron C1 Mac Layout Wired Mechanical Keyboard, Gateron G Pro Brown Switch, Tenkeyless 87 Keys, White Backlight $59.99
  5. Logitech G413 TKL SE Mechanical Gaming Keyboard – Compact Backlit Keyboard with Tactile Mechanical Switches, Anti-Ghosting, Compatible with Windows, macOS – Black Aluminum 49.99

I finally settled on the Perixx PERIBOARD primarily due to price and color. I wanted the keyboard color to match up with the white Atheris mouse I’m pairing it with. My second choice was the Macally 78-key in Space Gray. I ruled out both mechanical keyboards on the list because they were TKL not mini and because they were not exclusively Mac keyboards.

That completes the Mac mini setup.

Part III: User Experience

One of the first things a Windows user will notice when using a Mac is that the mouse scroll wheel is reversed. That is, the default mouse wheel setting on a macOS machine is to scroll content down when the rolling the mouse wheel away from you or forward and to scroll content up when rolling the mouse wheel towards you or backward. To change the way the mouse wheel works on macOS, select System Settings -> Mouse, then set the Natural Scrolling setting to OFF.

Another annoying feature on the Mac is to have applications automatically load on Login. While this feature may seem useful for some users, I find it problematic. I really don’t want my desktop cluttered with applications that I probably won’t be using every time I login. Besides, how long does it take to open a few apps manually? This feature needs to be turned off for each application separately. Right-click on an application icon in the Dock, select Options, then uncheck the Open at Login option.

Almost every article I found on the Web concerning macOS upgrades state that “Generally speaking, upgrading to a subsequent major release of macOS doesn’t erase/touch user data.” While this is most likely true for most user data, I’ve found that certain other settings are being erased such as the credentials for my Synology NAS data storage unit. On the other hand, this may not just be an issue with update/upgrade since I’ve already had to enter my NAS credentials multiple times. On Windows, it’s set it and forget it.

As a touch typist, it took me some time to get used to the location of the home row keys on the Perixx mini keyboard since I’ve been using a mechanical TKL keyboard on the PC for some time.

I decided to use a video game as the primary means to compare the performance between a basic 11th Gen, Intel i5 PC and the entry level M2 Mac mini. Since I’m not a gamer, I had to learn everything from scratch starting with installing Steam. Next, I needed to decide on a title, one that would run on both a PC and a Mac. I decided on the 7 Days to Die zombie survival game developed by The Fun Pimps. After installing the game on the mini PC, it took no time at all to realize the game was unplayable using just a mouse and keyboard. Mouse movement was erratic causing extreme ghosting of the background and it was nearly impossible to focus on an object, such as the vegetation which needed to be picked. These issues improved greatly when played using the EasySMX game controller.

However, on the Mac mini, the 7 Days to Die game seemed to run fine using only the mouse and keyboard. The bottom line is that the M2 Mac mini minimum configuration is quite capable of running one of the newer popular computer games still in development. Note that the EasySMX KC-8236 game controller isn’t supported on the Mac.

As a secondary means of comparing performance between the Mac mini and mini PC, I chose to edit a raw file using Affinity Photo 2. I performed some basic edits such as exposure, brightness, contrast, and photo cropping. I noticed no discernable difference in performance between the two systems with the exception that Develop seemed to run slightly faster on the Mac mini.

The bottom line is that most computer users won’t go wrong with either system, the Mac mini or the mini PC. However, serious gamers will probably stick to the Windows PC due to the availability of game titles. On the other hand, casual gamers won’t be disappointed with the performance of the M2 Mac mini. Ultimately, the choice boils down to which system, MacOS or Windows, provides the look and feel the user prefers.

©2013-2024 Gerard Sczepura. All rights reserved.