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Headless Mac Mini


September 19, 2008 09:00 PM PST

How about this for a crazy use case: I have been testing a configuration that will allow me to use the Mini away from my house with no monitor, mouse or keyboard or even a real network.

I am running the Mini headless connected to my XP Laptop via a firewire cable and accessing it with VNC. Tuning VNC for the firewire bandwidth gives me performance that is nearly as good as connecting local. Moving large windows stutters slightly, but everything else is smooth even animations and video.

Some of the tricks:

Many people have trouble booting a mini without it being connected to a monitor. There are instructions on the tubes for soldering up some resistors to a DVI connector to fake the monitor. I found that I didn't need to do that if I just left my DVI to VGA converter attached. I'm using some off brand so mileage may vary.

You need some sort of network between the mini and the laptop of course, the faster the better. VNC is a pig with bandwidth. An easy trick is to just use a firewire cable between the two. Both sides will acquire an address. I found that if the Laptop is booted up first the host names will resolve. That's a good thing, else I'd have to set the mac up with a static IP.

Don't use Leopards internal desktop sharing. Install Vine Server, it is much faster and supports more encoding options. Setup Vine Server to run the system server as well as the desktop server. This will allow you to see the log in window at boot.

All VNC clients are not created equal. Normally I swear by UltraVNC. I have it optimized for use on WIFI G and slow Internet tunneled through Hamachi. In the case of high speed networks like firewire or Gig E, however, RealVNC is coming out on top. It beats UltraVNC and TightVNC using the same encoder settings - go figure. I set it to HexTile encoding with full color. It is blazing fast.

As a side effect of booting without a keyboard I am now able to use my 'windows' key as an 'option' key. This never worked for me through VNC before.

Comments (5)
J, September 20, 2008 09:34 PM:

Ahhh, if only you could run Mac OS under VmWare! Nice move going with Firewire networking. It is pretty nice.

John, September 20, 2008 11:50 PM:

Well I can run it under VmWare, but... I can't get networking to work and Xcode just crashes on start.

J, September 21, 2008 11:07 PM:

Oh, you've made a valiant effort. I was referring to the fact that Apple doesn't let you run it under VmWare... which is the real problem. Of course if you had a Macbook, you could run all the other OSs virtually! Oh that Jobs is a tricky one...

John, September 22, 2008 01:42 AM:

Yeah, but could I run Windows as my primary OS and put OSX under VmWare? That would stick it to the man.

John, April 4, 2009 09:41 PM:


Shadowkiller is working with Leopard now. It says on its web site that it does not, and it surely didn't when I tried it last. It works now however and since Shadowkiller has not been updated in years it must be some recent change in Leopard 10.5.6. Killing mammoth shadows for windows and menus helps speed up VNC across slower connections. It also allows me to use 8 bit color in those rare cases with looking all stupid. It is not without side effects however. The menus pull down with no border at all now and get lost a bit over white windows.

Since my ISP bumped my upstream to 2mbit I have moved 100% to RealVNC and dropped UltraVNC. RealVNC gives me a faster more consistent experience.

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