Mac mini Server review

The release of the Mac mini Server in October 2009 was, in effect, Apple’s acknowledgement of the use to which many users had put their minis since the model’s introduction in January 2005.

The mini Server’s hardware configuration was distinguished from the standard Mac mini by dint of a second hard drive occupying the enclosure space otherwise taken up by an optical drive. Those who needed to use optical discs either had to buy an external USB model (the matching Apple external SuperDrive currently costs £66, though you can pick up a third-party one for around £25) or use Apple’s Remote Disc technology to access the optical drive of another machine on the same network (provided it was running Mac OS X 10.4.10 or later or Windows XP SP2 or later).

The release of Mac OS X 10.7 Lion in July 2011 provided the spur for Apple to release a brand-new revision of its compact server. Not a mere increase in processor speed this, however. This time, Apple incorporated the Intel’s much-anticipated Sandy Bridge architecture, including the current top-dog processor, the Core i7. So how does the latest Mac mini Server measure up, and can it be considered an enterprise-level replacement for the now-defunct Xserve, Apple’s rack-mount server?

In answer to the latter, Apple stresses the ‘personal server’ aspect of the Mac mini, describing potential uses in small businesses, classrooms, design studios, and so on. After all (for the time being, at any rate) for the bigger players there’s still the Mac Pro Server which, at a basic price of £2,450, comes in at almost three times the Mac mini’s £849.

So what does £849 get you? For starters, Apple bundles an unlimited client version of its Lion Server: essentially, a set of administrator tools that sits on top of the client version of Lion. By comparison, many Windows servers around the same price include Microsoft Small Business Server Essentials, which supports up to 25 clients. Pay a couple of hundred pounds more and you can get Windows Server 2008 with five (yes, five!) clients. From this point of view alone, then, the Mac mini Server looks like good value.

Thundering ahead

But what about the hardware? Hasn’t Apple had to make sacrifices in terms of expandability in order to keep that slim form factor? And how about performance?

Well, to take expandability first, Apple has taken the major step of adding Thunderbolt, Intel’s new interface combining PCI Express (a standard developed for expansion card slots, and still used on the Mac Pro) and DisplayPort, adopted (and adapted) by Apple as the Mini DisplayPort familiar on laptops and previous Mac minis. Thunderbolt allows daisy-chaining of up to seven devices, and speeds of up to 10Gbps per channel, which makes it extremely attractive to manufacturers of, say, after-market RAID arrays such as the Pegasus range by Promise (www.promise.com).

Moving on to performance, we confess we couldn’t wait to get the Mac mini Server onto our workbench to put it through its paces. The model provided for testing featured a 2GHz quad-core i7 processor, 4GB RAM and 2x 500GB hard disks. Using the Geekbench 64-bit test suite, it scored a whopping 9,493. For comparison, a 2.4GHz Core 2 Duo iMac on our test network scored 3,725 in the same set of tests. Next, we put the Mac mini Server at the heart of our workshop network – a multi-platform affair with a couple of Macs of varying vintages, an original iPad, a netbook running Windows XP Pro and a laptop running Vista – and had it set up in around half an hour, with hardly a hiccup.

OUR VERDICT

In day-to-day use, the Mac mini Server proved an unobtrusive ringmaster to what could have been an inflexible bunch of clients – we were mightily impressed. So, if you’re in a home or work environment with multiple clients to be managed as well as files to be shared, the Mac mini Server might seem expensive on first look, but its benefits far outweigh that initial outlay.

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