Want iMac-like performance, without having to buy an iMac? You can get such a machine from Apple if you customize the new Mac mini. Macworld Lab has tested a build-to-order (BTO) Mac mini, and the results in some of our tests are very close to that of a standard configuration 21.5-inch 2.5GHz Core i5 iMac .

The BTO Mac mini we tested doesn’t come cheap, however. To put together the machine, we took the standard configuration 2.5GHz dual-core Core i5 Mac mini, and upgraded the processor to a 2.7GHz dual-core Core i7, which adds £80 to the original £699 price. We also replaced the standard 5400-rpm 500GB hard drive with a 256GB solid-state drive (SSD), which costs £480. That brings the total price of the BTO Mac mini to £1,259, which is £260 more than the 21.5-inch 2.5GHz Core i5 iMac. (Both the BTO Mac mini and the standard-configuration iMac had 4GB of RAM during our benchmark tests.)

Macworld Lab tested the BTO Mac mini using a subset of our Speedmark 7 benchmark suite, which is currently in development as we adjust our testing to account for Mac OS X Lion. While we don’t have an overall Speedmark 7 score yet, we see in the individual application results that the BTO Mac mini beat the 21.5-inch 2.5GHz Core i5 iMac in five of our 12 tests. Not surprisingly, the BTO Mac mini with its SSD blazed past the iMac in disk-intensive tests such as the 2GB folder duplication (31 percent faster) and 4GB file unzip (42 percent faster). The BTO Mac mini also beat the iMac in our 4GB zip test (5 percent faster), our Pages import Word doc test (20 percent faster), and our Parallels WorldBench multitask test (4 percent faster).

In three of our tests, the BTO Mac mini equaled or came within a second of the iMac. Both computers posted the same times in our iMovie '11 export to iTunes 10 test, and our iTunes 10 AAC to MP3 encode test. The BTO Mac mini was one second faster then the iMac in our Import movie archive to iMovie ’11 test.

The iMac, with its discrete 512MB Radeon HD 6750M graphics, flew past the BTO Mac mini and its discrete 256MB Radeon HD 6630M graphics. The iMac was 62 faster in the Cinebench OpenGL graphics test, and 32 percent faster in the Portal 2 test.

The iMac outperformed the BTO Mac mini in the Cinebench CPU test. The iMac also beat the the BTO Mac mini in our HandBrake encode test by a wide margin. Interestingly, the Mac mini's dual-core processors support Hyper-Threading, while the iMac's quad-core processors in the standard configuration models do not.

Mac mini comparison

The BTO Mac mini is £730 more than the £529 standard configuration 2.5GHz Core i5 Mac mini, which has a 5400-rpm 500GB hard drive. Is the BTO mac mini worth the extra cash? If you simply look at the results of our disk-based benchmarks, you might think so. The BTO Mac mini was more than twice as fast as the 2.5GHz Mac mini in our duplicate test, and almost three times faster in our unzip test. Also significant was a 32 percent gain in our iMovie movie archive import test.

Look at the rest of the results, however, and you’ll find smaller gains, between 4 and 19 percent in our other non-graphics tests. Not surprisingly, the BTO Mac mini and the 2.5GHz Mac mini posted similar framerates in the Cinebench OpenGL and Portal 2 graphics tests. Both minis have the same 256MB Radeon HD 6630M graphics subsystem.

Considering that you don’t get several important items with the Mac mini that you do get with the iMac—a keyboard, mouse/trackpad, display—the BTO Mac mini we tested is a pricey proposition. However, some people may not want a new display (or don’t like the iMac’s glass-covered displays) and new input devices, and the Mac mini’s small case is preferable than the Mac Pro’s bulky tower. For general use, the BTO Mac mini can keep up with the 21.5-inch 2.5GHz Core i5 iMac. But the iMac fares better with software that can take advantage of multiple cores or graphic-intensive tasks.

Macworld Lab continues to work on Speedmark 7 results. Look for a full report coming soon.