Mac mini

Lost amid the flurry of Apple’s late-summer product announcements was a small but significant upgrade to the Mac mini line: in addition to dropping the low-end Mac mini Core Solo 1.5GHz and lowering the price of the Mac mini Core Duo 1.66GHz model to £399, Apple released a new top-of-the-line £529 Mac mini powered by a 1.83GHz Core Duo processor. It’s a solid, if unexciting, upgrade to Apple’s tiny desktop Mac.

The Intel Core Duo 1.83GHz processor powering the new Mac mini has a clock speed that’s roughly 10 per cent faster than the previous top-of-the-line 1.66GHz model. And the end result is that the new model was generally 10 to 15 per cent faster than its predecessor on Macworld Lab’s tests. Its overall score of 165 in our Speedmark test suite makes it the fastest Mac mini yet, but it’s slower than the iMac line, which has been upgraded to the more powerful Intel Core 2 Duo processor.

The £399 model powered by a 1.66GHz Core Duo processor, is largely the same system as the previous high-end Mac mini model. To reduce its price by £200, Apple has swapped its SuperDrive for a CD-burning, DVD-reading combo drive and reduced its internal hard drive capacity by 20GB to 60GB. The new version is essentially the same speed as the old model; although it received a higher Speedmark score, this was almost entirely due to the hard drive. The smaller drive offered better performance for disk-based activities such as the Finder’s Zip Archive tests or the iPhoto import test.

Although the Mac mini does have some limitations, it’s an impressively full-featured system. In addition to built-in AirPort Extreme and Bluetooth 2.0 wireless features, it supports Gigabit Ethernet networking. The 1.83GHz model comes with a DVD-burning SuperDrive, and both are powered by an internal Serial ATA drive.

Small is sweet
The Mac mini’s size makes it an interesting option as a set-top box for a TV. We hooked up the mini to a Sony HDTV via DVI, and a Sony home theatre receiver via an optical cable. Front Row performed admirably, and we enjoyed widescreen DVDs with 5.1-channel surround sound and music and slideshows from the comfort of a couch. But getting the program to function properly took some experimentation that required a keyboard and mouse: for example, changing settings in the DVD Player application, switching the Displays Overscan preference setting on and off, and changing resolutions.

Another interesting potential use of the Mac mini is as a server. We attached a Mac mini to a keyboard, mouse, small flat-panel monitor, and large external hard drive, and stowed the whole collection on a shelf in a bedroom cupboard. The system was relatively quiet, extremely compact, and had more than enough computing power to run a web server, share a large iTunes library, power two Slim Devices audio players, and run a few other assorted applications.

Forget about gaming
The Mac mini’s biggest weakness is its use of Intel’s GMA 950 integrated graphics system, which borrows memory from the computer’s main memory. Put bluntly, while the Mac mini and GMA 950 are capable of playing back HDTV-quality video, they don’t supply acceptable 3D performance for gaming. If you’re looking for a Mac on which to play games, look elsewhere.

We also suggest that you consider upgrading the mini’s RAM beyond the stock 512MB allotment. If you think you’ll want more RAM, we suggest having it installed when you order your mini so that you don’t have to throw away the pair of 256MB modules Apple includes by default or struggle to open the mini’s case with a putty knife to install the RAM in the tight slots. You can choose between two 512MB modules for 1GB, or two 1GB modules for the 2GB maximum.

OUR VERDICT

These new Mac mini models are good value, and Apple made an excellent choice in dropping the underpowered Core Solo model. As a budget Mac, a home server, or a set-top box, the Mac mini’s price and size make it a versatile system. If you’re a gamer, the Mac mini won’t be powerful enough for your needs. But for everyone else, the mini remains an excellent system, especially for users with a limited amount of free space or money – or both.

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