Mac mini full review

Apple has updated its entry-level desktop system, the Mac mini, but you’d hardly notice. While the core specs of the system haven’t changed, Apple has doubled the amount of RAM included with the system to 512MB. AirPort Extreme wireless networking and Bluetooth are now included on two models.

The entry-level Mac mini is clocked at 1.25GHz, and includes a 40GB hard disk, 512MB RAM DVD-ROM/CD-RW Combo drive, 32MB ATI Radeon 9200 graphics processor, and 56K modem. As with all the mini models, the system comes pre-installed with iLife ‘05, Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger, AppleWorks (word processing, page layout, painting, spreadsheet, database, and presentations software) and a couple of games. The price has unexpectedly nudged up £20 to £359 – previously to up the memory to 512MB Apple charged £30 on top of the £339 retail price, so it could be argued that the company has actually dropped the price by a tenner!

The £429 system adds a 1.42GHz processor, 80GB hard drive, and built-in AirPort Extreme and Bluetooth. Previously a similar £399 model had just 256MB of RAM and no wireless options. Apple used to charge £30 for 512MB of RAM and £70 for the wireless technologies, so this new system represents a £70 saving – which is great... but only if you need wireless. A new £499 model includes a DVD-burning SuperDrive.

The 1.42GHz models no longer ship with a 56K modem; the 1.25GHz mini does. This doesn’t matter if, like many of us these days, you have a broadband Internet connection. Dial-up Internet users, however, need to spend an extra £20 on fitting the modem.

Apple has finally woken up to the fact that 256MB of RAM is simply not enough. Previously, the mini was sluggish when running OS X and a couple of iLife programs under such limited memory. Now matters are much improved.

We certainly wouldn’t recommend a Mac mini for pro graphic designers or filmmakers, but it holds it own against the similarly specified eMac desktop systems. If you demand top speed you need a G5-powered Mac – preferably a dual-G5 Power Mac, although the iMac is pretty peppy, too.

Though it’s about the size of an average lunchbox, the mini isn’t weedy. It handled most tasks we tried gracefully, without hesitating or freezing. The 512MB of RAM and the solidness of OS X Tiger have a lot to do with that, but the chirpy G4 processor also makes a difference. I opened half a dozen apps and switched among their various windows without any slowness.

The Mac mini played a DVD movie at full screen without a hitch, although you’ll certainly want a set of speakers or headphones to use with it: the sound through the built-in speaker was way too low on my movie. But the audio sounded great through a decent pair of headphones connected to the audio port.

The only time the Mac mini hiccupped was when we opened a couple of large (15MB and 111MB) photos in iPhoto. We watched the “processing” icon for a good 10 seconds before either of these images would open, and switching among photos was a little sluggish. The system also wasn’t the snappiest at importing a large batch of photos from a USB key, but importing from flash memory tends to be a little slow in any case.

The mini is slower than other desktop Macs because, in order to squeeze all this stuff into such a small space, Apple used laptop parts, such as hard disk and optical drive, processor and graphics card.

However, the speed difference won’t be noticeable in most average computing tasks: word-processing, Web browsing, email, etc. A mini connected to broadband will be a hell of a lot faster on the Internet than a dual-G5 Power Mac using dial-up. The same goes for choosing between the 1.25GHz and 1.42GHz Mac mini models. If you require WiFi, the faster mini is the obvious choice. If not, the 15 per cent overall performance boost may not be worth it if your tasks aren’t too demanding.

We do recommend that anyone considering keeping an iTunes library of their CDs to link to an iPod should fork out the extra £40 for an 80GB hard disk if buying the entry-level mini.

This system has the same advantages and drawbacks as a typical notebook (except it doesn’t have a screen). On the plus side, it’s extremelylight and portable, and fits unobtrusively into lots of different environments. On the minus side, it’s relatively difficult to upgrade, and you can quickly clutter up your workspace with external peripherals.

After bringing your own monitor, keyboard, and mouse, you’ll want to add a USB hub of some sort. Since the mini has only two USB 2.0 ports – one of which must be used for the keyboard – you’ll have exactly one port left for connecting peripherals. And if you can’t plug your mouse into a hub on your keyboard, you’ll have none. There are already a few accessories with a mini-like look, including hub and external hard drives of the same dimensions as the mini. Macworld will be rounding up all the Mac mini peripherals in a future issue.

The mini runs about as hot as Mac notebooks tend to – I could feel heat coming from the back vents and from the bottom after about two hours of use. One pleasant surprise was how quiet the Mini is: I heard a little drive noise when the DVD-ROM/CD-RW drive was spinning up, but I didn’t hear the hard drive, and the fans are very quiet. Even better, when I plugged headphones into the combination line-in/line-out jack, I didn’t hear the droning system noise my PC pumps out.

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