Given its price, Apple's most basic Mac Mini config (recently updated to a dual-core 1.66GHz Intel Core Duo CPU) belongs squarely in the budget category, but Apple's entry-level desktop is far from your typical budget PC. For comparison, we've included the Cyberpower Back to School 2006, and the eMachines T5212 on our performance charts since both PCs are in the same price ballpark. The problem is that those are midtower desktops, and the Mac Mini is, well, the Mac Mini; it's the only PC in its price class that's small and attractive enough to fit anywhere in your home. It's also the only budget PC that can send or receive data wirelessly right out of the box. These advantages, combined with iLife, Front Row, and the Apple remote, make the Mac Mini an outstanding desktop for sending media files to your living room. Other PCs have better specs and more room to grow, so the 1.66GHz Mac Mini is not the best traditional desktop around, but for what it does, its value and utility can't be beat.
Apple didn't make a big deal about adding the 1.66GHz Core Duo chip to the lower-end Mac Mini when it made the change last month. The $599 Intel-based model debuted with the single-core Core Solo chip back in February 2006, and the update to the new dual-core CPU gives us a chance to reexamine how the Mac Mini stacks up. HP's Pavilion Slimline S7600e has emerged as the smallest Windows-based PC from a major PC vendor, and other small systems, such as WinBook's Jiv Mini, exceed the Mac Mini's price range. The $799 1.83GHz Mac Mini makes for a better comparison against those two machines. For the 1.66GHz Mac Mini, we'll focus on its $600 competition.
Simply put, no other $600 desktop that we know of comes with wireless networking included like the Mac Mini does. You can add it to the Cyberpower Back to School 2006, but neither Dell, eMachines, nor Gateway offers a Wi-Fi option in their lower-end PCs. So that's one for the Mac Mini. Against it is the fact that those systems all offer a DVD burner or the option to add one. You can get the 1.66GHz Mac Mini only with a DVD-ROM/CD-RW combo drive. Apple offers its SuperDrive DVD burner in the 1.83GHz Mac Mini, but not here.
Those are the major differences that aren't due to the compromises made by the Mac Mini's small case. Due to the constraints of size and heat management, Apple has to use smaller, slower, more expensive 5,400rpm notebook hard drives in the Mac Mini, compared to the full-size 7,200rpm drives in the midtowers. That explains why the 1.66GHz Mac Mini only has a 60GB hard drive to start and also why it costs $50 to go from 60GB to 80GB. eMachines doesn't even offer a hard drive that's smaller than 100GB. That same limitation applies to upgradability, a common criticism even of the Apple PCs you can get inside, such as the Mac Pro. Aside from the hard drive, the only other internal hardware you can customize on the Mac Mini is the memory (not a bad idea, with only 512MB of 667GHz DDR2 in the 1.66GHz base model, 64MB of which it must share with the graphics subsystem). That means you're stuck with the integrated Intel 950 GMA graphics chip, so 3D gaming is obviously out, and you shouldn't expect outstanding video quality either, although video is certainly watchable.
As always, it's hard to make apples-to-apples comparisons between Macs and Windows PCs, but we have a few tests that give us a good idea. You can always throw Boot Camp on the Mac Mini and load up Windows XP, as well, but that's a separate discussion. Running Mac OS X 10.4.7, we weren't surprised by the 1.66GHz Mac Mini's scores. Until Adobe updates Photoshop to an Intel-native version for Mac OS X, Windows PCs are the preferred platform for doing any kind of intense photo editing (running Photoshop through the Rosetta translation software is seamless but drastically slows performance). Apple systems usually get the nod for iTunes encoding, and here we have a split decision. Both $600 comparison PCs, the Cyberpower and the eMachines, have 1GB of memory to the Mac Mini's 512MB, but only the Cyberpower beat it. We suspect the Cyberpower's dual-core AMD Athlon 64 X2 3800+ CPU helped it top the Mini on the test. For video encoding, the Mac Mini beat the eMachines on Cinebench 9.5 (the test wasn't ready when we reviewed the Cyberpower). Our general impression, then, is that the Mac Mini keeps up with the budget competition and that it's powerful enough to operate as a living-room PC.
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
|Adobe Photoshop CS2 image-processing test|
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
|Apple iTunes encoding test|
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
|Rendering multiple CPUs||Rendering single CPU|
As usual, Apple throws in iLife '06 with its desktops, as strong a software bundle as we know of. The suite includes GarageBand for making podcasts and other audio chores, and iPhoto, iMovie HD, and iDVD for attending to your other digital media. We also like Apple's Front Row and the Apple Remote for the ease with which they let you navigate media files. In general, few Windows PCs come with as many useful applications out of the box. Of course, even the cheapest of them come with mice and keyboards. The Mac Mini does not.
Apple is also lacking in support, especially given recent developments from the major vendors. As is common, you get a year of parts-and-labor warranty coverage, but Apple offers only 90 days of phone tech support out of the box. Extending the plan for $149 adds three years to both the warranty and phone help, which, as far as extensions go, is fairly priced, but the default phone support should clearly be longer. Where Apple is lagging is its Web help. Dell, HP, and Gateway all offer remote access functionality, which lets a tech drive your computer to fix problems. Apple has nothing of the sort. At least its Web site offers some help in the form of various FAQs and troubleshooting documents, including help with the operating system. You can always visit the lively Apple forums for help as well.