Apple's new Mac Mini features some welcome updates and a controversial omission, but overall it remains in the same competitive middle ground as its earlier incarnations. No other system in its price range comes close to the Mac Mini's pleasing, compact design, and this $799 model brings some welcome performance improvements, along with the still-developing potential of its Thunderbolt port. Competing slim-tower PCs from the Windows side of the aisle offer more features for the same price, among them optical drives, which Apple has left off its new small form factor desktop. That decision makes the Mac Mini more of a niche computer than ever before. If you're a member of a niche who might benefit from owning an affordable Mac desktop with decent performance and a promising new input standard, the Mac Mini is a reasonable deal. Value shoppers and living room PC enthusiasts with large DVD collections, this is not the desktop for you.
The only major design change to the new Mac Mini comes to the front panel, which now has a continuous aluminum face instead of a slot for Apple's SuperDrive DVD burner. We expect that some potential buyers would happily sacrifice the new clean look for an optical drive, but with or without the slot, the Mac Mini remains one of the best-looking computers available. As with last year's edition, which debuted the new Mac Mini chassis, a plastic piece on the bottom twists off to allow user memory slot access.
The absence of the optical drive on the Mac Mini will likely provide the biggest point of uncertainty for shoppers contemplating a purchase, particularly for those hoping to bring the Mac Mini into the living room. The HDMI port still allows you to connect it to a TV, but with no DVD drive (give up on Apple ever supporting Blu-ray, by the way, if you haven't already) you will need to weigh the importance of your disc-based media. You could consider adding an external USB optical drive, and Apple offers one for $79, but that would arguably compromise the appeal of the Mac Mini's tidy design.
Those interested in the Mac Mini for day-to-day computing or for office work will also have to endure the inconvenience of an absent optical drive. These users can also rely on an external optical drive to install legacy disc-based software, but the impact of the lost DVD drive for traditional computing is less severe than in the living room. Given the amount of downloadable software available for purchase from Amazon, the iTunes Store, the Mac App Store, Steam, and elsewhere, we find Apple's anti-disc stance reasonable.
Other updates to the Mac Mini include a move to Intel's new second-generation Core i5 CPUs, a new version of OS X, code-named Lion, and, of course, the high-speed Thunderbolt port. You can read our review of Lion here, but note that because the Mac Mini does not include input devices, you will need to purchase the $69 Apple Magic Track Pad if you want to use Lion's new gesture-based input commands.
It will also be hard for consumers to understand the benefits of the Thunderbolt port, a new high-speed data port that debuted in Apple's most recent iMacs this past spring. To date, shipping Thunderbolt devices include only Apple's new $999 27-inch Thunderbolt Display and the external Pegasus RAID arrays from Promise. The Thunderbolt Display looks sharp, but the Mac Mini won't benefit from its built-in ports like the new MacBook Air, and you can buy an HDMI-based 27-inch display with the same 2,560x1,440-pixel resolution for under $800 from NewEgg. As for the Promise RAID array, pricing starts at $999 for a 4TB model.
Prices for Thunderbolt devices will surely come down as more products hit the market, and those who use the Mac Mini for more specialized purposes, such as in a design studio, or as a server, may find that the still-limited Thunderbolt universe makes sense today. Otherwise, given the expense of current Thunderbolt devices, and the lack of variety, it's hard to see how many consumers will put the Mac Mini's Thunderbolt port to immediate use.
|Apple Mac Mini (Summer 2011)||HP Slimline S5-1060|
|Motherboard chipset||Intel P67||Intel P67|
|CPU||2.5GHz Intel Core i5||2.9GHz Intel Core i5 2130|
|Memory||4GB 1,333MHz DDR3 SDRAM||6GB 1,333MHz DDR3 SDRAM|
|Graphics||256MB AMD Radeon HD 6630M||512MB AMD Radeon HD 6450|
|Hard drives||500GB, 5,400rpm||1TB 7,200rpm|
|Optical drive||NA||Blu-ray/DVD burner combo drive|
|Operating system||OS X 10.7 (Lion)||Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit)|
If the benefits of Thunderbolt aren't obvious, the new Core i5 CPU in the Mac Mini has a more noticeable impact. Along with the new CPU come a few other features. Apple has bumped the RAM to 4GB of 1,333MHz DDR3 memory, from 2GB 1,066MHZ RAM on the older model. You also get twice the hard-drive space, with a 500GB drive, as well as a discrete graphics chip for the first time in a Mac Mini, by way of the lower midrange AMD Radeon HD 6630M. Compared with a slim-tower HP desktop in the same price range, the Mac Mini's core components aren't actually that impressive. HP gives you twice as much hard-drive space, a faster CPU, a Blu-ray drive, and a TV tuner for just $30 more.
Your opinions on design and your operating system preferences will color the discussion beyond a simple comparison of features-for-the-dollar. We agree that the Mac Mini's value equation has improved with this new model. It should still come as no surprise that Apple still demands a premium for its products compared with others with similar or better features in the same price range.
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)