The Good Fast new Core 2 Duo processor compares well with competing Windows desktops; useful iLife '08 software; supersmall chassis remains unique in the mainstream desktop market.
The Bad Comparable slim Windows desktops offer more features for the dollar, as well as expandability; no information from Apple on whether you'll have to pay for a Leopard upgrade two months from now; free phone support for only 90 days.
The Bottom Line The Mac Mini remains unique as the smallest mainstream desktop, but competition from Dell and HP has narrowed the gap in features while also offering room for expansion, and at a better price. If your goal is saving space, the Mac Mini is a winner. If you'd rather get the best deal, there are better options.
Apple Mac Mini (2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo)
At the same time it revamped its iMac, Apple also more quietly updated its smaller-scale Mac Mini desktops, adding a faster Intel Core 2 Duo processor in place of the old Core Duo chips. The result is more or less competitive performance compared to similar Windows PCs. The problem is the cost. At $799, the 2.0GHz Mac Mini is roughly $180 more expensive than competing small-scale systems from Dell and HP. And for $200 more, you can get a vastly more capable Windows desktop from a number of vendors. Granted, those price differences do not account for Dell's 530s and 531s, and HP's SlimLine systems also have trimmer dimensions than typical PCs, but neither is as diminutive as the Mac Mini.
On the other hand, neither of those systems is as expensive as the Mac Mini. Both Dell and HP let you build comparable desktops for $620 or so, including wireless networking capabilities, mice and keyboards (which the Mac Mini lacks), and in Dell's case, Bluetooth. All of these desktops now use Intel Core 2 Duo mobile chips (Dell also offers an AMD-based model), with accompanying integrated graphics processors. You'll also find dual-layer DVD burners on all three systems. The Mac Mini comes up short on its hard drive, though. The 120GB, 5,400rpm default model in our review unit lacks in both capacity and access speed compared to the 160GB and higher 7,200rpm models in the SlimLine and Inspirons.
And although their expansion possibilities are limited to low-end 3D cards, Dell and HP at least let you expand beyond the integrated graphics chips that come standard. Due to the closed case and also to its notebook chipset, you have no 3D upgrade possibilities with the Mac Mini, restricting your gaming to lower resolutions and image quality, if any at all. This limited expandability has always been a downside for the Mac Mini, for gaming purposes and in general. You might be willing to accept that if you're in the market for a basic computer, and we also understand that there is cost involved in putting a relatively capable system in such a small case. Still, it's always felt counterintuitive that you should pay more for fewer possibilities, and compared to this new crop of small-scale Windows PCs, that's exactly what it feels like is going on with the Mac Mini.
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