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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.
With the Dell Inspiron 531S as the key competitor (the HP SlimLine we tested is older, and thus it has out-of-date Photoshop and iTunes results), we will say that the Mac Mini, with its 1 gigabyte of 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM and its new, 2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo chip, holds its own on our performance tests. The Dell we reviewed uses a 2.3GHz Athlon 64 X2 4400 processor and 2GB of 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM in a configuration that costs $659. And you can see that the Dell and the Mac Mini are virtually tied on iTunes and CineBench performance. It's perhaps no surprise that the Mac Mini has a significant leg up on Photoshop CS3, now available in a Mac OS X-native version. Our Quake 4 test reveals the Mac Mini's 3D gaming limitations, though. Compare the Mac Mini's 10 frames per second to the Velocity Micro's 94 fps. On balance, the Mac Mini shows that it's capable as far as current PCs. That $999 Velocity system is a good example in general of the significant performance leap you can make over the Mac Mini if you're willing to spend a little more.
|Rendering multiple CPUs||Rendering single CPU|
|1,024 x 768 (4x AA, 8x AF)|
Of course, there's more to the Mac Mini, or any Apple system, than simply the hardware. The Mac OS X operating system and Apple's iLife '08 digital media productivity suite go a long way toward making up any price differences with Windows PCs. We remain operating-system agnostic, and in a way so does the Mac, given the various means by which you can load Windows on it as well. As we mention in our iMac review, though, we're still annoyed that Apple has a new version of its operating system coming out and hasn't told current and potential Mac owners whether they'll have to pay to upgrade to the new OS. History suggests that you will, and for $129. That makes us wary of purchasing a new Mac right now, especially if we're recommending a lower-priced system to a cost-conscious shopper.
As for iLife '08, we like some elements of it--iPhoto and iMovie's editing capabilities, and GarageBand overall--but we don't like the integration with .Mac that requires you to spend more money on an account for various features. It's also hard to criticize, since it's free with all new Macs. iLife '08 in particular arguably closes the gap in price compared to the HP and Dell systems, assuming you don't already own more fully featured Windows software and that you're interested in the various applications it has to offer.
And as always, one of the gotchas with Apple systems is its support. Yup, it has Genius Bars, which are convenient if you happen to live near one. And the year of parts and labor coverage is what we expect for a mainstream computer. We also find Apple's online support useful, although there's no chat option available. All that is great, but our bigger hang-up remains the limited telephone support availability. Ninety days of coverage is too short, especially for a mainstream system such as this one.
Find out more about how we test desktop systems.
Apple Mac Mini (2.0 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo)
Apple OS X; 2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo; 1GB 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM; 64MB (shared) Intel GMA 950 integrated graphics chip; 120GB 5,400rpm Hitachi hard drive
Dell Inspiron 531
Windows Vista Home Premium; 2.6GHz AMD Athlon 64 X2 5000+; 2GB 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM; 256MB Nvidia GeForce 8600 GT graphics card; 250GB 7,200 rpm Western Digital hard drive
Dell Inspiron 531S
Windows Vista Home Premium; 2.3GHz AMD Athlon 64 X2 4400+; 2GB 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM; 64MB (shared) Nvidia GeForce 6150SE integrated graphics chip; 250GB 7,200 rpm Western Digital hard drive
Windows Vista Home Premium; 2.3GHz AMD Athlon 64 X2 4400; 1GB 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM; 128MB (shared) Nvidia GeForce 6150SE graphics chip; 250GB 7,200 rpm Western Digital hard drive
Velocity Micro Vector GX Campus Edition
Windows Vista Home Premium; Intel Core 2 Duo 6320 overclocked to 3.0GHz; 2GB 800MHz DDR2 SDRAM; 256MB Nvidia GeForce 8600 GT graphics card; 320GB 7,200rpm Hitachi hard drive.