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Apple Mac Mini (2.53GHz Intel Core 2 Duo review: Apple Mac Mini (2.53GHz Intel Core 2 Duo

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Apple's newest iMacs, especially the 27-inch model, offer strong value thanks to their fast performance, good looks, and large, attractive displays. The new Mac Mini is not quite as compelling. We're looking at only the $799 2.53GHz model in this review, and with its particular combination of size and features, it competes in a strange middle ground. It's mostly fast enough to stand side by side with Windows-based PCs in its price range, but despite its size it doesn't offer the same flexibility as other small desktops. The $799 Mac Mini retains the appeal Mac Minis have always had for those who want a small not-quite-budget Mac for day-to-day productivity. For any other purpose, you'd be much better off with a system from one of the Mac Mini's Windows-based competitors.

OVR
6.0

Apple Mac Mini (2.53GHz Intel Core 2 Duo

The Good

Apple's industry-leading design.

The Bad

Poor performance for its price; not as living-room-friendly as its Windows-based competition.

The Bottom Line

With strong competition among small PCs on the Windows side of the aisle, the latest Mac Mini faces a greater challenge than older models. If you demand a small, relatively affordable Mac, we suppose the Mac Mini is your only option. Otherwise, you can find Windows-based small form factor desktops that offer more interesting features with better value.

The new Mac Mini, introduced by Apple back in October, received no changes to its physical design or external features compared with the last revision this past March. The case is still made from a combination of aluminum and plastic, and the size remains a svelte 2 inches high, by 6 inches wide and deep. Ports appear on the back of the Mac Mini only, and include five USB 2.0 ports, analog audio jacks, a Gigabit Ethernet output, a FireWire 800 port, and both Mini DVI and Mini DisplayPort outputs for video. Unlike the new 27-inch iMac, the Mini DisplayPort on the new Mac Mini does not double as a video input. A Mini DVI-to-DVI adapter comes in the box. You'll need to pay extra for adapters in other formats.

The changes to the new $799 Mac Mini include a 2.0GHz to 2.53GHz clock speed bump to the Intel Core 2 Duo CPU and 4GB of RAM, up from 2GB last time. With more system memory, the Mac Mini can also allocate more RAM to the GeForce 9400M video chip, which goes from 128MB to 256MB. While it still has a standard-definition DVD burner, the Mac Mini is capable enough to play 1080p HD video files with no noticeable stutter.

The Gateway SX2800-01 might be the best comparison for the Mac Mini among desktops we've reviewed, but Dell's new Inspiron Zino HD is an equally appropriate matchup because of its small, boxy design. We're told that a Zino is on its way to us for review, and we hope to have it posted early in January, but we haven't put our hands on one yet. The Gateway above is also not the most up-to-date version of that system. It has been replaced by new models with new features and Windows 7.

Sticking to what we've seen, however, even the older Gateway SX2800-01 shows a few of the Mac Mini's shortcomings. First, the Gateway costs about $300 less. It doesn't have wireless networking like the Mac Mini, but that's really its only flaw. Since Wi-Fi is easy and cheap to add either via a USB stick or an internal card, it's also an easy enough thing to fix in the Gateway. The Gateway offers twice as much hard-drive space, and, more importantly, you can output video via its HDMI port. That makes the Gateway living-room-ready out of the box. Apple, in sticking to Mini DisplayPort and Mini DVI, requires you to jump through a few adapter hoops before you can easily connect the Mac Mini to a television.

Adobe Photoshop CS3 image-processing test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Apple iTunes encoding test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Multimedia multitasking (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Cinebench
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Rendering multiple CPUs  
Rendering single CPU  
Gateway SX2800-01
10,085 
2,773 
HP TouchSmart 300-1020
5,739 
2,983 
Acer Aspire Z5610
5,446 
2,976 
Apple Mac Mini
5,419 
2,899 

We've updated our OS X benchmarks to accommodate recent versions of iTunes and QuickTime, so although we've been able to double-test some older Windows PCs, the Gateway SX2800-01 went back to Gateway before we were able to retest. Thus, we can only compare the Gateway with the Mac Mini on two of our four application tests.

You'll see Gateway edge out the Mac Mini on Photoshop and our multithreaded Cinebench test. Our hunch is that the Gateway would fall behind the Mac Mini on iTunes and our multitasking test. The reason is the Mac's faster core CPU clock speed and the general memory efficiency of OS X versus that of Windows 7, which typically helps Macs achieve excellent multitasking performance. The Asus desktop also has a faster Core 2 Quad chip than the Gateway, and it falls behind the Mac Mini on both of those tests.

Even if we don't speculate about the Gateway's performance, we would expect an $800 computer to distance itself from a $500 competitor across the board. That the Mac Mini falters on any of our tests next to the Gateway suggests a weak price-performance ratio. Yes, the Mac Mini is fast enough so that performing common tasks won't seem like a chore, but relative to its price, and with few other features to recommend it, this $799 Mac is a poor deal.

For the fun of it, we also went to configure a Dell Inspiron Zino HD to try to match the Mac Mini. The Dell's CPU selection skews lower than the Mac Mini, which suggests that Dell has only the living room in-mind for its new small form factor PC. But after choosing the best AMD CPU available for the Zino, we bumped the RAM up to 4GB, the hard drive up to 320GB, added 802.11n wireless networking, and the price came out to $518. With the Blu-ray drive and graphics card options, the price is $693. Granted, this Dell would likely fall behind the Mac Mini on our benchmarks, but with Blu-ray and the included HDMI video output, the $693 Inspiron Zino HD seems to be a far more versatile living room system.

Juice box
Apple Mac Mini (2.53GHz, Winter 2009) Average watts per hour
Off (watts) 0.72
Sleep (watts) 1.32
Idle (watts) 17.84
Load (watts) 43.98
Raw (annual kWh) 78.0078
Energy Star compliant Yes
Annual operating cost (@$0.1135/kWh) $8.85

Annual power consumption cost
Apple Mac Mini
$8.85 

Perhaps it's small consolation since we don't really recommend buying this desktop, but like Apple's other systems, the Mac Mini's power efficiency it nothing short of amazing given its specs. We've seen full-fledged Nettops that consume more power. Whatever Apple's secret, it works consistently.

Finally, Apple's service and support policies remain out of step with the rest of the industry because of its all-or-considerably-less approach. The default plan covers parts and labor for a year, but you only get phone support for 90 days post-purchase. To extend the service you have only the $149 AppleCare option, which nets you three years of warranty and phone coverage. With only 90 days of phone protection otherwise, Apple falls about 270 days short of every other major desktop vendor.

Find out more about how we test desktop systems.

System configurations:

Apple Mac Mini
Mac OS X 10.6.2; 2.53GHz Intel Core 2 Duo P8700; 4GB 1,067MHz DDR2 SDRAM; 256MB Nvidia GeForce 9400M; 320GB, 7,200rpm Fujitsu hard drive

Acer Aspire Z5610
Windows 7 Home Premium SP1 (64-bit); 2.6GHz Intel Pentium Dual Core E5300; 4GB 1,333MHz DDR3 SDRAM; 512MB ATI Mobility Radeon HD 4570; 320GB 5,400rpm Seagate hard drive

Asus Essentio CG5280-BP004
Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit; 2.5GHz Intel Core 2 Quad Q8300; 8GB 800MHz DDR2 SDRAM; 32MB Intel GMA X4500 integrated graphics chip; 1TB, 7,200rpm hard drive

Gateway SX2800-01
Windows Vista Home Premium SP1 (64-bit); 2.3GHz Intel Core 2 Quad Q8200; 4GB 800MHz DDR2 SDRAM; 32MB (shared) Intel GMA X4500 integrated graphics chip; 640GB 7,200rpm hard drive

HP TouchSmart 300-1020
Windows 7 Home Premium SP1 (64-bit); 2.7GHz AMD Athlon II X2 235e; 4GB 1,333MHz DDR3 SDRAM; 256MB (shared) AMD Radeon HD 3200 integrated graphics chip; 500GB 5,400rpm Seagate hard drive

OVR
6.0

Apple Mac Mini (2.53GHz Intel Core 2 Duo

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 5Performance 5Support 5