Apple Mac Mini (Intel) review: Apple Mac Mini (Intel)

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MSRP: $599.00

The Good Inexpensive; good choice for budget shoppers or people adding a second computer; Front Row media software and new ports make it more useful as a home-theater PC; easy to connect with an entertainment system; can run Windows via Boot Camp; attractive software bundle.

The Bad Video output to televisions shows poor image processing; Apple software still catching up to Intel processors; small hard drive; remote control has limited functionality; few upgrade options.

The Bottom Line Apple packs more media-specific features into the Mac Mini to make an inexpensive and useful entertainment-room computer. It's tremendously easy to use, although it surprised us with poor image processing.

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7.5 Overall
  • Design 8
  • Features 8
  • Performance 7
  • Support 5

Apple's Mac Mini Core Duo

The littlest Apple received a makeover that includes more than just the widely publicized move to Intel processors. True, the Mac Mini line now features two Intel-based models: an entry-level, single-core Mac Mini Core Solo for $599 and a faster, more feature-rich dual-core Mac Mini Core Duo for $799. Both offer impressive specs for the price and will tackle most common software with ease. The new models are also welcome gifts to entertainment-minded customers, with additions that include a remote control and Front Row software, better multimedia ports for entertainment-room connections, and an improved ability to share media with other computers on the same network, not to mention the ability to run Windows and PC applications. We tested the higher-end configuration, and we think that if you're shopping with a Windows Media Center PC in mind, you should also consider the Apple Mac Mini, which is far easier to set up and use. You'll have to buy a TV tuner separately, and we have reservations about its video quality, but dollar for dollar, the Mac Mini is one of the best home-theater PCs on the market.

Apple's new Mac Mini Core Duo wisely maintains the square, squat shape of the original (a 6.5-inch square that's 2 inches high and weighs 2.9 pounds). It's small enough to fit in any crowded entertainment center and portable enough to unhook and take with you. As before, you'll have to add your own keyboard, mouse, and display, but their absence keeps the price down, which is an added boon for people who have existing peripherals and don't want to pay for new ones that they don't need. And while its default configuration costs $799, our review unit cost $899 due to a $100 upgrade to 1GB of memory over the standard 512MB.

The Mac Mini's front looks as minimal as before, with the small addition of a barely perceptible IR receiver to the right of the CD/DVD slot. The included Apple remote transmits by infrared, so you'll need a direct line-of-sight to your Mini to control it. The backside of the case offers more changes; Apple has added two more USB 2.0 ports, for a total of four. The Ethernet port has been upgraded to 10/100/1000BaseT, for up to 10 times faster Internet or local area connections. Best of all, though, is the addition of combined digital and analog audio input and output. This is a big help for entertainment-center connections, because you can now rely on your Mac Mini for audio with digital clarity. The Mac Mini has a DVI video output built in, but it comes with a VGA adapter if you have an older monitor. If you want to connect it to a television, the DVI port is flexible enough to accept adapters for a variety of connections, among them DVI-to-S-Video/composite, and DVI-to-HDMI. The back also holds a single FireWire 400 port.

The Mac Mini is a quiet operator, and the design helps it stay cool with no need for a noisy fan. It produces a low hum while spinning a disc, but it's so low that it will likely be drowned out by the other sounds around it. And as before, the Mac Mini isn't a sealed box, but it's not made for easy upgrades. If you need to add more memory after checkout, you're probably better off going to an Apple store or an Apple repair shop than trying to upgrade on your own.

Under the hood, the Apple Mac Mini Core Duo has been beefed up nicely, most notably with a 1.66GHz dual-core Intel Core Duo processor. The Mac Mini Core Solo uses a single-core 1.5GHz Core Solo CPU. Each processor features 2MB of shared L2 cache and a 667MHz frontside bus. The Core Duo configuration we tested features an 80GB serial ATA 5,400rpm hard drive, 512MB of 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM (expandable up to 2GB), and a SuperDrive (double-layer DVD burner)--specs that haven't changed since the line was refreshed in July 2005.

We're also happy to see that both 802.11g Wi-Fi networking and Bluetooth 2.0+EDR remain standard features. Although even the lower-price configuration is $100 more expensive than before, you get enough of a boost to the computing power and enough new features to make the price bump worth it.

Also prominent among the new features is Front Row, Apple's media center software that debuted with the iMac G5, and Apple's lighter-size remote. The software and the remote make it possible to browse videos, music tracks, DVDs, and photos from the comfort of the couch. Front Row brings the ease and intuitiveness of the iPod's menu structure to the Mac Mini, and it will feel familiar to anyone who's comfortable with Apple's eponymous music player. Front Row also gains an important improvement with this release, which in turn exposes a flaw with Windows Media Center.

Windows Media Center (MCE) is definitely more robust than Front Row, giving you in-menu power to do things such as build file libraries and set preferences. Front Row's strength lies in its simplicity, and the fact that it's tied into iTunes. Front Row adopts all of your iTunes settings, which presumably are already how you like them, thus eliminating the need for Windows MCE's directory organization features. And thanks to Apple's Bonjour local networking technology, Front Row lets you easily share media from other computers, Macs or Windows PCs, on the same network as long as they use iTunes (with the exception of photos, which require iPhoto, a Mac-only app for now). In addition to music, you can stream and play video files stored in iTunes, so you can use Front Row to play MOV and MPEG-4 videos. You can stream iTunes-purchased DRM content, but only after you authorize the Mini to play content from a specific iTunes account. With the other systems on our network turned on and set to share, Front Row found them easily. We can't say the same for the Intel Viiv-certified Dell XPS 400 with Media Center we just reviewed. We tried using that system to share music from our Mac Mini, but it required a long song and dance between the Mac Mini's and the Dell's network settings that we never really got to work.

While the previous Mac Minis had ATI Radeon graphics processors, the Mac Mini now offers an Intel GMA950 graphics accelerator integrated with the system controller. The GMA950 is a poor 3D chip for crunching the frames you need for gaming, but it does add pixel shader support. That feature, which is not processor intensive, enables graphic effects, such as the shimmering water droplet effect, when you add a new Dashboard Widget. Cool graphical tweaks like that aren't possible on the older Mac Minis.

The Mac Mini can handle a variety of media-playback tasks but, like all Macs, still lacks a TV tuner, and thus can't really function like a TiVo and record television out of the box. Apple sells two TV tuners on its Web site, starting at $199. Another potential shortcoming is that the included Front Row remote, while compact and elegantly designed, lacks the full functionality of the chunky Windows Media Center remote. It can't pause a video, then advance frame by frame, for example.

Like every Mac, the Mac Mini comes with a media-rich software bundle, led by Apple's iLife '06 suite, which includes iTunes, iPhoto, iMovie HD, iDVD, GarageBand, and iWeb, the newest member. These apps let you not only import music and play videos from the start, they also let you edit home movies, create professional-looking DVD menus, and compose music. The bundled third-party software has changed slightly and now includes Quicken for Mac 2006, a collection of classic board games, ComicLife (for turning photos into comic book-style pages), OmniOutliner, and trial versions of Apple iWork '06 and Microsoft Office 2004 for Mac. The included software is either coded for the Intel processor or runs in emulation mode using a built-in, invisible emulator called Rosetta. Not all Mac software has been coded for the new processors yet, though, so you should verify that the apps you'll need will run well on an Intel Mac before you buy. Rosetta is required, however, only when running the Mac OS; with Boot Camp, you can turn the iMac Core Duo (and the other Intel-based Macs) into a dual-boot machine that runs full versions of Mac OS X and Windows XP.

We gave the Apple Mac Mini the complete rec-room test to find out exactly how powerful a home-theater PC it really is. Hooking it up couldn't have been simpler, as we got it connected to four large, flat-panel TVs, each within minutes (using a direct digital distribution amplifier with four DVI outputs). Screen color varied among the sets, and we learned that users should take time to carefully calibrate the Mac Mini with their televisions. The calibration wizard in the Displays System Preference is a help, but it's also confusingly worded and overly difficult for nontechnical users.

Given Apple's tradition as a media-friendly company, we were shocked during our DVD and high-definition video-output tests to discover the poor image the Mac Mini sent out. Apple didn't include 3:2 pulldown processing as part of its video-out specifications, resulting in image quality that's quite degraded. This processing is necessary for high-def screens playing video from film sources and is found in even low-cost components. The Mac Mini's DVD- and video-output quality, which was marred by false contouring (banded or splotchy colors), moiré patterns (line distortion), and jagged diagonals. We've seen $50 DVD players perform better.

Multimedia tests
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Sorenson Squeeze 4.0 video-encoding test (in seconds)  
Adobe Photoshop CS test (in seconds)  
Apple iTunes MP3-encoding test (in seconds)  

As for its benchmark scores, our expectations for the Mac Mini weren't sky-high given its budget price, and it performed about as well as we expected.

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