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

It looks great, it's easy to use, and it executes the home-theater-PC concept better than perhaps any other computer. If you can live with its mediocre video image quality, Apple's new Intel-based Mac Mini could be the home-theater PC of your dreams.

Troy Dreier
10 min read
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.


Apple Mac Mini (Intel)

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.

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.

Our Adobe Photoshop and Sorenson Squeeze tests are more demanding of the new Intel-based Mac; because the programs run in emulation, they're not yet available in Intel-native versions. The Mac Mini Core Duo performed poorly on both of these tests; on Sorenson, even the PowerPC-based Mac Mini SuperDrive beat it. We expect (or at least hope) that when the new, Intel-friendly versions of these apps come out performance for the new Macs will improve. But Adobe has said that it might be more than a year before it releases an updated version of Photoshop. If you depend on Photoshop or another nonnative app, we suggest putting off an Intel-based Mac purchase for as long as you can. Apple has a history of updating its systems' specs with little to no price increase, so you might be able to get more computer for your money by the time all of the software has caught up. In the meantime, you can always install Windows XP with Apple's Boot Camp utility and buy the Windows version of Photoshop. We ran our same Photoshop benchmark on the Mac Mini when running Windows XP Pro and saw a dramatic improvement; the Mac Mini running Windows finished the test in less than half the time as when running Mac OS X and using Rosetta. On our video-encoding benchmark, the Windows-based Mac Mini put up a time that was more than five times faster. We expect this performance delta to shrink or disappear all together, however, when universal binary apps--non-native Mac software built for the Intel platform--are released.

In our iTunes-encoding benchmark test, the Mini showed serious improvement over the previous high-end Mac Mini, a 1.42GHz PowerPC G4 model, demonstrating the kinds of processing improvements Mac Mini owners can expect from the Intel Core Duo chip. The previous Mac Mini took 203 seconds to encode a CD into MP3 files, while the current model took only 122 seconds. Given that iTunes doesn't require Rosetta, we weren't surprised to see the Mac Mini take 11 seconds longer to complete the test when running Windows.

On our Doom 3 graphics test, the Mac Mini could muster only 7 frames per second on our Doom 3 benchmark at a moderate 1,024x768 resolution.

Finally, we ran our Windows application benchmark, SysMark 2004, on the XP-powered Mac Mini to see how it stacked up to the PC competition. Though it features an Intel Core Duo processor, the Mac Mini was unable to put any distance between itself and two small-form-factor PCs that use single-core Pentium M chips. Also, its score of 178 trailed the iMac Core Duo's score of 214 by a healthy 17 percent.

Application performance
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
BAPCo SysMark 2004 rating  
SysMark 2004 Internet-content-creation rating  
SysMark 2004 office-productivity rating  

Apple's support resources remain merely mediocre. Buy a Mac Mini Core Duo, and you'll get only 90 days of toll-free phone support (9 a.m. to 9 p.m. ET, seven days a week) and a one-year warranty on parts. Apple's phone support has historically been good, although we're distressed to learn that Apple is opening a call center in India, introducing the potential for the well-documented type of language and overall customer satisfaction issues that Dell experienced with its own outsourced support operations.

For an additional $149, you can purchase the AppleCare Protection Plan, which extends both the phone support and the warranty to three years. Apple also offers terrific online support resources, including articles, FAQs, and forums.

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Apple iMac Core Duo
Windows XP Professional SP2; 2.0GHz Intel Core Duo; 1,024MB DDR2 SDRAM 667MHz; 128MB ATI Radeon X1600 PCIe; 250GB Maxtor 7,200 RPM Serial ATA hard drive

Apple Mac Mini Core Duo
Mac OS 10.4.5; 1.66GHz Intel Core Duo; 1,024MB DDR2 SDRAM 667MHz; integrated Intel 915G graphics chip using 64MB shared memory; Seagate ST98823AS 80GB Serial ATA 7,200rpm

Apple Mac Mini Core Duo
Windows XP Professional SP2; 1.66GHz Intel Core Duo; 1,024MB DDR2 SDRAM 667MHz; integrated Intel 915G graphics chip using 64MB shared memory; Seagate ST98823AS 80GB Serial ATA 7,200rpm

Blueado m5e Media Center
Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 SP2; 2.0GHz Intel Pentium M 760; Intel 915G chipset; 1,024MB DDR2 SDRAM 533MHz; integrated Intel 915G graphics chip using 128MB shared memory; 200GB Serial ATA 7,200rpm

HP Pavilion s7320n Slimline PC
Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005; 1.6GHz Intel Celeron M 380; Intel 915G chipset; 1,024MB DDR2 SDRAM 400MHz; integrated Intel 915G graphics chip using 128MB shared memory; Seagate ST3200826AS 200GB 7,200rpm Serial ATA

Shuttle XPC G5 1100h
Windows XP Professional SP2; 2.0GHz Intel Pentium M 760; Intel 915G chipset; 1,024MB DDR2 SDRAM 533MHz; 256MB Nvidia GeForce 6600 (PCIe); WDC WD200JS-22MHB0 200GB 7,200rpm Serial ATA


Apple Mac Mini (Intel)

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 8Performance 7Support 5