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Apple Mac Mini (PowerPC G4) review: Apple Mac Mini (PowerPC G4)

Apple Mac Mini (PowerPC G4)

Troy Dreier and Matt Elliott

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8 min read

7.1

Apple Mac Mini (PowerPC G4)

The Good

Affordable; extremely compact; whisper quiet; ships standard with 512MB of memory; includes iLife '05.

The Bad

G4 processor, not G5; peripherals--even keyboard and mouse--add to the bill if you don't already own them; case can't be easily opened; slow hard drive; only two USB 2.0 ports.

The Bottom Line

The Apple SuperDrive Mac Mini addresses some of the shortcomings of its $499 predecessor, making it a well-rounded home PC at its base configuration.
Intro
Editors' note: Apple recently updated the Mac Mini with Intel Core Solo and Core Duo chips. Apple no longer sells models with the older PowerPC G4 processors, but you can still find such units available at various online resellers. For our most recent coverage, read our review of the Mac Mini Core Duo. (6/19/06)
Does Steve Jobs read our reviews? When we reviewed the $499 Mac Mini earlier this year, we generally liked what we saw but recommended four upgrades to potential buyers lured in by the low, entry-level price. The Mac Mini configuration we suggested added a little more than $300 to the base price and doubled the memory and the hard drive size, traded the combo drive for a SuperDrive, and added the wireless Bluetooth and AirPort Extreme combo. Lo and behold, Apple has released a third model, the SuperDrive Mac Mini, which includes all of those features for $699. The SuperDrive Mac Mini's external appearance is no different than that of its $499 and $599 cousins; likewise, it doesn't include a monitor, speakers, a keyboard, or a mouse. It's based on the 1.42GHz PowerPC G4 processor and offers acceptable but certainly not blazing performance. Still, its small size, high style, and excellent software make it a great buy for basic home use. Apple has become synonymous with sleek, minimalist design, and the Mac Mini certainly embodies this ethos. A low, square box with rounded corners, the Mini is made of white plastic and anodized aluminum, and it measures 2 by 6.5 by 6.5 inches (HWD) and weighs 2.9 pounds. Smaller than any Shuttle system we've seen (and Shuttle pioneered the small-form-factor PC), the Mini looks great in any environment, equally at home on a desk or in the den. And when in use, the Mini is marvelously quiet, with its cooling fan making less than a whisper.

Minimal Mini: setting up the Mac Mini is a snap, just plug in the power cord and find yourself a monitor, a keyboard, and a mouse.

True to Apple's styling, the top of the Mac Mini displays the simple Apple logo, and on the front, there's only a slot-loading CD/DVD slot and a small white power light. In order to maintain the Mini's elegance, Apple has put even commonly used items, including the power button and the audio jack, on the rear. You may tire of feeling around back to turn on the thing or to sync your iPod, but the Mini's small dimensions mean it will likely be sitting on top of your desk vs. under it, making its back-panel ports more convenient than they would be on a tower design.

Also on the back of the Mac Mini, you'll find two USB 2.0 ports, one FireWire 400 port, a 10/100BaseT Ethernet port, a modem port (for the included 56Kbps V.92 modem), and a DVI video-out port. We were happy to see that the Mini ships with a DVI-to-VGA video adapter so that users can connect both digital and analog monitors. We were less than happy to find only the pair of USB ports; unless your monitor or keyboard provides such ports, you'll need to get a USB hub. It's far from a big-ticket item, but it will somewhat diminish the Mini's small footprint and clean design.


We would like more than two USB ports, but we were happy to see a FireWire port and a DVI connection for monitors.

The Mini's case isn't sealed, but opening it is a bit of a challenge and not for the nontechnical (it involves some elbow grease and confidence with a putty knife). If you want Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, or extra RAM, we recommend ordering them as custom options when you buy the Mini or taking it to a local Apple repair shop. Adding an AirPort Extreme card is especially challenging, since besides installing the card, you'll also need to add an internal antenna. If you plan to shuttle the Mini from room to room, as Apple suggests, you'll want to tack on the wireless upgrade prior to purchase.

With the addition of the SuperDrive Mac Mini, Apple smartly rolls out 512MB of memory to all three Mac Mini models, which will save budget-minded consumers from bringing home an underpowered Mac with only 256MB. The $699 SuperDrive Mac Mini equips you with a 1.42GHz G4 processor, 512MB of 33MHz RAM, an 80GB hard drive, and a multiformat DVD burner, which Apple calls a SuperDrive.


For $699, the SuperDrive Mac Mini is well equipped under the hood, with a sufficient memory allotment and integrated wireless Bluetooth and AirPort Extreme.

In order to pack the Mini into such a small case, Apple uses a notebook hard drive. Whereas the iMac G5 uses a 3.5-inch, 7,200rpm drive, inside the Mini spins a 2.5-inch, 4,200rpm drive. Expansion, or lack thereof, is also another obvious drawback to the Mini; there are no free PCI slots, and opening the case is difficult.

One way Apple has kept the Mini's price down is by not including a monitor, a keyboard, or a mouse. If you're switching from a Windows computer, that won't be a problem, as Macs can use nearly any peripherals that Windows PCs can use--as long as your keyboard and mouse are USB and not PS/2. If you're a new user, however, you'll need to tack on the extra expense. Look for a Logitech or Microsoft mouse and keyboard (Apple's one-button mouse and rinky-dink plastic keyboard are so poor that it's probably a plus that the Mini doesn't come with them).

Like the SuperDrive, wireless Bluetooth and AirPort Extreme used to be a $100 upgrade on the Mac Mini and now ship standard on the $599 and $699 models. Bluetooth lets you easily connect a wireless keyboard and mouse and save valuable USB ports in the process. AirPort Exteme means the Mini is ready to connect to wireless 802.11g networks right out of the box.

Looking at its budget PC competition, the Mac Mini can't compete on raw clock speed or hard drive size, but it matches up well in terms of memory and optical drive. The eMachines T6520 features a faster processor and twice the hard drive size, but the SuperDrive Mac Mini has the edge in terms of overall design (small, quiet, sexy) and software on the strength of the iLife '05 suite alone. iLife includes iMovie HD, iTunes 4.7, iDVD 5.0, iPhoto 5.0, and GarageBand 2.0. You also get AppleWorks, Quicken 2005, and a 30-day trial for iWork along with a few kid-friendly games. The abundant software bundle greatly adds to the Mini's overall value.

Application performance
We're currently working with Apple to resolve what we believe is a conflict between our Photoshop benchmark and the OS X Tiger. Without Photoshop, we will rely on iTunes and Sorenson Squeeze to give you an idea of the Mac Mini's application performance. On our updated iTunes test (different than the iTunes test we ran on the 1.25GHz Mini), the SuperDrive Mac Mini took more than a minute longer to rip an album's worth of music (19 tracks totaling 747MB). Its score of 3 minutes, 23 seconds is roughly 45 percent slower than that of the iMac G5 and the two midrange dual-core PC systems. To be fair, the Mac Mini is the only true budget system of the bunch. The results illustrate, however, that the G5 processor adds a significant performance boost compared with the older G4. We saw similar results on our Sorenson Squeeze video-encoding test, where the Mac Mini was 46 percent slower in completing the test than the iMac G5.

Apple iTunes 4.7.1.30 MP3-encoding test
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
(Time in seconds)  

Using iTunes version 4.7.1.30, we time how long it takes to rip 19 audio tracks to 192Kbps MP3 files. To better isolate the system's CPU and eliminate the optical drive as a potential bottleneck, we "cheat" a bit with this test: instead of ripping directly from an audio CD, we rip from WAV files already stored on the system's hard drive.

Sorenson Squeeze 4.0 video-encoding test
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
(Time in seconds)  

Using our own custom project file, we time how long it takes Sorenson Squeeze 4.0.301.11 to convert a 30-second DV AVI file to MPEG-2 and MPEG-4 files.

Graphics and gaming performance
The Apple SuperDrive Mac Mini relies on the same graphics as the lesser Mini models: a 32MB ATI Radeon 9200 graphics card. It produced a playable frame rate on our Quake III benchmark at just over 52.2fps, which was actually a bit slower than the $499 Mini we previously tested. We attribute the slower frame rate to the fact that Quake III is an older game that the latest Mac OS (version 10.4.2, Tiger) is not optimized for. Today's games, though not generally available for Macs, will prove too taxing for the Mini. Then again, any gamer shopping for a $500 computer isn't grounded in reality. The Mini can handle running the apps found in iLife '05--for manipulating photos, music, and movies--which should keep most prospective Mini owners pleased and productive.

Quake III demo test (1,024x768)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
(frames per second)  

System configurations:
Apple iMac G5
Macintosh OS 10.4; PowerPC G5 2.0GHz; 512MB DDR SDRAM 400MHz; 128MB ATI Radeon 9600; Maxtor Serial ATA hard drive
Apple Mac Mini
Mac OS X 10.3.7; 1.25GHz PowerPC G4; 256MB DDR SDRAM 333MHz; 32MB ATI Radeon 9200; 40GB 4,200rpm Ultra ATA/100
Apple PowerMac G5 dual 2.7GHz
Macintosh OS 10.4; Dual PowerPC G5 2.7GHz; 4,096MB DDR SDRAM 400MHz; 256MB Nvidia GeForce 6800 Ultra AGP; 250GB Maxtor Serial ATA hard drive
Apple SuperDrive Mac Mini
Macintosh OS 10.4.2; PowerPC G4 1.42GHz; 512MB DDR SDRAM 333MHz; 32MB ATI Radeon 9200; Seagate ATA hard drive
Dell Dimension 5100C
Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 SP2; 3.0GHz Intel Pentium D 830, 512MB DDR2 SDRAM 533MHz; Intel 945G chipset; 224MB (shared) integrated Intel 950G; Maxtor 6L160M0 160GB 7,200rpm Serial ATA
Gateway E-6500
Windows XP Professional SP2; 3.0GHz Intel Pentium D 830, 512MB DDR2 SDRAM 533MHz; Intel 945G chipset; 128MB Nvidia GeForce 6600 PCIe; WDC WD2000JD-22HBB0 200GB 7,200rpm, Serial ATA

Apple's support options have always been a bit skimpy, although the quality of the help is good. If you're lucky enough to live near an Apple Store, you can just pop your Mini in a bag and bring it to the store's Genius bar. You're out of luck when it comes to phone support. Where most computers provide a year of free phone support, Apple offers only 90 days (toll-free, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. ET, seven days a week). We typically waited on hold for only five minutes, and the techs who answered were knowledgeable and patient. You can also visit the Mini's support page, which contains links to excellent forums.

The Mini comes with a one-year warranty on parts and labor. For $149, you can purchase the AppleCare Protection Plan, which gets you three years of phone support and a three-year warranty. For a system that costs only $600, we can't see paying 25 percent of that price for an extended warranty.

7.1

Apple Mac Mini (PowerPC G4)

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 7Performance 5Support 6
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