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Apple's new Mac Mini answers a lot of the issues that have plagued the series over the years. An HDMI port helps it fulfill its potential as a living room system. An SD card slot gives a nod to digital photographers. A removable panel on the bottom provides user access to the system memory for easy upgrading. We like all of those additions, as well as the sleek, new design. HTPC enthusiasts and the value conscious will find the $699 Mac Mini too expensive for what it offers. They'll also miss Blu-ray. We expect those reservations won't prevent design fans and the Mac faithful from loving the changes Apple has made to both the form and the function of its tiniest Mac.
Say what you want about the new Mac Mini's features or its price, but the new chassis further secures Apple's standing as the best enclosure designer in the computing business. The new aluminum case carries with it all of the uber-industrial charm common to the iMac, the MacBook Pro, and the iPhone 4. At 1.4-inches thick, and 7.7-inches square, the new case takes up slightly more desktop real estate than the older 6x6-inch model, but it's also shaves half an inch off its height. Its dimensions also match those of the Apple TV and Apple's Time Capsule networked data backup device.
The old Mac Mini was always a living-room-friendly device due to its size. Despite its new measurements, the new model retains that same appeal. A few features and design adjustments push the Mac Mini-as-HTPC concept further. Chiefly, a built-in HDMI port simplifies the process of connecting the Mac Mini to a modern television. The previous model required you to purchase a Mini DisplayPort-to-HDMI adapter. Apple has also done away with the older model's cumbersome power brick. By moving to a simple power cable, says Apple, it achieved an overall 20-percent volume reduction in the Mac Mini's total hardware.
We never really minded the old Mac Mini in-line power brick, since you rarely had to deal with it after the initial setup. Adding HDMI to the video outputs is more crucial, because it means you can new Mac Mini as a home theater system right out of the box. A new Nvidia GeForce 320M graphics chip helps with the video chores, and we found that the system was able to handle HD video in QuickTime, as well as from Amazon Video on Demand, Hulu, NetFlix, and YouTube. Apple also provides a convenient underscan slider bar in the display settings, which lets you adjust for the size differences between TVs and standard computer monitors. We had luck connecting the Mac Mini to two different HDTVs via HDMI.
|Apple Mac Mini (spring 2010)||Gateway SX2840-01|
|CPU||2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo||2.93GHz Intel Core i3-530|
|Memory||2GB 1,066MHz DDR3 SDRAM||6GB 1333MHz DDR3 SDRAM|
|Graphics||256MB (shared) Nvidia GeForce 320M integrated graphics chip||64MB (shared) Intel GMA X4500 integrated graphics chip|
|Hard drives||320GB, 5,400 rpm||1TB, 7,200rpm|
|Optical drive||dual-layer DVD burner||dual-layer DVD burner|
|Networking||Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11a/b/g/n/ wireless||Gigabit Ethernet|
|Operating system||Apple OS X 10.6.3||Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit)|
Of course, the Mac Mini is not the only small computer out there with an HDMI output. You can find small Windows-based systems for as low as $199 equipped with HDMI, and in the hands of a determined enthusiast they can even be made to handle HD video. When you consider that a $470 Dell Inspiron Zino HD matches the Mac Mini's 320GB hard drive, you can reasonably start to question Apple's value proposition.
We like the Gateway SX2840-01 best as a comparison to the Mac Mini, although you could reasonably consider an upgraded Dell Inspiron Zino in the same price range as well. The SX2840-01 lacks wireless networking, and Gateway's design sensibilities trail Apple's by a decent margin, but aside from Wi-Fi, there's little else the Mac Mini can do that the Gateway can't. The less expensive Gateway gains a minor productivity edge over the Mac Mini in terms of productivity thanks to a fast 2.93GHz Intel Core i3 CPU that's more current than the Mac Mini's 2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo chip. The Gateway's capacious 1GB hard drive also underscores the large disparity between Apple and the Windows side of the desktop aisle in terms of storage space for the dollar.
Apple offers a few upgrades to the Mac Mini as customizable options at the time of purchase. You can boost the RAM to 4GB and the hard drive to a still-small 500GB for an extra $100 a piece. You can also upgrade the CPU to a faster 2.66GHz Core 2 Duo for an extra $150. There's no Blu-ray option, which is a relatively significant omission at this price. Apple has whittled the Mac Mini down to one core configuration this time around, down from the two it's listed previously. It still offers the Mac Mini Server model, though, with a pair of hard drives instead of the optical drive for $999.
|Rendering multiple CPUs||Rendering single CPU|
Looking at our actual benchmark scores, you can see that although the Gateway has an advantage over the new Mac Mini, the differences are for the most part minor. The Gateway and the Mac Mini are basically tied on our older Photoshop test. The Gateway enjoys a minor edge on iTunes audio file conversion, although the Mac Mini makes up the difference on our multimedia multitasking test. We suspect that has to do with the Mac Mini running more recent, OS X-native versions of the QuickTime and iTunes components of that benchmark.
The Gateway's primary advantage comes on our multithreaded Cinebench test. Its HyperThreaded dual core Core i3 CPU emulates a quad core chip, and gives the Gateway a dramatic boost while highlighting the Mac Mini's relative weakness on multithreaded programs. In practical terms that performance difference likely won't mean much to those shopping for a system in this price range, particularly if you intend to put it in the living room. It's also worth noting the Mac Mini's far superior performance to the Dell and Asus Nettops.
In addition to the boost to HD video performance the Mac Mini's new Nvidia GeForce 320M chip might suggest a decent gaming experience. Apple didn't pitch this system to us as a gaming box, but when we met with Apple's reps they couldn't resist a brief demo with Team Fortress 2 via Valve Software's newly Mac-compatible Steam download service. Both that demo and our own experience with Portal suggest that the Mac Mini, like other PCs in its price range, barely qualifies as gaming capable. More forgiving titles like Torchlight play smoothly enough, but you can expect choppy frame rates from first-person shooters.
You might have better luck with games if you try to play them at lower resolutions than the video outputs' maximums. The HDMI out supports up to 1080p (1,920x1,080), the Mini DisplayPort allows up to 2,560x1,600, the native resolution of most 30-inch desktop LCDs. Apple provides an HDMI-to-DVI adapter in the box, and you can purchase a Mini DisplayPort-to-VGA adapter for older displays. You can also configure the Mac Mini for dual-display output using both the HDMI and Mini DisplayPort outputs simultaneously.
For audio, the HDMI and Mini DisplayPorts both support uncompressed eight-channel audio, similar to the most recent MacBooks. We confirmed that the HDMI also supports Dolby Digital 5.1 audio by passing it through a receiver. You also get standard analog/digital in and out jacks.
Data ports on the back of the Mac Mini include the traditional assortment of four USB 2.0 jacks and a single FireWire 800 input. Apple still hasn't adopted eSATA, nor will you find USB 3.0, although you could rightfully consider both of those niche standards, at least for now. We're happy to see that Apple extended its SD card magnanimity from the iMac to the Mac Mini, by way of an SDXC slot on the back of the system. While the back edge is perhaps not the most convenient place for an SD card slot, we'd rather have it there than not at all.
If you flip the system over you'll see a round piece of plastic that looks not unlike a turntable. Two thumb holes and an indicator dot provide a hint as to what to do next. Insert thumbs, twist to line up the dots, and the plastic cap comes off to reveal the Mac Mini's internal memory slots, a Wi-Fi antenna, and the CPU fan. A determined user can take out a Torx wrench and remove a small metal grill to expose the hard drive. No previous Mac Mini made DIY RAM upgrades so easy. Upgrading the RAM isn't the most common task, but it's also simply enough that it shouldn't require the downtime involved with having to drop the system off at a Genius Bar or an Apple-certified repair shop. We're glad Apple finally provided a solution, and in its characteristic elegant style.
|Apple Mac Mini (2.4GHz, spring 2010)||Average watts per hour|
|Off (60 percent)||0|
|Sleep (10 percent)||1.2|
|Idle (25 percent)||7.01|
|Load (5 percent)||33.16|
|Annual energy cost||$4.15|
Apple boasted improved power efficiency for its new Mac Mini, a bold claim given its faster 3D chip and the older model's already-conservative power draw. We suspect Apple is telling the truth, as this Mac Mini is the first desktop we've tested to register zero watts on our off test. It's likely that our meter just isn't sensitive enough (and we bought it specifically for its low-wattage sensitivity) to pick up the off-draw, because we don't believe it's possible for any device plugged into the wall to pull down no energy, but even if that number is really 0.5 watt, the new Mac Mini would still be the most efficient desktop we've ever tested, by a factor of two.
We've been testing desktop power consumption for over a year now, and we've seen Apple consistently outperform the rest of the PC market in efficiency. We've heard that most consumers don't care about these sorts of tests, but that doesn't make Apple's efforts any less impressive or worthwhile.
Apple remains an outlier in the PC industry for its support policies. You get 90 days of toll-free support and a year-long warranty by default. After that, you can either refer to Apple's Web site, a Genius Bar, or an Apple-authorized service provider, or pony up $149 for three years of phone service via AppleCare ($20 less than the iMac extension), which also extends your warranty to three years. We have a feeling that Apple considers tying the warranty upsell to what other vendors would consider standard phone support a savvy business move. For the inconvenience this policy causes its customers who simply want to pick up the phone, we respectfully disagree.
Find out more about how we test desktop systems.
Apple Mac Mini (2.4GHz, spring 2010)
Mac OS X 10.6.3; 2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo; 2GB 1,067MHz DDR3 SDRAM; 256MB Nvidia GeForce 320M; 320GB, 5,400rpm hard drive
Apple Mac Mini (2.53GHz, Fall 2009)
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
Dell Inspiron Zino HD
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit); 1.5GHz AMD Athlon X2 3250e; 3GB 800MHz DDR2 SDRAM; 256MB (shared) ATI Radeon HD 3200 integrated graphics chip; 320GB 7,200 rpm Western Digital hard drive
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit); 2.93GHz Intel Core i3-530; 6GB 1,333MHz DDR3 SDRAM; 64MB Intel GMA X4500 HD integrated graphics chip; 1TB, 7,200rpm Western Digital hard drive