Apple Mac Mini (Spring 2010) review: Apple Mac Mini (Spring 2010)

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The Good Sleek, living-room-ready aluminum chassis; HDMI video output makes it easy to connect an HDTV; SD card slot; user-accessible RAM; handles Web-based HD video with no trouble; best-in-class case design.

The Bad Puny storage capacity for its price; no Blu-ray hurts in a pricier living room system like this.

The Bottom Line Apple's new Mac Mini includes an elegant new design and some long asked-for features, including HDMI output and user-accessible memory. The system still faces a value challenge for its given specs, but Apple has done enough to improve the Mac Mini's appeal for Apple loyalists and design fans looking for a living room computer.

7.2 Overall
  • Design 10
  • Features 6
  • Performance 7
  • Support 5

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
Price $699 $559
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.

Adobe Photoshop CS3 image-processing test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Apple Mac Mini (2.4GHz, spring 2010)

Apple iTunes encoding test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Apple Mac Mini (2.4GHz, spring 2010)

Multimedia multitasking (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Apple Mac Mini (2.4GHz, spring 2010)

Cinebench test
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Rendering multiple CPUs
Rendering single CPU
Gateway SX2840-01
Apple Mac Mini (2.4GHz, spring 2010)
Dell Inspiron Zino HD

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.

An HDMI output helps the Mac Mini achieve its living room potential.

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.

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