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Apple Mac Mini Summer 2011 review: Apple Mac Mini Summer 2011

Apple Mac Mini Summer 2011

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Rich Brown
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Rich Brown

Executive Editor / Reviews - Home and Wellness

Rich moved his family from Brooklyn to Louisville, Kentucky, in 2013 to start CNET's Appliances and Smart Home review team, which includes the CNET Smart Home, the CNET Smart Apartment, and the Appliances Review lab. Before moving to Louisville, Rich ran CNET's desktop computer review section for 10 years. He has worked as a tech journalist since 1994, covering everything from 3D-printed guns to Z-Wave smart locks.

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9 min read

Editors' note (October 23, 2012): The 2011 Mac Mini reviewed here has been replaced by a modestly updated 2012 model that offers a newer Ivy Bridge CPU and USB 3.0.

Apple Mac Mini (2.5GHz Core i5, Summer 2011)
6.9

Apple Mac Mini Summer 2011

The Good

The new <b>Mac Mini</b> boasts Apple's usual design leadership, as well as new internal components that nearly double its performance compared with that of the older model.

The Bad

Some users will find the lack of an optical drive too forward-looking, and may struggle to understand the benefits of the Thunderbolt port. The new Mac Mini also offers suspect value compared with Windows PCs in the same price range.

The Bottom Line

Apple's new $799 Mac Mini demands that you abandon disc-based media, and that you surround it with potentially expensive extra hardware to realize its full benefits. It makes most sense for committed Mac users, those who need it for a specific niche-case, or for those who value design over functionality for the dollar.

Apple's new Mac Mini features some welcome updates and a controversial omission, but overall it remains in the same competitive middle ground as its earlier incarnations. No other system in its price range comes close to the Mac Mini's pleasing, compact design, and this $799 model brings some welcome performance improvements, along with the still-developing potential of its Thunderbolt port. Competing slim-tower PCs from the Windows side of the aisle offer more features for the same price, among them optical drives, which Apple has left off its new small form factor desktop. That decision makes the Mac Mini more of a niche computer than ever before. If you're a member of a niche who might benefit from owning an affordable Mac desktop with decent performance and a promising new input standard, the Mac Mini is a reasonable deal. Value shoppers and living room PC enthusiasts with large DVD collections, this is not the desktop for you.

The only major design change to the new Mac Mini comes to the front panel, which now has a continuous aluminum face instead of a slot for Apple's SuperDrive DVD burner. We expect that some potential buyers would happily sacrifice the new clean look for an optical drive, but with or without the slot, the Mac Mini remains one of the best-looking computers available. As with last year's edition, which debuted the new Mac Mini chassis, a plastic piece on the bottom twists off to allow user memory slot access.

All new Mac Minis now lack an optical drive.

The absence of the optical drive on the Mac Mini will likely provide the biggest point of uncertainty for shoppers contemplating a purchase, particularly for those hoping to bring the Mac Mini into the living room. The HDMI port still allows you to connect it to a TV, but with no DVD drive (give up on Apple ever supporting Blu-ray, by the way, if you haven't already) you will need to weigh the importance of your disc-based media. You could consider adding an external USB optical drive, and Apple offers one for $79, but that would arguably compromise the appeal of the Mac Mini's tidy design.

Those interested in the Mac Mini for day-to-day computing or for office work will also have to endure the inconvenience of an absent optical drive. These users can also rely on an external optical drive to install legacy disc-based software, but the impact of the lost DVD drive for traditional computing is less severe than in the living room. Given the amount of downloadable software available for purchase from Amazon, the iTunes Store, the Mac App Store, Steam, and elsewhere, we find Apple's anti-disc stance reasonable.

Other updates to the Mac Mini include a move to Intel's new second-generation Core i5 CPUs, a new version of OS X, code-named Lion, and, of course, the high-speed Thunderbolt port. You can read our review of Lion here, but note that because the Mac Mini does not include input devices, you will need to purchase the $69 Apple Magic Track Pad if you want to use Lion's new gesture-based input commands.

The new Mac Mini features a Thunderbolt port among its other inputs.

It will also be hard for consumers to understand the benefits of the Thunderbolt port, a new high-speed data port that debuted in Apple's most recent iMacs this past spring. To date, shipping Thunderbolt devices include only Apple's new $999 27-inch Thunderbolt Display and the external Pegasus RAID arrays from Promise. The Thunderbolt Display looks sharp, but the Mac Mini won't benefit from its built-in ports like the new MacBook Air, and you can buy an HDMI-based 27-inch display with the same 2,560x1,440-pixel resolution for under $800 from NewEgg. As for the Promise RAID array, pricing starts at $999 for a 4TB model.

Prices for Thunderbolt devices will surely come down as more products hit the market, and those who use the Mac Mini for more specialized purposes, such as in a design studio, or as a server, may find that the still-limited Thunderbolt universe makes sense today. Otherwise, given the expense of current Thunderbolt devices, and the lack of variety, it's hard to see how many consumers will put the Mac Mini's Thunderbolt port to immediate use.


Apple Mac Mini (Summer 2011)HP Slimline S5-1060
Price$799$829
Motherboard chipsetIntel P67Intel P67
CPU2.5GHz Intel Core i52.9GHz Intel Core i5 2130
Memory4GB 1,333MHz DDR3 SDRAM6GB 1,333MHz DDR3 SDRAM
Graphics256MB AMD Radeon HD 6630M512MB AMD Radeon HD 6450
Hard drives500GB, 5,400rpm1TB 7,200rpm
Optical driveNABlu-ray/DVD burner combo drive
Operating systemOS X 10.7 (Lion)Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit)

If the benefits of Thunderbolt aren't obvious, the new Core i5 CPU in the Mac Mini has a more noticeable impact. Along with the new CPU come a few other features. Apple has bumped the RAM to 4GB of 1,333MHz DDR3 memory, from 2GB 1,066MHZ RAM on the older model. You also get twice the hard-drive space, with a 500GB drive, as well as a discrete graphics chip for the first time in a Mac Mini, by way of the lower midrange AMD Radeon HD 6630M. Compared with a slim-tower HP desktop in the same price range, the Mac Mini's core components aren't actually that impressive. HP gives you twice as much hard-drive space, a faster CPU, a Blu-ray drive, and a TV tuner for just $30 more.

Your opinions on design and your operating system preferences will color the discussion beyond a simple comparison of features-for-the-dollar. We agree that the Mac Mini's value equation has improved with this new model. It should still come as no surprise that Apple still demands a premium for its products compared with others with similar or better features in the same price range.

Apple iTunes encoding test (in seconds)

(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Apple Mac Mini (2.5GHz Core i5, Summer 2011)
87

Lenovo IdeaCentre K330 (3.3GHz Core i5, Summer 2011)

92

HP Pavilion Slimline S5-1060 (2.9GHz Core i5, Summer 2011)

106

Apple Mac Mini (2.4GHz Core 2 Duo, Spring 2010)

154

Adobe Photoshop CS3 image-processing test (in seconds)

(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Lenovo IdeaCentre K330 (3.3GHz Core i5, Summer 2011)
58

HP Pavilion Slimline S5-1060 (2.9GHz Core i5, Summer 2011)

68

Apple Mac Mini (2.5GHz Core i5, Summer 2011)

75

Apple Mac Mini (2.4GHz Core 2 Duo, Spring 2010)

123

Adobe Photoshop CS5 image-processing test (in seconds)

(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Lenovo IdeaCentre K330 (3.3GHz Core i5, Summer 2011)
221

HP Pavilion Slimline S5-1060 (2.9GHz Core i5, Summer 2011)

226

Apple Mac Mini (2.5GHz Core i5, Summer 2011)

346

Apple Mac Mini (2.4GHz Core 2 Duo, Spring 2010)

788

Multimedia multitasking (in seconds)

(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Apple Mac Mini (2.5GHz Core i5, Summer 2011)
197

Lenovo IdeaCentre K330 (3.3GHz Core i5, Summer 2011)

280

HP Pavilion Slimline S5-1060 (2.9GHz Core i5, Summer 2011)

315

Apple Mac Mini (2.4GHz Core 2 Duo, Spring 2010)

441

Cinebench

(Longer bars indicate better performance)


Rendering multiple CPUs  

Rendering single CPU  

Lenovo IdeaCentre K330 (3.3GHz Core i5, Summer 2011)
5.391.48

HP Pavilion Slimline S5-1060 (2.9GHz Core i5, Summer 2011)

4.81.28

Apple Mac Mini (2.5GHz Core i5, Summer 2011)

2.831.21

Apple Mac Mini (2.4GHz Core 2 Duo, Spring 2010)

1.360.71

That value discussion naturally extends to our performance comparison. You can see from our charts that while the new Mac Mini offers a considerable performance boost over the older model, its advantages over a similarly priced Windows PC are more situational. The Mac Mini does well with Apple-made programs like iTunes and QuickTime (the latter in our multimedia multitasking test), but in both newer and older versions of Photoshop, a comparable Windows PC will process the same workload in less time. Windows PCs also boast faster raw multithreaded CPU performance for the dollar. The new Mac Mini is not slow, but if productivity is your chief concern, photo editors in particular would be better off with a different computer.

The Mac Mini boasts a new graphics card as well, but that doesn't change the fact that OS X still offers a very limited gaming library. You can play the current games available for the Mac without difficulty on the Mac Mini, even at higher resolutions, but we wouldn't buy this system for its promise as a gaming platform.

As usual, upgrade options for the Mac Mini are limited to the time-of-purchase choices on Apple's Web site. Upgrade choices are all predictably overpriced, from the $100 2.7GHz dual-core Core i7 chip to the $200 charge for an additional 4GB of RAM. The hard-drive prices aren't as bad as they seem given that they're 2.5-inch models. The good news is that without an optical drive, the Mac Mini now supports a second internal hard drive. The bad news is that the only dual-hard-drive option Apple cares to offer, a 750GB 7,200 rpm mechanical drive and a 256GB solid state drive, costs $750.

We were also concerned that Apple might trim the ports on the new Mac Mini and urge you to use adapters via the Thunderbolt input. We're glad to see Apple hasn't sacrificed any of the inputs from the previous Mac Mini. You still get four USB 2.0 jacks, a FireWire 800 input, Ethernet, HDMI, audio input and output, as well as an SDXC SD card slot.

Juice box
Apple Mac Mini (2.5GHz, Summer 2011)Average watts per hour
Off (watts)0.36
Sleep (watts)1.22
Idle (watts)13.82
Load (watts)58.53
Raw (annual kWh)70.2771
EnergyStar compliantYes
Annual operating cost (@$0.1135/kWh)$7.98

Annual power consumption cost

Apple Mac Mini (2.4GHz Core 2 Duo, Spring 2010)

$4.15

Apple Mac Mini (2.5GHz Core i5, Summer 2011)

$7.98

HP Pavilion Slimline S5-1060 (2.9GHz Core i5, Summer 2011)

$19.55

Lenovo IdeaCentre K330 (3.3GHz Core i5, Summer 2011)

$20.80

The new Mac Mini's power consumption scales almost exactly with its performance advantage over the older model. The newer unit is almost twice as fast, and uses almost twice as much power to get there. Intel's second-generation Core chips are remarkably power efficient, so we're a bit surprised to see such a direct speed-to-power correlation. The discrete graphics card could also be a factor here. Regardless, the new model still draws much less power than competing Windows PCs.

Service and support
Apple's phone support receives high customer satisfaction ratings, but, as always, we wish it were available to customers beyond the first 90 days of purchase without having to pay $149 for an AppleCare coverage plan. Apple's network of in-person help via its Genius Bar and its authorized services providers remains unique as well, but for desktop customers in particular, extended phone-based help would be more convenient.

Conclusion
The new $799 Mac Mini brings some welcome updates to Apple's most affordable desktop line, but the absence of an optical drive will give many users pause, particularly those who want to use this system in the living room. And while the Thunderbolt port holds promise, only committed Apple fans and users with specialized data storage needs will find it immediately beneficial. We cannot deny that this new Mac Mini offers nearly twice as much performance as the previous model, but because of its peculiarities, and its suspect value compared with Windows PCs in the same price range, we can only recommend it if you're willing to go along with Apple's vision for the future of computing.

Find out more about how we test desktop systems.

System configurations:

Apple Mac Mini (2.5 Ghz Core i5, Summer 2011)
Mac OS X 10.7; 2.5GHz Intel Core i5; 4GB 1,333MHz DDR3 SDRAM; 256MB AMD Radeon HD 6630M; 500GB, 5,400rpm hard drive

Apple Mac Mini (2.4GHz Core 2 Duo, 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

HP Pavilion Slimline S5-1060 (Core i5 2310, Summer 2011)
Windows 7 Home Premium SP1 (64-bit); 2.9GHz Intel Core i5 2130; 6GB 1,333MHz DDR3 SDRAM; 512MB AMD Radeon HD 6450; 1TB 7,200rpm Hitachi hard drive

Lenovo IdeaCentre K330 (Core i5 2500, Spring 2011)
Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit; 3.3GHz Intel Core i5 2500; 8GB 1,333MHz DDR3 SDRAM; 1.5GB Nvidia GeForce GT440; 1TB 7,200rpm Hitachi hard drive

Apple Mac Mini (2.5GHz Core i5, Summer 2011)
6.9

Apple Mac Mini Summer 2011

Score Breakdown

Design 10Features 6Performance 6Support 5