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Apple Mac Mini (Winter 2009) review: Apple Mac Mini (Winter 2009)

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MSRP: $599.00

The Good Competitive Nvidia G9400M graphic chip; includes iLife '09 digital media software; energy-efficient; space-saving chassis retains distinct design.

The Bad Similarly priced PCs offer increased functionality; phone support only lasts 90 days from purchase.

The Bottom Line Apple's newest high-end Mac Mini maintains its small, stylish footprint, and as with the cheaper version, this $799 model has impressive multitasking capabilities. You'll like this desktop if juggling apps with attractive hardware is important to you, but you get much better all-around value in a Windows PC for the same price.

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7.3 Overall
  • Design 9
  • Features 7
  • Performance 7
  • Support 5

Editor's note: While we evaluated each new Mac Mini separately, the chassis and many of the core features of each model are the same, so many of the descriptions are copied over from the entry-level Mac Mini.

Apple breathed fresh air into its line of Mac Minis, whose specs haven't changed since an update in August 2007. With this $799 model, Apple adds significantly improved Nvidia graphics, a new 2GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor, and a larger hard drive. While those changes are a step forward for the Mac Mini line, we still question its value. We're impressed by the space-saving chassis and multitasking benchmarks, and we can see the appeal of using one in the office or as a digital media hub. But even more so than the lower-end model, you can get significantly more features from a standard Windows PC at or around the same price as this Mac Mini. We'd only recommend this system if you're particularly enamored with the idea of a small, attractive desktop.

In terms of design, there's not much here for fans of the previous Mac Mini to get excited about. The case is made of the same aluminum housing and white plastic top, and the only minor differences in the rear panel are an additional USB port (bumping the total up to five), a single FireWire 800 port, a Mini DVI input, and Mini DisplayPort input. That display-standard change is actually significant because it lets the Mac Mini support two displays for the first time, and the internal hardware is also powerful enough to drive a 30-inch, 2,560x1,600 LCD.

At the moment, Apple's 24-inch LED Cinema Display is the only monitor that will connect to a Mini DisplayPort input without an adapter. A mini DVI to single-link DVI adapter comes in the Mac Mini box, and Apple sells a variety of other adapters for both inputs, with prices ranging from $19 to $99.

  Apple Mac Mini (2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo, 320GB, Winter 2009) Gateway LX6810-01
Price $799 $779
CPU 2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo 2.3GHz Intel Core 2 Quad Q8200
Memory 2GB 1066MHz DDR3 SDRAM 8GB 800MHz DDR2 SDRAM
Graphics 128MB (shared) NVIDIA GeForce 9400M graphics integrated graphics chip 1GB Nvidia GeForce GT 120 graphics card
Hard drives 320GB, 5,400rpm 640GB, 7,200rpm
Optical drive dual-layer DVD burner dual-layer DVD burner
Networking Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11n wireless networking, Bluetooth 10/100Mbps Ethernet LAN
Operating system Mac OS X v10.5.6 Windows Vista Home Premium SP1 (64-bit)

The $799 Mac Mini refresh includes a 2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor with the new Nvidia GeForce 9400M integrated graphics chip, 2GB of DDR3 RAM, a 320GB hard drive running at a slow 5,400rpm, a dual-layer DVD burner, and 802.11n wireless networking. You still need to add a monitor, a keyboard, and a mouse to have a fully functional system.

For around the same price, the Gateway LX6810-01 nets you a faster 2.3GHz quad-core processor, 8GB of DDR2 RAM, double the storage space at 7,200rpm, and a dedicated 1GB Nvidia graphics card with an HDMI-output. We found the Mac Mini's gaming performance with its new Nvidia chip passable, but it can't compare with the stability of the full-fledged 3D card inside the Gateway.

If the Gateway's midtower design isn't as living-room-friendly as the tiny Mac Mini, its HDMI output gives you an easier means to connect the Gateway to a standard HDTV. The Mac Mini requires at least one, if not two adapters to make that same connection, depending on whether your TV has a standard DVI input.

We should also point out the Dell Studio Hybrid for living-room suitability. Dell's tiny PC is perhaps the most direct Windows-based competitor to the Mac Mini. The last time we reviewed one was in July 2008, with no 64-bit Windows option, and only 800MHz DDR2 RAM. Dell hasn't updated those specs since then, and as you can see on our performance charts below, the Dell Studio Hybrid is not very competitive in its price range. That said, it at least offers both HDMI and full-size DVI video outputs, with no adapters required.

By providing no obvious internal access, the Mac Mini obviously can't match a standard desktop's upgrade potential--that's a common criticism of the Mac Mini, and we suspect anyone thinking about buying one has already taken that fact into consideration. The Dell Studio Hybrid suffers from the same locked case, but systems like HP's SlimLine series strike a nice balance between the Mac Mini's size and the upgradability of a traditional Windows PC. We would be sure to look into one of those systems if you want a smaller scale desktop.

Adobe Photoshop CS3 image-processing test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Apple iTunes encoding test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Multimedia multitasking (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Rendering Multiple CPUs  
Rendering Single CPU  

We have mixed feelings about the Mac Mini's benchmark performance. The $799 model has 2GB of RAM compared with the $599 Mac Mini's 1GB, but that really only helps the higher-end Mini on our multitasking test. Otherwise, both systems are equally slow compared with a handful of Windows desktops. As we said about the $599 Mac Mini, fast multitasking is very useful, especially in a work setting. We just wish we didn't have to sacrifice so much single application performance to get it.

We also credit Apple for boosting the Mac Mini's gaming performance with the new Nvidia chip. We were able to run Quake 4 at 1,600x900 at decent image quality with minimal lag. Our gameplay experience wasn't entirely seamless, and more recent games will surely provide a larger challenge. But as a budget gaming system, the Mac Mini is at least respectable.

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