Apple updates Mac mini, should you buy it?

  • Cupertino (CA) - While many Apple commentators have been spelling doom for Apple's unique miniature Mac desktop, citing outdated technology that hasn't been updated in 20 months, Apple today proved that it indeed knows how to make a $600 computer that isn't a piece of junk. The new Mac mini shares a 2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor and Nvidia 9600M integrated graphics across the line for a substantial speed increase. The system also comes with more memory and storage, along with cool extras, like an additional USB port, a speedier FireWire 800 interface for transferring digital video, dual display support and both Mini DVI and Mini DisplayPort (for backward and forward compatibility with display devices). While priced the same as before, the new Mac mini now matches unibody MacBooks or an entry-level iMac in some areas. If you ever wanted to get into the Mac game without spending a premium, this machine may be right for you as it fully supports all Apple software. 

    Apple bills its refreshed Mac mini family, unveiled earlier today, as the "world's most energy efficient desktop." The tagline is on target as the new Mac mini draws less than 13 watts of power when idle, which is a tenfold lower than a typical desktop Windows PC. "The Mac mini is not only our most affordable Mac, it's also the world's most energy efficient desktop computer," suggested Apple's operations chief Timothy Cook who is currently covering for the CEO Steve Jobs who is on a six months medical leave.

    The miniature Mac machine is also the greenest Mac mini ever, sharing virtually the same environmental-friendly technologies and features like the new iMac family, earning both new iMac and Mac mini EPEAT Gold status and exceeding current Energy Star 4.0 requirements while "leading the industry" as early adopters of the more stringent Energy Star 5.0 requirements which will become effective later this year.

    Looks can be deceiving

    Just like the new iMacs, the updated Mac mini is virtually indistinguishable in terms of the design: It still comes in the same aluminum casing measuring just 6.5 by 6.5 by 2 inches. A closer look under the hood, however, reveals more substantial hardware changes which now bring the nearly 20-month old hardware in line with modern technological advances recently deployed across unibody MacBooks and, as of today, the new iMacs. The new Mac mini comes in two basic configurations offered at the same $599 or $799 price points, just like the previous generation. Unlike the rumors stating Apple would ditch the physical media with new Mac minis, both models still have the same 8x double-layer SuperDrive, which supports DVD±R DL/DVD±RW/CD-RW as before.

    If you judge by the outside only, the new Mac mini could easily pass as the previous generation because Apple kept the form factor and design intact. However, a look under the hood reveals the compute power changes, along with additional I/O and built-in AirPort Extreme wireless networking and Bluetooth 2.1+EDR.

    Expansion slots: Additional USB, FireWire 800, Mini DVI and Mini DisplayPort

    The new Mac mini confirms the accuracy and authenticity of the leaked spyshot that suggested five USB ports, up from four in the previous generation. It also ditches the legacy FireWire 400 in favor of a faster FireWire 800 interface. Located on the back of the Mac mini are the power button, security cable lock slot, analog or digital audio in and out, power connector, Gigabit Ethernet, Mini DVI and Mini DisplayPort (for backward and forward compatibility) and five USB ports. Some will also love the fact that Mac mini can now drive two displays via Mini DisplayPort or DVI connections. AirPort Extreme wireless networking and Bluetooth 2.1+EDR also come built-in.

    The new Mac mini replaces legacy FireWire 400 with a speedier FireWire 800 interface -- useful for high-speed transfer of digital video. The system also adds another USB port and features both Mini DVI and Mini DisplayPort (for backward and forward compatibility). Unlike the previous generation, the updated Mac mini finally supports a dual displays mode driving two monitors instead of one, allowing for a much wider professional use.

    Read on the next page:  Nvidia graphics, Faster CPUs, Storage and memory, Should you buy it?

    Nvidia's GPU leaves Intel's GMA 950 in the dust

    Both Mac mini models now feature the same integrated Nvidia GeForce 9400M graphics found in unibody MacBooks. It comes with either 128MB or 256MB of shared DDR3 SDRAM. Although these Nvidia chips fare in the average category in the most demanding 3D games, they are more than capable for a variety of GUI-enhanced tasks and deliver up to five times better graphics performance than the previous generation. The difference between the old Intel GMA 950 graphics processors and the new Nvidia 9400M GPU should be apparent in all aspects of daily computing, especially in working with high-resolution photos, videos and in the smooth OS-related graphical features Apple is constantly expanding.

    A faster CPU puts Mac mini neck to neck with entry-level MacBook

    The new Mac minis are built around a faster 1066MHz front-side bus than the 667MHz front-side bus of the previous generation. One major difference is the upgrade to a 2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor with 3MB of shared L2 cache, which now powers both new Mac mini models. The two previous Mac mini models packed 1.83GHz or 2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor with 2MB or 4MB of shared L2 cache respectively.

    Apple's decision to use the same CPU clock speed across both models has put new Mac minis close to the entry-level 2.0GHz MacBook in terms of CPU performance. In addition, this clever call on Apple's part also means that $599 now buys you the same amount of horse power that was previously available in a more pricey $799 Mac mini model. If that is not enough, though, you can fit both Mac mini models with the 2.26GHz CPU as build-to-order option -- still bellow 2.66GHz of the new entry-level 20-inch iMac model but better than the 2.0 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo that ticks inside entry-level MacBook.

    Bear in mind also that even though the 2.0 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo CPU has 3 MB of L2 cache, which is 1 MB lower than the previous $799 model, its faster front-side bus of 1066 MHz will also provide additional usable horsepower which should more-than-compensate for the lower cache.

    Although Apple would want you to hook up the new Mac mini to its pricey $899 24-inch LED Cinema Display, you can use any monitor with it thanks to both an older Dual DVI and a newer Mini DisplayPort interfaces for backward and forward video compatibility.

    More storage and memory for the price

    Another welcome change is the support for up to 4 GB of memory which will appeal a lot to power-users who deemed the 2 GB limit from the previous generation as too limiting. Unlike the previous generation which included just 1 GB of memory across both models, the new $599 and $799 Mac mini models are now fitted with 1 GB or 2 GB, respectively. Besides, memory chips in these new Mac minis are DDR3 SDRAM clocked at 1066MHz, virtually the same as in new iMacs, while previous generation ran on a slower DDR2 SDRAM chips at 667MHz. As mentioned before, you can fit both Mac mini models with up to 4 GB of memory, which we think will come as a life-saver for power users who hated the 2 GB limit on the previous generation of Mac mini.

    Hard drive storage has been bumped significantly as well in order to make more room for your photos and videos. The $599 model now comes with 120 GB SATA hard drive (5200 rpm), up from the 80 GB before, but it can be fitted with a 320 GB hard drive in a build-to-order configuration. More pricey Mac mini model comes with the 320 GB hard drive as standard. Note that the amount of hard drive storage in the $799 Mac mini is now two and a half times better than the 120 GB hard drive found in previous high-end Mac mini model.

    Watchful readers might also note that the $799 Mac mini now exceeds the storage capacity of all but two Apple notebooks, the 15- and 17-inch MacBook Pro models that match Mac mini with their 320 GB hard drives. The $799 Mac mini also matches the new entry-level iMac model when it comes to storage, although it should be noted that iMac packs a faster 7200 rpm hard drive.

    More memory and capacious storage included by the default, combined with Nvidia graphics, a 2.0 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor and wireless networking make the new Mac mini a capable home media hub.

    The $200 price difference: Is it worth it?

    In fact, direct comparison of the two Mac mini systems reveals that the $200 price difference essentially buys you 1 GB more of memory, 240 GB more capacious hard drive and a bit of more oomph in the graphics department thanks to an additional 128MB of addressable shared memory for the Nvidia 9400M GPU. Key components that add to the overall system, like CPU clock speed and the GPU used, are the same across both models. The question is, does the $200 difference in price justify memory and storage bumps?

    You will have to decide that for yourself. Although we are somewhat disappointed that Apple didn't shave $100 off the Mac mini price to bring the system in the sub-$500 range, substantial hardware changes that Mac mini has been crying for in the past 20 months make the new Mac mini line more appealing than ever, especially the $599 model and especially in this economy.

    If you ever wanted to get into the Mac game, the new Mac minis, in our opinion, gives you all the Mac features you'd expect and a decent hardware specs, all at a reasonable price. In any case, when it comes to features vs price ratio the new Mac mini as in integrated package beats cheaper Hackintoshes made from off-the-shelves parts anytime.

    Apple said that new Mac minis are shipping today and are available through brick-and-mortar and online Apple Stores and Apple Authorized Resellers. You can find more details on Apple's Mac mini page.

    While Apple kept the same $599 and $799 price points, updated hardware finally makes the Mac mini an intriguing value proposition. In any case, this is the cheapest Mac desktop that will buy you a ticket into the Apple world.

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