Is the £649 Mac mini a wise buy?
The Mac mini has had such a low profile of late that many pundits predicted it would be discontinued rather than updated, with the folks from Cupertino concentrating on the mighty iMac as an entry-level computer. Instead Apple gave the Mac mini range an overhaul, with faster RAM, a better graphics card and frankly, not much else. Considering this upgrade is the mini’s first major update in almost two years, it does little to suggest Apple is keeping the faith with the machine.
As before, the Mac mini comes in two flavours. The cheaper version costs £499, the same price as the top-of-the-range model from the last generation. It uses faster 1066MHz DDR3 SDRAM, its frontside bus has been beefed up to 1066MHz and it offers a new Nvidia GeForce 9400M integrated graphics processor, a welcome improvement over the Intel GMA 950 model in its predecessor. Both the new minis offer the new 802.11n wireless standard too, which makes for much faster WiFi networking.
Yet there’s a lot that hasn’t changed, or at least hasn’t changed enough. The Intel Core 2 Duo processor is still underpowered at 2.0GHz (up from 1.83GHz), which is significantly slower than even the entry-level iMac. Its RAM is faster but there’s still only 1GB in there, and the hard disk capacity has crept up to a still-miserly 120GB.
The more expensive Mac mini – the one we tested – now costs £649, and almost unbelievably, still only offers a 2.0GHz processor. If you order online you can upgrade this to 2.26GHz for £120, but frankly, given the price tag it should’ve been standard. It has 2GB of RAM, which is good news for the GPU (again an Nvidia GeForce 9400M). The hard drive has been beefed up to 320GB, but in 2009 that’s nothing to write home about.
The new Mac mini’s casing has hardly changed at all, except for the ports around the back. The Firewire 400 port has been dropped in favour of a Firewire 800 socket, which is excellent news (and long overdue). You can now take advantage of the faster Firewire standard, but still use your FW400 peripherals with a cable or adapter. There’s an extra USB port, giving you an impressive total of five, and two video out ports. Apple has kept its promise to include a Mini DisplayPort in all new Macs, so you can connect to Apple’s beautiful new 24” Display, and there’s also a Mini-DVI port with an adapter to convert it to standard DVI if you so wish.
The Mac mini was never really intended for demanding tasks such as video rendering or gaming. It was, and is, a great machine to carry between work and home, as long as you’ve got a monitor and keyboard in both locations. Indeed, there are PCs with power bricks bigger and heavier than the mini. It makes an excellent media centre too, being just the right size to fit under your TV so you can watch your digital movies, listen to music or review your photos in the comfort of your living room.
It’s a great machine as far as it goes, but we can’t help feeling it’s capable of more. Apple has let the range stagnate and then given it a mediocre upgrade, perhaps to stop it encroaching on sales of the iMac. It’s a pity, particularly as the price is £499 – £649. With a little more care and attention, the Mac mini could be a world-beater…
* Processor: Intel Core 2 Duo P7350 @ 2.0GHz (3MB L2 cache)
* Memory: 1 GB DDR3 SDRAM @ 1066MHz
* Hard drive: 120GB SATA @ 5400RPM
* Optical drive: DVD+/-RW SuperDrive
* Sound: Integrated audio
* Video card: NVIDIA GeForce 9400M integrated graphics with 128MB shared memory
* Networking: Gigabit Ethernet
* Wireless networking: 802.11a/b/g/draft-n, Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR
* Operating system: OS X 10.5.6 Leopard
* Power supply: 110 watt external
* Warranty: 1 year limited hardware warranty with 90 days phone support
Overall, Apple has an incredibly strong offering in the form of the Mac Mini, and I don’t think that it gets the respect that it deserves. While it isn’t the fastest machine you can get for your money, it’s one of the most efficient and most like the best designed. The machine is so small that it can go anywhere: on your desk, next to the TV or even in your car. It’s small, beautiful, and very sturdy. It also comes packed with a capable OS X that most people haven’t used and several applications that you won’t find anywhere else. While most of them are geared toward unleashing your creativity, just about anyone can sit down and use them without much instruction or trouble.
It’s not all roses, though; if you’re the kind that likes to tinker with the hardware in your machine, the Mini may not be for you. Apple designed the computer to be completely non-user serviceable — if you have any problems or need to replace something, you’re going to need to take it in to the shop. Additionally, at the lower end, the Mini comes with one gigabyte of RAM, which is underpowered for today’s computers, and it gets taken down to less than 900 when you factor in the shared graphics memory. The hard drive is also a little bit slow. While it’s possible to open the machine up and make a few modifications, you’re going to be on your own and anything you do is most certainly not supported.
The Mac Mini is honestly a fantastic little machine. Aimed at those switching to Apple computers from Windows PCs for the first time, the Mini may seem expensive in terms of performance and hardware for your dollar. The intrinsic value found in great design and fantastic software, however, simply can’t be denied. If you’re curious about the Mac platform, the Mini is a great way to get your toes wet, and if you just want a small, stylish computer, you can buy it and exclusively run Windows. People will ooh and aah over your new machine but you’ll be too busy learning guitar to notice. Either way, the Mini offers something for almost everyone, and we can’t help but recommend it.
* Small…very, very small
* Very power efficient
* Great design
* Very difficult to upgrade
* No high-definition optical drive available
* Slow hard drive