Inside the Mac Mini

At first glance, the most notable thing about the Mac mini is its price: $499 (see Best Current Price ). But on closer inspection, it’s also something of an engineering marvel: a powerful PC that fits inside a tiny, 2.9-pound, 84.5-cubic-inch box. Since the day the Mac mini was announced, we’ve been bombarded with questions about it, from the general (“How does it work?”) to the extremely particular (“Can I install an AirPort Extreme card myself?”).

To satisfy that curiosity, we decided to crack open a Mac mini, take an in-depth look at what’s inside, and find some answers to the most commonly asked questions about this tiny new addition to the Mac family.

EDITOR’S NOTE: References to the mini’s components are lettered and correspond to the screenshots.

A. Bluetooth and AirPort Antennas
(Top screenshot)

These shiny silver things are the Mac mini’s two wireless antennas. (If you haven’t bought either of the mini’s wireless options, you won’t see these.) The larger one (back right, clipped to a plastic post) is the AirPort Extreme antenna; the smaller one (front left, clipped to the side of the optical drive) is for Bluetooth. To improve reception, Apple cut small rectangular holes in the metallic lining beneath the computer’s white plastic lid.

B. Memory Slot
(Top screenshot)

The Mac mini has a single RAM slot, meaning that it comes with a RAM module already installed. If you want to upgrade it later, you’ll need to do a wholesale replacement. The RAM slot is easily accessible once you pop the mini’s top (see “Cracking Open the Mini” below), so this is the easiest do-it-yourself upgrade. That’s good news, especially since we can’t recommend that anyone actually use Apple’s base configuration of 256MB of RAM, and the company’s prices for installing larger RAM modules are exorbitant compared to buying memory from another vendor and installing it yourself.

C. Speaker
(Top screenshot)

Every Mac comes with a speaker, and the Mac mini is no exception. But like the rest of the system, the mini’s speaker is really, really tiny. If you want a decent multimedia experience, you’ll need to invest in some external speakers.

D. Optical Drive
(Bottom screenshot)

The Mac mini’s optical drive—either a CD-burning and DVD-playing Combo drive or a CD- and DVD-burning SuperDrive—is the same small, slot-loading drive used in Apple’s PowerBooks. So if you wanted to upgrade the drive sometime in the future, you could theoretically swap in a different slot-loading laptop drive.

E. Interconnect Board
(Bottom screenshot)

Attached to the plastic internal frame, this card connects the Mac mini’s hard drive and optical drive to its logic board; it also supplies power to the mini’s fan and audio to its speaker.

F. Hard Drive
(Bottom screenshot)

The Mac mini’s hard drive is the same size and speed as the drives used in laptops. Although Apple says that the drive spins at 4,200 rpm, that’s not entirely accurate: The 40GB drive we examined was a 5,400-rpm model. The 80GB model ran at 4,200 rpm and was noticeably slower than the 40GB drive in some of our tests (see our review of the Mac mini, page 24, for complete speed-test results).

G. Fan
(Bottom screenshot)

To minimize noise, the Mac mini’s cooling system bases the fan speed on how hard the com-puter is working.

H. Heat Sink
(Bottom screenshot)

Beneath this heat-dissipating module is the Mac mini’s G4 processor, running at either 1.25GHz or 1.42GHz.

I. Modem
(Bottom screenshot)

This small card is the Mac mini’s built-in 56-Kbps modem; wires connect it to the telephone port on the computer’s back.

J. Power-Sleep Light
(Bottom screenshot)

Other than the optical-drive slot, the only blemish on the front of the Mac mini’s white-and-silver case is a small white light, which is attached to the logic board. It lights up when the computer is on and pulses when it’s asleep.

K. Battery
(Bottom screenshot)

The Mac mini’s battery, which maintains basic information about your system when you turn it off, is a standard 3-volt lithium cell, the kind found in watches. If yours dies, you can replace it almost as easily as you can replace RAM.

L. Wireless Slot
(Bottom screenshot)

The wireless card, featuring a Bluetooth module and/or an AirPort Extreme card, attaches here.

M. RAM Module
(Bottom screenshot)

According to Apple’s specs, the Mac mini uses PC2700 RAM, which runs at 333MHz. However, all the Mac minis we looked at came with PC3200 RAM (which can run at speeds as high as 400MHz). Even so, in the Mac mini, the PC3200 RAM will run at PC2700 speed. Apple says that the Mac mini supports as much as 1GB of RAM. Although modules with more than that are starting to appear, it’s unclear whether the mini will support them.

N. Interconnect Slot
(Bottom screenshot)

The interconnect board on the Mac mini’s plastic internal frame connects to this slot.

O. Wireless Card
(Bottom screenshot)

You won’t find the Mac mini’s wireless card on systems that don’t have either Bluetooth or AirPort Extreme installed. It accommodates a standard AirPort Extreme card and a special Bluetooth module. Unlike previous Macs, the mini can be upgraded with internal Bluetooth connectivity later if you didn’t order it that way.

Mac Mini FAQs

Do I really need more than 256MB of RAM?

We think so. With 256MB of RAM, the mini’s main memory will fill up quickly, forcing the system to off-load excess data to the relatively poky hard drive. 512MB is really the minimum amount of RAM we recommend for any Mac today; 1GB is preferable.

Should I buy RAM from Apple, or can Iinstall it myself?

At press time, Apple was charging $75 for 512MB of RAM in the mini, and $325 for 1GB. (Since the mini has only a single RAM slot, Apple is essentially charging these prices and recouping the cost of the 256MB module it doesn’t have to install in your system.) At the same time, we were able to find 512MB modules from other vendors for as little as $66, and 1GB modules for as little as $164. So if you want to save money, you should seriously consider ordering your mini with the base 256MB and then swapping out Apple’s module for a larger one you purchase yourself, especially if you want 1GB of RAM.

I want to save money but I’m not too technical. Should I just buy Apple’s RAM?

Maybe. Installing RAM in the Mac mini is the easiest upgrade you can perform on the machine. If you’ve got a putty knife handy, are comfortable pulling RAM, and can look at the exposed guts of a computer without feeling faint, you can do it. But if you haven’t installed RAM in a system before, the mini is probably not the best place to start.

If I don’t order my system with Bluetooth, AirPort, or both installed, can I add them later?

Not by yourself. But you can get an Apple specialist or someone at an Apple Store to add them for you. If you’re planning on using Bluetooth or AirPort on the Mac mini at any point during its life, just order it now and save yourself the trouble.

Can I replace the hard drive?

Yes, but only if you’re a serious hardware hacker. For starters, you’ll need to remove the optical drive, lift the entire internal plastic frame from the logic board, and then remove the fan. Only then will you have access to the four screws you need to remove before unhooking the drive. Instead, might we suggest an elegant external FireWire hard drive?

Does the Mac mini have an audio-in jack? How about digital audio-out?

No and no. For both, consider an external USB or FireWire device that supports audio input (such as the Griffin Technology’s iMic -- see Best Current Price ) or digital audio output (such as M-Audio’s Transit -- see Best Current Price ).

I’ve got a VGA monitor. Will the Mac mini work with it?

Yes. The Mac mini comes with a DVI-to-VGA adapter—just a small plastic block you push onto the DVI connector. To attach it tightly, simply turn the two plastic wheels on either side of the adapter.

I’ve got a USB keyboard and mouse from a PC. Will they work with the Mac mini?

Yes indeed. OSX natively supports the mouse’s second button (and scroll wheel, if it’s got one). You might want to use DoubleCommand to swap the Windows and Alt keys; otherwise, you may keep pressing the option key when you mean to press the Command key.

Cracking Open the Mini

Cracking open the mini

Opening the Mac mini is relatively easy, but it isn’t a job for the faint of heart. To crack the case, turn the mini upside down (on a very soft surface, or else you may scratch the top). Carefully insert a thin putty knife on one side of the mini’s undercarriage, between the white plastic and the silver aluminum. Then gently tilt the knife until that side of the case lifts up and you hear a subtle popping sound. Repeat this procedure on the other side. (It’s a bit more difficult to insert the putty knife on the second side—if you’ve got two knives, you can try inserting one on each side and then popping the sides simultaneously.) When both sides have popped, you should be able to lift the computer out of its housing without too much trouble.

Once you’re done doing whatever you want to do inside, just pop the cover back on, taking the utmost care to line up the back of the case correctly; it must slide in perfectly, just above the Mac mini’s ports.

Note that although opening up the mini won’t void your warranty, Apple would clearly prefer that you leave the surgery to the experts at your local Apple Store.

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