Lost amid the flurry of Apple’s late-summer product announcements was a small but significant upgrade to the Mac mini line: in addition to dropping the low-end Mac mini Core Solo 1.5GHz and lowering the price of the Mac mini Core Duo 1.66GHz model to $599, Apple released a new top-of-the-line $799 Mac mini powered by a 1.83GHz Core Duo processor. It’s a solid, if unexciting, upgrade to Apple’s tiny desktop Mac.
With the exception of the processor, the new high-end Mac mini is essentially identical to the first round of Mac minis with Intel processors, released earlier this year. Like those models, it comes with an Apple Remote, a built-in infrared receiver for the remote, and Apple’s Front Row media-playback software. Like all Mac mini models, it doesn’t come with a keyboard, mouse, or display.
The Intel Core Duo 1.83GHz processor powering the new Mac mini runs with a clock speed that’s roughly 10 percent faster than the previous top-of-the-line 1.66GHz model. And as you might expect, the end result is that the new model was generally 10 to 15 percent faster than its predecessor on Macworld Lab’s battery of application tests. Its overall score of 165 in our Speedmark test suite makes it the fastest Mac mini yet, but it’s noticeably slower than the iMac line, which has been upgraded to the more powerful Intel Core 2 Duo processor (see benchmarks ).
The other half of the Mac mini product line, the $599 model powered by a 1.66GHz Core Duo processor, is largely the same system as the previous high-end Mac mini model; in reducing its price by $200, Apple has also swapped its SuperDrive for a CD-burning, DVD-reading combo drive and reduced its internal hard drive capacity by 20GB to 60GB. The new version of this system is essentially the same speed as the old model; although the new version received a higher Speedmark score, this was almost entirely due to the hard drive. The smaller drive offered better performance for disk-based activities such as the Finder’s Zip Archive tests or the iPhoto import test.
Although the Mac mini does have some limitations, it’s an impressively full-featured system. In addition to built-in AirPort Extreme and Bluetooth 2.0 wireless features, it supports Gigabit Ethernet networking. The top-of-the-line model comes with a DVD-burning SuperDrive, and all Mac mini models are powered by an internal Serial ATA drive.
The Mac mini’s size makes it an interesting option as a set-top box attached to a TV. We were able to hook up the mini to a Sony HDTV via DVI, and to a Sony home theater receiver via an optical cable.
As in our previous tests, Front Row performed admirably, letting us watch wide-screen DVDs with 5.1-channel surround sound and enjoy music and slide shows from the comfort of a couch. But getting the program to function properly took much experimentation that required a keyboard and a mouse connection: for example, we had tried changing settings in the DVD Player application, switching the Displays Overscan preference setting on and off, and changing resolutions.
Having a Mac mini attached to your TV set can be a geeky luxury, but it’s not really something we’d recommend for regular people; we’re hoping Apple’s forthcoming iTV product better fills this niche by doing away with the computer interface and relying solely on a simple, Front Row-style menu system.
Another interesting potential use of the Mac mini is as a server. We attached a Mac mini to a keyboard, mouse, small flat-panel monitor, and large external hard drive, and stowed the whole collection on a shelf in a bedroom closet. The system was relatively quiet, extremely compact, and had more than enough computing power to run a Web server, share a large iTunes library, power two Slim Devices audio players, and run a few other assorted applications.
Forget about gaming
Anyone considering the purchase of a Mac mini must keep in mind that some of the features on this smallest and cheapest Mac have been compromised, either for space or price reasons. The Mac mini’s biggest weakness is its use of Intel’s GMA 950 integrated graphics system, which borrows memory from the computer’s main memory. Put bluntly, while the Mac mini and the GMA 950 are capable of playing back HDTV-quality video, they don’t supply acceptable 3-D performance for game play. If you’re looking for a Mac on which to play games, look elsewhere.
We also suggest that you consider upgrading the mini’s RAM beyond the stock 512MB allotment. If you think you’ll want more RAM, we suggest having it installed when you order your mini so that you don’t have to throw away the pair of 256MB modules Apple includes by default or struggle to open the mini’s case with a putty knife to install the RAM in the tight slots. You can choose between two 512MB modules for 1GB, or two 1GB modules for the 2GB maximum.
Mac mini Core Duo (Sept. 2006)
|Speedmark 4.5||Adobe Photoshop CS2||Cinema 4D XL 9.5.21||Compressor 2.1||iMovie 6.0.1||iTunes 6.0.4||Unreal Tournament 2004||Finder|
|OVERALL SCORE||SUITE||RENDER||MPEG-2 Encode||AGED EFFECT||MP3 ENCODE||FRAME RATE||ZIP ARCHIVE|
|Mac mini Core Duo/1.83GHz||165||2:48||1:18||4:12||1:09||1:22||20.8||3:12|
|Mac mini Core Duo/1.66GHz||152||3:04||1:25||4:22||1:15||1:39||19.3||3:22|
|Mac mini Core Duo/1.66GHz (old)||145||3:04||1:26||4:18||1:13||1:38||19.6||3:30|
|Mac mini Core Solo/1.5GHz||121||4:27||2:57||8:08||2:05||2:43||16.6||3:50|
|17-inch iMac Core 2 Duo/1.83GHz||202||2:17||1:13||3:07||1:02||1:10||21.7||2:46|
|17-inch iMac Core 2 Duo/2GHz||232||2:04||1:06||2:50||0:57||1:03||65.5||2:34|
Best results in bold. Reference systems in italics .
Macworld’s buying advice
Both of these new Mac mini models are good values, and Apple made an excellent choice in dropping the underpowered Core Solo-based model—the last single-core Mac in Apple’s product line. As a budget Mac, a supplemental home computer, a server, or a home media set-top box, the Mac mini’s price and size make it an impressively versatile system. If you’re a gamer, the Mac mini’s integrated graphics system won’t be powerful enough for your needs. But for everyone else, the Mac mini remains an excellent system, especially for users with a limited amount of free space or money—or both.
[ Jason Snell is Macworld ’s editorial director. ]Mac mini Core Duo