First Look: From the Lab: Core 2 Duo Mac mini tests

Apple updated its Mac mini desktop offerings a little more than a week ago to very little fanfare. Maybe the company should have made a bigger deal about the new minis—thanks to faster Core 2 Duo processors, the latest minis clearly out-perform their Intel-based predecessors.

Unlike the new iMacs, the latest minis haven’t changed in any way on the surface. The major additions are under the hood, where the mini now has a Core 2 Duo processor, running at either 1.83GHz or 2GHz. Previous Mac minis featured a Core Duo chip with speeds of 1.83GHz and 1.66GHz. In addition, the mini now ships with 1GB of RAM, up from 512MB, and more hard-drive capacity. Unchanged are the price, the need to supply your own keyboard, mouse and display, and the Intel GMA 950 integrated graphics, which shares the system’s main memory.

It’s the inclusion of the second generation of the Core Duo processor line that represents the biggest change for the mini line, and not just because of the marginally faster clock speeds. The Core 2 Duo chipset contains the 128-bit SSE3 vector engine, which can process twice the amount of data per cycle than the Core Duo processor, which could process only 64 bits at a time.

The proof of the Core 2’s advantage can be found in the benchmark results. For example, the new 2GHz model was 24-percent faster than the old 1.83GHz Mac mini in our Photoshop test. More significantly the new 1.83GHz Core 2 Duo model was 19-percent faster in that test than the old high-end Mac mini, despite having the exact same clock speed. (The new 1.83GHz mini was 20-percent faster than the old 1.66GHz model.) Compressor 3 scores showed even more dramatic improvement, with the new high-end model compressing our movie 35-percent faster than the old high-end. The new 1.83GHz Core 2 Duo model finished compressing the movie 28-percent faster than the Core Duo version of the mini running at the same speed and 32-percent faster than the 1.66GHz Core Duo Mac mini.

The Core 2 Duo chipset can accommodate up to 4MB of L2 cache, which is shared between the processing cores. The upper limit of the Core Duo processors is 2MB of L2 cache. It takes much less time for the processor to access data stored in the L2 cache than in main memory, so the more L2 cache available, the more data the processor can keep close at hand. The 2GHz Mac mini includes the full 4MB of L2 cache, while the new 1.83GHz system still ships with the same 2MB found in the old machines. And though the new 2GHz Mac mini was about 8-percent faster in our overall system benchmark, Speedmark, with the higher-end processor running about 10-percent faster than the lower end, it’s hard to figure out how much of the performance difference is attributable to the increased L2 cache.

Core 2 Duo Mac mini Benchmarks

Speedmark 4.5 Adobe Photoshop CS3 Cinema 4D XL 9.5.21 Compressor 3 iMovie 6.0.2 iTunes 7.3.2 Unreal Tournament 2004 Finder Finder
OVERALL SCORE SUITE RENDER MPEG2 Encode AGED EFFECT MP3 ENCODE FRAME RATE ZIP ARCHIVE DUPLICATE FILE
Mac mini Core 2 Duo/2GHz 210 1:21 1:06 2:22 0:56 1:04 23.3 2:36 0:28
Mac mini Core 2 Duo/1.83GHz 195 1:27 1:13 2:37 1:02 1:15 23.2 2:49 0:27
Mac mini Core Duo/1.83GHz 171 1:47 1:18 3:37 1:10 1:21 20.7 3:08 0:33
Mac mini Core Duo/1.66GHz 156 1:49 1:25 3:52 1:15 1:39 19.5 3:23 0:36
iMac 20-inch Core 2 Duo/2GHz 257 1:02 1:05 2:17 0:55 1:03 70.1 2:30 0:14
>Better <Better <Better <Better <Better <Better >Better <Better <Better

Best results in bold. Reference system in italics .

Speedmark 4.5 scores are relative to those of a 1.25GHz Mac mini, which is assigned a score of 100. Adobe Photoshop, Cinema 4D XL, iMovie, iTunes, and Finder scores are in minutes:seconds. All systems were running Mac OS X 10.4.10 with 1GB of RAM, with processor performance set to Highest in the Energy Saver preference pane when applicable. The Photoshop Suite test is a set of 14 scripted tasks using a 50MB file. Photoshop—s memory was set to 70 percent and History was set to Minimum. We recorded how long it took to render a scene in Cinema 4D XL. We used Compressor to encode a 6minute:26second DV file using the DVD: Fastest Encode 120 minutes - 4:3 setting, using Apple's qmaster software to create a two instance cluster to process the job. In iMovie, we applied the Aged video effect to a 1-minute movie. We converted 45 minutes of AAC audio files to MP3 using iTunes’ High Quality setting. We used Unreal Tournament 2004’s Antalus Botmatch average-frames-per-second score; we tested at a resolution of 1,024 by 768 pixels at the Maximum setting with both audio and graphics enabled. We duplicated a 500MB file in the Finder. We created a Zip archive in the Finder from a 1GB folder. To compare Speedmark 4.5 scores for various Mac systems, visit our Apple Hardware Guide.—MACWORLD LAB TESTING BY JAMES GALBRAITH AND JERRY JUNG

Regardless, the new systems were faster than the older models across the board, even managing to get about 13-percent more frames per second in our Unreal Tournament 2004 test against the old high end model and 19-percent more frames per second than the low-end 1.66GHz model. And while it is nice to see some improvement in game scores, the Mac mini remains at the bottom of the Mac barrel for gaming. Many gamers were hoping that a new version of the Mac mini would ditch the Intel GMA 950 integrated graphics for something with a little more kick, but Apple opted to stick with the budget graphics for this new set of Mac minis. Compare the new Mac minis’ 23 or so frames per second to the entry level, 2GHz Core 2 Duo iMac’s 70 frames per second result and you’ll see why even casual gamers will continue to eschew the mini in favor of hardware with dedicated graphics memory.

In many of the processor-intensive tasks, like rendering a scene in Cinema 4D or encoding a movie in Compressor, the 2GHz Core 2 Duo iMac and Mac mini were neck and neck. Other tests included in the overall Speedmark score, such as file duplication and importing files into iPhoto, highlighted the disadvantage of including slower, 5,400-rpm hard drives in the Mac mini as opposed to the iMac’s 7,200-rpm drives. These tests, along with the slow 3-D game frame rates, help give the iMac its 22-percent higher Speedmark score.

If you’re looking for an older Mac mini to reference while looking at the performance of these new Mac minis, look no further than the Speedmark score. Our baseline, or 100 system, for calculating all systems Speedmark score is a 1.25GHz G4 Mac mini with 1GB of RAM.

Check back soon for Macworld’s full review of these new Mac minis.

[ James Galbraith is Macworld Lab director. ]

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