capsule review

Mac mini (Early 2009)

When we reviewed the previous Mac mini iteration, we lamented the 11 months it took Apple to release that update—a period so lengthy that many people wondered if Apple would discontinue the line. So you can imagine the speculation that’s occurred in the 19 months since. Last week, Apple finally gave the company’s least-expensive computer another refresh, and that update brought the Mac mini line its most significant upgrades yet.

Not-so-mini improvements

On the outside, the newest Mac mini models look all but identical to their predecessors, using the exact same aluminum-and-white, 6.5- by 6.5- by 2-inch enclosure. As with previous minis, the computer’s tiny shipping container hints at the lack of included peripherals: you provide the keyboard, mouse, and display. The only items in the box other than the Mac mini itself are the power adapter and cable, a mini-DVI-to-DVI video adapter, software DVDs (for Mac OS X and iLife ‘09), and documentation. Missing this time around is an Apple Remote, now a $19 option.

Apple's Mac mini has a 2.0GHz Core 2 Duo processor, and is available with a 120GB hard drive and 1GB of RAM, or with a 320GB hard drive and 2GB of RAM.

But a quick glance at the back of the new Mac mini makes it clear this is an updated machine. Instead of the FireWire 400 and four USB ports of the 2007 mini, the new model sports five USB 2.0 ports and replaces the FireWire 400 port with a faster FireWire 800 connection. (FireWire 800 is backwards compatible with FireWire 400 peripherals)

Also gone is the previous model’s DVI video port, replaced by two video ports: a mini-DVI port (identical to the one found on older iMacs and Mac laptops) that uses an included adapter to connect to standard DVI displays, and a Mini DisplayPort connector like those found on the current MacBooks. The latter port works directly with Mini DisplayPort-equipped displays such as Apple’s current 24-inch LED Cinema Display ( ); it also works with DVI displays via Apple’s $29 Mini DisplayPort to DVI Adapter. Both video outputs include High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection (HDCP), allowing you to output HDCP-protected content to other HDCP-enabled devices.

Why two video outputs? Given that the Mac mini is designed to be used with whatever display the owner has, Apple told Macworld that the company wanted to be as flexible as possible with display-connection options. But the added bonus here is that both connections can be used simultaneously thanks to the new mini’s improved graphics capabilities (more on that below). You can attach two displays to the mini and use them in either mirrored or extended-desktop mode. Alternatively, with the help of the $99 Mini DisplayPort to Dual-Link DVI Adapter, you can now use the Mac mini with Apple’s 30-inch Cinema Display ( ), making the mini the first desktop consumer Mac with such capability.

Remaining the same are the mini’s gigabit Ethernet port, the digital/analog audio input and output jacks, and the security lock slot.

The new Mac mini has received under-the-hood improvements, as well, starting with the graphics processor. Although the mini’s graphics card is still integrated, it’s now the same much-improved Nvidia GeForce 9400M found in the current MacBook line. In addition to more-powerful processing capabilities, the 9400M takes advantage of up to 128MB of the mini’s main memory when 1GB is installed, or up to 256MB if 2GB is installed. The older mini’s Intel GMA 950 maxed out at just 64MB.

The mini’s Intel Core 2 Duo processor is now a 2.0GHz Penryn chip with a faster system bus (1,066MHz versus 667MHz) on both models, with a 2.26GHz version available as a build-to-order option. The processor’s level-2 cache is 3MB, up from 2MB for the previous entry-level model but down from 4MB on the higher-end model. Memory is now 1,066MHz DDR SDRAM (also known as PC8500), with the $599 model getting 1GB and the $799 equipped with 2GB. But perhaps the biggest improvement here is that both models can handle up to 4GB of RAM, with the 1GB model shipping with a single 1GB DIMM, leaving the other free for expansion. (On the previous minis, each slot was populated with a 512MB chip, forcing you to replace the stock RAM when upgrading.)

The Mac mini now has five USB 2.0 ports (lower right). To the left of the USB ports is the new Mini DisplayPort. Next to that is the mini-DVI port.

The $599 and $799 models sport 120GB and 320GB hard drives, respectively, both SATA. On the other hand, the drives are still 2.5-inch, 5,400 rpm laptop models; these drives help keep the mini’s energy use low, but their performance is poor relative to most desktop drives. Both new minis also include a faster 8x dual-layer SuperDrive, and similar “bump” improvements are found in wireless capability: 802.11g has finally been replaced by 802.11n, and Bluetooth is now 2.1+EDR. (Interesting side note: A number of “takeaparts” around the Web have noted what appears to be unused eSATA circuitry inside the new Mac minis. Though not used in the current minis, this provides more support for the theory that Apple will eventually be adding eSATA ports to its computers.)

Finally, Apple is quick to tout the new Mac mini’s green credentials: The company claims the mini is the world’s most energy-efficient desktop computer, using less than 13 Watts of power at idle, 45 percent less than the previous Mac mini. In addition, the packaging, which is now based entirely on recycled paper, is 31 percent smaller than before, allowing the company to reduce its environmental impact by fitting twice as many boxes in shipping containers. If you’re into green computing, the mini’s got a lot going for it.

At a Glance
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