capsule review

Mac mini (Mid 2010)

At a Glance
  • Apple Mac mini (Mid 2010)

    Macworld Rating
Page 2 of 2

Easiest. RAM. Upgrade. Ever.

The new design of the Mac mini has one other benefit, and it’s a huge one: easy RAM upgrades. The RAM-upgrade procedure for previous Mac mini models was such an undertaking—requiring putty knives and producing nerve-racking cracking sounds—that we’ve written at least half a dozen articles on the topic over the years. With the new mini, not only do you not need putty knives, you don’t need any tools at all.

You can upgrade the RAM on the 2010 Mac mini with a simple twist-and-lift of its bottom panel—putty knives are no longer necessary.

The mini’s round, black-plastic base sports two small indentations. If you place a thumb in each one and rotate the base a few degrees counterclockwise, the base lifts off to reveal the computer’s SDRAM slots. Pop out the two stock chips, snap in the new chips, and replace the base—you’re done. Not only is this procedure dramatically easier than with the previous mini, but, looking back, I can’t think of a Mac that’s been easier to upgrade—at least for RAM.

That said, the mini’s stock 2GB of RAM will be sufficient for many Mac mini owners, and Apple charges only $100 at the time of purchase to bump up to 4GB—a very reasonable price—so you may never need to open up the mini. But it’s nice to know that if you want or need to jump up to 4GB—or even 8GB, which is now an officially supported configuration—it’s easy to do so.

On the other hand, the procedure for replacing the Mac mini’s hard drive, which was even more difficult on the previous model than upgrading RAM, doesn’t get the same twist-and-pop treatment. It certainly requires just as much disassembly this time around, as iFixit’s teardown shows. We'll have more on this after we get a chance to operate on our own mini. (As with previous Mac mini models, Apple has confirmed to Macworld that you’re free to upgrade internal components [including the hard drive] yourself, provided you don’t damage the computer in the process. Such damage would not be covered by the Mac mini’s warranty.)

Of course, as I noted with the 2009 models, it’s debatable whether or not you’d even want to upgrade the hard drive: The mini ships with a 320GB drive, which will be large enough for many people, and those who need more storage will likely be better served by purchasing an external drive: Thanks to the Mac mini’s use of 2.5-inch, 5400-rpm laptop drives, last year’s models performed better when booted from an external FireWire 800 drive than when booted from the internal hard drive, and there’s nothing that would make me think this has changed with the latest model. (The server version of the Mac mini now ships with dual 7200-rpm drives.)

For similar reasons, I recommend against paying Apple $100 to swap the stock 320GB drive for a 500GB model. With 1TB FireWire 800 drives available online for roughly the same price, unless you’re using the mini in special circumstances that prevent the use of an external drive, there’s little reason to pay a premium for—or take the risk installing—a larger internal drive.

Mac mini (Mid 2010): Speedmark scores

Longer bars are better. Blue bars in italics represent reference systems. Macworld Lab testing by James Galbraith and McKinley Noble.

Despite using a much better graphics chip than its predecessors, the new Mac mini falls squarely between the two Late-2009 Mac mini models when it comes to processor speed: 2.4GHz compared to 2.26GHz and 2.53GHz. As such, I didn’t expect to see huge performance gains in most programs and, in fact, suspected the latest mini might not be able to match the 2.53GHz Late 2009 model at some tasks.

And that turned out to be the case. As Macworld lab director James Galbraith reported in our benchmarks of the new Mac mini, the new mini bested both Late 2009 models in our Aperture import, iMovie import, iMovie export, Finder duplicate-a-folder, and Call of Duty tests. But it came in between the two Late 2009 models in our Cinebench render, Mathematica 7, Compressor encode, iTunes encode, Finder zip-archive, Finder unzip-archive, Parallels multi-task, iPhoto 9 import, and Pages open-Word-document tests. In only one test, our HandBrake DVD-rip test, was the new mini bested by both Late 2009 models, and that result was so dramatically different than the other numbers that we’re doing further testing.

New Mac mini 2.4GHz Speedmark scores

Speedmark
6
Adobe
Photoshop
CS4
Cinebench
R10
Mathemetica-
Mark 7
Compressor
3.0.4
Aperture
2.1.4
iMovie
’09
iMovie
’09
iTunes
9
Call of
Duty 4
Finder Finder Finder Parallels
WorldBench
6
Handbrake
0.9.3
iPhoto
’09
Pages
’09
OVERALL
SCORE
SUITE RENDER SCORE MPEG
ENCODE
IMPORT IMPORT
ARCHIVE
EXPORT MP3
ENCODE
FRAME
RATE
DUPLICATE
1GB FOLDER
ZIP
ARCHIVE
UNZIP
ARCHIVE
MULTI-TASK
TEST
RIP DVD
CHAPTER
IMPORT OPEN WORD
DOCUMENT
Mac mini 2.4GHz Core 2 Duo
(2GB RAM)
117 0:50 2:58 3.3 10:25 3:13 1:44 1:58 1:35 36.1 0:31 4:04 1:09 6:34 4:10 0:54 2:21
Mac mini 2.53GHz Core 2 Duo
(4GB RAM; late 2009)
118 0:50 2:44 3.57 10:14 3:28 1:49 2:08 1:34 18.3 0:39 3:56 1:01 6:31 2:43 0:47 1:54
Mac mini 2.26GHz Core 2 Duo
(2GB; late 2009)
104 0:55 3:04 3.2 10:55 3:55 2:08 2:17 1:43 18.3 0:45 4:34 1:28 7:14 2:49 1:05 2:28
Mac mini 2.GHz Core 2 Duo
(2GB; early 2009)
100 0:59 3:29 2.98 12:01 4:08 2:07 2:33 1:53 18.4 0:39 4:50 1:19 8:12 3:08 1:03 2:36

Best results in bold. Reference systems in italics.

How we tested. Call of Duty score is in frames per second (higher is better). Speedmark and MathematicaMark are performance scores (higher scores are better). All others are in minutes:seconds (lower is better). The new Mac mini was tested with OSX 10.6.4, the MacBook was tested with OS X 10.6.3 and the the rest were tested with 10.6. 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 with mulitprocessors in CinemaBench. We used Compressor to encode a MOV file to the application’s H.264 for video podcast setting. We timed the import and thumbnail/preview creation time for 150 photos. In iMovie, we imported a camera archive and exported it to iTunes for Mobile Devices setting. We converted 90 minutes of AAC audio files to MP3 using iTunes’ High Quality setting. We Unzipped a 2GB archive in the Finder. We ran WorldBench 6 multitasking test on a Parallels VM. We imported 150 JPEGs into iPhoto. We used HandBrake to rip a DVD chapter to the hard drive. We opened a 500-page Word document in Pages ’09.—Macworld Lab testing by James Galbraith and McKinley Noble

It’s worth noting that, despite these results, the new model’s graphics performance was improved enough that it brought the 2010 Mac mini’s overall Speedmark score, shown above, within a single point of the 2009 higher-end model, 117 versus 118, respectively.

In real-world use, the new mini handled everyday tasks—Web browsing, e-mail, word processing, and Apple’s iLife suite—without problem. Only when I had many of these programs open simultaneously did the stock 2GB of RAM become a limitation. If you do tend to keep many applications running simultaneously, I recommend upping the mini’s RAM to at least 4GB.

I also used the new Mac mini to play several games. In line with our benchmarks, the performance of Call of Duty 4 with recommended graphics settings was noticeably better on the new mini than on the 2009 models. This isn’t a gaming rig, but for casual gamers who don’t mind dialing back detail and textures, it will let you enjoy most games.

In a somewhat challenging test, I also played Half-Life 2 via the newly-Mac-compatible Steam service while the Mac mini was connected to a 1920 by 1080-pixel (1080p) Dell display via HDMI. At the display’s native 1080p resolution, video and audio were both choppy, but reducing the game’s resolution to 1280-by-720 (720p) alleviated this stuttering dramatically. However, according to Valve, the developer of Steam, there’s a known issue with nVidia graphics chips under Mac OS X 10.6.4 that adversely affects performance in some games, so take the results of this particular test with a grain of salt—it’s possible that the new mini will perform better at this test once the bug has been fixed.

A better mini, but a better value?

As I’ve noted in previous Mac mini reviews, the mini line has always been about size and value rather than performance—last year’s models were actually the first that were powerful enough to fully take advantage of Apple’s iLife suite and provide respectable gaming performance. But while most Mac models—and, indeed, most computers in general—have gotten cheaper over the past five years, the price you pay for a basic Mac mini has crept up since the first model debuted in 2005. As recently as early 2006, you could get a mini for $499, with a higher-end model available for $599. Those numbers jumped to $599 and $799, respectively, in February 2006 and held steady for the next four and a half years. Now your only option is a single $699 model.

Granted, today’s Mac mini blows the doors off any Mac mini you could have purchased for $499, and easily bests all previous $599 models. And, in fact, thanks to performance and feature upgrades, the new mini gives you a computer that’s better in most respects than last year’s $799 model—for $100 less. But whereas the original Mac mini was a statement product—”a real Mac for under $500”—and legitimate switcher bait, the higher price of entry for today’s Mac mini throws up a considerable mental hurdle, and, for some people, even a budgetary one. As Christopher Breen and I discussed on last week’s Macworld podcast, $599 still felt inexpensive, as if you were still within range of that magical $500 price point. But $699 feels more like $700, and $699 is only a few hundred bucks away from a MacBook and $500 away from a more powerful, and far better-equipped, iMac.

Would I spend $699 on this Mac mini? Probably. But I’ve always been a fan of a “real” Mac in a tiny package. For someone looking for an inexpensive Mac who doesn’t care as much about the mini’s miniature profile, the higher introductory price is a more difficult case to make than before, even if it does give you a better computer. I’d like to see Apple bring back the $599 (or, heck, the $499) entry point.

Macworld’s buying advice

The Mac mini remains an impressive feat of hardware engineering and design, fitting decent computing power and a solid set of features in a tiny package. And apart from the slow stock hard drive, there’s not much to complain about with the latest model—this is as full-featured a computer I’ve seen in a package this small, and the new enclosure looks great and is built like a tank. As with last year’s models, the new mini makes for a great starter or switcher Mac, and it’s a solid upgrade for those looking to replace an aging Mac. In addition, the new HDMI output makes the mini even more appealing as part of a home-entertainment system, and the improved graphics chip helps the mini perform well enough to enjoy most games.

In other words, the latest Mac mini is Apple’s most versatile desktop computer, and an appealing option for those who don’t need workstation-level performance. If you've been considering a mini but passed on the 2009 models, now is a great time to make the jump. On the other hand, the new mini doesn’t offer a major jump in performance over the previous generation—only AV enthusiasts desperate for a true HDMI output, or people who’d like to be able to play some of the more-demanding games without splurging for a Mac Pro, should consider upgrading from one of last year's models.

The biggest negative about the new Mac mini is, in fact, its price. While you get a computer that's better than last year's $799 Mac mini for only $699, that's your only option—the price of entry is $100 higher this year than last, and it's now $200 higher than when Apple touted the Mac mini as the first Mac for under $500.

[Dan Frakes is a Macworld senior editor.]

Updated 6/23/10, 1:03pm: Corrected memory use of GeForce 320M and added note about build-to-order processor option.

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At a Glance
  • Macworld Rating

    Pros

    • Attractive, tiny, and rock-solid aluminum Unibody enclosure
    • Easy RAM upgrades
    • Improved graphics performance
    • HDMI output
    • Built-in SD-card reader

    Cons

    • SD-card slot inconveniently located
    • Higher price than previous entry-level model
    • Slow stock hard drive
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