First Look: Intel Mac mini: What you need to know

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The Mac mini joined the ranks of Intel-based Macs Tuesday when Apple unveiled a revamped Mac mini product line. The Mac mini now comes in two configurations—a $599 model with a 1.5GHz Intel Core Solo chip and a $799 version powered by a 1.67GHz Core Duo processor.

How do these two new minis compare to their predecessors? What other changes will you find under the hood? And does this update mark a step forward for the Mac mini? The answer to that last question will have to wait until we publish our full review—as for the other questions, let’s recap what we’ve learned in the first 24 hours after the Mac mini announcement.

I’ve heard about the Core Duo—what’s Core Solo?

The Core Solo is essentially the same thing as the Core Duo processor, except—as the name implies—a Core Solo processor has only one processing unit (or “core”) instead of two. Like the iMac Core Duo and the MacBook Pro, both Mac mini models enjoy a speedy 667MHz frontside bus (four times the speed as that of previous Mac mini) and 2MB of L2 cache (four times the amount as in the previous Mac mini).

Is the RAM faster as well?

Yes. Again, like the iMac Core Duo and MacBook Pro before it, the new Mac mini uses 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM, rather than the previous model’s 333MHz DDR SDRAM. And the new Mac mini can handle 2GB of SDRAM in its two memory slots—both the maximum RAM and the number of memory slots are double that of its predecessor.

But doesn’t the new integrated graphics chip eat into that RAM?

Yes, the new Mac mini uses the Intel Graphics Media Accelerator (GMA) 950 graphics processor, which doesn’t have its own dedicated video memory—it shares its memory with the main system RAM. The GMA950 is allocated at least 64MB of memory, which is twice that included with the ATI Radeon 9200 in previous Mac minis, but Apple’s specs say it requires 80MB (leaving 432MB available to the system).

On paper, the GMA950 is a better processor than the Radeon 9200. At the same time, the Mac mini still isn’t a computer for gamers expecting high frames rates and fast redraws. It’s the one area where the Mac mini will clearly lag behind the iMac Core Duo and MacBook Pro in terms of speed.

Is the Mac mini finally a home media computer?

Pretty much, albeit at $599, it’s a somewhat pricey home-media-center component. The mini gains the remote-control-and-software combo that make up Front Row, allowing you to control audio, video, and photos from across the room. And it uses a new version of the Front Row software that can play music, videos, and slideshows located on other computers on your local network. That means you won’t even need to load up content on the mini to play it back.

The new mini models also have 5.1-channel digital audio output (instead of just stereo analog output) for connecting to a surround sound speaker system for watching DVDs. There’s also-built in digital and analog audio input as well, something that the old Mac mini lacked entirely.

So this is the end of the $500 Mac?

For now, yes. But it’s important to remember that the original $499 Mac mini lacked all but the basic features, including the now-standard AirPort and Bluetooth wireless options. Adding those features to an older Mac mini cost about $100. And that’s not even considering the new chip and faster frontside bus and RAM; the switch to Serial ATA hard drives; and the addition of Gigabit Ethernet and two more USB 2.0 ports (now four in total). And the $799 model costs $200 more than its predecessor, but includes a Core Duo processor and 8x dual-layer DVD burner.

What about a keyboard, mouse, and monitor?

Those will still cost you extra, but you can use almost any USB mouse and keyboard as well as analog or digital monitor. In many cases, you can buy the input devices and display you need for a few hundred dollars.

Let me guess—no modem?

Yep. As with the Intel iMac and MacBook Pro, Apple has removed the internal modem, but does sell a $49 USB version for those who need one.

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