The mini's graphics

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After having about 24 hours to play with the new Intel-based Mac mini, I got the chance to pick the brain of Apple’s senior director of desktops, Tom Boger. With senior editor (and game expert) Peter Cohen also on the line, I asked Boger about a topic on many people’s minds—the new Mac mini’s integrated graphics chip.

Unlike the previous models, which included ATI Radeon 9200 graphics with 32MB of dedicated DDR RAM, the new mini uses Intel’s GMA950 graphics core, which doesn’t include its own graphics memory—instead, it shares its RAM with the Mac mini’s main memory. Because of this, many people have been calling the new mini’s graphics a ‘downgrade’ from the last model.

Boger said the new graphics are actually a significant upgrade from the Mac mini, and pointed out that the GMA950 is programmable, allowing the Mac mini to support Tiger’s Core Image features for the first time. For example, when you add a widget in Dashboard, you’ll see the ripple effect on these new systems, and it simply wasn’t there on the previous Mac mini models.

Although on PCs the GMA950 can potentially eat up as much as 224MB of main memory for use in frame buffering, Boger told us that Apple’s implementation doesn’t work that way: on the new Mac minis, the GMA950’s memory use is locked at 64MB. In other words, graphics won’t eat up more than its allotted share of your RAM (which is actually 80MB, since in addition to the 64MB for graphics, 16MB is set aside for what Boger called “general setup of the system”).

Peter and I also asked Boger about how well the new Mac mini would handle 3-D games. He replied that Apple hasn’t published any gaming tests on the mini, but informally, the company was seeing increases of between 10 percent and 40 percent for frame rates on games they tested (although he didn’t mention which ones).

That statement conflicts with our initial testing of the Core Solo version of the Mac mini. In our Unreal Tournament 2004 test, the Mac mini Core Solo actually had a lower frame rate than the previous-generation Mac mini. However, there’s still more testing to be done.

What I can say that the Mac mini Core Duo I’ve been using for the past day worked smoothly when it came to playing DVDs, QuickTime movies, and 1080i HD movie trailers.

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