Mac mini drops its Solo act

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Apple’s update to its iMac line Wednesday grabbed most of the attention—introducing a 24-inch model and replacing the dual-core chips with a next-generation processor that promises increased performance and lower power consumption tends to grab the average headline-writer’s eyeballs. But so far as I’m concerned, the more noteworthy development could be found with Apple’s “Oh yeah…this too” announcement—the changes to the Mac mini line.

In case you were preoccupied with contemplating the imposing sight of an iMac with a 24-inch display, here’s a brief summary of what Apple did to its Mac mini offerings. The $799 model now runs on a 1.83GHz Intel Core Duo chip, up from the 1.66GHz dual-core processor that used to power the desktop. More significant, the entry-level Mac mini that used to feature a 1.5GHz Core Solo processor has been bumped to a 1.66GHz Core Duo chip. That means that every Intel-based desktop and laptop sold by Apple now includes a dual-core processor (or multiple dual-core processors in the case of the Mac Pro ).

I think ditching the single-core processor is a very deliberate decision on Apple’s part. If you read Jason Snell’s review of the Mac Pro, you’ll remember that software has to be written to specifically take advantage of multi-core processors; the problem is that not every app is designed to take advantage of that processing oomph. I wasn’t privy to any of the closed-door sessions at last month’s Worldwide Developers Conference, but I imagine Apple devoted a considerable amount of time to exhorting software makers to make their products multi-core friendly. Retiring the lone single-core-based system strikes me as another not-so-subtle reminder about where Apple hopes to take the platform in the coming years. Presumably, late-night phone calls to developers from Apple executives saying “Well?” followed by an awkward silence will be next on the agenda.

And let’s face it: The 1.5GHz Mac mini Core Solo, while a nice option for entry-level users, lagged well-behind its dual-core sibling in almost every task. Macworld has devoted a considerable amount of virtual ink to the idea of turning an Intel-based Mac mini into a multimedia hub. In all of our tests, we used a mini with a Core Duo chip—it just seemed like the better choice, even for tasks like video playback.

True, there’s a part of me that wonders whether Apple should have kept a Core Solo Mac mini on its retail shelf, if, for no other reason, than to have a model priced under that all-important psychological barrier of $500. Then again, at $599, the 1.66GHz Mac mini Core Duo won’t exactly force you to cash in that 401(k). And Apple has never been the sort of company to sacrifice something as critical as performance just so that it could brag about selling a stripped-down machine at a certain price point. (True, the company now offers a sub-$1,000 1.83GHz iMac, but that machine still boasts a dual-core processor. Much like the education-only iMac, this $999 offering cuts costs by replacing the dedicated graphics processor with integrated graphics and eschewing a built-in Bluetooth 2.0+EDR module—not exactly the features that people craving a low-cost desktop would demand.)

A Core Solo Mac mini was a fine idea at the time it was introduced—clearly, Apple recognizes that time has passed. Improved performance from multi-core chips is where this platform is headed at present. And hopefully, software that’s written to take advantage of those chips will be a large part of our future.

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