capsule review

Mac mini (Late 2009) review

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In my review of the early-2009 models, I noted that when deciding between the $599 and $799 models, the choice was easy: Despite the $599 Mac mini’s paltry 1GB of RAM and small hard drive, the $200 premium you paid for the higher-end model got you only a $50 RAM upgrade and a larger—but still slow—hard drive. You could get much more value for your money by buying the lower-end model with Apple’s RAM upgrade, and using the $150 you had left over to get a huge, fast, FireWire 800 drive.

With the new Mac mini models, the choice is a bit more difficult. Unlike its predecessor, the new $599 model no longer requires a RAM upgrade out of the box, and it also gains a faster processor and a bit more hard-drive space. But this time around the higher-end model’s $200 premium gets you a larger hard drive, 4GB of RAM, and an even faster processor—upgrades that, if added to the $599 model when purchasing from Apple, would cost $350 in total (or around $325 if you upgraded just the processor through Apple but purchased and installed the other upgrades yourself). Buying the $799 model is also the only way to take advantage of Apple’s fastest Mac mini processor—you can’t upgrade the $599 mini to a 2.66GHz CPU.

What this means is that if you want the very best performance in a Mac mini, you’ll want to go with the $799 model with its faster processor and maxed-out RAM. Otherwise, the $599 model continues to offer a better value. In fact, based on our tests of an upgraded early-2009 mini back in March, I suspect that upgrading the hard drive on the new $599 mini—either via a 7200rpm internal drive or an external FireWire 800 drive—would again make it compete well with the $799 model, perhaps even surpassing its more-expensive sibling for drive-intensive tasks.

Macworld’s buying advice

According to Apple, the mini line was designed to be the most affordable way to get a computer with Mac OS X and iLife. While that may be true, the early-2009 Mac minis were the first that actually let you take full advantage of that software. The latest models improve modestly on their predecessors with faster processors, more RAM, and—on the lower-end model—more hard-drive space at the same $599 and $799 prices. The results are Mac minis that address a few of my biggest criticisms of the early-2009 models. (Sadly, slow hard drives remain.)

The Mac mini continues to be a great option for those new to the Mac who already have a display, keyboard, and mouse. As for current Mac owners, if you purchased a Mac mini earlier this year, these relatively minor improvements are unlikely to convince you to upgrade unless a slight bump in performance will mean big productivity gains for your particular tasks. But if you’ve got an older Mac mini—or an older Mac of another line—and you’re looking to upgrade, the latest minis are appealing. They give you all the impressive updates of the models released earlier this year along with better performance.

As for which of the two models to consider, unless you need the very best performance in a computer the size of a mini, the $599 model is a better value, giving you most of the power of the $799 model with enough cash left over to spurge on a huge, fast, external hard drive—and maybe even a few other accessories.

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