Hands on with the new Mac mini

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Apple announced a major update to the Mac mini line Tuesday morning, and we were lucky enough to get our hands on one. Here are our first impressions after a few hours of use. (You can also check out our slideshow on the new mini.)

Slimming down

The first thing you’ll notice about the new Mac mini is its box. Or, more specifically, how small that box is—60 percent of the size of the previous container. Open the box, and you’ll immediately see why: the new Mac mini, while wider than the previous model, is only 1.4 inches thick. And something else is missing—the power supply. Instead of the heavy, bulky, white power brick that’s shipped with every mini since the line was introduced, the newest mini comes with only a thin power cord and a video adapter. In the process of redesigning the Mac mini’s enclosure, Apple was able to shrink down the power supply and fit it inside the mini itself. (The new mini is actually slightly heavier than the previous model’s enclosure, but the lack of an external power supply allows the new version to shed about a pound of weight overall.)

The new Mac mini, with an older mini on top and the Apple TV underneath

The mini’s visual redesign takes its cues from two other Apple products. The new enclosure is made of a single piece of aluminum, a la Apple’s unibody laptops—gone is the plastic top of previous models, making the new mini feel rock-solid. But the shape is closer to that of the Apple TV—thinner and wider than the previous Mac mini models. In fact, the new mini is almost exactly the same size as an Apple TV, just with rounder corners.

Output changes

On the back of the new mini, you’ll find all the mini’s connections. As with the previous version, you get Gigabit Ethernet, FireWire 800, a Mini DisplayPort connector, digital/analog audio input and output, and four USB ports served by two USB buses. But you also gain—at the expense of a USB port, which is why the new model has four instead of the old model’s five—an SD-card slot. (Apple hasn’t yet published the specs and compatibility for the slot.) This card reader is less accessible on the back than it would have been on the front, but in a briefing with Macworld, Apple conceded that the compact design of the new Mac mini does limit where ports and connections can be placed.

The back of the Mac mini hosts (left to right) a power button, AC-power jack, Gigabit Ethernet port, FireWire 800 port, HDMI port, Mini DisplayPort connector, four USB 2.0 ports, and an SD-card slot. You'll also find audio input and output jacks and a fan-exhaust slot.

The new mini drops the previous model’s mini-DVI port in favor of an HDMI output—a nod to the fact that many Mac mini owners use the computer in home-theater systems and for other AV uses. In fact, Apple has even updated the Displays pane of System Preferences for the new mini to let you tweak video underscan—useful when connecting the mini to a TV. (Sorry, AV lovers—there’s no update to Front Row. Apple told us this Displays option is the only software change you’ll find.)

The mini’s two video ports will also provide better graphics performance thanks to the new Nvidia GeForce 320M integrated graphics processor which shares memory with the system RAM. For what it’s worth, Apple executives told us they’ve seen up to twice the performance when running games on the new mini, and the new GPU is optimized for HD video.

Internally, you get Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR, but the new Mac mini also supports 802.11a/b/g/n wireless—Apple didn’t officially support 802.11a on the previous model. The new model may also provide better wireless performance thanks to the placement of its two antennas: one in the rear behind the plastic back panel, and the other on the bottom, near the front of the mini, also behind a plastic cover.

In addition to one USB port, the new model is also missing one other connector: a security-lock slot. Apple’s infrared Remote remains an optional purchase.

Easier upgrades?

Perhaps the most welcome change to the new Mac mini is the fact that it’s now easy to upgrade the RAM—a feat that, while relatively easy once you get the hang of it, was a fairly major undertaking for the uninitiated. While the new Mac mini ships with 2GB of RAM, you can swap the two 1GB SO-DIMMS for two 2GB or two 4GB chips—Apple officially supports up to 8GB of RAM. (The previous mini worked with 8GB, but it wasn’t a supported configuration.)

Hidden behind the mini's bottom plate are the RAM slots (to the right), one of its two AirPort antennas (near the top), and its exhaust fan (in the middle).

The actual upgrade process is among the easiest of any Mac. To open the mini, you just flip it over, place your thumbs in the two recessions you find in the black-plastic base, and turn that base counter-clockwise a few degrees. The base then lifts off, revealing the two RAM slots on the right-hand side. Release the clips for each chip, lift them out, put new ones in, and you’re done. You don’t even have to use a screwdriver, let alone a putty knife!

While you’re inside, there are a few interesting things to see. One is the mini’s new 85-Watt power supply, which is just to the right of the RAM slots. It’s tiny. You can also see, right in the middle, the mini’s small cooling fan. It actually draws air in through a small gap around the base and then pushes that air out a small exhaust opening on the back panel.

The round, black item near the front of the mini is one of the two AirPort antennas. The section of the base that covers this antenna has no metal to allow for better performance.

The hard drive, on the other hand, is trickier to get to.

Perhaps the most frequent question I’ve heard since the mini’s release has been, “How difficult is it to replace the hard drive?” So far, the answer I’ve got is, “Much more difficult than replacing the RAM.” As you can see in the photo to the right, just being able to see the hard drive requires removing six screws, pulling the fan mechanism to the side, and removing the metal screen that holds the AirPort antenna. Once we get our own Mac mini (the model pictured here is on loan from Apple), we’ll explore a bit more, including covering the process of replacing the hard drive.

On that note, Apple’s policy on upgrading the Mac mini yourself has always been that as long as you don’t break anything in the process, your warranty is still valid. I confirmed with Apple that this is, indeed, still the case with the newest Mac mini. However, the company contends that because the new mini includes at least 320GB of hard-drive space—and you can upgrade at the time of purchase to 500GB for $100—there’s less of a need to upgrade the hard drive than when the mini shipped with only 160GB.

(And, of course, we found in a previous Mac mini review that if you’ve got a bit of desk space, you’ll likely get more storage and better performance for the money by connecting an external FireWire drive than by upgrading the internal hard drive.)

Split the (price) difference

Apple continues to offer a Snow Leopard Server version of the Mac mini, complete with a second hard drive—both now running at 7200rpm—in lieu of an optical drive, for $999. However, the company no longer offers a choice of non-server models. Instead of a standard model for $599 and a better-equipped model for $799, the new Mac mini is available in a single $699 configuration. This model includes a 2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor, 2GB of RAM, a 320GB SATA hard drive, and an 8X SuperDrive. These specs are only a mild bump from those of the previous-generation’s $599 model, which sported a 2.26GHz processor and a 160GB hard drive, although the new graphics card may increase performance dramatically in software with heavy graphics requirements.

More to come

Of course, we’ll be putting the new Mac mini through its official paces. Stay tuned for our official performance benchmarks later this week, followed by our official review early next week.

[Dan Frakes is a senior editor at Macworld.]

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