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New Mac minis deliver serious performance

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At a Glance
  • Apple Mac mini 2.5GHz Core i5 (Mid 2011)

  • Apple Mac mini 2.3GHz Core i5 (Mid 2011)

With the Mac mini (Mid 2010), released in June 2010, Apple gave its smallest Mac an aesthetic overhaul, replacing the chunky, aluminum-and-white-plastic 2009 model with a sleek, aluminum-unibody model that was easier to upgrade, felt rock-solid, and sported an SD-card reader and an HDMI port (the latter pleasing AV buffs immensely). But while the design of the 2010 mini was a dramatic change, that model received mainly modest upgrades on the inside: a moderately faster processor and a better graphics chip. It also came with a higher price tag: The least-expensive 2010 mini clocked in at $699.

The latest version of the Mac mini, officially called the Mac mini (Mid 2011) and released along with Mac OS X 10.7 (Lion), sticks with last year’s design, but it gets a price cut while overhauling what’s inside. Though the iMac is clearly Apple’s flagship desktop, the 2011 Mac mini is quintessential Apple: beautiful, well-engineered, forward-looking, and powerful enough for most, with at least one design decision that will leave some people wondering, “Why?” Which is to say that, like most Apple products, the new mini is compelling, but it won’t appeal to everyone.

Lightning and Thunderbolt

In a nod to the 2009 line, the Mac mini is again available in two models, with the less-expensive mini starting at $599. This gets you a 2.3GHz Intel Core i5 processor (last year’s model used the older Core 2 Duo), 2GB of RAM, a 500GB 5400rpm hard drive, and an integrated Intel HD Graphics 3000 graphics processor that shares 288MB of main memory. For $799, Apple ups the processor speed to 2.5GHz, the RAM to 4GB, and the graphics processor to a discrete AMD Radeon HD 6630M with 256MB of dedicated memory. (The Mac mini is also available in a server version starting at $999. We’ll be reviewing that model separately.)

Both models replace last year’s Mini DisplayPort port with a Thunderbolt port that supports both video (resolutions up to 2560 by 1600 pixels) and data connections, as well as Mini DisplayPort displays. You still get a dedicated HDMI port that supports both video (up to 1920 by 1200 pixels) and multi-channel audio. As with other current Macs, you can connect DVI and VGA displays with the appropriate adapters—only an HDMI-to-DVI adapter is included—and the mini supports both dual-display and video-mirroring modes when two displays are connected. If you’re feeling especially adventurous, the Radeon HD graphics processor in the $799 mini can drive two Thunderbolt displays, daisy-chained, while still handling a third display on the HDMI port, although you shouldn’t expect amazing performance.

The 2011 mini’s ports and connections are otherwise identical to last year’s: one FireWire 800 port; four USB 2.0 ports; a gigabit (10/100/1000BASE-T) ethernet port, an SDXC card-reader slot, and auto-sensing analog/optical-digital audio input and output minijacks (both of which support Apple’s current iPhone headset with remote and mic). As with the 2010 model, the location of the SDXC card-reader slot on the back is at best inconvenient; depending on where you place your mini, the slot may be effectively useless.

In terms of wireless connectivity, the Mac mini still gives you 802.11a/b/g/n wireless, but Bluetooth has been upgraded to Bluetooth 4.0, which includes a new low-power mode. The mini also includes a built-in mono speaker and an Infrared receiver for the Apple Remote (not included).

CD or not CD

On the outside, the 2011 Mac mini looks nearly identical to its predecessor, with an enclosure that’s 7.7 inches square, 1.4 inches tall, and made from a single piece of aluminum. A black-plastic panel on the back hosts the computer’s ports, and a circular, black-plastic door on the bottom provides limited access to the machine’s insides. Like last year’s model, this mini feels rock-solid, and an internal power supply—you just connect the included thin power cord—means that it’s entirely self-contained.

But there’s at least one difference in the 2011 mini’s exterior that’s immediately noticeable: It looks like last year’s Mac mini Server. And by that I mean the front of the new mini is missing the familiar opening of a slot-loading optical drive. That’s right: Like the MacBook Air, the Mac mini doesn’t have a SuperDrive.

For those who still frequently use DVDs and CDs, this may be a deal-killer. While many people view the Air’s lack of an optical drive to be an acceptable compromise that results in a thinner, lighter laptop, many of those same people will wonder why such an omission was necessary on a desktop computer that’s already among the smallest on the market. The cynical answer is that omitting an optical drive reduces Apple’s costs, both in production and shipping (the new Mac mini is about a third of a pound lighter than last year’s). And in case you haven’t gotten the hint yet, Apple would prefer that you download your movies from iTunes.

But it’s just as true that Apple sees optical discs as today’s floppy drive—an aging media format that’s quickly being replaced by USB thumb drives, broadband Internet connections, and other technological solutions. And for some people, that may be true. After all, between iTunes, the Mac App Store, Lion’s electronic distribution, iCloud, Lion Recovery (discussed below), Target Disk Mode, CD/DVD Sharing, and ripping movies on another Mac, many Mac users would be able to get along fine without an optical drive.

Leaving out the optical drive also gave Apple more space to work with inside the Mac mini—room the company put to good use by adding features (four-channel Thunderbolt and, on the $799 model, a discrete graphics processor) and options (a dual-drive setup, discussed below, and, on the $799 model, an i7 processor).

Still, dropping the disc was a bit of a surprising move for this particular Mac model, given that a good number of Mac mini owners use the tiny computer as part of a media center. If you do truly need an optical drive, Apple’s $79 MacBook Air SuperDrive works fine with the new Mac mini—it’s actually a built-to-order option on Apple’s online store. And even with the external SuperDrive, the $599 model is still $21 cheaper than last year’s mini.

Core i5 produces

Though some people will consider the mini’s loss of an optical drive to be a step back, few will argue with the other changes to the 2011 line. While last year’s Mac mini offered modest performance increases, the 2011 line’s Core i5 processors provide huge speed gains. We’re currently revamping our benchmark suite, Speedmark, to account for Lion and the latest Mac hardware changes, so we don’t yet have our traditional Speedmark scores. However, we did run 10 updated components of Speedmark to get an idea of how the latest Mac mini models stack up.

In CPU-intensive tests, including our Cinebench CPU test and HandBrake MP4 encode, the $799 2011 Mac mini with the 2.5GHz Core i5 processor was more than twice as fast as last year’s 2.4GHz Core 2 Duo model; the new $599 2.3GHz Core i5 mini also left last year’s model in the dust, clocking in at approximately 45 percent faster in the same two tests. For the other CPU-intensive tests, the new models were between 30 percent and 50 percent faster than last year’s, with the $799 2011 model slightly faster than the $599 2011 model across the board for CPU-intensive tasks.

Unfortunately, the Mac mini’s stock hard drive is still a 5400rpm, 2.5-inch laptop model. Despite being up to twice as fast as last year’s mini in processor-intensive tasks, the 2011 mini models were only slightly faster in tests that involve reading data from, and writing data to, the hard drive. For example, there was little difference between the models in our iMovie-import test, and the $799 2011 Mac mini was only 15 percent faster than the 2010 model in our folder-duplication test. Although we haven’t yet had a chance to test the new Mac mini models when booted from a FireWire 800 drive, we suspect that, as with last year’s models, this could provide better drive-related performance. We’re also interested to see how an SSD or a Thunderbolt drive (see “More options than ever,” below) will affect overall performance.

Benchmarks: New Mac minis (Mid 2011)

Share to
iTunes AAC
to MP3
64bit 2CH
Call of
Duty 4
Frame rate
Mac mini/2.3GHz Core i5
2GB RAM (Mid 2011)
65 249 144 103 119 103 93 212 12 160 27.3 378 62.5
Mac mini/2.5GHz Core i5
4GB RAM (Mid 2011)
66 241 149 85 113 78 83 186 24.6 143 59.5 285 103.7
Mac mini/2.4GHz Core 2 Duo
2GB RAM (Mid 2010)
79 353 165 150 118 148 132 384 12.9 296 38.9 451 55.6
MacBook Pro/2.3GHz Core i5
13-inch 4GB RAM (Early 2011)
70 271 180 90 116 88 100 210 12.5 161 27 328 61.8
iMac 2.5GHz 4C Core i5
21.5-inch 4GB RAM (Mid 2011)
42 214 84 91 78 63 74 126 40.3 104 86.6 280 140.2

Cinebench graphics, Call of Duty, and Portal 2 results are based on frame rate; higher numbers are better. All other test results in the above chart are in seconds; lower numbers are better. Reference models in italics. Best result in bold.

How we tested: We duplicated a 2GB file, created a Zip archive in the Finder from the two 2GB files and then unzipped it. In iMovie ’11, we imported a camera archive and exported it to iTunes using the Mobile Devices setting. We converted 135 minutes of AAC audio files to MP3 using iTunes’ High Quality setting. We used Handbrake 0.95 to encode a single chapter from a DVD previously ripped to the hard drive to H.264 using the application’s Normal settings. We recorded how long it took to render a scene with multiprocessors in Cinebench and ran that application’s OpenGL, frames per second test. We ran a timedemo in Call of Duty 4 at a resolution of 1024 x 768 with 4X anti-aliasing turned on. Portal 2 tests run at 1280 by 800 with anti-aliasing off, Filtering set to Anisotropic 16X, wait for Vertical Sync disabled, Mulitcore rendering set to Enabled, Shadow detail set to medium and Effect and Model/Texture Detail set to High-Macworld Lab testing by James Galbraith, William Wang and Mauricio Grijalva.

When it comes to graphics performance, our benchmark results were mixed. Thanks to its discrete graphics chip, the $799 2011 mini was nearly twice as fast as the 2010 model in our Cinebench OpenGL and Portal 2 tests; it was roughly 50 percent faster in our Call of Duty test. But the $599 model, with its integrated graphics processor, was roughly even with the 2010 model in our Cinebench test and only 12 percent faster in Portal 2. (The $599 2011 model was actually slower than the 2010 model in our Call of Duty 4 test, although Call of Duty is an older game that was never optimized for Intel graphics. Newer games, such as Portal 2, perform much better with Intel integrated graphics processors.)

Benchmarks aside, I found the $599 model to play Portal 2 well enough to be enjoyable, although there was noticeable choppiness at the automatically selected resolution of 1280 by 800 pixels. If you plan to play games more than occasionally, the $799 model, with its discrete GPU and slightly faster processor, is a better bet. On the other hand, one area where the $599 model’s integrated GPU doesn’t seem to hamper it is in video playback. The lower-end mini had no problem playing 1080p video when connected to an HDTV.

We haven’t had a chance to test a $599 model upgraded to 4GB of memory, but based on real-world use of the two 2011 models, I suspect that more RAM will result in better performance in some of our more-memory-hungry benchmark apps. It will certainly help if you tend to run many applications simultaneously.

Despite their performance increases, the new minis are roughly as power-efficient as last year’s model, which used just over 9W when idle and less than 1.5W when sleeping. (The $799 model’s discrete graphics processor ups the overall power usage to a still-low 13W when idle.) The new models are also just as cool and quiet—which is to say that they rarely get warm under general-purpose use, and they’re nearly silent. Even when the fan was running full-tilt, during an extended gaming session, the $599 mini was no louder than the fan on the external hard drive I use for Time Machine backups.

More options than ever

When it comes to the Mac mini line, the biggest questions have always focused on options and upgradeability. As with most recent Macs, your build-to-order options for the entry-level model are limited: You can upgrade the $599 model to 4GB ($100) or 8GB ($300) of RAM, and you can opt for a 750GB 7200rpm hard drive ($150). For the $799 model, you can increase performance by upgrading to a 2.7GHz Core i7 processor ($100); 8GB of RAM ($200); a 750GB 7200rpm hard drive ($150); a 256GB solid-state drive (SSD; $600); and, thanks to the absence of an optical drive, a combination of the 750GB hard drive and the 256GB SSD ($750).

Yes, this means you can configure an $1849 Mac mini—and that doesn’t include a keyboard, mouse, or display. (As with previous Mac mini models, you bring your own peripherals.) To be fair, few people are going to max out their Mac mini with all these options. But for those who actually need this kind of performance in a tiny package, it’s nice to know you can.

At a Glance
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