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New Mac minis deliver serious performance

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Unless you tend to work in only two or three applications—and even then, depending on the programs—I recommend upping the $599 mini from 2GB to 4GB of RAM. In testing the stock model, I regularly saw memory-related slowdowns once a number of applications were running; the $799 mini’s 4GB offered a much better experience.

Upgrading the Mac mini’s RAM is surprisingly easy these days: just twist, pop, and snap.

Of course, as with most Apple RAM upgrades, you’ll get a better deal if you buy from a third-party vendor—making sure to get RAM that meets Apple’s specifications—and install it yourself. For example, reputable third-party vendors are currently selling 4GB of memory for the new mini for roughly $45, with 8GB around $65. You can also get more RAM in your mini from third-party vendors: While Apple’s official specs say the Mac mini maxes out at 8GB, accessory vendor OWC is already selling a 16GB upgrade—for a whopping $1400—that the company says is fully tested and compatible.

As with last year’s mini, memory installation is surprisingly easy: You just rotate the computer’s plastic base a few degrees counterclockwise and lift it off, pop out the two stock chips, snap in the new chips, and replace the base.

While Apple still doesn’t consider the Mac mini’s hard drive to be a user-upgradeable part, iFixit’s teardown of the 2011 model shows that replacing the stock hard drive is a relatively simple task. (Apple’s general policy with the Mac mini line has always been that as long as you don’t break anything during the process, upgrading the hard drive won’t void your warranty.) Which means that if you’re looking to increase the performance of the mini, or get more storage, you can save a few bucks by skipping the build-to-order options and instead shopping for a 9.5mm, 2.5-inch laptop hard drive. For example, at the time of this review, a 750GB 7200rpm drive is just $85 to $100 from Newegg.com, and a 1TB 5200rpm drive is around $125.

In other words, while bumping the $599 Mac mini to 8GB of RAM and a faster, bigger hard drive through Apple will set you back $450, going the DIY route will cost as little as $150.

As for other upgrades, the inclusion of Thunderbolt is a Really Big Deal, despite the fact that there aren’t yet many Thunderbolt peripherals on the market. As our benchmarks of Thunderbolt performance show, Thunderbolt is dramatically faster than even FireWire 800—we’re curious to see how the 2011 minis will fare when booted from a Thunderbolt drive or RAID array. And Thunderbolt’s flexibility means that the new mini will have more expansion options than ever, including many of the same high-performance upgrades that will be available for Apple’s “Pro” computers. (It’s even possible for vendors to adapt PCI Express cards for Thunderbolt. Maybe the new mini is Apple’s answer to years of pleas for a mythical midrange Mac minitower?)

Road to Recovery

Given the lack of an optical drive, the new Mac minis obviously don’t ship with a system-restore DVD. But they also don’t get a system-restore flash drive, as the 2010 MacBook Air did. Instead, if you ever need to reinstall Lion, you use Apple’s new Lion Recovery feature. As I explained in our hands-on article, the Mac mini’s hard drive includes an invisible partition called Recovery HD. If your main startup volume is having trouble, you can boot from Recovery HD (by holding down Command-R at startup) and then repair the startup volume—or even erase it, reinstall Lion, and restore your data from a Time Machine backup. (To reinstall iLife ’11, which is preinstalled on the new Mac minis, you use the Mac App Store.) Of course, this means Lion Recovery requires an Internet connection.

As it turns out, I had an opportunity to use Lion Recovery while testing the new Mac mini. When I tried to use Migration Assistant to transfer data from a 2010 MacBook Air to a new mini, the procedure would stall—for hours—at the “under a minute left” stage. I eventually gave up and restarted the Mac mini…which left it in a non-bootable state. I rebooted into Lion Recovery and tried to repair the hard drive using Disk Utility, but that didn’t fix the problem, so I erased the drive and reinstalled Lion. As noted in the aforementioned article, Lion Recovery doesn’t include the full Lion installer—that data must be downloaded from Apple on the fly. Over a cable-modem connection, using ethernet, the process of downloading and installing Lion through Lion Recovery took just over an hour.

But what if your hard drive has hardware or partition-map problems that prevent you from booting from the Recovery HD partition? The Mid-2011 Mac mini and MacBook Air models—and any new models of Apple’s other lines that are released going forward—include a special feature called Lion Internet Recovery. These Macs can boot directly from Apple’s servers, at which point the software tests the computer’s memory and hard drive to make sure there are no lingering hardware issues. Assuming those components are fine, Lion Internet Recovery downloads, and boots from, a Recovery HD disk image, at which point you get the standard Lion Recovery options. I haven’t yet had a chance to test Lion Internet Recovery, but I’ll be doing so for an upcoming hands-on article.

Lion Recovery and Lion Internet Recovery are welcome features for troubleshooting, but the requirement to download nearly 4GB of data in order to reinstall Lion adds quite a bit of time to any system restore. It’s still worth keeping a bootable Lion-installer drive handy.

Macworld’s buying advice

When I reviewed the Mid-2010 Mac mini, I called it Apple’s most versatile computer for those who didn’t need workstation-level performance. Without an optical drive, the 2011 mini may not be quite as versatile, but Core i5 processors mean that, for the first time, the mini is a serious performer—nearly twice as fast as its predecessor and comparable to some of Apple’s latest MacBook Pro models. And with FireWire 800, Thunderbolt, and a reasonably accessible hard drive, even good storage performance is an option. Of course, it’s also great to see Apple bring the price back down to $599.

On the other hand, those who need great graphics performance won’t find it here, and the loss of an optical drive is likely to scare off some buyers, especially those looking to use the Mac mini as part of a home-media center (though the lack of a Blu-ray option anywhere in Apple’s product line already made this a moot point for some).

If you’re in the market for a mini, which model should you get? This year, the question has an easy answer: If you need the best performance—graphics or CPU—the $799 model is a nice step up, especially for games; it’s also the only (non-server) mini available with a Core i7 processor. For everyone else, I think the $599 model with an inexpensive RAM upgrade is the better value.

As with previous Mac minis, perhaps the bigger question is one of relative value: How does the Mac mini stack up against Apple’s other desktops? If you’ve already got a decent display, keyboard, and pointing device, the cheapest iMac is $400 to $600 more than a mini. But if you plan to buy new peripherals, the iMac starts to look more appealing, especially compared to the $799 mini: The $1199 iMac (Mid 2011) gives you a 21.5-inch display with a camera, significantly better performance (thanks to a more-powerful processor, a better GPU, and a faster hard drive), 4GB of RAM, an optical drive, stereo speakers, a keyboard, and a Magic Mouse or Magic Trackpad in an uncluttered, all-in-one package.

Updated 8/3/2011, 3:29pm, to correct price and link for 1TB 9.5mm hard drive. Updated 8/3/2011, 8:45PM, to clarify that the 2011 server model also offers a Core i7 processor.

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