Customized Core i7 Mac mini offers iMac-like performance

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Want iMac-like performance, without having to buy an iMac? You can get such a machine from Apple if you customize the new Mac mini. Macworld Lab has tested a build-to-order (BTO) Mac mini, and the results in some of our tests are very close to that of a standard configuration 21.5-inch 2.5GHz Core i5 iMac ( ).

The BTO Mac mini we tested doesn’t come cheap, however. To put together the machine, we took the standard configuration 2.5GHz dual-core Core i5 Mac mini ( ), and upgraded the processor to a 2.7GHz dual-core Core i7, which adds $100 to the original $799 price. We also replaced the standard 5400-rpm 500GB hard drive with a 256GB solid-state drive (SSD), which costs $600. That brings the total price of the BTO Mac mini to $1499, which is $300 more than the 21.5-inch 2.5GHz Core i5 iMac. (Both the BTO Mac mini and the standard-configuration iMac had 4GB of RAM during our benchmark tests.)

Macworld Lab tested the BTO Mac mini using a subset of our Speedmark 7 benchmark suite, which is currently in development as we adjust our testing to account for Mac OS X Lion. While we don’t have an overall Speedmark 7 score yet, we see in the individual application results that the BTO Mac mini beat the 21.5-inch 2.5GHz Core i5 iMac in five of our 12 tests. Not surprisingly, the BTO Mac mini with its SSD blazed past the iMac in disk-intensive tests such as the 2GB folder duplication (31 percent faster) and 4GB file unzip (42 percent faster). The BTO Mac mini also beat the iMac in our 4GB zip test (5 percent faster), our Pages import Word doc test (20 percent faster), and our Parallels WorldBench multitask test (4 percent faster).

In three of our tests, the BTO Mac mini equaled or came within a second of the iMac. Both computers posted the same times in our iMovie '11 export to iTunes 10 test, and our iTunes 10 AAC to MP3 encode test. The BTO Mac mini was one second faster then the iMac in our Import movie archive to iMovie ’11 test.

The iMac, with its discrete 512MB Radeon HD 6750M graphics, flew past the BTO Mac mini and its discrete 256MB Radeon HD 6630M graphics. The iMac was 62 faster in the Cinebench OpenGL graphics test, and 32 percent faster in the Portal 2 test.

The iMac outperformed the BTO Mac mini in the Cinebench CPU test. The iMac also beat the the BTO Mac mini in our HandBrake encode test by a wide margin. Interestingly, the Mac mini's dual-core processors support Hyper-Threading, while the iMac's quad-core processors in the standard configuration models do not.

Benchmarks: BTO 2.7GHz Mac mini (Mid 2011)

 Duplicate 2GB folderZip 4GB folderUnzip 4GB filePages Import Word DocImport movie archive to iMovieiMovie export to iTunes for iPhone
Mac mini Core i7/2.7GHz
SSD (BTO, Mid 2011)
29 203 49 73 77 63
Mac mini/2.5GHz Core i5 4GB RAM
(Mid 2011)
66 241 149 85 113 78
Mac mini/2.3GHz Core i5 2GB RAM (Mid 2011) 65 249 144 103 119 103
Mac mini/2.4GHz Core 2 Duo 2GB RAM (Mid 2010) 79 353 165 150 118 148
13-inch MacBook Pro/2.3GHz Core i5 4GB RAM (Early 2011) 70 271 180 90 116 88
21.5-inch iMac/ 2.5GHz Core i5 quad-core
4GB RAM (Mid 2011)
42 214 84 91 78 63

Benchmarks: BTO 2.7GHz Mac mini (Mid 2011)

 iTunes AAC to MP3 encodeHandBrake 0.9.5 encode 64-bit 2CHCinebench OpenGLCinebench CPUParallels WorldBench Multitask testPortal 2 framerate
Mac mini Core i7/2.7GHz
SSD (BTO, Mid 2011)
74 176 24.9 137 269 106.3
Mac mini/2.5GHz Core i5 4GB RAM
(Mid 2011)
83 186 24.6 143 285 103.7
Mac mini/2.3GHz Core i5 2GB RAM (Mid 2011) 93 212 12 160 378 62.5
Mac mini/2.4GHz Core 2 Duo 2GB RAM (Mid 2010) 132 384 12.9 296 451 55.6
13-inch MacBook Pro/2.3GHz Core i5 4GB RAM (Early 2011) 100 210 12.5 161 328 61.8
21.5-inch iMac/ 2.5GHz Core i5 quad-core
4GB RAM (Mid 2011)
74 126 40.3 104 280 140.2

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 by 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.

Mac mini comparison

The BTO Mac mini is $700 more than the $799 standard configuration 2.5GHz Core i5 Mac mini, which has a 5400-rpm 500GB hard drive. Is the BTO mac mini worth the extra cash? If you simply look at the results of our disk-based benchmarks, you might think so. The BTO Mac mini was more than twice as fast as the 2.5GHz Mac mini in our duplicate test, and almost three times faster in our unzip test. Also significant was a 32 percent gain in our iMovie movie archive import test.

Look at the rest of the results, however, and you’ll find smaller gains, between 4 and 19 percent in our other non-graphics tests. Not surprisingly, the BTO Mac mini and the 2.5GHz Mac mini posted similar framerates in the Cinebench OpenGL and Portal 2 graphics tests. Both minis have the same 256MB Radeon HD 6630M graphics subsystem.

Considering that you don’t get several important items with the Mac mini that you do get with the iMac—a keyboard, mouse/trackpad, display—the BTO Mac mini we tested is a pricey proposition. However, some people may not want a new display (or don’t like the iMac’s glass-covered displays) and new input devices, and the Mac mini’s small case is preferable than the Mac Pro’s bulky tower. For general use, the BTO Mac mini can keep up with the 21.5-inch 2.5GHz Core i5 iMac. But the iMac fares better with software that can take advantage of multiple cores or graphic-intensive tasks.

Macworld Lab continues to work on Speedmark 7 results. Look for a full report coming soon.

[Roman Loyola is a Macworld senior editor.]

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