A little over a year ago, many people talked about Apple’s diminutive Mac mini in the past tense: As of the beginning of March 2009, it had been 19 long months since the previous update to Apple’s most compact computer, and that update itself came after 11 months of waiting. Two updates in two and a half years? It was easy to believe that the Mac mini had become just as much of a “hobby” as the Apple TV.
But then we saw the March 2009 update to the mini line—the most significant update the mini had ever received. Seven months after that, the mini received another welcome, if minor, update. And here we are, just eight months later, with a new Mac mini in our hands. But whereas last March’s Mac mini dramatically improved the guts of the computer and significantly enhanced its connectivity, this one, officially called the Mac mini (Mid 2010), offers more modest upgrades while revamping the mini’s design for the first time since the line’s debut.
In place of two non-server Mac mini models, priced at $599 and $799, the new Mac mini comes in a single $699 non-server configuration that offers a 2.4GHz Core 2 Duo processor, 2GB of DDR3 SDRAM, a 320GB SATA hard drive, and nVidia GeForce 320M integrated graphics. (You can upgrade to a 2.66GHz processor as a $150 build-to-order option.) Apart from the new graphics chip—the previous models used the nVidia GeForce 9400M—the specs of the new model fall somewhere in between those of the previous two models, which included a 2.26GHz processor, 2GB of RAM, and a 160GB hard drive, or a 2.53GHz processor, 4GB of RAM, and a 320GB hard drive, respectively. (As before, the mini ships with Snow Leopard and iLife ’09.) But these minor spec changes don’t tell the whole story.
The most outwardly obvious change to the Mac mini is its new enclosure. While every previous mini sported a 6.5- by 6.5- by 2-inch case, the new model slims down, widens out, and gets a makeover. While still square, the mini is now 7.7 inches to a side but only 1.4 inches tall—almost the exact same size as the Apple TV ( ), but with rounder corners. And instead of using a multi-piece body made of white plastic and aluminum, the new Mac mini adopts the all-aluminum Unibody design of Apple’s current MacBook Pro line.
With the exception of a black-plastic panel on the back for ports and connectors, and a circular, black-plastic door on the bottom, the body of the mini is machined from a single piece of aluminum. This makes the new mini enclosure slightly heavier than that of the previous models, but the new enclosure also feels much more solid—this is the sturdiest-feeling computer I’ve ever used. To match the black-plastic pieces, the Apple logo on top of the Mac mini is now glossy black. (You can see more images in our Mac mini slideshow.)
Thanks in large part to this aluminum enclosure, Apple claims the new mini is “one of the most material-efficient desktop computers available.” The company also states that the new mini is the most energy-efficient desktop computer on the market, using just over 9W of power when idle but awake, and less than 1.5W when sleeping. It’s also a bit quieter, and runs at least as cool—at least in my testing—than the previous model.
Notably missing from the new Mac mini’s box is the bulky, heavy power brick of previous mini models. As part of the computer’s redesign, and thanks to its lower power usage, Apple was able to reduce the size of the Mac mini’s power supply and hide it inside the computer itself. Like the Apple TV, the Mac mini now requires only a thin power cord that plugs directly into the back of the computer. Because of this change, even though the new mini is slightly heavier, at 3 pounds, than the previous model’s enclosure, once you take into account the weight of the previous model’s external power supply, the new mini is actually about a pound lighter overall.
The smooth-metal front of the mini is interrupted only by a slot for the 8x SuperDrive; on the right-hand end of that slot is the infrared receiver for Apple’s Remote, which remains an optional ($19) accessory.
The mini’s back panel hosts all other ports and connectors, and there are some nice additions here, as well as a couple losses. Perhaps the biggest change is that while Apple has kept the Mini DisplayPort connector that debuted last year, the company has dropped the mini-DVI port in favor of an HDMI output—in some ways an acknowledgment that many people use their Mac mini connected to a TV in a home-entertainment center, but also a reflection of the fact that HDMI connections are becoming more common on computer displays. Apple includes an HDMI-to-DVI video adapter that passes the HDMI port’s digital video signal (but not audio) to a standard DVI display; a Mini DisplayPort-to-DVI adapter is again a $29 accessory.
As with the 2009 Mac mini models, you can connect two displays simultaneously and use either extended- or mirrored-desktop mode. The HDMI port supports displays up to 1920 by 1200 pixels, and the Mini DisplayPort connector supports up to 2560 by 1600 pixels. (Apple and other vendors sell Mini DisplayPort adapters for connecting to VGA, DVI, or Dual-Link DVI displays.) And, as mentioned above, the Mac mini’s graphics are powered by the same nVidia GeForce 320M integrated graphics as Apple’s current MacBook line; this chip, which uses a minimum of 256MB of your system RAM, offers notably better performance than the integrated graphics in the previous mini line, and it’s also optimized for HD output.
When you connect the new Mac mini to a TV via HDMI, the Displays pane of System Preferences and the systemwide Displays menu automatically show available TV resolutions for that TV: 720p, 1080i, 1080p, and so on. In addition, Apple has tweaked the Displays pane of System Preferences to let you adjust the underscan level so the mini’s video output better fits your TV screen. These are welcome features for those who use the mini in an AV system, although the included Front Row software continues to provide only the most basic of media-center functionality, and you’ll need to look elsewhere for Blu-ray playback.
The other big addition to the Mac mini’s back panel is a built-in SD-card reader. According to Apple, the slot works with standard SD (Secure Digital) cards of 4MB to 4GB capacity, SDHC (Secure Digital High Capacity) cards of 4GB to 32GB capacity, and SDXC (Secure Digital Extended Capacity) cards of 32GB or higher capacity. As anyone with a recent MacBook Pro can tell you, it’s quite convenient to be able to stick a memory card directly into your computer for easy transfers of photos and video. However, by putting the card reader on the rear of the Mac mini, Apple has made accessing the slot at best inconvenient; if your Mac mini is in an AV cabinet, hidden under your desk, or otherwise less accessible, you may end up not being able to use the slot at all.
(To be fair, Apple told Macworld that the compact design of the Mac mini limits where ports and connectors can be placed. Check out the teardown photos of the new mini, from our friends at iFixit, for a good look at the engineering required just to fit everything inside the Mac mini’s tiny enclosure.)
The rest of the Mac mini’s crowded back panel is filled with a power button, a power-cord jack, an auto-sensing gigabit ethernet jack, a FireWire 800 port, four USB 2.0 ports (served by two buses), auto-sensing analog/optical-digital audio input and output minijacks (both of which support Apple’s current iPhone headset with remote and mic), and an exhaust vent for the mini’s cooling system. (The air intake is near the front of the mini, on the bottom, providing what should be an improved, front-to-back cooling system.)
Especially attentive readers will notice two back-panel absences compared to the previous Mac mini: a fifth USB port and a security-lock slot. These were apparently eliminated due to space constraints.
Internally, the new Mac mini provides Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR and 802.11a/b/g/n wireless—Apple didn’t officially support 802.11a on the previous model. As I noted in my hands-on, Apple says the new model should 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.