The Mac mini got its annual update a while back, adding a few expected changes to the spec sheet. First among them was an upgrade to the new Intel Sandy Bridge series of processors. Secondly, it was the addition of the new Thunderbolt connectivity port. However, there were also a few unexpected changes, such as dropping the NVIDIA GPU in favor of Intel and AMD combo. The Mac mini also no longer has an internal SuperDrive, which has created space for an optional additional hard drive.
How good is the new Mac mini? We got the base 2.3GHz model and decided to find out.
The Mac mini is a beautiful machine. It’s amazing how much Apple has managed to fit inside such a tiny space. The design is identical to last year’s model but one notable omission is the lack of a slot loading SuperDrive on the front, which makes it look like the server edition. All that’s left on the front side is the infrared receiver for the Apple Remote and an LED indicator for power.
The sides are just as barren as before and everything is located on the back. This is not the most convenient location, especially for the USB ports and makes simply sliding in a USB drive a lot of hassle.
The number of ports on the back remains identical to the last model, save for one replacement. You still get four USB 2.0 ports, one FireWire 800 port, Ethernet, HDMI, power, audio in/out and SD card slot. The Mini DisplayPort, however, has been replaced by Thunderbolt. Developed by Intel, this new port has a bandwidth of 10Gbps in both directions and allows you to daisy chain multiple compatible accessories, all through just one port. Being based on PCI-E, it supports a wide range of devices and is backward compatible with USB and FireWire, provided you use the right adaptors.
At the bottom is a lid that gives the user access to the replaceable RAM on the Mac mini. This is the only user-replaceable part on the mini, with everything else, including the hard drive requiring a trip to the store to get replaced. The base model that we were testing came with only 2GB of RAM but can be increased to 8GB.
One of the disadvantages of the all-aluminum design is the constant electric current that runs through the body. It’s not high enough to electrocute someone but still gives an unpleasant sensation when touched. This is similar to the feeling you get when you touch a MacBook Pro while it is charging. For what it’s worth, the Mac mini rarely ever gets hot and it’s also amazingly quiet. So much so that you will never, ever hear it running no matter how quiet your surroundings are.
The bundle that you get with the new Mac mini is rather skimpy. All you get in the box apart from the machine is a power cable, HDMI to DVI adaptor and the user guide. Apple stopped providing the remote a while back and the software DVDs are also gone since the current version has no DVD drive. There is no USB flash drive as well such as the one provided with the previous generation MacBook Air. The Mac mini has a Recovery mode which you can boot into in case you need to reinstall the OS, so there is no need for one.
Hardware and Software
The latest generation Mac mini comes in three configurations. The base model has a 2.3GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor, 2GB RAM, 500GB hard drive and Intel HD Graphics 3000 processor with 288MB of shared video memory.
The second variant has a 2.5GHz dual-core Core i5 processor, 4GB of RAM, same 500GB hard drive and AMD Radeon HD 6630M GPU with 256MB of dedicated video memory.
Finally we have the server edition, which has a 2.0GHz quad-core Core i7 processor, 4GB RAM, dual 500GB 7200-rpm hard drives and Intel HD Graphics 3000 processor with 384MB of shared video memory.
You also get customization options so that you can expand the RAM to up to 8GB and upgrade the hard drive to 750GB 7200-rpm drives. On the second model you can also opt for a 2.7GHz Core i7, 256GB SSD or a 256GB SSD + 750GB HDD combo.
The Mac mini comes with Mac OS X Lion pre-installed (the server comes with the server edition of Lion). Along with all the default applications, you also get the iLife ‘11 suite, which includes iPhoto, iMovie and GarageBand. The new Mac App Store is a nice addition and makes finding and downloading apps on to the Mac extremely easy but it has this annoying habit of repeatedly asking you the password to your account before you can download anything. There should have been a way to disable this.
New additions such as Mission Control and Launchpad are useful too, particularly the latter which I found myself using a lot more than I expected to. Auto save, Versions and Resume are also good to have although currently not a lot of third-party apps support them. AirDrop will be convenient if you have another Mac in the house running Lion and Full-Screen Apps is something that should have been there from Day 1.
The Mac mini was tested using a Samsung SyncMaster 2233SW monitor with 1920 x 1080 resolution and a Logitech keyboard and mouse. As usual, using a Windows keyboard with the Mac can be bit difficult due to some of the keys getting their functions changed. So the Windows logo key becomes Command and Alt key becomes Option. This can take a bit getting used to. Also, if you have a mouse with side buttons, they won’t work on the Mac by default. All you can use is the left/right/center click and the scroll wheel.
Moving over to the actual performance, this is one area where Macs usually do not disappoint. Despite what the specifications might suggest they usually offer a satisfactory experience thanks to the software and hardware being optimized for one another.
Unfortunately, this is not the case with the base Mac mini. This machine just screams for more RAM and for the price at which it sells, Apple could have easily put in 4GB. With just 2GB, Lion tends to quickly run out of breath even if you launch just a couple of applications. This results in stuttering and sluggish performance, with the dreaded beachball adding insult to injury. The CPU on the base Mac mini is fairly capable but you won’t be able to realize its full potential unless you upgrade the RAM.
The GPU is also not something to write home about. Unless you plan to play old games at low resolutions or with the details turned down the performance is quite poor. Simply put, this machine is not for gaming. For that you’ll need to get the more expensive 2.5GHz model that comes with the AMD 6630M GPU and 4GB RAM. Or better yet, get a Windows-based PC.
The lack of an optical drive can often be quite annoying. You don’t need it often but on those rare occasions that you do you really wish it was there. It also hurts Mac mini’s prospects as a HTPC since DVD playback is out of the question. Apple has the iTunes store in the US where you can buy or rent movies and TV shows from but for us, in India, it is not an option. This leaves you with few choices to get movies or videos on the Mac mini and most of them aren’t legal.
At Rs. 33,900, the base Mac mini is the cheapest Mac you can buy in India today. It can be a great second computer for the house or even as a download machine, thanks to its low power consumption and tiny form factor. But as a serious everyday computer the Mac mini fails to impress. The hardware is too weak for anyone but the most non-demanding user to offer satisfactory performance. It’s also not particularly good at being an HTPC due to the lack of an optical drive. If you want to buy the Mac mini, my advice would be to skip the base model and go for the 2.5GHz model instead.