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Apple Mac Mini; The Cheapest Way to Own a Mac – Expert Review

Apple Mac Mini i5 2.3GHz MC815B/A

Rating: ★★★½☆

As well as being a useful entry-level Mac, its small form factor has won it fans among the Apple faithful as a media centre machine or even a server, prompting Apple to release a dedicated Server Edition. Yet its lack of power compared to the rest of Apple’s desktop range has frustrated.

The mid-2010 update of the Mac Mini brings some much-needed improvements to Apple’s smallest desktop, but it’s still lacking in a few key areas.

Apple has at last recognised its potential as a media centre, but has failed to fully exploit it, and its price point and choice of processor
seem aimed at finding a niche between other Apple products.

The new Mac Mini boasts a unibody casing. Using the construction process pioneered by Apple for its MacBook Pro range, the enclosure is carved from a single block of aluminium, making it light but strong.

At 19.7cm wide and long it has a slightly bigger footprint than the previous model, but it’s substantially thinner and 20 per cent smaller by volume.

The transformer is now housed inside the casing, so there’s no power brick. Great news for people who carry their Mac Mini around with them.

A removable plastic plate at the foot of the casing gives access to the Mac Mini’s two SO-DIMM slots, allowing you to upgrade the RAM to a maximum of 8GB, but changing other components, such as the hard drive, still requires professional disassembly.

As always, the Mac Mini is sold without a keyboard or mouse.

Around the back, HDMI video output makes a long-overdue appearance, joining the Mini DisplayPort. Given how many people use Mac Minis as media machines, it’s surprising it took this long.

A HDMI-to-DVI adapter is included for connection to a third-party computer monitor, and it’s is dual-monitor compatible too.

We’ve gained an SD card reader, but being on the rear of the Mac mini makes it a little awkward to reach.

USB ports are down to four from five in the previous release, but this is hardly a problem. They’re packed a little too closely too, but given the computer’s form factor, this was inevitable.

FireWire 800 and Gigabit Ethernet are retained, and there are audio in and out ports for your headphones, speakers and mic.

Mac Mini Performance

The new Mac Mini’s component upgrades are a mixed bag. Graphical power is now supplied by an Nvidia GeForce 320M, the most powerful integrated graphics chipset currently available.

It’s almost twice as fast as the last generation’s GeForce 9400M, and more energy-efficient too.

Previously, we had two standard Mac Mini configurations, based on 2.26GHz and 2.53GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processors. The mid-2010 refresh offers only one, which is pitched between the two at 2.4GHz.

Like the low-end configuration from the previous generation, it has 2GB of RAM out of the box, but at 320GB, its hard drive matches the capacity of the more expensive model. So, graphics aside, it’s not so much an upgrade as a merger.

But why not drop the Core 2 Duo and make the switch to the newer, more powerful Core i3/5/7 series chips?

Alas, an unresolved legal dispute prevents Apple integrating an Nvidia graphics chipset into a Core i processor, and the Core i’s own integrated Intel HD Graphics is less powerful than the previous Mac Mini’s GeForce 9400M. A discrete GPU would have to be incorporated, which would push up costs.

In our benchmarking tests, the new Mac Mini was on a par with its 2.53GHz predecessor in our processor, hard drive and rendering tests, but the new graphics chipset gave Doom 3 a framerate increase of around 50 per cent.

The Mini runs almost silently, which is great news for those who use it as a media centre, and even with the processor running at near-maximum for half a day, the casing was barely warm.

One test the new Mac Mini struggles with is value for money. At £649 it’s not ridiculously overpriced, but is definitely on the high side of what we’re prepared to pay. We can’t help wondering whether Apple has deliberately moved away from the near-£500 price point enjoyed by the entry-level previous-generation model so Apple enthusiasts aren’t tempted to upgrade their Mac Minis instead of buying an iPad.

Final thoughts

The Mac mini’s new form factor is undoubtedly welcome, but we’re down to one standard configuration, which is only slightly cheaper than the high-end model from the previous generation. With the near-£500 configuration gone, it’s certainly less attractive as an entry-level Mac for switchers.

We liked

The Mac mini is undoubtedly a brilliant piece of engineering. It’s amazing how much has been crammed into such a small case, with no compromise on quality.

It’s ideal for those who need to carry their computer between workspaces, and given how many people use it as a media centre, HDMI output is long overdue.

We disliked

Despite the HDMI output, it’s not the media centre Mac we were hoping for. There’s still no Blu-ray (even as a custom configuration option), and Apple’s Front Row software is looking very long in the tooth.

Given the new Mac mini’s asking price of £649 is a mere £14 cheaper than the high-end previous-generation model and it has half the RAM, it’s disappointing Apple didn’t at least stick with the 2.53GHz chip.

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Pros

  • Fantastic new unibody casing
  • Thinner form factor
  • Excellent integrated graphics processor
  • Built-in power brick

Cons

  • No Blu-ray option
  • Dated media centre software
  • A little underpowered
  • Expensive
  • Only one standard configuration

Verdict

The Mac mini is a brilliantly-designed machine, but is struggling to find its niche.

We hope with the next generation, Apple stops worrying about its impact on other, very different products and allows the small form factor Mac to achieve its true potential, both as an entry-level Mac for switchers and a full-on media machine for enthusiasts.

Apple Mac Mini; The Cheapest Way to Own a Mac - Expert Review

 


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