With Apple touting sales of more than 20 million iPhones and 9 million iPads in its latest record-smashing quarter, paired with an impressively refreshed 2011 version of the MacBook Air rolling out, you might think the company had have taken its eye off the market for non-portable computers for a moment or two.
Not so. On July 20, the company debuted a new version of its glorious 27-inch Cinema Display monitor (sporting a new Thunderbolt interface) and three updated versions of the Mac Mini (also with the new Thunderbolt port). With these, it’s clear that Apple hasn’t left the Mac desktop die-hards behind. All of these new Mini models come with Intel’s darling second-generation (“Sandy Bridge”) Core i-series processors inside, but little has changed in the overall design. We’re still talking about a sleek 1.4×7.7×7.7-inch (HWD) silver slab with its ports around back. The one big alteration: In these new 2011 offerings, Apple has axed the trusty optical drive.
That omission, combined with the added cost of the Apple peripherals you’ll need to get the best out of the latest version of the Mac OS X operating system that comes with the Mini, plus a few other cost concerns, make it hard to recommend the Mac Mini over other Apple options, like the $1,199 entry-level Apple iMac. On paper (or screen), the iMac sounds a whole lot pricier than the entry-level $599 Mac Mini we’re looking at here. But after weighing several considerations we’ll discuss below, and doing some virtual napkin math, the Mac Mini doesn’t quite add up to the best value compared to other Apple options—unless you happen to already own just the right mix of peripherals.
Other than the vanishing front optical drive slot, little has changed on the Mac Mini’s exterior.
As you can see from the image at right, there’s no longer a slot in the front face of the Mac Mini, and hence no optical drive to be found. That’s helped cut costs, allowing the entry-level Mac Mini to start at $599 (versus $699 for the 2010 low-end Mini model). But for those interested in using the Mac Mini as a media PC, it’s certainly limiting, unless, of course, you’re perfectly happy to rely for your entertainment on Apple’s iTunes Store, an external DVD drive, or files ripped to your hard drive or a NAS.
Also, as usual, the Mac Mini ships without peripherals. You can use a USB keyboard and mouse that you already own, but without shelling out $69 for the Apple Magic Trackpad, you won’t be able to use all the appealing iPhone-like gesture-control features baked into Lion. (Lion is Apple’s latest version of Mac OS X, and it comes pre-installed on this machine.)
In order to step up to 4GB of RAM (versus the rather lean 2GB in this base model), you’ll have to pay a fair bit extra: upgrading to 4GB alone costs $100 at time of purchase, or you can opt for the $799 Mac Mini model, which has 4GB and comes with a slightly faster CPU (a 2.5GHz Core i5), along with AMD’s dedicated Radeon HD 6630M graphics chipset. If games aren’t important to you, the Intel integrated graphics you’ll find in the base model will suffice. But users who do heavy Web browsing and like to have lots of tabs open in Safari will certainly appreciate the extra RAM. Add the Apple Magic Trackpad to the price of the $799-model Mac Mini, and you’re close to $900, or over it if you add another $69 for the Apple Wireless Keyboard.
In that territory, you’re starting to get close to the $1,199 price of the base-model iMac, which sports a faster quad-core processor (compared to the dual-core, laptop-style CPU found in the Mac Mini) and 4GB of RAM, and comes with the main things the Mini lacks: a wireless keyboard, the Apple Magic Mouse or Magic Trackpad, and a built-in optical drive. Plus, the iMac’s also got that gorgeous 21.5-inch screen. With the Mac Mini, you’ll either be using a screen you already own, or you’ll need to add the cost of an LCD monitor, as well, to the overall cost of your Mac experience. (Apple did include an HDMI-to-DVI adapter in the box, so you should be able to connect most monitors with ease.) What you already own will go a long way toward weighing whether the new Mac Mini is a good deal for you.
Ports at the back of the Mac Mini remain mostly the same as last-year’s model, with the new Thunderbolt port replacing the mini-DisplayPort connector between the HDMI and four USB 2.0 ports.
As we said up top, there is a third Mac Mini model. The $999 model is a server-centric offering that comes standard with two 500GB hard drives, 4GB of RAM, and a 2GHz quad-core (not dual-core) Intel Core i7 CPU. As that’s aimed at a whole other audience, we won’t delve into it further here.
While we just spent a fair bit of space lamenting what the Mac Mini lacks, it certainly isn’t lacking CPU power. The 2.3GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 CPU inside the $599 model we tested helped the system to feel quite snappy in anecdotal testing. And in our CPU-centric Cinebench test, which stresses all of a computer’s processing cores to measure raw CPU performance, the 2011 Mac Mini’s score of 8,741 was a fair bit ahead of last year’s Mini, which came in at 5,072. That’s more than a 40 percent improvement in this test. That said, the 2011 Apple iMac, with its quad-core, desktop-class processor, is in a different league; its score of 13,631 on the same test is about 37 percent higher than the new Mac Mini. If you’re involved in lots of content creation, or you convert bunches of video files or do other CPU-intensive tasks, the extra power of the iMac will speed things up considerably.
Twist off the Tupperware-like bottom cover and you get access to the SO-DIMM RAM slots.
Many programs don’t take full advantage of extra CPU cores, however, as we saw in our iTunes Conversion Test, in which we convert 11 MP3 tracks to AAC. Here, the new Mac Mini easily surpassed last year’s model, finishing the test task in 2 minutes and 15 seconds, where the older model took 3:15. The iMac, with its extra cores, managed to come in a second behind the new Mac Mini on this test. As we said, for many mainstream apps, extra cores aren’t all that helpful.
As for gaming expectations, our base model Mac Mini lacks the Radeon HD 6630M graphics found in the pricier variant. The $599 model gets you Intel integrated HD Graphics 3000 with 288MB of shared memory. That’s fine for Flash-based games and some less-demanding current 3D titles with the detail settings dialed down. But if you’re serious about games and you’re certain about the Mac Mini, the $799 model with AMD graphics will certainly offer a noticeable improvement.
There’s little doubt that Apple’s added some serious performance muscle to the Mac Mini in this latest update. But by nixing the DVD drive, it’s made the box less appealing to many media-PC enthusiasts. Frankly, if you’re willing to jump wholeheartedly into Apple’s iTunes media ecosystem, the $99 Apple TV, while it doesn’t come with a Web browser, costs a whole lot less while still being capable of lots of the same media-playback tasks.
If you’re looking for a budget-friendly Apple computer experience, the Mac Mini’s price may look awfully appealing, but first factor in the added cost of the peripherals needed to get the most from the latest version of OS X, as well as the extra RAM you’ll want if you do heavy Web browsing. If you have to buy most or all of that stuff, the Mac Mini will look less appealing—especially if you have software or media you’d like to use that still lives on an optical disc.
If you don’t have all the parts in place already, we think the $1,199 2011 iMac is a better deal for those looking for a Mac desktop, as it comes with all you’ll need to get the most from Apple’s latest OS right out of the box. Plus, it packs in more-powerful base components for those who want to do more with their computers than watch video, compose e-mails, and surf the Web. And if you don’t mind trading a smaller screen for portability, the just-refreshed MacBook Air is awfully appealing, as well, with a starting price of $999 for the 11-inch model.
Price (at time of review): $599 (direct, as tested)