Apple Mac mini 2.53GHz review

When Apple update a product, it generally keeps the name that it had before. We saw quick hop with the reshuffle of the MacBook line-up to give space to the new entry-level 13-inch white model, but the last Mac mini update we saw was in March of this year. So our trend of clarifying using the year doesn't really work in this case. It also means that anyone who bought a Mac mini in recent months might be a little cheesed off.

Fortunately no one will know you are rocking the last generation of Mac mini, because externally the 2009 models all look the same. There has been a bump in the internal specs however, which now gives you the option of a 2.26GHz or 2.53GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor (with a bump-up 2.66GHz option for £120 more on the 2.53GHz version). The 2.26GHz model comes with 2GB RAM and 160GB hard drive as standard, which the 2.53GHz - the one we have on review here - gets 4GB RAM and 320GB hard drive as standard. Both Mac minis get the option of expanding the hard drive further to 500GB, and the entry model can also expand its RAM up to 4GB.

The Mac mini represents the cheapest option for entering the Mac world, with the 2.26GHz version costing you £499, whilst our test model will set you back £649, which now comes in at £150 cheaper than the new MacBook. As it is, the Mac mini is simply a compact mini desktop computer. We've seen a growing trend in mini PC computers or "nettops" late, but the Mac mini shouldn't be confused with some of those budget models, as the Mac mini packs in the power to complete pretty much all of your home computing needs.

The box itself measures 15.5 x 15.5 x 52mm and is wrapped in aluminium, reflecting the trend across the Apple range. The top is glossy plastic, emblazoned with the Apple logo and the bottom is largely rubberised, so grips on whatever surface you place it on. A slot-loading DVD drive sits to the front and on the back is the connection panel.

Like many nettops, the Mac mini doesn't come with any peripherals: you need to supply the monitor, the keyboard and the mouse and anything else you might want to use with it. But you do get Wi-Fi a/b/g/n and Bluetooth packed into the box, to accompany the Ethernet connection on the outside, so you can easily drop your Mac mini into an existing Wi-Fi network without worrying about cables.

In terms of ports and connections you get the 5x USB2.0 connections, Mini DisplayPort, Mini-DVI, FireWire 800 and the Ethernet we've already mentioned. You also get a 3.5mm headphone socket/optical out and an optical/audio in. The power button, Kensington lock slot and connection point for the power supply are also here.

The USB ports are all fairly close together, so if you are using a USB device with a fat cable (or you want to connect something like a Flip pocket camcorder) then you might struggle. If it is just a case of a wireless dongle for a keyboard, a webcam, and mouse, then you'll have no problems. You could always use a USB hub to get round this problem, if you have specific USB needs.

Apple pitches the Mac mini as a computer for those trading over to the Mac brand. They can use their existing Windows PC parts - the monitor especially - without worrying about a complete new setup. Display connectivity - as is the Apple way - is limited to the Mini DisplayPort or the Mini-DVI. It might seem like overkill having both as the chances are you'll need to buy an adapter for one or the other. Bundled in the box is a Mini-DVI to DVI converter, so if you have this breed of monitor already, then you won't need anything else.

But for the majority of newcomers, the likelihood is that you'll have a monitor equipped with D-Sub/VGA or HDMI, in which case you'll need to buy the respective adapter, which will cost you £15. This would also be the case if you want to just hook your Mac mini up to your TV and use it as an entertainment centre on the big screen, using it for internet, storing movies and using the likes of BBC iPlayer. We connected the Mac mini to an LG W2230S monitor also on test and the only change we needed to make was to switch the display resolution to 1920 x 1080. 

From opening the box, it was about 5 minutes to getting on it Pocket-lint.com, including all the set-up steps. Running Mac OS X Snow Leopard you get a simple set-up process with the offer to transfer data from an existing Mac and connecting you into your wireless network with no problems. It's a refreshing when compared to the out-of-the-box experience of a Windows PC, which takes much longer and forces the update cycles on you. In this case, however, there were a couple of updates to Snow Leopard and the installed applications, although these may well be updated on the retail unit you buy.

Despite its compact dimensions however, the Mac mini packs in plenty of power. Graphics are handled by the Nvidia GeForce 9400M GPU, as it is in many other models across the Mac range, which means you get silky smooth playback of your high-definition content and the power to play your Mac games, if that's what you want to do. With a 2.53GHz processor you have the power to do some of the more power-hungry features too, so photo and basic video editing and encoding is fine, but you don't get the power you'll find in the new quad-core iMac here.

As an everyday computer the new Mac mini performs very well. It comes pre-installed with iLife 09, but if you want to put it to work with office functions you'll need to invest in iWork (£69) or Microsoft Office for Mac (£109.95), or simply use cloud applications like Google Docs. Running and switching multiple applications doesn't phase the Mac mini like it does some cheaper nettop offerings, and playing a DVD whilst browsing the Internet and writing up some notes all on the same page is no problem at all.

The Mac mini also features a built-in speaker, so if you are only after basic system sounds and the occasional soundtrack to online videos, then you don't need to worry about hooking up external speakers. The sound quality isn't great, but adequate for occasional use. Of course, if you are after digital audio, you can always make use of the optical output, something that those using this as a home entertainment device might take advantage of.

It runs relatively quietly, without the offensive disc accessing noises that can sometimes blight computers and doesn't suffer from the sort of fan noise that even comes into the MacBook. Using the SuperDrive does up the noise levels somewhat, but it is never at a level that is distracting. However we did detect the occasional very barely perceptible high-pitched noise coming from the Mac mini although we couldn't pin in down to anything persistent and wasn't audible except when everything else was silent. 

Verdict

The Mac mini is a fantastic entry point into the world of the Apple Mac for those switching over from a PC - with existing peripherals - or for someone looking for a compact but powerful desktop computer. Given the growth of digital content and the popularity of connecting up your digital home, the Mac mini is a solid choice. It gives you the power to handle your HD content with relative ease and connectivity to match. It is perhaps a shame that Apple haven't made the move to Blu-ray yet, as a Mac mini with Blu-ray would see it as real power house.

It's a shame that Apple haven't seen fit to include an SD card slot with this revision: it has found its way onto the MacBook Pro and iMac, but is notable in its omission here. What better way of appealing to those with digital cameras? Some may also criticise the use of Mini DisplayPort over a conventional HDMI, which would simply and easily integrate with your AV receiver or HDTV without the need for another connection. Apple have always said that Mini DisplayPort surpasses current standards, but the question is always whether the life of the product is long enough to see that promise come good. 

So there are few niggles with the Mac mini. It's the usual seamless operation we've come to expect from Apple. You take it out of the box and it just works. With the upgrades coming in at the same prices as the previous versions, they look very tempting indeed.



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