The Mac mini has always sat in a bit of an unusual position in Apple’s lineup. Given the price and power it provided, the MacBook always seemed like the better choice. The 2011 model, however, has the power of an Intel Sandy Bridge processor inside, and with the basic MacBook currently retired, the Mac mini holds onto its position as the most affordable route to Mac ownership.
At £529 for the entry-level model, which ships with a decent enough i5 processor, it's possible that the Mac mini has also become a viable alternative to the iMac, which now starts at £999, although offers a much higher run of spec options. So is the Mac mini a decent affordable entry into the world of the Mac? Or is it too wimpy in the power department to put up a fight against its bigger brothers?
No one can argue that Apple doesn’t make beautiful products, its all-brushed aluminium lineup being about as good as it gets when it comes to design. The Mac mini maintains the company’s signature minimalist approach, stripping back everything until you are left with what is essentially a smooth aluminium box with an Apple logo on top.
On the front is nothing more than a sleep/wake light and an IR receiver. It means that the Mac mini is totally unobtrusive, sitting very happily in a living room and drawing just the right amount of attention to itself. It is particularly rewarding when someone who hasn’t seen one before asks: “what is that little box with an Apple logo on?” and you explain it is a PC and they refuse to believe you.
The black back is crammed with ports: you get 4 USB 2.0 to play with (Apple eschewing the faster USB 3.0), HDMI out, Thunderbolt, Ethernet, SD card reader and finally the FireWire 800 port. Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are also included for wireless connections. Plenty then, even if the SD card slot is in a position impossible to get to if you’ve installed the Mac mini under your TV. We love slick design, but we’d also like to be able to easily access that slot when inserting the card from a camera.
The inclusion of the new Thunderbolt port does mean that you not only get access to really fast data transfer speeds (with a compatible device), but you can stick the Mac mini into the brand new Apple Thunderbolt display. This, however, will add another £899 to your bill and you’d probably be better off looking at an iMac instead. The real joy behind the Mac mini is that you can stick whatever accessories you have into it. We used an old wireless USB keyboard and mouse and plugged the box straight into our TV via HDMI.
The box itself is tiny at just 3.6 x 19.7 x 19.7cm and weighs only 1.22kg. Given the amount of power it can turn out it is staggeringly lightweight. Not a lot else can be said about the Mac mini’s design. It is a silver box, it looks great, it is everything you expect from an Apple product. We noticed that the plug and back of the unit did tend to heat up a bit after lengthy use, but never to a worryingly high level.
The Mac mini on review here is one of the higher-spec 2.5GHz i5 offerings with 4GB of RAM. Just to compare, that is about the same spec as the recently released entry-level MacBook Air. At £699 you are getting a powerful enough desktop PC, but don’t expect it to handle all your high performance tasks.
OS X Lion does a great job of getting through daily browsing and basic computing tasks easily on any processor speed, so if you are picking up the mini just to use for office work and nothing too graphically intensive, it could be the perfect choice. This higher-spec model benefits from the inclusion of AMD Radeon HD 6630M; a mid-range graphics card normally found in laptops. This gives it greater capability over the entry-level Mac mini with its integrated Intel Graphics HD 3000 offering, but it won’t necessarily have the power to cope with hardcore gaming or heavy video editing, for example.
We gave Portal 2 a run on the mini and whilst it got on with things, it wasn’t happy frame rate-wise on the top end of the graphical scale. Similarly Photoshop and Lightroom, whilst they would run, often encountered speed problems when set alongside the performance you’d expect from a similarly priced PC unit; although admittedly, some third party applications don’t run as smoothly on OS X Lion as we’d expect them too.
Connected up to our sitting room television with a wireless keyboard and trackpad sitting in front of us, the Mac mini becomes the perfect internet browser, Twitter updater and video playback box, packing in the power it needs to perform as a media centre. Less intensive apps like Spotify and iPhoto can run in the background offering a more comprehensive experience than you might get from some connected media boxes.
Playing high definition downloads from iTunes was totally lag free, with the mini keeping quiet even after lengthy periods of 1080p playback - no need to worry about noisy cooling fans spoiling those tense movie moments.
Personally we would opt for the 4GB (minimum) offering just because having that extra bit of RAM takes the edge off multitasking. The Mac mini can be configured with 8GB at the point of ordering if you want to take it a step higher, along with faster HDD or SSD options, at extra cost.
On the big screen
One of the major plus points of picking up the new Mac mini is that it ships straight to you with OS X Lion included, so you get the latest Apple operating system and the speediest user experience yet. We have covered the features of OS X Lion in depth in our review, so we are not going to go over it again here. We will say, however, that the new OS is perfectly at home on the Mac mini, with things like Launchpad running very smoothly and looking great on the big screen.
To get the best experience from OS X Lion you’ll probably want to pick up a Magic Trackpad (£59) as it is a particularly gesture-heavy operating system. The ability to switch between full screen apps using a four finger swipe and the forward and back Safari browsing looks especially slick on the screen of your big TV, tidier than having to use menus, docks or taskbars to navigate the OS.
This is where the mini really begins to shine. That simplicity and “just works” approach that Apple takes to its operating system is perfectly suited to the Mac mini; when you turn it into an entertainment centre, it packs in the power, sophistication and performance in a second-PC role. The HDMI will carry audio along with video, so can play through your display's speakers or through your AV receiver; whilst the internal speaker is adequate for system sounds, it won't really do justice to music or movies.
With the Mac mini occupying the slot as the most affordable route to Mac ownership, it may well appeal to anyone who is looking for value for money. Being able to pair it with existing peripherals may appeal, but its price may also tempt those who want a compact and capable PC for entertainment in the living room, with the HDMI demonstrating that Apple also has this in mind.
Of course there is enough power on offer here to let the Mac mini function as your only desktop computer, although bear in mind that the performance is more akin to a notebook than a traditional desktop.
While we feel that many will be tempted by the portable and now powerful MacBook Air, for those looking to fill that little corner of computing life, it’s an elegant and reasonably affordable option.