Apple has refreshed its Mac mini and made more substantial changes than we saw at the last evolution of this tiny desktop computer. But does the Mac mini deliver, or is the new asking price of £649 just too much to bear?
Apple have been masters of design for some time and the new Mac mini is certainly the best looking iteration of this computer. Gone is the plastic, offering up an aluminium body, aping the design of the MacBook Pro. It is beautifully crafted, with minimalist lines and free from fuss. Compared to some of the other small format nettops out there it looks far superior.
Designed like this, the Mac mini is the sort of desktop PC you will be happy to have on display, and Apple also has its sights on the home cinema market. On several occasions when we were introduced to the Mac mini by Apple, they pointed out that people liked to connect the Mac mini to their TV, hence the inclusion of an HDMI connector, a first for Apple.
The Mac mini won't just look the part set alongside your high-end home cinema rig, but it offers up more power than your average nettop, such as the Acer Aspire Revo, which offers an Intel Atom processor, rather than the 2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo on offer here.
It measures 197mm square, with a height of just 36mm and effectively offers up the same internals as the MacBook (except the hard drive is a little bigger at 320GB in the Mac mini), which adds a screen and keyboard in its plastic enclosure for an additional £200. Fans of Apple Mac computers can't help but notice the creep in price, especially as when we reviewed the Mac mini in March 2009 it was under £500.
Internally you get that Intel Core 2 Duo processor running at 2.4GHz, with a 2.66GHz version available for an additional £123. This is supported by 2GB of RAM, upgradeable to a maximum of 8GB, although that would set you back an extra £400. There is a 320GB hard drive, with a 500GB version costing you an extra £80. So there are configuration options available to you, but they do come at a cost.
Fortunately, one of the changes made to the Mac mini is the new removable bottom. This simply rotates and comes away, revealing the innards, so you can easily upgrade the RAM yourself, giving you the freedom to shop around, or wait until you find you need to upgrade it.
The connections are precisely arranged on the rear, offering up Gigabit Ethernet, FireWire 800, HDMI, Mini DisplayPort, 4x USB 2.0, an SD card slot and headphone and mic 3.5mm jacks. Arranged as they are we didn't have a problem, until it came to the SD card slot.
Putting it on the rear makes the design look tidy, but if you regularly want to use it to access files from your digital camera for example, you'll be scrabbling around the back to do so. Its less convenient for those who might have the Mac mini as part of an installation, but for those who have it sitting on a desk it isn't a significant issue. The same could be said of the USB ports, if you want to regularly move files to a USB drive, you'll need to make sure you have easy access.
With the aim of making the Mac mini a tidy little device, Apple have done away with the power brick. This is now internal, so all you have to do is plug in the cable. This again makes it much tidier, both above and below your desk. Internally you also get Bluetooth 2.1 and Wi-Fi a/b/g/n, so you'll be able to hook-up wirelessly to peripherals and your network.
On the back beneath all the connections is the exhaust outlet. With the design offering no ventilation, we found that the Mac mini runs with a purr that is barely noticeable and nothing like the volume you'd get from the fan-cooling on games consoles, some Blu-ray players and PVRs. However, the Mac mini will get warm once you set it to various tasks and you'll hear the fan changing speeds, throttling up and down. We didn't find that the slot-loading SuperDrive made much noise once running.
The Mac mini isn't a power house like some of the iMac models. Ask it to do various tasks at the same time and you'll see it slow down and struggle, just as the MacBook will. It will handle regular daily computing tasks with easy however and also being capable enough to work with our images and transcode your video. If you are planning to hook it up to your TV to play HD content from your network, then it copes well enough. Rarely will you be running a number of applications as well as your HD content, but if you are in the business of editing large amounts of HD video, you might find it won't quite be up to the challenge.
We tried some HD movies and video camcorder content and encountered no problem with playback of this type of material, thanks to the Nvidia GeForce 320M graphics chip, which Apple say offers 2x the performance of previous Mac minis. This will also handle your 3D gaming, although Windows fans will point out that you can buy a respectable gaming rig for this sort of money on their rival platform.
The inclusion of Mini DisplayPort means you'll be able to hook up to Apple's Cinema Display, or an existing monitor using one of a wide variety of adapters which will cost you around £20 each, although you get an HDMI-DVI adapter in the box. Those with newer monitors or taking the TV route will be able to use the HDMI (no cable supplied).
A variety of resolutions are included to get the best option for your TV and we found we had to tweak the HDMI monitor settings too on the 1080p setting to get the screen to fit properly. The same will most likely apply to your TV, so you'll have to dig in the picture settings of your TV to get the best result. The HDMI will carry the audio stream, so you can easily get your audio content to your TV or AV receiver with the option of having system "Sound Effects" use the internal speaker, so they don't boom out.
Overall the Mac mini wins a lot of points for the design. You'd be hard pressed to find any desktop computer that looks as elegant as this. But at the same time you are paying for that design statement. You can get a more powerful Windows PC unit for a fraction of the price, but that's not the point. You buy the Mac mini because you want Mac OSX.
The addition of the HDMI is appreciated as it makes it really simple to connect it to your TV so you get all the benefits of having a proper computer connected to the big screen, for whatever reason, be it for staying connected, using IPTV services or connecting up to your network - or all of the above. We also hope that this is a precursor to HDMI coming to the next iteration of MacBooks, although this is purely speculation on our part.
We were originally concerned that the Mac mini would run overly hot, but this didn't appear to be a massive problem in our tests. It runs quietly enough to slot into your lounge without being offensive, so is a convenient and powerful alternative to some of the devices out there.
The only issue is price. The entry-level model is expensive and upgrading makes it more expensive than is reasonable. It looks great, but if bang for your buck is important, you'll find better value elsewhere.
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