New Mac minis pack performance into tiny package

With the Mac mini (Mid 2010), released in June 2010, Apple gave its smallest Mac an aesthetic overhaul, replacing the chunky, aluminum-and-white-plastic 2009 model with a sleek, aluminum-unibody model that was easier to upgrade, felt rock-solid, and sported an SD-card reader and an HDMI port (the latter pleasing AV buffs immensely).

But while the design of the 2010 mini was a dramatic change, that model received mainly modest upgrades on the inside: a moderately faster processor and a better graphics chip.
It also came with a higher price tag: The least-expensive 2010 mini clocked in at $699.

The latest version of the Mac mini, officially called the Mac mini (Mid 2011) and released along with Mac OS X 10.7 (Lion), sticks with last year’s design, but it gets a price cut while overhauling what’s inside.

Though the iMac is clearly Apple’s flagship desktop, the 2011 Mac mini is quintessential Apple: beautiful, well-engineered, forward-looking, and powerful enough for most, with at least one design decision that will leave some people wondering, “Why?” Which is to say that, like most Apple products, the new mini is compelling, but it won’t appeal to everyone.

Lightning and Thunderbolt

In a nod to the 2009 line, the Mac mini is again available in two models, with the less-expensive mini starting at $599. This gets you a 2.3GHz Intel Core i5 processor (last year’s model used the older Core 2 Duo), 2GB of RAM, a 500GB 5400rpm hard drive, and an integrated Intel HD Graphics 3000 graphics processor that shares 288MB of main memory. For $799, Apple ups the processor speed to 2.5GHz, the RAM to 4GB, and the graphics processor to a discrete AMD Radeon HD 6630M with 256MB of dedicated memory. (The Mac mini is also available in a server version starting at $999. We’ll be reviewing that model separately.)

Both models replace last year’s Mini DisplayPort port with a Thunderbolt port that supports both video (resolutions up to 2560 by 1600 pixels) and data connections, as well as Mini DisplayPort displays. You still get a dedicated HDMI port that supports both video (up to 1920 by 1200 pixels) and multi-channel audio. As with other current Macs, you can connect DVI and VGA displays with the appropriate adapters—only an HDMI-to-DVI adapter is included—and the mini supports both dual-display and video-mirroring modes when two displays are connected. If you’re feeling especially adventurous, the Radeon HD graphics processor in the $799 mini can drive two Thunderbolt displays, daisy-chained, while still handling a third display on the HDMI port, although you shouldn’t expect amazing performance.

The 2011 mini’s ports and connections are otherwise identical to last year’s: one FireWire 800 port; four USB 2.0 ports; a gigabit (10/100/1000BASE-T) ethernet port, an SDXC card-reader slot, and auto-sensing analog/optical-digital audio input and output minijacks (both of which support Apple’s current iPhone headset with remote and mic). As with the 2010 model, the location of the SDXC card-reader slot on the back is at best inconvenient; depending on where you place your mini, the slot may be effectively useless.

 

In terms of wireless connectivity, the Mac mini still gives you 802.11a/b/g/n wireless, but Bluetooth has been upgraded to Bluetooth 4.0, which includes a new low-power mode. The mini also includes a built-in mono speaker and an Infrared receiver for the Apple Remote (not included).

CD or not CD

On the outside, the 2011 Mac mini looks nearly identical to its predecessor, with an enclosure that’s 7.7 inches square, 1.4 inches tall, and made from a single piece of aluminum. A black-plastic panel on the back hosts the computer’s ports, and a circular, black-plastic door on the bottom provides limited access to the machine’s insides. Like last year’s model, this mini feels rock-solid, and an internal power supply—you just connect the included thin power cord—means that it’s entirely self-contained.

But there’s at least one difference in the 2011 mini’s exterior that’s immediately noticeable: It looks like last year’s Mac mini Server. And by that I mean the front of the new mini is missing the familiar opening of a slot-loading optical drive. That’s right: Like the MacBook Air, the Mac mini doesn’t have a SuperDrive.

For those who still frequently use DVDs and CDs, this may be a deal-killer. While many people view the Air’s lack of an optical drive to be an acceptable compromise that results in a thinner, lighter laptop, many of those same people will wonder why such an omission was necessary on a desktop computer that’s already among the smallest on the market. The cynical answer is that omitting an optical drive reduces Apple’s costs, both in production and shipping (the new Mac mini is about a third of a pound lighter than last year’s). And in case you haven’t gotten the hint yet, Apple would prefer that you download your movies from iTunes.

But it’s just as true that Apple sees optical discs as today’s floppy drive—an aging media format that’s quickly being replaced by USB thumb drives, broadband Internet connections, and other technological solutions. And for some people, that may be true. After all, between iTunes, the Mac App Store, Lion’s electronic distribution, iCloud, Lion Recovery (discussed below), Target Disk Mode, CD/DVD Sharing, and ripping movies on another Mac, many Mac users would be able to get along fine without an optical drive.

Leaving out the optical drive also gave Apple more space to work with inside the Mac mini—room the company put to good use by adding features (four-channel Thunderbolt and, on the $799 model, a discrete graphics processor) and options (a dual-drive setup, discussed below, and, on the $799 model, an i7 processor).

Still, dropping the disc was a bit of a surprising move for this particular Mac model, given that a good number of Mac mini owners use the tiny computer as part of a media centre. If you do truly need an optical drive, Apple’s $79 MacBook Air SuperDrive works fine with the new Mac mini—it’s actually a built-to-order option on Apple’s online store. And even with the external SuperDrive, the $599 model is still $21 cheaper than last year’s mini.

Core i5 produces

Though some people will consider the mini’s loss of an optical drive to be a step back, few will argue with the other changes to the 2011 line. While last year’s Mac mini offered modest performance increases, the 2011 line’s Core i5 processors provide huge speed gains. We’re currently revamping our benchmark suite, Speedmark, to account for Lion and the latest Mac hardware changes, so we don’t yet have our traditional Speedmark scores. However, we did run 10 updated components of Speedmark to get an idea of how the latest Mac mini models stack up.

In CPU-intensive tests, including our Cinebench CPU test and HandBrake MP4 encode, the $799 2011 Mac mini with the 2.5GHz Core i5 processor was more than twice as fast as last year’s 2.4GHz Core 2 Duo model; the new $599 2.3GHz Core i5 mini also left last year’s model in the dust, clocking in at approximately 45 per cent faster in the same two tests. For the other CPU-intensive tests, the new models were between 30 per cent and 50 per cent faster than last year’s, with the $799 2011 model slightly faster than the $599 2011 model across the board for CPU-intensive tasks.

Unfortunately, the Mac mini’s stock hard drive is still a 5400rpm, 2.5-inch laptop model. Despite being up to twice as fast as last year’s mini in processor-intensive tasks, the 2011 mini models were only slightly faster in tests that involve reading data from, and writing data to, the hard drive. For example, there was little difference between the models in our iMovie-import test, and the $799 2011 Mac mini was only 15 per cent faster than the 2010 model in our folder-duplication test. Although we haven’t yet had a chance to test the new Mac mini models when booted from a FireWire 800 drive, we suspect that, as with last year’s models, this could provide better drive-related performance. We’re also interested to see how an SSD or a Thunderbolt drive (see “More options than ever,” below) will affect overall performance.

When it comes to graphics performance, our benchmark results were mixed. Thanks to its discrete graphics chip, the $799 2011 mini was nearly twice as fast as the 2010 model in our Cinebench OpenGL and Portal 2 tests; it was roughly 50 per cent faster in our Call of Duty test. But the $599 model, with its integrated graphics processor, was roughly even with the 2010 model in our Cinebench test and only 12 per cent faster in Portal 2. (The $599 2011 model was actually slower than the 2010 model in our Call of Duty 4 test, although Call of Duty is an older game that was never optimized for Intel graphics. Newer games, such as Portal 2, perform much better with Intel integrated graphics processors.)

Benchmarks aside, I found the $599 model to play Portal 2 well enough to be enjoyable, although there was noticeable choppiness at the automatically selected resolution of 1280 by 800 pixels. If you plan to play games more than occasionally, the $799 model, with its discrete GPU and slightly faster processor, is a better bet. On the other hand, one area where the $599 model’s integrated GPU doesn’t seem to hamper it is in video playback. The lower-end mini had no problem playing 1080p video when connected to an HDTV.

We haven’t had a chance to test a $599 model upgraded to 4GB of memory, but based on real-world use of the two 2011 models, I suspect that more RAM will result in better performance in some of our more-memory-hungry benchmark apps. It will certainly help if you tend to run many applications simultaneously.

Despite their performance increases, the new minis are roughly as power-efficient as last year’s model, which used just over 9W when idle and less than 1.5W when sleeping. (The $799 model’s discrete graphics processor ups the overall power usage to a still-low 13W when idle.) The new models are also just as cool and quiet—which is to say that they rarely get warm under general-purpose use, and they’re nearly silent. Even when the fan was running full-tilt, during an extended gaming session, the $599 mini was no louder than the fan on the external hard drive I use for Time Machine backups.

More options than ever

When it comes to the Mac mini line, the biggest questions have always focused on options and upgradeability. As with most recent Macs, your build-to-order options for the entry-level model are limited: You can upgrade the $599 model to 4GB ($100) or 8GB ($300) of RAM, and you can opt for a 750GB 7200rpm hard drive ($150). For the $799 model, you can increase performance by upgrading to a 2.7GHz Core i7 processor ($100); 8GB of RAM ($200); a 750GB 7200rpm hard drive ($150); a 256GB solid-state drive (SSD; $600); and, thanks to the absence of an optical drive, a combination of the 750GB hard drive and the 256GB SSD ($750).

Yes, this means you can configure an $1849 Mac mini—and that doesn’t include a keyboard, mouse, or display. (As with previous Mac mini models, you bring your own peripherals.) To be fair, few people are going to max out their Mac mini with all these options. But for those who actually need this kind of performance in a tiny package, it’s nice to know you can.

Unless you tend to work in only two or three applications—and even then, depending on the programs—I recommend upping the $599 mini from 2GB to 4GB of RAM. In testing the stock model, I regularly saw memory-related slowdowns once a number of applications were running; the $799 mini’s 4GB offered a much better experience.

(Image Caption: Upgrading the Mac mini’s RAM is surprisingly easy these days: just twist, pop, and snap.)

Of course, as with most Apple RAM upgrades, you’ll get a better deal if you buy from a third-party vendor—making sure to get RAM that meet’s Apple’s specifications—and install it yourself. For example, reputable third-party vendors are currently selling 4GB of memory for the new mini for roughly $45, with 8GB around $65. You can also get more RAM in your mini from third-party vendors: While Apple’s official specs say the Mac mini maxes out at 8GB, accessory vendor OWC is already selling a 16GB upgrade—for a whopping $1400—that the company says is fully tested and compatible.
As with last year’s mini, memory installation is surprisingly easy: You just rotate the computer’s plastic base a few degrees counterclockwise and lift it off, pop out the two stock chips, snap in the new chips, and replace the base.
While Apple still doesn’t consider the Mac mini’s hard drive to be a user-upgradeable part, iFixit’s teardown of the 2011 model shows that replacing the stock hard drive is a relatively simple task. (Apple’s general policy with the Mac mini line has always been that as long as you don’t break anything during the process, upgrading the hard drive won’t void your warranty.) Which means that if you’re looking to increase the performance of the mini, or get more storage, you can save a few bucks by skipping the build-to-order options and instead shopping for a 9mm, 2.5-inch laptop hard drive. For example, at the time of this review, a 750GB 7200rpm drive is just $85 to $100 from Newegg.com, and a 1TB 5200rpm drive is just over $100.

In other words, while bumping the $599 Mac mini to 8GB of RAM and a faster, bigger hard drive through Apple will set you back $450, going the DIY route will cost as little as $150.

As for other upgrades, the inclusion of Thunderbolt is a Really Big Deal, despite the fact that there aren’t yet many Thunderbolt peripherals on the market. As our benchmarks of Thunderbolt performance show, Thunderbolt is dramatically faster than even FireWire 800—we’re curious to see how the 2011 minis will fare when booted from a Thunderbolt drive or RAID array. And Thunderbolt’s flexibility means that the new mini will have more expansion options than ever, including many of the same high-performance upgrades that will be available for Apple’s “Pro” computers. (It’s even possible for vendors to adapt PCI Express cards for Thunderbolt. Maybe the new mini is Apple’s answer to years of pleas for a mythical midrange Mac minitower?)

Road to Recovery

Given the lack of an optical drive, the new Mac minis obviously don’t ship with a system-restore DVD. But they also don’t get a system-restore flash drive, as the 2010 MacBook Air did. Instead, if you ever need to reinstall Lion, you use Apple’s new Lion Recovery feature. As I explained in our hands-on article, the Mac mini’s hard drive includes an invisible partition called Recovery HD. If your main startup volume is having trouble, you can boot from Recovery HD (by holding down Command-R at startup) and then repair the startup volume—or even erase it, reinstall Lion, and restore your data from a Time Machine backup. (To reinstall iLife ’11, which is preinstalle on the new Mac minis, you use the Mac App Store.) Of course, this means Lion Recovery requires an Internet connection.

As it turns out, I had an opportunity to use Lion Recovery while testing the new Mac mini. When I tried to use Migration Assistant to transfer data from a 2010 MacBook Air to a new mini, the procedure would stall—for hours—at the “under a minute left” stage. I eventually gave up and restarted the Mac mini…which left it in a non-bootable state. I rebooted into Lion Recovery and tried to repair the hard drive using Disk Utility, but that didn’t fix the problem, so I erased the drive and reinstalled Lion. As noted in the aforementioned article, Lion Recovery doesn’t include the full Lion installer—that data must be downloaded from Apple on the fly. Over a cable-modem connection, using ethernet, the process of downloading and installing Lion through Lion Recovery took just over an hour.

But what if your hard drive has hardware or partition-map problems that prevent you from booting from the Recovery HD partition? The Mid-2011 Mac mini and MacBook Air models—and any new models of Apple’s other lines that are released going forward—include a special feature called Lion Internet Recovery. These Macs can boot directly from Apple’s servers, at which point the software tests the computer’s memory and hard drive to make sure there are no lingering hardware issues. Assuming those components are fine, Lion Internet Recovery downloads, and boots from, a Recovery HD disk image, at which point you get the standard Lion Recovery options. I haven’t yet had a chance to test Lion Internet Recovery, but I’ll be doing so for an upcoming hands-on article.

Lion Recovery and Lion Internet Recovery are welcome features for troubleshooting, but the requirement to download nearly 4GB of data in order to reinstall Lion adds quite a bit of time to any system restore. It’s still worth keeping a bootable Lion-installer drive handy.

Macworld’s buying advice

When I reviewed the Mid-2010 Mac mini, I called it Apple’s most versatile computer for those who didn’t need workstation-level performance. Without an optical drive, the 2011 mini may not be quite as versatile, but Core i5 processors mean that, for the first time, the mini is a serious performer—nearly twice as fast as its predecessor and comparable to some of Apple’s latest MacBook Pro models. And with FireWire 800, Thunderbolt, and a reasonably accessible hard drive, even good storage performance is an option. Of course, it’s also great to see Apple bring the price back down to $599.

On the other hand, those who need great graphics performance won’t find it here, and the loss of an optical drive is likely to scare off some buyers, especially those looking to use the Mac mini as part of a home-media centre (though the lack of a Blu-ray option anywhere in Apple’s product line already made this a moot point for some).

If you’re in the market for a mini, which model should you get? This year, the question has an easy answer: If you need the best performance—graphics or CPU—the $799 model is a nice step up, especially for games; it’s also the only mini available with a Core i7 processor. For everyone else, I think the $599 model with an inexpensive RAM upgrade is the better value.

As with previous Mac minis, perhaps the bigger question is one of relative value: How does the Mac mini stack up against Apple’s other desktops? If you’ve already got a decent display, keyboard, and pointing device, the cheapest iMac is $400 to $600 more than a mini. But if you plan to buy new peripherals, the iMac starts to look more appealing, especially compared to the $799 mini: The $1199 iMac (Mid 2011) gives you a 21.5-inch display with a camera, significantly better performance (thanks to a more-powerful processor, a better GPU, and a faster hard drive), 4GB of RAM, an optical drive, stereo speakers, a keyboard, and a Magic Mouse or Magic Trackpad in an uncluttered, all-in-one package.

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