Mac Mini not so small on performance

Mac mini Core 2 Duo 1.83GHz
Price as rated: $599
With its low price and small size, the Mac mini has always offered a versatile and economical Mac experience. But, while Apple has regularly updated its line of consumer laptops and desktops, this year the Mac mini seemed to have been all but forgotten by the company. In fact, many industry pundits predicted that the mini would be eliminated from Apple’s product line. So it was a welcome surprise when Apple quietly updated the Mac mini to include Intel Core 2 Duo processors, the same processors the MacBook (4.5 mice), MacBook Pro (4.5 mice), and iMac (4.0 mice/4.5 mice) have been using since the end of 2006. The good news for those remaining loyal to the Mac mini, or for people just looking for the least expensive Mac available, is that this under-hyped upgrade gives the Mac mini an impressive performance boost in several applications.

Out of the box
Externally, the Mac mini continues to use the same white plastic and aluminum design that it has sported since it was introduced. The mini still requires you to supply your own keyboard, mouse, and display, and luckily there are plenty of ways to connect these peripherals. On the back of the mini you’ll find four USB 2.0 ports, one FireWire 400 port, a power button, and combination optical and analog audio in and out jacks. There is also a security slot, a gigabit Ethernet port, and a DVI port for connecting an LCD display with up to 1,920-by-1,200 resolution (the same as Apple’s 23-inch Cinema HD display [3.5 mice]); a DVI-to-VGA cable is included for hooking up an analog LCD or CRT monitor. The mini also includes an Apple Remote for use with Apple’s Front Row program, as well as built-in Bluetooth and 802.11g networking. Curiously, the MacBooks, MacBook Pros, and iMacs all ship with the faster, and wider-range, 802.11n capability. And though the 802.11n standard is backward compatible with g devices, the Mac mini will still operate at the slower speeds and shorter range of the 802.11g standard.

Internally, the mini mixes the new with the old. The biggest change is the inclusion of Intel’s Core 2 Duo processors. Running at clock speeds of either 1.83GHz (Best Current Price: $578.55) or 2GHz (Best Current Price: $771.75), this second generation of Intel’s Core Duo processor supports twice the amount of L2 cache and RAM, though only the higher-end 2GHz model includes the maximum 4MB of cache memory. The 1.83GHz model ships with 2MB of L2 cache, the same amount found in the last generation mini. Both models now ship with 1GB of RAM, upgradeable to 2GB. And that’s good news, because both models still use Intel’s GMA 950 integrated graphics processor, which shares 64MB of the system’s main memory, instead of the dedicated video RAM found in most Macs. The minis have two memory slots, which ship filled with two 512MB DDR2-667 MHz SO-DIMMs. If you want the full 2GB of RAM, Apple will install two 1GB modules for an additional $150. You can find the RAM cheaper through a third-party online store, but be forewarned that installing the RAM requires the use of a putty knife and a little bit of nerve.

The Core 2 Duo chipset also contains a 128-bit SSE3 vector engine; this can process twice the amount of data per cycle than the Core Duo processor, which can handle only 64 bits at a time. The new Mac minis offer 5,400-rpm hard drives with a higher capacity than those in the last batch, too, with an 80GB drive in the 1.83GHz Mac mini and a 120GB drive in the 2GHz model; both can also be upgraded to 160GB. The low-end mini ships with a CD-burning and DVD-reading optical Combo drive. The high-end mini has a DVD-burning SuperDrive that can burn dual-layer DVDs at 8x speeds.

The Mac mini represents a complicated marketing and engineering juggling act–striving for the best performance possible while maintaining a small size and affordable price. And though many people complain about its limited graphics capabilities and sluggish hard drive, there is a reason the Mac Pro and other high-performance workstations are so large. Higher performance components tend to run hotter and therefore need more space and cooling fans–and they cost a great deal more, too. Though it would be great to be able to have our computing cake and eat it too, the Mac mini does do a nice job of balancing cost, performance, and size limitations. Looking at the benchmarks, you can see the improvement provided by the Core 2 Duo processors in the results of our processor-intensive tests.

In our Photoshop test, for instance, the 1.83GHz Core 2 Duo model was 19 percent faster than the previous high-end Mac mini, the 1.83GHz Core Duo. The new 2GHz Mac mini was 24 percent faster than the older model in that test. Compressor scores showed even more dramatic improvement, with the 1.83GHz Core 2 Duo model besting the Core Duo model by 28 percent; the new 2GHz system was 35 percent faster than the old 1.83GHz Core Duo Mac mini. Comparing the Mac minis to the new aluminum iMacs, the 2GHz Core 2 Duo Mac mini held its own against the entry-level, 20-inch 2GHz Core 2 Duo iMac (4 mice) in many tests, finishing just one second behind the iMac in our iMovie, iTunes, and Cinema4D tests. Other tests showed the iMac’s advantage in using full-sized, 7,200-rpm hard drives. For instance, it took the 2GHz Mac mini twice as long as the 2GHz iMac to duplicate a 500MB file in the Finder. Another place where the iMac has the advantage is in the realm of 3-D graphics. With its ATI Radeon HD 2400 XT graphics processor and 128MB of dedicated video memory, the low-end iMac was able to display three times as many frames per second than the high-end Mac mini with its integrated Intel GMA 950 graphics with 64MB of shared memory.

Buying advice
The latest Mac mini models have made some impressive gains in terms of performance, without gaining bulk or higher price tags. Still a great bargain, especially for those who already own a mouse, keyboard, and display, the Mac mini’s size and price allow it to fit into spaces and budgets that other Macs cannot. With its faster performance and DVD burning capabilities, the 2GHz Mac mini is worth the extra $200, but if DVD burning isn’t something you need, the 1.83GHz Mac mini still gives a lot of bang for the buck. If space is not an issue and you don’t have a spare keyboard, mouse, and display hanging around, you may be better off with an iMac, whose superior graphics and hard disk performance may be worth the extra money.

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