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The latest rendition of the Mac mini has the same stylish look as previous versions, but what’s under the hood has been revamped. Increased power and a new port have been added, while the CD/DVD drive and some software have been removed. We decided to take a look to determine whether this version is a move forward or a step back.
The Mac mini comes in two basic models as well as a server model. The 2.3 GHz model with 2 GB of memory has an MSRP of USD 600. A 2.5 GHz model with 4 GB of memory has a suggested price of USD 800. Both of these have Core i5 processors. The Mac mini with Lion Server comes with a 2.0 GHz quad-core Core i7 and has an MSRP of USD 1,000. We reviewed the USD 600 model, which comes with a Core i5-2415M processor.
All of the Mac mini models come in a similar box and they all share the same hardware design. The Mac mini box is shown in Figure 1.
The contents of the box are shown in Figure 2. These include the Mac mini, an HDMI to DVI adapter, a power cord, and some minor printed documentation. While the box contents are usually mundane, we found that several of these components were very interesting. The first is the absence of a power block on the power cable. Ultimately, this makes the Mac mini more portable. The second thing of which we took note is the inclusion of the HDMI to DVI adapter. This allows you to hook up the mini to a digital monitor as well as an HDTV without having to purchase additional adapters.
As you can see in Figure 3, in the Apple tradition, the Mac mini is a wonder of design engineering. Although a little boxy, it is small, sleek, and unobtrusive. At 7.7 x 7.7 x 1.4 inches (19.7 x 19.7 x 3.6 cm), the 2.7 lbs (1.22 kg) aluminum-clad Mac mini contains just about everything needed for today’s average computer user.
The back of the Mac mini is shown in Figure 4. It has all the necessary ports and components. From left to right you will see the power button, the power supply, a gigabit Ethernet port, a FireWire 800 port, a full-sized HDMI port, a Thunderbolt port, four USB 2.0 ports, and an SDXC card slot. The audio in and audio out ports are found just below the card slot.
The HDMI port assures easy connection for using a high-def TV as a display. The Thunderbolt port, Apple’s new high-speed data port, allows for connection to Apple’s new displays. The inclusion of the HDMI to DVI adapter makes the mini easy to hook up to any monitor with a DVI port. This, however, does not cover all monitors. There is no included adapter for using a monitor which only has a VGA port, which includes many of the monitors currently in use.
All of the display ports are extremely useable, though not many people will be using the Thunderbolt port. Although the Thunderbolt port will also accept DisplayPort monitors, there are not many of those available. Theoretically, this port gives you the ability to daisy-chain monitors and peripherals. However, there are currently only a few Thunderbolt devices available and they are very expensive. The Thunderbolt port will handle display resolutions up to 2,560 x 1,600, which is considerably higher than the HDMI port which only goes up to 1,920 x 1,200. Yet, not many monitors take advantage of that resolution. So most mini owners will consider the Thunderbolt port expandability for the future.
The mini also supports multiple monitors.
With the back of the mini holding most of the ports and slots, the rest of the mini is very plain. Both sides are devoid of openings and/or buttons. Only the front, which is shown in Figure 5, shows a break in the continuous aluminum construction. Two holes can be seen on the front. The larger one is the IR receiver; the smaller one is the sleep/wake light.
The size and shape of the mini is similar to that of prior versions. Anyone who is familiar with previous minis will immediately note that there is no optical drive on the front of the mini. In fact, there is no optical drive at all.
Apple has always been at the forefront of introducing new technologies and eliminating the old, so the removal of the optical drive is not a shock. After all, you can download the operating system and most of the programs that you need directly from the new Apple Mac store. We, however, were disappointed to find the mini without a DVD. If only Apple would have included a Blu-ray drive, the mini would be the perfect addition to a media room.
You could conceivably add an external USB optical drive. Apple has one for USD 80, but that would detract from the simple design and portability of the device. Unfortunately, Apple doesn’t have any offerings for a Blu-ray player.
The bottom of the Mac mini has a large round piece of black plastic in the middle, as shown in Figure 6. This circular piece twists off to allow the user access to the memory slots, which can be seen in Figure 7. While the memory is easy to reach, changing the hard drive would be a project that even seasoned users may not want to attempt.
Under the hood, the Mac mini is considerably more powerful than previous versions. Even the least expensive model that we reviewed has a 2.3 GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 with a 3 MB on-chip shared L3 cache. It comes with 2 GB of 1,333 MHz DDR3 memory. As we have seen, the memory is easily expandable. The unit will handle up to 8 GB. It has a 500 GB 5,400 rpm hard drive and an Intel HD Graphics 3000 processor with 288 MB of DDR3 SDRAM shared with the main memory.
We have to chide Apple for not including USB 3.0 ports that we would expect to be included in a new computer of this caliber.
[nextpage title=”Setting up the Mac mini”]< p>Apple considers the Mac mini a desktop computer, but unlike their other desktops, it doesn’t come with a keyboard or mouse. You also have to purchase a separate display. So unless you have these items readily available, you will have to include them in your budget when you purchase the mini.
Fortunately, the mini includes Bluetooth 4.0 wireless technology, so you can easily add a wireless keyboard and mouse, which is especially beneficial if you use the mini with a television. We added a Rosewill RK-V1TP wireless keyboard that we reviewed last year, plugging the transmitter into one of the mini’s USB ports. Even though it is basically a PC keyboard, it worked perfectly with the mini, enabling us to use the touchpad instead of adding a mouse. We also tested the mini with an Apple Bluetooth keyboard and mouse.
Setting up the mini is simple. Just attach the keyboard, mouse, and monitor or television, and follow the on-screen directions. The mini has built-in 802.11n Wi-Fi wireless networking, so you won’t have to purchase any extras to connect to your wireless network.
[nextpage title=”Software and Performance”]
The Mac mini comes with OS X Lion, the latest version of Apple’s Mac operating system. We love Lion because it is filled with valuable new features. With Lion, you can finally easily run apps full-screen to take advantage of the large monitors that are popular today. A feature called Mission Control brings together full-screen apps, Dashboard, Expose, and Spaces to give you a hub where you can get an overview and navigate everything on your system.
The new Resume and Auto Save features are very useful. Resume reopens closed apps right where you left them so you can get back to work immediately. With Resume, you can also restart your Mac and return to where you left it. The Auto Save feature automatically saves your work for you. Anyone who has ever lost several hours of work because they forgot to save the document will love this feature.
In addition to these features, the Mac mini also comes with iPhoto, iMovie, Garage Band, Mail, Address Book, iCal, iTunes, Safari, Time Machine, FaceTime and Photo Booth. Unfortunately, a useful program called iWeb, which created Web sites quickly and easily, is no longer included or supported.
The new Mac App Store is the place to go if you want to download Pages or any other Mac software. Luckily for Mac mini owners, there is a large selection of programs that download quickly and easily. Without an optical drive, downloads and/or programs that can be installed from a USB drive are the easiest way to get programs into the mini.
One other feature of Mac OS X Lion that we find very useful is the Multi-Touch gestures. After using iPhones, tablets, and other devices by swiping and touching the screen, these gestures have become second nature to many of us. To take full advantage of the Lion gesture-based input commands, we added a USD 70 Magic Track Pad to our mini. As you can see in Figure 8, the Magic Track Pad is a small pad that perfectly matches the sleek, aluminum finish of the mini.
This device is very thin, as shown in Figure 9, but is also quite solid. It can sit on your knee as easily as it can sit on your desk. It offers precise cursor control. It allows you to scroll, select, pinch and expand, swipe, rotate, click and drag, and perform several other finger-based commands. There is a two-finger scroll as well as three-finger and four-finger swipes.
We thoroughly enjoyed using Mac OS X Lion, especially with the Magic Track Pad. The Mac mini’s applications performed well (even when we loaded it up by running six or seven apps at the same time), as did videos and, surprisingly, most of the games we tried. Some heavy duty apps such as Photoshop took a fairly long time to load. We also noticed a definite slowdown after running these applications and/or graphic games for several hours. Two gigabytes of memory is adequate for light work, but we would suggest that for those planning to run heavy-duty apps, more memory should be added, or purchase the better model which has 4 GB of memory and a slightly faster processor.
One very nice thing about the Mac mini is that it is extremely quiet. Even up close, you can’t tell that it is on by the sound. Also, in spite of what we did with it, the Mac mini stayed cool.
[nextpage title=”Main Specifications”]
The main specifications for the Mac mini include:
- Processor: Core i5-2415M
- 2 GB of 1,333 MHz DDR3 memory
- Hard drive: 500 GB (5,400 rpm) hard drive
- Graphics: Intel HD Graphics 3000 processor with 288 MB of DDR3 SDRAM shared with main memory
- WiFi: 802.11n Wi-Fi wireless networking
- Bluetooth: Bluetooth 4.0
- Thunderbolt port with support for up to 2,560 x 1,600 resolution
- Gigabit Ethernet port
- Audio in/out
- DVI output using HDMI to DVI Adapter (included)
- Ethernet: 10/100/1000BASE-T Ethernet
- Support for dual display and video mirroring
- Built-in speaker
- Four USB 2.0 ports (up to 480 Mbps)
- SDXC card slot
- HDMI port with support for up to 1,920 x 1,200 resolution
- More Information: https://www.apple.com
- Average Price in the US*: USD 569.00
* Researched at Amazon.com on the day we published this review.
With a suggested price of USD 600, the Mac mini is not a cheap computer, but it is one of the cheapest ways to get into the Mac world, even if you have to purchase a keyboard, mouse, and monitor. With the upgraded processor and new internal components, it performs well and is noticeably faster than previous versions. It is well-designed and well-made. Combined with the new OS X Lion, it makes an excellent computer.
If there is any flaw in the mini, it may be that it is a little too forward-leaning. Yes, you can get most of what you want from the Internet or on a USB drive, but it may be just a bit too soon to completely eliminate the optical drive, as we feel that the average user will find this at least a bit of an inconvenience.
The inclusion of the Thunderbolt port, while nice to have, is also something that may or may not be important in the future.
If Apple would have included a Blu-ray player in the mini, it would have made a great media center. That said, it is an excellent computer with a very small footprint. It is portable enough to use it to watch Internet programs on an HDTV, and then move it to the den or study for more serious applications.
Newbies who want to purchase the Mac mini to get into the Apple world may have to get someone knowledgeable to help them choose the right components like keyboard, mouse, and display. Once past that hurdle, the mini will serve the newbie well, just as it would serve a more seasoned user.
- Very small footprint
- Well-designed and well-made
- No power block
- Support for dual displays
- Cool and quiet
- Full-size HDMI
- Thunderbolt port
- OS X Lion
- Included HDMI to DVI adapter
- Bluetooth and Wi-Fi
- No optical drive
- Only USB 2.0
- No monitor, mouse, or keyboard