The new Mac mini is a study in smallness: at just 36mm thick it’s nearly a third slimmer than previous models. That makes it a more front-room friendly machine, and the stylish new aluminium casing doesn’t hurt either. It’s almost silent too.
Although compact, it’s connectable. Around the back you’ll find an HDMI port (a new addition that seals the Mac mini’s entertainment credentials), mini-DisplayPort, four USB 2 connectors and one FireWire 800 port, along with an SD card slot, Gigabit Ethernet and two 3.5mm audio jacks. If you want to connect a DVI display you can do so with a provided adapter, but although Apple promises you can use “your own display, keyboard and mouse” you don’t get adapters for PS/2 or a VGA adapter.
There are also connectivity options you can’t see, namely 802.11n wireless and Bluetooth 2.1. And in the spirit of keeping things tidy, the power supply has been squeezed inside the tiny case, so there’s no brick hanging off the back.
Sadly, the rest of the interior is rather less inspiring. Apple boasts that the new mini uses “the latest Intel Core 2 Duo processors”, but in reality the standard model uses a mobile 2.4GHz P8600 from 2008. And the processor upgrade option – to the faster 2.66GHz P8800 – is a rip-off: the difference in retail price is around $100, but Apple charges $210.
It’s a similar story with the hard disk: the standard model comes with a 320GB drive, but to swap it for a 500GB model will cost $140. That sticks in the throat when a brand-new 500GB drive can be had for less than $100.
Still, it isn’t all bad news on the upgrade front. Unlike previous versions of the hardware, the new Mac mini does at least let you upgrade the RAM yourself, via a quick-release panel on the underside. The two SODIMM sockets will take up to 8GB of DDR3 RAM, although the standard 2GB should suffice for basic entertainment and desktop jobs.
Indeed, in our desktop benchmarks the standard Mac mini, running Windows 7 in Boot Camp, achieved an overall score of 1.11. That’s a lightweight result by modern standards, but it reveals enough power to make even HD movie editing perfectly practical.
When we turned to 3D benchmarks, the mini fared even better, thanks to its Nvidia GeForce 320M GPU. It tore through our low-detail Crysis test at a slick 51fps, and even in the medium-detail test averaged 19fps – not quite playable, perhaps, but an indication that casual gaming at TV resolutions should be no problem at all. It goes without saying that when it comes to playing
HD media the Mac mini doesn’t break a sweat.
Power consumption proved surprisingly low: in Windows the Mac mini idled at just 26W, and even under heavy load peaked at only 53W. In Mac OS X, idle consumption fell even further to 19W, hitting 57W when we pushed the CPU to 100% load. We’re doubtful about Apple’s claim that this is “the world’s most energy-efficient desktop computer”, but it can’t be too far off.
All of which makes the Mac mini a likeable machine. It does get hot, as there isn’t room in the case for a huge fan; and some of Apple’s design habits are an acquired taste. If we’d designed the Mac mini we’d have given it a hard disk light, an eject button for the optical drive, and put the SD card slot on the side or front. (This could be why Steve hasn’t yet called.)
The problem is the price. Even if you steer clear of Apple’s upgrades, you’ll pay $999 for the basic model, which for a bare box running off a lightweight laptop CPU is preposterous. If you’re into lifestyle hardware, its quietness and low-key looks might mitigate the pain – but in that context a device with no Blu-ray support looks under-equipped. And as a compact personal desktop, forget it: at this price it ought to be more powerful, and ideally more upgradeable.
It isn’t obvious why the price is so high; on paper it looks like the Mac mini should be half the price. Indeed, if Apple could do that, it would have an attractive system on its hands, not desperately powerful but cute and versatile. Asking this much for it, though, is an insult.