Six years ago I tried using a Mac exclusively for 30 days. The OS was 10.3, the hardware was a PowerMac G5 and Apple was still the quirky company with a 2% market share.

Five years ago I reviewed my third Mac, the very first Mac mini. In this pre-hackintosh world, Apple was enough of a curiosity that a $499 Mac made a lot of sense. It wasn’t fast, but with a 1.25GHz PowerPC G4 it was quick enough for most of what you needed to do with a Mac back then. Like many Macs, all it really needed was a memory upgrade.

Interest in Apple has obviously gone up since then. Apple’s resurgence coincided with the shift from desktop to notebook computers and thus the preferred entry platform for many into the Mac world were the PowerBook G4, MacBook and MacBook Pro.


The original Mac mini

The mini continued to receive updates, but its role in Apple’s lineup shifted. The need for an introductory Mac so that users might test drive OS X declined. The mini became a plain old desktop Mac for those who didn’t want an integrated display. For others it was a nice looking HTPC; an Apple nettop before the term existed.

The Mac mini arrived with a bang but was quickly relegated to an almost niche product. It wasn’t Apple TV-bad, but definitely not in Apple’s top 3. The fact that Apple didn’t overhaul the chassis in nearly five years exemplifies the mini’s importance to Apple. Nearly all other consumer targeted Apple hardware gets visual updates more regularly than the Mac mini.

All signs pointed to the mini going the way of the dodo. A couple years ago we regularly saw rumors of Apple killing off the mini entirely. The need for an ultra cheap introduction to OS X had passed. Apple’s customers either wanted a notebook or an iPhone, and if they wanted a netbook Apple eventually addressed that market with the iPad.

While the role of the Mac mini has changed over the years, so has hardware. Originally the mini was 2” tall and measure 6.5” on each side. Small for its time, but bulky compared to what companies like Zotac have been able to do with off the shelf components since then.

In 2005 very few companies were concerned about power consumption, today it’s even more important than overall performance. Intel alone has an internal policy that doesn’t allow the introduction of any new feature into a design that doesn’t increase performance by at least 2% for every 1% increase in power consumption.

What we finally got, after years of waiting, was a redesigned Mac mini:

The 2010 Mac mini looks more like an Apple TV than a Mac. At 1.4” high the new mini doesn’t sound much thinner than the old one until you realize that most of the visible thickness (excluding the pedestal stand) is even smaller than that.


Yes I know the irony of using Blu-ray discs to show the thickness of the DVD-only Mac mini

The Apple TV comparison continues when you look at the ports along the back. Apple’s recent infatuation with mini DisplayPort continues, but there’s also an HDMI port on the back of the new mini. Apple thankfully provides a single-link DVI to HDMI adapter in the box for those of you who aren’t hooking the Mac mini up to a HDTV. The HDMI output supports a max resolution of 1920 x 1200 while the miniDP can drive a 2560 x 1600 display with an active miniDP to DVI adapter.

But it’s clear that the HDTV pair is something Apple thought of. The mini is no longer a way to get a taste of OS X, it’s a full fledged HTPC or Apple’s take on the ION nettop.

Internally the Mac mini is pretty much a 13-inch MacBook Pro. You get a 45nm 2.40GHz Core 2 Duo with a 3MB L2 cache (technically it’s the Core 2 Duo P8600). The chipset is NVIDIA’s GeForce 320M, identical to what’s used in the 13-inch MacBook Pro. There’s no dedicated frame buffer. The GPU carves 256MB of main memory out for its own use, which is a problem because the base configuration only ships with 2GB of memory.

The hardware may sound dated since it isn’t using Intel’s Core i3/i5 processors, but we’re limited by space. Apple is unwilling to ship any of its Macs with just Intel integrated graphics. Apple wants a huge installed base of Macs with OpenCL capable GPUs for some reason. And since NVIDIA isn’t allowed to build chipsets for the Core i-whatever processors, Apple would have to go to a three chip solution in order to have a Core i-whatever, Intel’s associated chipset and an AMD/NVIDIA GPU. In size constrained products (e.g. 13-inch MacBook Pro or the new Mac mini), Apple prefers to use a Core 2 generation CPU and a single chip NVIDIA IGP to fit the form factor and GPU requirements.

Styling and Use
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  • DaveGirard - Tuesday, August 10, 2010 - link

    seriously - I use a Mac Pro Nehalem for Maya and if I had to build a network of headless slaves, this would be an expensive and underperforming option. You could make a vanilla i7 for less and it would destroy this machine for rendering. Nice to see this is a great mini server/HTPC but it's not for performance. Reply
  • name99 - Tuesday, August 10, 2010 - link

    Why would you engage in such a stupid enterprise?

    Apple is NOT selling you a bunch of MIPs here at the lowest possible cost. They are selling you a device that runs MacOSX, with IO options adequate for most users, that is low power and small.
    If you do not need any of these capabilities, then buying such a computer is stupid.

    Or, to put it another, don't buy a package of, what, 10GFlops AND a reasonable quality GPU AND two video ports AND FW8000 AND OSX AND a small form factor, and then complain that the package costs more than this other package consisting of 10GFlops and nothing else.

    But if this device meets your needs, it's great --- I got a previous gen mini for HTPC, and it does what it is meant to do, at a price I found acceptable.
    Reply
  • JAS - Monday, August 09, 2010 - link

    I bought one of these to run a public kiosk display (Apple Keynote program on a loop). Beyond its good looks, the new Mac Mini provides more than enough horsepower for what most "normal" people use computers for -- web browsers, media playback, e-mail, word processing and so forth. I like how access to the RAM has been made easy and the addition of the HDMI and SD connectors.

    My only significant criticism of the new Mac Mini is its retail price. It ought to be $50 to $100 less to be considered an "entry level" Macintosh.
    Reply
  • nafhan - Monday, August 09, 2010 - link

    I agree from a computing aspect, but it really ought to be about $200 - $300 less to be considered a good computer for the average home user. Especially since they will have to spring another $100+ for a monitor/mouse/keyboard right off the bat. Reply
  • Steve W - Monday, August 09, 2010 - link

    The idea behind the Mac Mini is that you DON'T have to spring for a "monitor/mouse/keyboard" if you are the average switcher. If you need a monitor, then the iMac is a better buy. Reply
  • Ratman6161 - Tuesday, August 10, 2010 - link

    Given that it does not come with those items? The only way you would not need them is if you just happened to already have them. But if you were buying this as a second computer etc that might not be the case. Reply
  • tipoo - Friday, September 10, 2010 - link

    Exactly. Once you add a monitor, keyboard and mouse into the price, you are into iMac price territory, and the iMac is still alot faster. Reply
  • LtGoonRush - Monday, August 09, 2010 - link

    I don't understand why 7200rpm 2.5" HDDs aren't more popular. The cost difference isn't very large, on a 320GB drive it only amounts to $5. The performance difference isn't Earth-shattering, but given the price of the system it seems hard to justify cutting this corner, along with shaving off 2GB of RAM as called out in the review. Reply
  • Minion4Hire - Monday, August 09, 2010 - link

    I've heard both power and noise concerns given as reasons (besides cost as you mentioned) why 7200s aren't as popular. Both are pretty minor, but those are valid reasons. Reply
  • Shark Tek - Monday, August 09, 2010 - link

    The main reason of why they aren't popular is a very valid one.

    HEAT...

    A good example is one about the PS3 HD upgrade. They recommend 5400rpm disks due to problems of overheating using a faster one.
    Reply

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