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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  • MonkeyPaw - Monday, August 09, 2010 - link

    I don't understand why it has to keep getting smaller and smaller. The original Mini is by no means a monster. I remember setting an old FX5900 on my old G4 mini, and I laughed that the card stuck out about 2" on each side.

    I guess my point is that I would have rather seen Apple boost the specs all around as opposed to shrinking the package (and raising the price). Apple continues to miss the boat (at least my boat, anyway) when it comes to price/features. I just don't think Apple cares about market share. They want to continue to sell overpriced items to a smaller audience. I guess that's fine, as they seem to make nice profits doing so. But the original Mini made me buy my first mac, and eventually I bought an iBook and a dual-G5. The dual G5 became mysteriously crash-happy, and I haven't been back since. Appke just can't draw me back in yet, not with this price/product.
    Reply
  • thunng8 - Thursday, August 12, 2010 - link

    That is not correct anymore these days. Modern 7200rpm 2.5" hard drives are only marginally hotter than the 5400rpm variety. It would make no difference in a mac mini enclosure. Reply
  • woutersamaey - Monday, August 09, 2010 - link

    It would've been nice to read more on the Mac Mini with Mac OS X Server. To my opinion, it looks like an interesting SOHO server. It has faster (2 of them) 7200 rpm disks and 4 GB of RAM. Reply
  • solipsism - Monday, August 09, 2010 - link

    Anand wrote, "With no DMI/QPI enabled NVIDIA chipsets, Apple is either going to have to increase the physical size of many of its products to transition to newer Intel CPUs with 3rd party GPUs or live with Intel/AMD integrated graphics going forward. I'm very curious to see how this plays out over the next 12 - 18 months.”

    There is plenty of space when they remove the ODD. It’s obvious they aren’t going to move to Blu-ray if they haven’t in August 2010 and haven’t even added AACS to Mac OS X.

    The ODD is large, slow, prone to breaking and goes unused by most consumers these days. To put it into perspective takes up 25% of the 13” MB/MBP footprint, as well as 5” of port-side space which all Mac notebooks could use.

    On top of that, there is no 9.5mm Ultra-Slim Slot-Loading BRD that would be feasible for the needs of a company obsessed with thin.

    Honestly, Anand, if they haven’t added AACS to Mac OS X, added the option to their Mac Pros with full-sized ODDs, and left their optical disc authoring apps to rot why would you even expect this to arrive in such a svelte machine as the Mac Mini.
    Reply
  • Ratman6161 - Tuesday, August 10, 2010 - link

    ...because that isn't what this system uses. Take a look at the page in the review where they show pictures of the system torn down and talk about the Nvidia GeForce 320M and go on to say "The 320M has the graphics, memory controller, SATA controller, PCIe and USB interfaces. " The 320M seems to be a common part on Windows based laptops so it's nothing special - but it isn't Intel. Reply
  • larson0699 - Wednesday, August 11, 2010 - link

    @solipsism: The new mini also has a server edition ($1k, apple.com/macmini/server), 2 HDD, no ODD, though none of that open vertical space helps the limited real estate of the motherboard itself.

    @Ratman6161: As far as I can tell, only Apple has used the GeForce 320M thus far -- you may have mistaken that for the GeForce GT 320M, the former being an IGP and the latter a discrete GPU. Notebookcheck is a great place to compare mobile GPUs by specs, 3DMark scores, and their uses among OEMs, and that's where I learned of the similarly named IGP.
    Reply
  • mschira - Monday, August 09, 2010 - link

    How does the Mac mini fare with a contemporary medium demading game, such as Starcraft 2?
    Best
    M.
    Reply
  • jabber - Monday, August 09, 2010 - link

    For that price and application I would want a BD drive in it.

    I mean a BD drive would be what? An extra $50 (real world price) bu then the Apple price would be an extra $200.

    Hmmmm.
    Reply
  • Johnmcl7 - Wednesday, August 11, 2010 - link

    Not just the cost but also a threat to streaming HD content from Itunes which seems to be another reason for not having blu-ray according to Steve Jobs.

    I agree with you though hence I bought a Dell Studio Hybrid which is a very similar machine in that it uses laptop component but it also has a blu-ray drive - I'm surprised it didn't get a mention at all in the article.

    John
    Reply
  • PrincePickle - Monday, August 09, 2010 - link

    At least Apple is concentraiting on bringing decent GPU's to their lineups. The industry as a whole has been slacking with educating consumers on the benifits of discrete GPU's. Reply

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