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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  • AssBall - Monday, August 09, 2010 - link

    Yeah, that 45 fps at 800x600 in WoW is killer, Dude.

    wtf
    Reply
  • Tros - Monday, August 09, 2010 - link

    http://www.anandtech.com/show/2921/4

    19 fps on an overclocked Intel integrated GPU (i3 generation). I'd say going with NVidia's GPU was the better choice by at least two-fold for gaming.
    Reply
  • thunng8 - Tuesday, August 10, 2010 - link

    Thats right, a standard clocked Intel GPU gets approx 12.5-15fps or less than 1/3rd the performance of the Nvidia 320M Reply
  • retrospooty - Monday, August 09, 2010 - link

    "Apple calls the new Mac mini the world’s most energy-efficient desktop computer"

    Nice thing to call it, considering its really a laptop with no LCD. Gotta love Job's spin. ROFL
    Reply
  • thunng8 - Tuesday, August 10, 2010 - link

    Why is it spin if it is correct? Reply
  • jihe - Monday, August 09, 2010 - link

    Ridiculously overpriced. Might as well get a laptop and hack off the lcd. Any one care to compare this to a laptop at the same price level? Reply
  • Tros - Monday, August 09, 2010 - link

    1) NVidia chipset laptops are hard to find. I imagine this is something like when AMD-powered Dell machines were non-existent.
    2) Compare it and realize what? Power consumption on the Mac-mini is already lower than it's low-voltage netbook counterpart. Would you compare a T8600 to a T8600?

    And yeah, the initial cost is a lot more. But have you considered the cost over time? Even if the ION system was cheaper, the cost-over-time curve has a higher slope because of power consumption and build quality. The Mac-Mini is the better investment for the long-run. Well, unless you replace your HTPC every year, but who has that kind of money?
    Reply
  • jihe - Tuesday, August 10, 2010 - link

    1) NVidia chipset laptops are everywhere.

    2) Turn off the screen of your laptop and see how much power it consumes.

    The mac mini is half an outdated laptop, for much more than the price of one.
    Reply
  • name99 - Tuesday, August 10, 2010 - link

    A laptop that runs MacOS X?

    If you are not in the market for such a machine, fine, but don't pretend you're making deep philosophical points by ignoring this issue.
    I don't give a damn about motorbikes. The difference between you and me is that I don't feel a compulsive need to read articles on motorbikes and then offer up my opinion on devices that I have never owned and will never own.

    20% or so of the US market feels the overall value of Apple products, from the OS to the generally higher reliability to the much better resale value (or, if you prefer, longer usable lifetime) make them worth buying. If you're not in that group, fine, but is your life really so empty that, rather than going door to door asking people if they have heard the word of god, you feel a need to engage in the equivalent behavior wrt a commercial purchase? "Excuse me, ma'am, but have you heard the words of Bill Gates, and how they can save your dollars and the dollars of your loved ones?"
    Reply
  • ManjyomeThunder - Wednesday, August 11, 2010 - link

    20%? I hope you're talking about iPhones and not Macintoshes, Considering OS X (all versions) hold around a total of MAYBE 10% of the US market. Reply

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