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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  • Casper42 - Monday, August 09, 2010 - link

    I know you said you already sent it back, but I'm curious why you didn't toss in an 80GB Intel G2 SSD (or a SandForce as mentioned), upgrade the RAM to 4GB and run it through all the paces again?

    Sure it comes out to be a $1000 machine at that point, but it would have been nice to see what the total potential of the platform would be. And putting in the SSD would arguably reduce the power footprint slightly as well.
    Reply
  • akatsuki - Monday, August 09, 2010 - link

    I think Apple's SSD support is still a bit thin anyway. Once they add TRIM support, etc. I think it will be a much better time to benchmark.

    I can't imagine spending that kind of money on a Mini over an entry level Macbook or a dedicated HTPC device - especially since GoogleTV and AppleTV revisions are due soon and should revitalize that area.
    Reply
  • cjs150 - Tuesday, August 10, 2010 - link

    Would have hit reply but for some reason locks my machine up

    No way would I use this as a server. Far better is to pick up an Atom board with a PCI-E slot (for a nice raid card), 4gb of memory and use Ebox (free) as the server software. Would cost 50% of the Mac mini price.

    Having just built one for a home server it is simply and just works without fuss
    Reply
  • thunng8 - Tuesday, August 10, 2010 - link

    Some nice nostalgia with the Powermac G5 2.5Ghz. I enjoyed reading about it. I'm surprised at how well it holds up in the benchmarks. Just a minor nitpick, but the Dual 2.5Ghz model was released in mid-2004, not early 2005. Reply
  • aliasfox - Tuesday, August 10, 2010 - link

    Agreed - would love to have seen some "vintage" games, just to see if an ancient midrange graphics card can hack it against a modern integrated chip. Throwing in an old Northwood (or was it Prescott by the end of 2004?) system just for comparison's sake would be amusing, too.

    Ancient's relative, too - I'm running (and occasionally gaming!) on an 8-yr old Power Mac (with a Radeon 9700pro) and do "general" stuff on a PowerBook that's nearly as old...

    I think one of the reasons that Power Mac G5s hold their value so well is that they are the only machines (pre Mac Pro) that could hold multiple HDs internally, as well as be upgraded (for a price) to a relatively modern GPU - ATI 3xxxx series, nVidia 8xxxx series, I think.

    As for the mini... as much as I like Apple's products, I can't get behind the pricing of the Mac mini - sure, it's a great piece of industrial design, and I'd love to have a stylish, small, nearly-silent box in my home theater set up, but having to drop $800 before getting 4GB of RAM means this is far, far out of its price range. $499-599, maybe $699 with BD and 4GB of RAM... too bad Apple doesn't believe in BD. Or RAM. Or internal 3.5" HDs...
    Reply
  • _gescom_ - Tuesday, August 10, 2010 - link

    Great machine, but definitely way too expensive at 760+ EUR.
    It should cost 450/500 EUR like the old one.
    Why additional 250+ EUR? I know, we sheep, you bleep.
    Reply
  • Setsunayaki - Tuesday, August 10, 2010 - link

    This is actually worse than a Laptop in a many ways...

    The scope of computers have changed and the public has proven the majority of people view email, write papers, use internet....or listen to music. Very basic things...

    I find that netbooks are way better...considering you can buy an always-on internet connection with them and their battery life is good. When one looks at basic usage, i know people can talk about performance and other things out there....

    But how many people out there who own computers as basic users end up using 30 - 40% of the processor on a dual core or quad core? I am still sitting here on a Quad Core and unless I am gaming or doing something heavy, I don't use it at heavy load. Once one eliminates the need for heavy servers or Heavy Gaming altogether...computers lose their grace..

    I remember I bought a Laptop in 2005 for $300 on sale. I know by now every laptop outperforms mine, but I don't do 3D gaming on the laptop and I run on Ubuntu Linux. I am not even at the point where my processor chokes and most of the time I don't even use 2GB of RAM on the laptop.

    Sorry, but with so many better offerings which include a monitor, keyboard and built in mouse along with portability, this MAC-Mini would have been great 4 years ago, unfortunately too little, too late.
    Reply
  • hummerchine - Tuesday, August 10, 2010 - link

    Man, you guys are a tough bunch to please! I own over 20 computers right now, from a gaming PC me and my son built with top shelf parts, to 5 Dell PCs, to a Mac Pro running a 30 inch monitor, to my wonderful new MacBook Pro 17", to three Mac Minis (not the latest...and best...ones), and multiple other Macs and PCs. Jeez, for many uses the Mac Mini totally rocks! And for many uses, it is the best computer you can possibly buy.

    I just cannot get over the seething hatred of Apple I sense so often...usually from people who hate them so much that they never use any of their products, and thus really know nothing about what they are talking about.

    I have not used the very latest Mac Mini, but since it's better than the two new ones I bought earlier this year that are awesome I'd have to guess it's awesome too!
    Reply
  • Rayb - Wednesday, August 11, 2010 - link

    I see you really bought into their marketing hype, line, hook and sinker.

    An ION1 box fully loaded can do exactly the same things, including BD playback wireless and remote for around $200 less. Do you see the irony now?

    With people like you thinking this is cutting edge tech in a new shinny box, I rest my case.
    Reply
  • aliasfox - Wednesday, August 11, 2010 - link

    I for one don't hate it - I hate the price.

    Even without i3 or i5, it's a great box - but at $700 (or near $850 with a basic monitor, keyboard, and mouse), it's far, far too expensive - in fact, the 'on the road' price is so close to a white macbook (with screen, keyboard, trackpad, and battery), that one has to imagine that Apple doesn't really *want* the mini to sell in huge numbers.
    Reply

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