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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  • synaesthetic - Tuesday, August 10, 2010 - link

    Why all the Apple hate?

    Price-performance.

    Apple doesn't have it.

    Smugness.

    Apple has too much of it.
    Reply
  • kpxgq - Wednesday, August 11, 2010 - link

    i think its amazing that this thing uses about the same power (wattage) as my acer revo htpc (single core atom 1.6ghz and ion chipset)... if these thing drop in price, i might pick one up as my main htpc and relegate the revo to the bedroom tv Reply
  • TinksMeOff - Wednesday, August 11, 2010 - link

    Needs to start a $599 like before with 2gb of basic ram and offer $799 for the upgraded RAM/CPU/HD Model. The article suggested you can upgrade the RAM yourself and save money. Problem is probably voiding the one year warranty and if you upgrade to the $150 three year protection plan, even more years of voided warranty all to save $30 bucks?

    You can also upgrade the HD from 320gb to 500gb for $100 more (no option for SSD or 7200rpm HD). The Intel Core 2 Duo CPU can be upgraded from 2.4GHz to 2.66GHz for $150 more.

    My existing MAC Mini is the Intel Core Solo 1.5GHz which came with 512MHz DDR2 memory which worked great originally. I upgraded to 1GB (upgradeable to 2GB). I've kept and used it through the years to just look at what Apple is up to and so far I'm able to run the lastest 10.6.4 software with a little lag loading some heavily laden web pages and video. Upgrading to 2gb would probably fix the issue and a Core 2 Dual wouldn't hurt either. I don't play games on the MAC by choice (along time ago) and would never recommend a MAC for PC Gaming over a W7 gaming system.

    This latest MAC Mini just gives me no incentive to upgrade my existing one at the price point, but my purpose in using it is strictly internet and MAC experimentation. I would assume many internet and general usage only people will be thinking just like me regarding this new version of the MAC Mini.

    Thanks for the thorough article and possible advantages of this MAC Mini model.
    Reply
  • thunng8 - Thursday, August 12, 2010 - link

    Upgrading RAM does not void the warranty. Reply
  • TinksMeOff - Thursday, August 12, 2010 - link

    Thanks for the update, the one I bought would have voided the warranty but you need a putty knife to get the cover off mine and then some work disconnecting some wires 'just so' to reach the ram modules. This model does have all the upgrade ease of a laptop ram upgrade and I was wondering about the warranty is done by the owner. Reply
  • matt b - Wednesday, August 11, 2010 - link

    You said that most OS X programs would be perform more like the Cinebench and Quicktime tests . . . I'd like to see more tests. I have a feeling that Cinebench is highly optimized for Intel processors and that Intel has optimized its drivers for the cinebench test. Intel does a lot of work on trying to win benchmarks that are used in tests . . . see the Federal Trade case against Intel. I'd love to see if that was true . . . test some more software that is less rarely used in benchmarks and see if the POWER chip prevails in those as well. Reply
  • derektrotter - Thursday, August 12, 2010 - link

    Not sure why people care more about streaming DTS-HD or Dolby Digital out the HDMI than discrete audio. Discrete uncompressed audio is also lossless and more versatile than compressed schemes which are tougher to clip mix and such.

    But the new Mac Mini also does 7.1 channels of 96KHz/24-bit streaming audio out. VLC doesn't support it correctly (you have to stream instead, with the checkbox that streams out the S/PDIF normally), but someday VLC surely will.

    Additionally, PLEX/XBMC do not impress me with their hardware video decoding support. People say they can play about every other frame of a Blu-ray rip? On this Mac Mini VLC can play every frame of a Blu-ray rip. It only bogs down at all on the toughest sections in Avatar (the hardest challenge, as it is full-frame 1.78:1, 44GB file). Video playback acceleration still needs some work on the Mac clearly.
    Reply
  • RagingDragon - Sunday, August 22, 2010 - link

    If Apple are determined to put OpenCL in all Mac's, then I guess we'll see either: Open CL drivers for Intel i3/i5, or the small form factors Mac's moving to AMD CPU's and and integrated graphics. Reply
  • mbtgood - Tuesday, August 24, 2010 - link

    like mbt a lot
    http://www.mbt-usa.com
    Reply
  • mutarasector - Sunday, November 28, 2010 - link

    This system offers more bang for the buc than a Mac mini:

    http://www.asrock.com/nettop/overview.asp?Model=Vi...
    Reply

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