Apple Mac Mini Review

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Specifications

  • Processor: Intel Core 2 Duo P7350 @ 2.0GHz (3MB L2 cache)
  • Memory: 1 GB DDR3 SDRAM @ 1066MHz
  • Hard drive: 120GB SATA @ 5400RPM
  • Optical drive: DVD+/-RW SuperDrive
  • Sound: Integrated audio
  • Video card: NVIDIA GeForce 9400M integrated graphics with 128MB shared memory
  • Networking: Gigabit Ethernet
  • Wireless networking: 802.11a/b/g/draft-n, Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR
  • Operating system: OS X 10.5.6 Leopard
  • Power supply: 110 watt external
  • Warranty: 1 year limited hardware warranty with 90 days phone support

As configured, the Mac Mini carries a suggested retail price of $599.

Build and Design
Apple learned some time ago that to win market share from the considerably larger Microsoft-dominated consumer space, they’d need to stand out.  While they’ve always been different, it wasn’t really until the emergence of OS X and, to a separate extent, the iPod, that large swathes of the public began to sit up and take notice.  Criticized for overcharging for their products, Apple developed the Mac Mini: a small, value-minded desktop.

The computer is almost impossibly small: at only two inches high, it’s barely thicker than many laptops (and actually thinner than some!), and since it’s only 6.5 inches on a side, it certainly doesn’t take up very much room.  The outer shell is mostly aluminum, like the rest of the Apple line, with sharply defined edges on top.  Since the aluminum case does have an edge, it’s worth noting that it can scratch something if you aren’t careful.  I managed to scratch up the back of my Dell laptop by pushing the display up against the Mini.

Interestingly enough, the top of the machine is white plastic with a grey Apple logo in the middle.  This is the same design used on previous Mac Minis, and different from the restyled lines found in the rest of Apple products, which have replaced the white plastics with black and aluminum.  The whole design is incredibly minimalistic in nature.  It’s been reported that Steve Jobs, Apple’s CEO, has a personal distaste for excess buttons; the both the Mini and the iMac seem to reflect that.  The front of the machine shows only a slot for loading discs into the optical drive and a small pinhole near the bottom right corner that lights up when the Mac Mini is powered up.

The sides of the Mini are completely blank.  Since the computer isn’t designed to be taken apart by anyone other than an Apple technician, there aren’t any panels or screws or indentations to ease users in taking the machine apart.  Since the exit vent is on the back, there aren’t even any vents to mar the clean design.  The bottom of the machine is covered by a rubber sheet that keeps the Mini from scratching the surface where it’s being displayed and also lifts the computer away from the desk.  All around the outside edge are a series of intake vents that help to keep the machine cool.  Since the Mac Mini runs a little warm, it’s important that it gets what airflow it can.

All of the “mess” of a computer: the power button, the ports, the power adapter, etc are found on the back of the machine, which keeps the computer looking incredibly clean.  Power supplies are generally one of the largest parts of a computer; routing the power to all of the different components takes up a fair amount of room.  Apple had to move the power supply outside of the machine in order to keep it so small, so the Mac Mini almost feels more like an appliance or video game system, since all you do is plug a small adapter into the back to power it up.


Inputs and Expansion
The slot-loading drive on the front of the machine known as a SuperDrive, which is Apple-speak for a drive that reads and burns both CDs and DVDs.  It’s too bad that Apple refuses to realize that people like high-definition optical formats since you can’t upgrade the Mini (or any Apple computer, for that matter) to a Blu-ray drive.  This is especially annoying when you consider that the Mac is just about perfect for use as a home theater PC, certainly more useful than the AppleTV device.  While it’s still a good choice, the Blu-ray drive really would have put it over the top.

As mentioned earlier, all of the ports, plugs and outputs for the Mac Mini are found on the back of the machine.  There are five USB2.0 ports, one FireWire 800, Gigabit Ethernet, Mini DVI, Mini DisplayPort, a security cable lock slot and combination optical/analog audio in and out ports.  There’s a speaker hidden inside the Mac Mini, too; you can hear it but you won’t see it anywhere.  It’s really impressive that Apple managed to put five USB ports on the Mini.  It’s one more than it had previously, and it’s especially important since you can’t open the machine up.  The two mini video ports are miniature versions of their big brothers developed by Apple, and the new Mac Minis come with a Mini DVI to DVI adapter so you can use it with your current monitor.  Perhaps surprisingly, the FireWire port shows that Apple isn’t so ready to ditch the standard as people thought when they left it out of the newest Macbook Pro revisions.


Software

We can’t do a proper review of an Apple computer without taking a moment to look at the software that Apple uses with its computers.  This isn’t an in-depth review of OS X and how it compares to Windows: at the core they are both complex pieces of software that let you use your computer to accomplish specific tasks.

Apple develops a fair amount of software aside from OS X, however, that they use to try and set their computers apart from their Windows brethren.  OS X comes bundled with several of these applications, such as Time Machine, Apple’s intuitive backup software, Mail, their desktop mail client, iChat, the IM client, Safari, Apple’s web browser, Photo Booth, a little program that lets you add kitschy effects to photos, Front Row, their media presentation software and Boot Camp, which lets consumers easily and pretty quickly set the Mac Mini up to install Windows next to OS X on the hard drive and selectively boot between them.

In addition, the Mini comes preinstalled with Apple’s impressive iLife ‘09 suite, which is a series of programs designed to help users with creative projects.  iLife includes iPhoto (which can now auto-detect people in your pictures by analyzing their faces), iMovie, GarageBand, iWeb and iDVD.  Most of these sound pretty self-explanatory; the names are what the program helps you create.  GarageBand, however, is fairly unusual and if you’ll allow me, completely awesome.  GarageBand lets you record and mix your own musical compositions, add in all sorts of effects, set up virtual instruments to play along with and most impressively, it will even teach you how to play.  That feature hasn’t gotten too much publicity, which is unfortunate, because it’s very well done.  There are lessons for both piano and guitar, and basic lessons are free to download (the first of each are already packaged with GarageBand) and celebrity lessons cost a small fee.

The basic lessons are admittedly a little cheesy, but they are very thorough.  What makes it really neat, though, is how the lessons work.  A video fills two-thirds of the screen, with the instructor talking about the instrument and walking you through the lesson.  The bottom of the screen is filled with a virtual map of the instrument: for the piano it’s all black and white keys; when playing a guitar lesson, it shows the neck of the instrument.  Additionally, all of the lessons are segmented into chapters, letting you skip back and forth to parts you need to work on.  The whole implementation is amazing and I really hope that Apple develops the offerings and lessons, expanding to advanced work and increasing the number of instruments.  iLife ’09 alone makes the Mac platform difficult to resist.


Performance
We installed a 32-bit copy of Windows Vista Ultimate on the Mac Mini with the aid of Boot Camp so that we could run our suite of benchmarks and compare them to other systems that we test.  Using Boot Camp was simple and self-explanatory, and the software quickly walks users through partitioning the hard drive to free up space.  One of the software DVDs that come with the system include a copy of all of the Windows drivers you’ll need to get the hardware working.

The performance is about what you’d expect: not amazing but perfectly useful.  Apple really should include 2 gigabytes of RAM on the base model; I think it would make the system feel “peppier” overall.  The hard drive is also pretty slow, but that’s not surprising, considering that it’s a 5400RPM model.

wPrime is a PC performance benchmarking program that forces the computer to perform recursive mathematical calculations. This program is multithreaded, meaning we can take advantage of more than one core of a processor at a time, resulting in a more realistic estimate of a computer’s performance.

wPrime benchmark comparison results (lower numbers mean better performance):

Desktop wPrime 32 time
Dell Studio Slim (Intel Core 2 Quad Q8200 @ 2.33GHz) 16.301s
Gateway GT5670 (AMD Phenom 8400 @ 2.1GHz) 27.65s
HP Pavilion Slimline s3500f (Athlon X2 5400 @ 2.8GHz) 29.733s
HP Compaq dc5850 (Athlon X2 5000B @ 2.6GHz) 31.421s
Dell Studio Hybrid (Core 2 Duo T8100 @ 2.10GHz) 35.582s
Apple Mac Mini (Core 2 Duo P7350 @ 2.0GHz) 38.754s
HP TouchSmart IQ506 (Core 2 Duo T5850 @ 2.16 GHz) 39.544s

PCMark05 overall system performance comparison results (higher scores mean better performance):

Desktop PCMark05 Score
Dell Studio Slim (Intel Core 2 Quad Q8200 @ 2.33GHz) 6,887 PCMarks
HP TouchSmart IQ506 (Core 2 Duo T5850 @ 2.16 GHz) 5,189 PCMarks
Gateway GT5670 (AMD Phenom 8400 @ 2.1GHz) 4,981 PCMarks
Apple Mac Mini (Core 2 Duo P7350 @ 2.0GHz) 4,593 PCMarks
HP Pavilion Slimeline s3500f (Athlon X2 5400 @ 2.8GHz) 4,593 PCMarks
Dell Studio Hybrid (Core 2 Duo T8100 @ 2.10GHz) 4,305 PCMarks
HP Compaq dc5850 (Athlon X2 5000B @ 2.6GHz) 3,986 PCMarks

3DMark06 overall gaming performance comparison results (higher scores mean better performance):

Desktop 3DMark06 Score
Dell Studio Slim (Core 2 Quad Q8200, ATI HD3450 256MB) 1,820 3DMarks
HP TouchSmart IQ506 (Core 2 Duo T5850, NVIDIA 9300M GS) 1,714 3DMarks
Apple Mac Mini (Core 2 Duo P7350, NVIDIA 9400M) 1,552 3DMarks
HP Compaq dc5850 (Athlon X2 5000B, ATI HD3100 IGP) 1,041 3DMarks
Dell Studio Hybrid (Core 2 Duo T8100, Intel X3100) 528 3DMarks
Gateway GT5670 (AMD Phenom 8400, NVIDIA 6150SE) 403 3DMarks
HP Pavilion Slimeline s3500f (Athlon X2 5400, NVIDIA 6150SE) 350 3DMarks

The Mac Mini also managed a score of 2,647 PCMarks in PCMark Vantage.

HDTune results:


Power, Heat and Noise
The Mac Mini is designed not only to be the smallest Mac ever, but also the greenest.  In addition to using eco-friendlier materials in the computer’s construction, Apple developed the Mac Mini to sip from the outlet instead of sucking the power down.  Power rates were equivalent between Mac OS X and Windows Vista, with the Mini idling right around 15 watts, which is absolutely impressive and compares to notebooks, actually.  When maxing out the processor, graphics card and hard drive, we could only get the machine to use 43 watts, so regardless of your other computer worries, using too much power won’t be one of them. The Mini never got very loud, though the fan is audible when the computer gets warm.  The loudest part of all is easily the slot-loading optical drive; it sounds like the drive is going to eat your disc instead of read it.  Slot-loading drives are notorious for being loud.  Not unsurprisingly, the Mac Mini runs a little warm.  While you probably won’t need to worry about the computer overheating, even after extended periods of time, it’s still important to insure that the computer receives adequate ventilation.  Just don’t block the vents on the bottom or rear.



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