New Apple Mac Minis with Thunderbolt, HDMI, Lion, Quad-Core i7s, No Optical Drive

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Apple refreshed the Mac Mini with an all-new design this morning; while the spec refresh was expected, the new redesign simply wasn’t. The new Minis are now configurable with AMD Radeon graphics, quad-core i7 CPUs, HDMI, Thunderbolt, and most unexpectedly – no optical drives.

Apple Mac Mini Thunderbolt

In addition to the updated specs, Apple knocked a hundred dollars off the smallest Mac’s MSRP; instead of starting at $699, the new Minis have returned to a $599 price point, meaning that buying a Mac can still be relatively affordable. The new Minis look like the older Mac Mini Servers, which eschewed an optical drive in lieu of having a secondary hard drive. Now none of the Mac Mini models has an optical drive, though the Server configuration still comes with a second hard drive.

Apple might have taken away from the front of the Mac Mini, but they certainly haven’t taken away from the rear.  Quite the opposite: there are now ports for Gigabit Ethernet, FireWire 800 (still!), HDMI out, Thunderbolt out, four USB 2.0 ports, audio in and out and an SDXC card slot.

Apple Mac Mini Thunderbolt

Interestingly enough, Apple seems to be targeting the living room with this Mac Mini iteration; the presence of the HDMI port is a clear giveaway, and even if it wasn’t, the Cupertino company is directly saying it.  On the new Mini pages, a heading proclaims, “Bring on the big screen. Connect Mac Mini to your HDTV with a single HDMI cable.” It’s a curious suggestion since the company shows no sign of getting rid of the Apple TV product; in fact, the next release of iOS promises to bring a number of exciting new features to the product line.  Still, it means that Apple is seriously considering the threat of PC-based HTPC systems, and the new Mac Mini means that HDMI is now a first-class partner, rather than being relegated to buggy dongle status.

The new Minis have all new chips inside, both for CPU and the GPU. Now that Intel has finally made some reasonably useful graphics chips in the form of the Intel HD 3000, Apple has gotten rid of NVIDIA’s chipsets entirely. The base Mac Mini model comes with a 2.3GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 CPU with on-chip graphics, 2GB of DDR3 RAM, a 500GB hard drive and OS X Lion – all for $599.  For $200, users get boosted to a 2.5GHz CPU and 4GB of DDR3, as well as discrete AMD Radeon HD 6630M graphics. The low-end model can be upgraded to 4 or 8GB of RAM, a 750GB hard drive, or the inclusion of an Apple Remote, while the 2.5GHz model can be upgraded to a dual-core 2.7GHz Core i7 CPU, 8GB of DDR3 RAM, a 750GB hard drive, a 256GB SSD, or both an SSD and a hard drive.

A third model choice for the Mac Mini comes with Mac OS X Lion Server pre-installed on the device; it starts at $999, though it’s worth pointing out that the OS X Server add-on for Lion would cost other Mini users an additional $49 from the Mac App Store. This model comes with a 2GHz quad-core Intel Core i7 CPU; it’s also got 6MB of on-die L3 cache, compared to the other models’ 3MB (2 cores vs. 4 cores). It also comes with 4GB of DDR3 memory, upgradeable to 8GB, and dual 500GB hard drives spinning at 7200RPM – these are upgradeable to 256GB SSDs, 750GB HDDs, or some combination of the two. Since this Mini has additional hard drives pre-installed and a quad-core CPU, it’s not currently possible to get a Mac Mini with both a quad-core CPU and the discrete AMD graphics; it’s likely that the quite cooling system Apple uses in their Minis simply can’t put up with the heat being tossed out.

The new Minis also support Apple’s iPhone headsets with built in mics, which connect to the audio out jack in the back of the machine. A built-in power supply means that the Minis no longer need the large power brick that old models required. One bonus feature of having a Thunderbolt port on the Mac Minis is that devices can be daisy-chained; that means that Mac Minis can now support multiple displays, like Apple’s new Thunderbolt-equipped Cinema Displays.

Although the new Mac Minis still carry a price premium over offerings by other manufacturers, they also bring along benefits, such as silent operation, low power consumption, stellar build quality and Thunderbolt ports that other computer makers can’t match. All of the new Minis are available today, both on Apple’s online store and in their retail stores across the country.

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