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Apple's Sandy Bridge-Based Mac Mini Review
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Date: Jul 28, 2011
Section:Systems
Author: Ray Willington
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Introduction and Specifications
Apple's Mac mini hadn't seen a substantial update for about a year, but with Intel's second generation Core processor family arriving in 2011, it was only a matter of time before one of those chips found favor with Apple's tiniest desktop. The Mac mini design really hasn't changed in the year or so it took the folks in Cupertino to swap out the Core 2 Duo for Intel's new Core i line of processors. In terms of volume and dimension, it's almost exactly the same as the 2010 edition, but with a major addition--that port between the HDMI socket and those four USB 2.0 ports. It's a Thunderbolt port, a lightning-fast interconnect jointly designed with Intel. With the addition of Thunderbolt on the new mini, Apple's growing their list of supported machines, which also includes the latest MacBook Pro, MacBook Air and iMac.





For many, this is the least expensive way to enter the world of OS X. And with OS X Lion shipping on the mini, it's also the cheapest way to get a new system with Apple's minty-fresh operating system. This new mini is also $100 less than the entry-level mini of last year. So for $599, you get a 2.3GHz dual-core Core i5-2415M CPU, 2GB of DDR3 RAM, Intel's HD Graphics 3000 and a Thunderbolt socket; what you won't find, however, is an optical drive. Last year's mini Server shipped sans an optical drive too, but this year, both the consumer model and the Server edition ship with no slot up front.


Apple Mac Mini (Core i5)
Specifications & Features (as tested)

  • Mac OS X 10.7 (Lion)
  • 2.30GHz Intel Core i5-2415M (dual-core; 3MB shared L3 cache)
  • 2GB of 1,333MHz DDR3 SDRAM
  • 500GB Hard Drive (5400rpm)
  • Intel HD Graphics 3000 
  • No optical drive
  • AirPort Extreme Wi-Fi (802.11a/b/g/n)
  • Thunderbolt I/O Port (Up to 10Gbps)
  • Four USB 2.0 ports (Up tp 480Mbps)
  • FireWire 800 Port (Up to 800Mbps)
  • SD/SDHC/SDXC Card Reader
  • Full-size HDMI Output
  • DVI output using HDMI to DVI Adapter (included)
  • Gigabit Ethernet Jack
  • Bluetooth 4.0
  • Built-in speaker
  • DVI output using HDMI to DVI Adapter (included)
  • Audio line out/headphone minijack (digital/analog)
  • Built-in power supply (maximum draw of 85-watts)
  • 7.7" x 7.7" x 1.4" (Dimensions)
  • 2.7 pounds
  • 1-Year Warranty
  • Optional: 750GB HDD, SSD, AMD Radeon HD 6630M (256MB)

Direct Price: $599 (as tested)




We had the opportunity to take a look at the base Core i5 Mac mini, which retails for $599. There's also a $799 model with double the RAM (4GB) and a discrete GPU (AMD's Radeon HD 6630M). That one is obviously far more capable for the gamers out there, but if you're looking for a Mac desktop, chances are that gaming isn't a top priority. There are far cheaper PCs in the Windows realm that'll handle games with more poise and performance.

So, what's the real selling point with this tiny rig? As we've mentioned, the price includes the latest version of OS X and iLife, as well as the Mac App Store, but it's sleek design and ultra small form factor mean that it can slide into just about any decor. Is it right for you? Have a look at our full review in the pages to come.
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Design and Build Quality
Every so often, Apple completely redesigns a line. The MacBook Pro transition to the current unibody design was obviously one to remember, and a couple of years ago, the Mac mini transitioned from something that looked like the original Apple TV, into the machine we have today. Turns out, the machine we have here is largely the same machine that we had in 2010, from a design standpoint. The dimensions are the same, but there's one obvious difference in the front of the system: no DVD slot.


The 2010 Mac mini had a slot-loading SuperDrive, while the 2010 mini Server did not. This year, it's impossible to buy a new mini with an optical drive. Apple has a long history of killing off ports and accessories before the PC world. The floppy drive vanished way back when, and eventually the DVI port started to fade from Mac notebooks. And now, it seems the optical drive is next on Apple's hit list. Of course, the machine is $100 less than last year, so it's not like the loss in functionality comes without a discount, but what if you want an optical drive?

As with the MacBook Air line, this is a decision you'll have to make for yourself. Were you planning to use the mini as an HTPC, and make a few Redbox runs every so often? If so, this machine clearly doesn't have the hardware for you. If you were just looking for a compact, small machine that you could easily install vertically and not have anything to worry about in terms of heat / noise, then the mini might be intriguing.


It's typical for an Apple machine to maintain a clean look throughout. That's definitely the case here. The mini is one of the cleanest, sleekest desktops we've seen. The shell is all brushed aluminum save for the black rear (where the ports are) and the black circle/lid underneath, which can be easily unscrewed to remove user-accessible RAM (two slots). Ports on the rear include: an AC power port, 10/100/1000 Ethernet port, FireWire 800, HDMI socket, Thunderbolt (also supports DisplayPort), four USB 2.0 ports, an SDXC slot, audio input, and a headphone jack.

Internally, there's more power than has even been crammed into a mini before. The 2.3GHz Core i5 is a significant upgrade over the Core 2 Duo that came in last year's model, and the memory hums along at 1333MHz instead of 1066MHz. The 500GB HDD is pretty sluggish at 5400rpm, and strangely, Apple only offers an SSD on the more expensive $799 model. You can't even upgrade to it on the $599 build. Sadly, while the RAM is easily accessible, you can't access the HDD easily. So swapping in an SSD after the fact will prove to be a challenge for some.


In use, the machine never gets hot and noisy, even under stress. It's pretty impressive, actually. And these facts make it ideal for HTPC use; again, thwarted somewhat by the lack of an optical drive. Apple has also figured out how to shove the power supply inside the case, so there's no power brick at all. It's a positive step; these small machines tend to have power bricks that are nearly as big as the system itself.


All in all, it's a super sleek system, but there are obvious limitations to the size. No real expansion options, no optical drive, etc. That said, having Bluetooth 4.0 and 802.11n Wi-Fi within a desktop is handy, and Apple throws in an HDMI-to-DVI adapter for those still using the (slightly) older connector. 
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Cross-Platform Tests / Benchmarking
Our Test Methodologies: As the Mac mini uses Mac OS X Lion (10.7), we weren't able to use our normal arsenal of Windows-based benchmarks. So we devised a number of new tests that we could use to compare the machine against a number of other Macs and Windows systems. These tests are broken up into two sections: The first set (below and on the next page) are cross-platform tests, where the same workload was run on both the Mac and Windows systems. The second set consists of Mac-only tests. All tests were run several times on each system to ensure consistency. The comparison systems are as follows:
  • A two-year old, 24-inch iMac. The iMac's config is: 2.8GHz Intel Core 2 Extreme X7900, 4GB 800MHz DDR2 SDRAM, ATI Radeon HD 2600 Pro, 750GB 7,200-rpm hard drive, and running Mac OS X 10.6.4. When this iMac was released, it represented close to the top-end of available configs, and it is still considered reasonably powerful--especially when compared against a laptop.
  • One of the two Windows comparison laptops has this config: 2.13GHz Intel Core i3-330M, 4GB 1,066MHz DDR3 SDRAM, Integrated GMA HD, 320GB 5,400-rpm hard drive, and running Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit).
  • The other Windows comparison laptop has this config: 1.2GHz Intel Core i3-330UM, 3GB 1,066MHz DDR3 SDRAM, Intel GMA HD and ATI Radeon HD 5450 (512MB) switchable graphics, 500GB 7,200-rpm hard drive, and running Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit).
 Performance with Half-Life 2: Episode 2
Gaming Performance

To touch on gaming performance, we chose a cross-platform title that draws moderately on system resources, Half-Life 2: Episode 2. We then ran a pre-recorded demo on each machine. The resulting performance achieved is indicated in frames per second in the graph below.




As always, comparing an Apple machine to a Windows-based machine isn't a true Apples to Apples comparison (no pun intended). We compared the Half-Life 2: Episode 2 test to a slew of other Windows based machines. There are two main things to take away from this, comparisons aside. First, althouhg it is not representd in the graph, it's was nice to find that this machine was able to run this game at 1920x1200 with "High" details and still hit 30-31 frames per second. We maxed out the screen resolution on our test panel (which is also the highest resolution supported through the HDMI socket), and HL2:EP2 ran well.

Secondly, this is no gaming machine. Not even close, despite handling this title with ease. If you tried to run new titles, you'd probably have to chuckle at the results. But Apple never engineered this to be a cutting-edge gaming machine, and given just how few titles actually run on OS X at all, you probably shouldn't even be considering this machine if gaming is a top priority. Windows-based rigs still provide the best gaming experience. The upside is that some light/medium-duty gaming isn't impossible here, but anything newer than a year or so is probably too intense for that integrated graphics processor to handle.

CineBench R11.5 (64-bit)
Content Creation Performance

Maxon's Cinebench R11.5 benchmark is based on Maxon's Cinema 4D software used for 3D content creation chores and it tests both the CPU and GPU in separate benchmark runs. On the CPU side, Cinebench renders a photorealistic 3D scene by tapping into up to 64 processing threads to process more than 300,000 total polygons; while the GPU benchmark measures graphics performance by manipulating nearly 1 million polygons and huge amounts of textures.



Not that the OpenGL score for the mini is actually (slightly) lower than the 13" MacBook Air we reviewed in November of 2010, due to the Air's NVIDIA GPU. But having a lowly Intel IGP and just 2GB of shared system RAM doesn't help matters. The CPU score was obviously a bit higher, but that's what having a Core i5 will do for you. The reality is this: the Mac mini is no powerhouse when it comes to editing serious photos/videos or rendering. If you're a creative pro, you need more horsepower (and more flexibility) than is offered here. That's why the Mac Pro exists. But in a pinch, this is perfectly suitable for the quick Photoshop touch-up and iMovie edit. We experienced no notable lag when doing basic media editing, and the average consumer probably won't stress the limits in these areas, anyway.
 
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Mac-Only Tests / Benchmarking

Performance benchmarking: Geekbench
http://www.primatelabs.ca/geekbench/

To touch on overall system performance, we chose Geekbench, by Primate Labs. This is a widely used, highly respected Mac benchmarking suite that "provides a comprehensive set of benchmarks engineered to quickly and accurately measure processor and memory performance."




These Geekbench scores say a lot. For $100 less than the other Mac mini listed here (we're talking about launch prices, of course), it nearly doubles the benchmark score. The leap made from the Core 2 Duo to today's Core i5 is monumental in the mini. And the numbers are no fluke; the system feels incredibly snappy in use, takes around 43 seconds to boot and was responsive in everything we did. Loading up Photoshop off of a fresh reboot took around 15 seconds, but that's primarily due to the slow 5400rpm HDD. The CPU, however, is a real powerhouse at this price point and form factor. We have to commend Intel on really making great strides with their Core i line of processors in terms of perf per watt.
Performance benchmarking: XBench
http://www.xbench.com/

XBench, created by Spiny Software, is another
widely used, highly respected Mac benchmarking suite that touches on nearly every aspect of performance.


It's a similar tale with the XBench scores. The 2011 Mac mini, even the Core i5 base model we had here, handily trumps past Mac systems based on Core 2 Duo chips... that HDD test notwithstanding. The results aren't quite as impressive as with Geekbench, but the deltas are still notable. It's important to remember that this is Apple's entry-level Mac desktop, yet it's still outpacing the high-end Macs that were out at this time last year.
 
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Summary and Conclusion
Performance Summary: The refreshed Mac mini, with its Core i5-2415M (2.3GHz) CPU, is quite powerful for its price point and form factor. But the limited RAM (2GB) and sluggish hard drive (500GB 5400 RPM) are somewhat of a let down. Overall, the machine is responsive and runs OS X Lion without issue, but getting into more advanced photo/video editing and gaming puts a notable strain on the system. That said, it's plenty capable of playing back 1080p content, HD Flash and YouTube material, and all of the Netflix content you can stand to consume. It's also capable of playing older games like Half-Life 2: Episode 2 at 1920x1200 with high details, which isn't bad given its Intel HD Graphics 3000 IGP. If selected with an SSD (available as a $600 upgrade from the $799 model), performance would be significantly better, but that price premium would make the machine a much tougher sell. 

The Mac mini is an interesting proposition. Without an optical drive, it's hard to recommend for use strictly as an HTPC. Not to mention, an Apple TV device can stream content well enough, and it's but $99. There's also effectively no upgradability here with the Mac Mini either. You can't easily access the hard drive, and there's clearly no room internally for any other components. There's no possibility of adding a TV tuner, for example, unless it's an external one. And Apple's lack of support for USB 3.0 means that all four of the USB ports around back are of the slower 2.0 variety. We definitely appreciate the Thunderbolt port, though; that enables easy dual-display setups, and it also gives users the ability to connect to quick storage devices should the need arise.


As a general desktop, the Mac mini does everything a typical consumer would ask it to, and it does them well. It breezes through iLife, handles Office like a champ, and churns through a 10-tab browsing session without a hiccup. It'll also play back high-def multimedia without any issues. If you just need a basic computer that'll run the latest version of OSX Lion as well as Windows, and you need it to be both small and beautiful, there's a case to be made here. But you'll need to bring your own keyboard, mouse and monitor, as none of those are included. In fact, the only things that Apple tosses in are a power cable and an HDMI-to-DVI adapter.



Per usual, the premium that Apple commands for its products is apparent, but possibly more so than with Apple's notebooks. The low-cost, mid-tower PC market is fiercely competitive, and it's easy to find a very nice Windows-based machine for $599 -- including higher-performing machines with more memory that'll ship with accessories, and plenty of expansion possibilities. From a value proposition standpoint, the new Mac mini falters. Without an optical drive, user-replaceable HDD or keyboard/mouse, its $599 price point questionable, and as we stated before, devices like the Apple TV may be a more sensible streaming option for those who would consider this an HTPC.



It may sound like we're nit-picking, but we actually like the Mini for what it is. It's too expensive to heartily recommend as a small form factor PC though. You probably won't find another sub-$600 SFF PC that looks as good, is as small, runs as cool or makes as little noise as the Core i5-based mini, but $600 goes a really long way in the PC desktop world. And when you remove the optical drive and input devices from the equation, it gets tougher to justify. We're unsure what market Apple's hoping to hit here.

If you have the funds, and want an ultra-sleek, small for factor desktop for a college dorm or as a family PC in the kitchen, that can run OSX or Windows, the latest Mac mini is interesting. It performs well, OS X Lion is included, and it's obviously very low profile as far as desktops go. Just be aware that there are concessions to be made and a price premium to be paid for the kind of form factor and aesthetics the Mac mini has to offer.

     
  • Great overall performance
  • Gorgeous design
  • Ships with OS X Lion
  • Included Thunderbolt port
  • Cool and quiet
  • Robust iLife apps included
  • Pricey
  • HDD is sluggish
  • No optical drive
  • Must purchase adapter cable for Thunderbolt / DisplayPort
  • No USB 3.0 ports



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