Apple's latest iMacs, especially the 27-inch model, offer good value for money, thanks to their fast performance, attractive design, and large, attractive displays. The new Mac mini isn't quite as compelling. We're looking at only the £650, 2.53GHz model in this review, and, with its particular combination of size and features, it competes in a strange middle ground. It's mostly fast enough to stand side by side with Windows-based PCs in its price range, but, despite its size, it doesn't offer the same flexibility as other small desktops. This machine retains the appeal that Mac minis have always had for those who want a small, not-quite-budget Mac for day-to-day productivity tasks. For any other purpose, you'd be much better off with a Windows-based rival.
Same old chassis
The new mini, introduced by Apple in October, has received no changes to its physical design or external features compared with the last revision in March. The case is still made from a combination of aluminium and plastic, and the size remains a svelte 152 by 51 by 152mm. The mini's ports are on the back only, and include five USB 2.0 ports, analogue audio jacks, a Gigabit Ethernet output, a FireWire 800 port, and both mini-DVI and mini-DisplayPort outputs for video. Unlike with the new 27-inch iMac, the mini DisplayPort on the mini doesn't double as a video input. A mini-DVI-to-DVI adaptor comes in the box. You'll need to pay extra for adaptors in other formats. This all means you have to jump through a few hoops before you can easily connect the mini to a TV.
The changes to the new £650 mini include bumping the clock speed of the Intel Core 2 Duo CPU from 2.0GHz to 2.53GHz, and increasing the RAM from 2GB to 4GB. With more system memory, the mini can also allocate more RAM to the Nvidia GeForce 9400M video chip, which goes from 128MB to 256MB. While it still has a standard-definition DVD burner, the mini is capable enough to play 1080p high-definition video files with no noticeable stutter. The mini's also fast enough so that performing everyday tasks won't seem like a chore, but, for its price, and given that it has few other features to recommend it, it's a poor deal.
For the fun of it, we tried to configure a Dell Inspiron Zino HD to match the mini. The Zino's available CPUs have a lower clock speed than those of the mini, which suggests that Dell has only the living room in mind for its new small-form-factor PC. But, after choosing the best AMD CPU available for the Zino, we bumped the RAM up to 4GB, the hard drive up to 500GB, and added 802.11n wireless networking. The price came to about £470. With the Blu-ray drive and best graphics card, the price came to about £660. Granted, the Zino would probably fall behind the mini in terms of performance, but, with a Blu-ray drive and the included HDMI video output, the Zino seems to be a far more versatile living-room system.
Perhaps it's small consolation, since we don't really recommend buying this desktop, but, like Apple's other systems, the mini's power efficiency is nothing short of amazing, given its specs. We've seen full-fledged nettops that consume more power. Whatever Apple's secret is, it works consistently.
Apple's Mac mini is looking increasingly pricey and short on features compared with the Windows-based competition. As such, it's difficult to recommend.
Additional editing by Charles Kloet