Apple has breathed fresh air into its line of Mac minis, whose specs haven't changed since an update in August 2007. The company has added significantly improved Nvidia graphics, a new 2GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor and a larger hard drive. Those changes are welcome, and we're also impressed by the mini's power efficiency, as well as its ability to handle multiple programs at once.
But we still take issue with the overall value of the mini, which is available now for around £500. The mini remains a distinctive-looking computer and has more than a few useful features. We can easily imagine it in a light-duty work role. But, if your goal for a lower-cost desktop is hardware bang for your buck, you're better off with a more well-rounded Windows system.
In terms of design, there's not much here for fans of the previous minis to get excited about. The case is made of the same aluminum housing and white plastic top, and the only minor differences in the rear panel are an additional USB port (bumping the total up to five), a single FireWire 800 port, a Mini-DVI input and a Mini DisplayPort input. That display-standard change is significant because it lets the mini support two displays for the first time, and the internal hardware is also powerful enough to drive a 30-inch, 2,560x1,600-pixel LCD.
At the moment, Apple's 24-inch LED Cinema Display is the only monitor that will connect to a Mini DisplayPort input without an adaptor. A Mini-DVI to single-link DVI adaptor comes in the box, and Apple sells a variety of other adaptors for both inputs.
For £500, the basic mini reviewed here gives you a 2GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor with an integrated Nvidia GeForce 9400M graphics chip, 1GB of DDR3 RAM, a puny 120GB hard drive running at 5,400rpm, a dual-layer DVD burner, and built-in 802.11n wireless networking. You need to add a monitor, a keyboard and a mouse to get a complete set-up.
In comparison, the Acer Aspire X1700 slimline PC cuts the price down to £450 for a faster processor speed, three times more RAM and a staggering 520 added gigabytes of storage space -- at 7,200rpm, to boot. The Acer lacks the mini's good looks and wireless networking, but its hardware becomes even larger when you consider expansion possibilities, both inside and out.
Thanks to its accessible case interior, the Acer system provides room for a dedicated half-height graphics card, along with a spare full-sized hard-drive bay and a PCI Express slot.
On the outside, its prospects improve even more. Its HDMI video output is more living room-friendly than the mini's Mini DisplayPort out, and it also needs no special adaptor to connect to a television. Its eSATA input also offers nearly four times the data bandwidth and twice the transfer speed of the mini's FireWire 800 jack. Those features all give the less expensive X1700 more flexibility as either an office or a living-room PC, with the potential to add more features later. In comparison, Apple's traditional closed-box system looks decidedly rigid.
Although we question the mini's hardware value, Apple helps matters by including its iLife '09 application suite. We're also glad to see the Mini-DVI to single DVI dongle mentioned above, but, as usual with the mini, there's no mouse or keyboard. We're also disappointed that Apple left off the tiny Apple Remote this time around. You can add an Apple keyboard and mouse set for £62, and the Remote for an extra £15. Other options include a faster 2.26GHz CPU for an extra £120, and more RAM and larger hard drives, both for reasonable prices.
We have mixed feelings about the mini's benchmark performance. On the one hand, it came in behind the X1700 on three of our four application tests. That's hard to forgive, considering the mini's higher price tag.
The mini performs better in terms of multitasking, however. We suspect OS X continues to provide Macs with an advantage by requiring fewer system resources than Windows Vista. We imagine most people will use low-cost desktops for basic word processing, Web surfing and emailing, rather than ripping through large-batch media-file conversions, so, although we wish the mini's performance was more balanced, if we had to pick one area for it to excel in, multitasking would seem most appropriate.
The mini's gaming performance is also to its credit, considering the older model's near-total inability to render a 3D image. Thanks in large part to the new Nvidia graphics chip, we were able to run Quake 4 at a 1,600x900-pixel resolution at decent image quality with minimal lag. Our gaming experience wasn't entirely seamless and more recent games will surely provide a larger challenge, but, as a budget gaming system, the mini is at least respectable.