If you're after a decent desktop computer but you want to save as much space as possible for pictures of Emma Watson or little statues of kittens, Apple's latest Mac mini is definitely worth a look.
Our model packed a 2.5GHz, dual-core Intel Core i5 chip with 4GB of RAM, delivering very swift performance. But, rather than use the mini as a stand-alone desktop PC, this guy might be better suited to being hooked up to a TV and used as a home-cinema computer.
The Mac mini range starts at £529. Our configuration will set you back £699.
Design and connectivity
The new Mac mini looks very similar to the previous model. It has the same square shape, with rounded corners and a shiny Apple logo on top. It's a very minimalist design but rather an attractive one -- the computer certainly looked pretty sat on our desk among the stacks of empty coffee cups and discarded crisp packets.
The body is machined from a single piece of aluminium, rather than being built up from numerous different pieces, resulting in a very sturdy unit that resisted our attempts to cave its top in. It's not designed to be carried around on your travels, but we're sure it could take a beating anyway.
The only discernible change in terms of appearance is the lack of an optical drive on the front. Removing the optical drive is likely to be a controversial move. On the one hand, users have the ever-growing Mac App Store to take advantage of, allowing them to download software, thereby reducing reliance on CDs. Indeed, Apple is looking to move users away from physical media and towards digital downloads of software, music and videos.
On the other hand, you won't be able to play DVDs or CDs on the mini, rip or burn media to discs, or install any software that isn't available in the Mac App Store. We understand Apple's decision not to include a disk drive in the MacBook Air -- we wouldn't want anything spoiling that slim design -- but we can't help thinking that removing the optical drive from a desktop computer causes more problems than it solves.
For some, not having the ability to play DVDs on their computers will be a big loss, especially as many desktops now feature Blu-ray drives for playing movies in sparkling high definition. It's also annoying to have an HDMI output without a DVD drive, because you can't funnel your discs to a TV through the mini.
Others will be less bothered, as content can still be streamed online or downloaded.
It's important to consider how much you're likely to use a disk drive. If you don't think you can live without it, the mini won't be for you, but you may find you can cope well enough with online streaming and software downloads.
Around the back of the mini is where the action is. You'll find an Ethernet port, an HDMI port, a Thunderbolt port (which also works as a mini-DisplayPort), four USB 2.0 ports, an SDXC card slot, and audio in and headphone out jacks.
We're pretty sad not to see USB 3.0 support on the Mac mini. The Thunderbolt port offers super-fast data-transfer speeds, but, at the moment, there are very few peripherals that can use the connection. There's also only one Thunderbolt port on the mini so, if it's being used by a display, you won't be able to use it to connect an external hard drive, unless the display also has a Thunderbolt port.
We'd much prefer to see a USB 3.0 port for hooking up an external drive. It's no quick task to transfer a couple of hundred gigabytes of kitten videos via USB 2.0.
Apple is known for taking a minimalist approach to its products and nowhere is this more apparent than in the box of the mini. Unlike other computers that ship with a keyboard and mouse -- you know, so you can actually use the thing -- the mini comes almost entirely alone. If you want to use it as a computer, rather than as an expensive paperweight, you're going to have to buy the peripherals separately.
For a start, you'll need a keyboard, and Apple's wireless model will cost you a cool £57. You could then go for the Apple Magic Mouse, which supports multi-touch gestures on its glass top, but that will cost you £59. Alternatively, you could plump for Apple's more recent Magic Trackpad, which works in exactly the same way as a laptop trackpad, only it's bigger. It also supports multi-touch gestures and costs £59. We paired the trackpad with our mini and found it quick and simple to use.
Of course, you could just buy any USB mouse and keyboard for the mini and save yourself a bundle, but we have to admit that Apple's models are very pleasant to use.
When we first turned the mini on, neither the keyboard nor the trackpad would sync with the computer, so we were forced to use spare USB devices to set up the user accounts before we could manually sync our Apple gadgets. This was annoying, and will be even more so if you don't happen to have spare computer parts lying around.
The mini also comes without a monitor. Apple's 27-inch Thunderbolt Display is very bright, stunningly crisp, and plugs into the mini using the Thunderbolt port for super-fast data transfer. That chap will demand 899 of your hard-earned pounds, though, so, unless you're an oil baron, we suggest looking for a decent monitor without an Apple logo on it. Doing so will probably save you about 600 quid.
There's an HDMI-to-DVI converter in the box, so you can still plug in most monitors. Alternatively, you can grab an HDMI-to-D-sub converter and use practically any display under the sun.
Instead of a monitor, you could also hook the mini up to your TV and use it primarily as a media-centre PC, but we'll come back to that later.
The Mac mini isn't designed to be a powerhouse that will tackle the most demanding of games, but rather as a smooth all-rounder, with decent components built into a small and attractive body. We threw our benchmark tests at it to see what it's capable of.
The model we reviewed contained a 2.5GHz, dual-core Intel Core i5 processor with 4GB of DDR3 RAM. To assist with games, it also used an AMD Radeon HD 6630M GPU with 256MB of VRAM.
To start, we ran the Cinebench 11.5 benchmark test. The mini achieved a score of 24.6 frames per second in the render test and 2.8fps in the CPU test. By comparison, the 13-inch MacBook Air with a 1.7GHz, dual-core Intel Core i5 processor and 4GB of RAM returned a score of 2.24fps in the CPU test, and still proved easily powerful enough to handle video streaming and some light video-editing work.
We then hurled the Geekbench test at the mini and were presented with a score of 7,040. Again, that beat our 13-inch Air's score of 5,851, as you'd expect, given the more powerful chip. The Air was still very nippy, so the mini should fly through most tasks you send its way.
We asked nicely if the mini would encode our 11-minute 1080p video file into 24fps H.264. It agreed, and managed to do it in a nippy time of 14 minutes and 20 seconds. Being able to handle 1080p video encoding in such a breezy time shows that the mini will happily handle high-definition video playback and streaming, and will also tackle some photo- and video-editing work. Just don't expect it to fly through processing raw images.
The mini is quite capable of playing back high-definition video while undertaking some pretty intense multitasking, with various programmes open and several open tabs in the Safari Web browser.
Because we enjoy a spot of gaming, we booted up Valve's Half Life 2: Episode Two and sent good old Gordon Freeman running around hitting things with crowbars and launching debris into Alyx Vance's pretty face with the gravity gun.
Overall, performance was smooth and enjoyable, with no noticeable drop in frame rates even when we were battling through more intense scenes. While walking through the outdoor areas with wide open landscapes, the frame rate stayed at around 60fps. In smaller areas, with less for the computer to process, this rose to around 80fps, and dropped to 35fps in rich areas with intense action. Even at 35fps, the game felt pleasingly smooth, and at no point did we notice the computer struggling to keep up.
If you find yourself needing more grunt, you can easily open up the bottom of the mini and bolster the RAM.
Mac mini as a home-cinema PC
The mini is certainly powerful enough for you to hook it up to a standard monitor and use it as a regular PC. It may not have the requisite grunt to be your primary machine if you make a habit of undertaking intense photo and video editing, or if you want a seriously powerful gaming rig, but it will happily cope with all manner of office and Web browsing tasks.
Due to its diminutive proportions, it will also prove a good choice for students in halls of residence -- or those of you with small rooms -- who want a decent desktop that doesn't take up much space. That said, if space is a huge issue, we'd suggest opting for a powerful laptop, such as the Asus U36JC. It costs the same, offers plenty of power and won't require a static monitor.
The mini could be better suited, though, to being hooked up to a TV and used as a home-cinema PC. The HDMI port allows the mini to send high-definition video and audio to any TV with an HDMI input, and its small size means it can sit happily by your telly without annoying you.
Apple's set-top media streamer, Apple TV, costs £101, and is worth considering if you intend to use the mini exclusively as a home-cinema PC. Still, Apple TV lacks many functions you may want from a home-cinema system, such as the ability to access on-demand services like BBC iPlayer.
Apple TV also offers no internal storage -- you rent digital content, rather than buy it -- so you're unable to store your film collection locally to play through your TV. With the mini, you can store your movies and TV shows to its hard drive and -- as it's a full computer rather than simply a media streamer -- you can use any of the online catch-up services and movie-rental sites, such as LoveFilm.
If you use the wireless keyboard and trackpad, you can sit back on your comfortable sofa and control your Mac's display on your TV, either watching your media or using it as a standard computer for gaming or Web browsing. Web browsing on a TV never looks as good as on a proper monitor, though.
Apple has ditched its media-centre interface, Front Row, from OS X Lion. Front Row was a handy tool for using the mini with a TV, as it easily pulled in your locally stored content and provided quick access to various online services. There are various third-party applications available through the Mac App Store, though, that aim to replicate the functionality of Front Row, so they're worth checking out.
If you decide to use the mini as a dedicated home-cinema PC, you may suddenly find yourself missing the optical drive, as you won't be able to play your DVDs or lovely Blu-ray discs on it. At least the default 500GB hard drive is spacious enough to store a decent amount of downloaded content.
Apple's latest Mac mini is a cute little computer that will be equally at home in an office environment or in a stylish living room under a big TV. It's powerful enough to eat through high-definition content and offers enough grunt for gaming too. With its HDMI output, the mini could also make a great home-cinema PC when it's hooked up to a TV, allowing you to sit back, sip a cup of tea, and stream online content until you fall asleep. Lovely.
Edited by Charles Kloet