Mac Mini offers versatility, better graphics

In the four years since the Mac Mini was introduced, the versatile little box has been updated four times, with the latest permutation finally showing up this month.

I say “finally” because the Mini — Apple Inc.‘s (NASDAQ: AAPL) lone foray into the low end of the computer market — has gained something of a cult status among its fans, and they were rather annoyed that their favorite Apple computer had been neglected since August 2007. In fact, a lot of them had given up on ever seeing a new Mini, assuming the diminutive machine had been left for dead.

Certainly, when I bought a Mini last August, I figured it was a mere matter of days before Apple either pulled the plug on the device or morphed it into something different. I was wrong on both counts. Apple didn’t kill off the Mini; it simply waited another seven months before rolling out the latest version — along with an updated line of iMacs and refreshed Mac Pros.

Since its debut in 2005, owners have found all kinds of uses for the little Mini, sticking it in cars for mobile computing of a different sort or hooking it up to their TVs as an inexpensive media center. Some have even used it as a computer.

Count me among those with a Mini hooked up to a high-definition television, where it dutifully serves as sort of a glorified Apple TV. Not only can I use it to surf the Web, but I can also watch videos, catch TV shows downloaded through iTunes and do big-screen video chats with iChat (and my own iSight Web cam). Versatile indeed.

More firepower, same shape

With the latest updates, Apple has added some solid firepower under the hood, while leaving the Mini’s basic nature intact. The price still starts at US$599 — there’s a US$799 model, too — but it now boasts better graphics, faster DDR3 RAM, a SuperDrive that’s now standard in the lesser model, 802.11n Wi-Fi, five USB ports, a FireWire 800 port and a MiniDisplay Port. The stock processor is an Intel Core 2 Duo running at an even 2 GHz, though you can opt for a marginally faster 2.26-GHz chip if you want to spend another US$150. (My advice: don’t worry about the faster processor. The Mini isn’t really about speed. It’s about price and convenience and, as I said earlier, versatility.)

In other words, Apple has modernized the Mini so that it’s on par with the rest of the lineup. The question is: Are these changes worth the price you’ll pay?

Short answer: Maybe. It really depends on how you outfit the Mini and what you plan to do with it.

I’m not going to focus on performance here, as that’s not the Mini’s strong suit. It’s fast enough for most tasks, and the addition of the Nvidia 9400M integrated graphics processor should be a boon — especially once Apple delivers on Mac OS X 10.6 “Snow Leopard.” That’s because the next version of Apple’s operating system, due out this summer, can offload some of the tasks normally performed by the CPU to the GPU. It’s the same Nvidia chip that’s offered in the MacBook and MacBook Air line and did a fine job displaying 30 Rock (bought through iTunes) in high-definition on the 1,920-by-1,200-pixel screen.

Expect the Mini to be marginally faster than the previous iteration, more so with tasks that hit the graphics processor. Apple cites overall performance that’s five times better than the 2007 model, and the company notes that the Mini will now support one of its 30-in. displays. (It certainly did just fine powering the 24-in. LED display that Apple sent over with the review unit I’ve been using for the past couple of weeks.)

The Mini is about price, value

Given the Mini’s place in Apple’s hardware lineup, I’m focusing on price and value. It is, after all, the cheapest Mac available.

Given the economic downturn, every dollar counts, and it would have been nice if Apple acknowledged that with a price drop. But Apple’s M.O. is to deliver more in hardware and keep its pricing intact — and that’s exactly what it did this time around. In fact, if price is the main consideration, the entry-level model offers a nice advance over the previous model in what you get for your money — with one caveat. The US$599 model comes with a paltry 1GB of RAM.

In this day and age when RAM is cheap, 2GB makes more sense. Sure, Mac OS X will run on 1GB of RAM, but you’re selling the hardware short if you go cheap on memory. Spend the extra US$50 Apple charges for 2GB. Of course, if you’re handy with a putty knife and want to pry off the Mac Mini’s case and add the RAM yourself, you can. You might save a few dollars, and maybe you can do the job without scratching your brand-new computer or breaking off one of the pins that keeps it together.

But really, who wants a scratched and dented Mac?

Your other alternative is to bring the price up to US$649 for a built-to-order 2GB Mini. This one already has a dual-layer SuperDrive, so it can read and burn both CDs and DVDs. And by going with 2GB of RAM, you allow the Nvidia chip to use up to 256MB of video RAM. (It only takes half that amount if your Mini has 1GB.)

Next, you’re going to have to figure out if 120GB is enough to hold your music collection and video library. If so, you’re ready to buy. But wait! Given the just-announced ability to rent or buy hi-def movies through iTunes, that 120GB isn’t going to last long if you’re planning to go the Mini-as-Apple TV route.

So add another US$100 for a 250GB drive, and you’re looking at US$749 for your new “entry-level” Mini. That’s just a hop, skip and a jump from the $799 model, which boasts a 320GB drive and comes with 2GB of RAM standard. (All three drives are 5,400-rpm models, so don’t expect to be burning any barns.)

The moral of the story? If you need extra storage space, forget about the US$599 model. Your best buy is the US$799 version — assuming your wallet will allow it.

Watch the options

Now let’s look at the cost equation from the other end. Start with the US$799 model, opt for the 2.26-GHz processor and double the RAM to 4GB. You’ve just blown past the US$1,000 mark — US$1,049, to be exact — and you’re pushing awfully close to the bottom of iMac territory.

No doubt that’s exactly the plan on Apple’s part. Because for US$1,199, the entry-level price for the newly revised iMac line, you get a solid all-in-one computer/screen combo.

In other words, if there’s still any money left in that wallet, you might want to stretch for the iMac.

When looking at the cost equation, it’s best to think of the Mini as the anti-iMac. The iMac is a stylish all-in-one Mac. Everything you need is in the box. The Mini is a stylish, headless Mac. No screen. No keyboard. No mouse. To get the best value out of it, you’re going to want to have at least a monitor already in hand.

I’ll make it simple: If you buy a SU$799 Mini like the one Apple offered for this review and buy the cheapest Apple display — it’s not really cheap at US$899 — you’ll spend US$1,698. That’s more than enough to buy a 24-in. iMac with money left over.

That said, you can certainly find a much cheaper display somewhere other than Apple — just make sure it’s a DVI monitor so you don’t have to buy an adapter. (The Mini comes with an included MiniDisplay-to-DVI adapter in the box.) But even the cheapest monitor will push the bottom-line price toward US$1,000 if the US$799 Mini is your starting point, and that takes us right back to whether an iMac is a better buy if you can afford it. (It likely is.)

Or if you see the Mini as a media center, why not do what I did: get a cable that connects the Mini to your TV and use that as your monitor. Paired with a wireless keyboard and mouse, it makes quite the spiffy combo.

Final thoughts

In short, the new Mini packs a moderate processing punch, much-improved graphic response, runs quiet as a mouse, offers plenty of ports for peripherals and still makes sense economically — as long as you’re judicious about which model you buy and which options you spring for. Just make sure you get 2GB of RAM if you’re buying the US$599 model, and if you need more room to grow, cough up the necessary money for the US$799 version. Given Apple’s decision to make high-definition movies available via iTunes, that’s the model I’d get if I were buying from scratch.

Computerworld (US)

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