The New Mac mini

After months and months of waiting, the new Mac mini turns out to be exactly what all the rumors said it was going to be — the same exterior design with some changes to the ports on the back. And while the visible changes are fairly minor, just about everything inside has been improved significantly. It may even be just the update you were looking for. Here is the rundown on the new Mac mini.

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Love Comes Quickly

There’s a lot to like here. Just like we saw all over the internet for the past few days, the Mac mini includes five USB ports (up from four) and two display ports — one mini DisplayPort and one mini-DVI. Also included is FireWire 800 (an upgrade from 400 on the previous model) and gigabit ethernet. From left to right, the ports are [1] power, [2] gigabit ethernet, [3] FireWire 800, [4] mini-DVI, [5] mini DisplayPort, [6-10] USB 2.0.

You can also see audio input and output connections above the USB ports (that’s an opening for a lock above USB port #2). These are both dual optical digital and analog connectors so you can plug in either one. The optical audio out is great for those looking to use the Mac mini in their living room connected to a home theater system because you will be able to get surround sound to your receiver.

You’ve Got the Looks

One of the most exciting changes to the mini is the new graphics system. For the past couple years, the Mac mini has been limping along with Intel GMA950 integrated graphics. The new mini sports the nVidia 9400M discrete graphics processor with either 128 or 256MB of RAM shared with main memory. This is the same system used in the new MacBooks and represents an enormous improvement over the dated GMA950.

I am also really excited about the option for two monitors on the Mac mini. This opens up some interesting possibilities for people that were previously considering an iMac with a second display, or a Mac Pro with two displays. I know a few writers, stock traders, doctors, etc. that really want two displays but don’t really need the power (or expense) of a faster machine.

The support for two displays also makes the Mac mini a little more interesting as a home theater device. It would be possible to use the mini on the desktop and run a longer cable to a TV for watching DVD’s, Hulu, boxee, etc.

We don’t know yet if the 9400M will result in a better TV picture for media applications, but it should be a good machine for that purpose.

I am disappointed that Apple has not released new Cinema displays to go with the Mac mini and Mac Pro upgrades (the 24″ LED Cinema Display has that Magsafe connector for laptops), but 3rd party options are plentiful.

I’ve Got the Brains

The Mac mini CPU has been updated to the latest portable Intel Core 2 Duo running at 2.0GHz with a faster front-side bus speed of 1066MHz. There is a configure-to-order option for the 2.26GHz processor available as well. The Mac mini still has two SO-DIMM slots, but max memory has been increased to 4GB.

If you’re thinking about ordering more RAM, I would recommend getting it from Apple for $150. Yes, you are going to pay more than you would if you bought 3rd party RAM (about $80), but that extra $70 is going to be worth it to many people to have the RAM covered under your Apple warranty or AppleCare protection plan and not have to worry about cracking open your Mac mini to pull the RAM out or put it back in if you ever need to bring in the Mac mini for warranty service.

Being Boring

The new Mac mini has been updated to include wireless and bluetooth as a standard feature in all models. Wireless is now 802.11n capable, so you can enjoy the faster speeds on the updated Airport models that were also announced today. There is not much to say here, except thank goodness that it is finally done.

Always On My Mind

Or at least, always on my drive. The next big option on the new Mac mini is the selection of hard drive capacities. 120GB is standard on the base model and a 320GB drive comes installed on the high-end model. There is a 250GB drive available in the online store too. All of these drives are 5400 RPM 2.5″ laptop drives, so they are not particularly speedy. With the new FireWire 800 connection, I would think most people would be better served by buying an external drive rather than paying to upgrade the internal hard drive. You would get more storage that is both faster and cheaper than the internal drive upgrades.

To put the upgrade cost into perspective, you could buy a 500GB FireWire drive for the same cost as upgrading from 120GB to 250GB, or a 1TB FireWire drive for the cost of upgrading to the 320GB internal drive.

Was It Worth It?

I love the upgrades to the Mac mini. Maybe I am just giddy because we have been waiting so long for this blessed day to come, but I think the new mini deserves serious consideration. The Mac mini is a respectable little machine and the new graphics system and display options really make it a nice choice for many people to use as a desktop computer. I think the main reason to consider getting an iMac would be the speed of the graphics system if you are doing 3D design work or rendering, or if you are using large Photoshop files where the speed of the hard drive would impact your workflow.

The Mac mini makes a nice home theater or media device. You’ve got more display connections and better graphics and more USB ports to connect TV tuners and other devices. I think people will snatch them up for use in the living room.

That’s My Impression

While there are two choices in the Mac mini, I am left feeling like there is really only one choice. The $200 price difference between the two models comes down to 2GB of RAM (rather than 1GB), 256MB of shared graphics RAM (compared to 128MB) and a 320GB hard drive (instead of 120GB). I would definitely get the base model for $599 and upgrade the RAM and buy an external hard drive rather than buy the upgraded $799 model. I think you just get a lot more for your money that way and if you’re going to miss the graphics RAM, you should probably buy an iMac.

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