2011 Mac mini review: Ding dong, the disc is dead

2011-mac-mini

Apple’s recently updated computers include the MacBook Air, which I looked at last week, and also the Mac mini. The new Mac mini does away with the optical disc drive, leading to a tidy price reduction for Apple’s diminutive desktop. So sans disc drive and with the addition of Thunderbolt and dedicated graphics, how does the new mini stack up as a desktop and as a home theater PC?

Specs and stats

The Mac mini I’m reviewing here is the $799 model, which comes with 4 GB of RAM, a 500 GB hard drive, a 2.5 GHz Intel Core i5 processor and a dedicated AMD Radeon HD 6630M graphics card with 256 MB of RAM. Connection options include 4 USB 2.0 ports, FireWire 800, a Thunderbolt connector, HDMI, Ethernet, digital/analog line in and line out ports and an SDXC card slot. It also has 802.11n Wi-Fi networking, and the new low-power Bluetooth 4.0 specification.

The new Core i5 series processor pushes a lot of weight compared to previous generations. Running it through Geekbench revealed scores of 6902 on average in my tests, compared to 3627 for the Mac mini released in 2010 (higher is better). Geekbench measures the maximum theoretical performance, but those higher scores should translate to noticeable speed improvements in overall performance.

While all the new Mac minis are much better at CPU-intensive tasks, the $799 model should really excel when it comes to graphics. Thanks to the dedicated AMD Radeon HD 6630M card, which marks the first time the Mac mini has had a dedicated card (maybe made possibly by dropping the optical disk), tasks like video editing and gaming go more smoothly on this mini than on any before it.

 

Performance

For me, the new Mac mini is replacing a much older model (2007, the first Intel Core 2 Duo version) that acted as the nerve center of my home theater setup. Compared to that machine, the new Mac mini offers many advantages: The larger stock 500 GB drive means I can depend less on external storage; HDMI out provides a single cable connection option that doesn’t require any adapters when used with an HDTV; SDXC support means I should have no problem viewing home movies or vacation slideshows from the cameras of visitors; and Thunderbolt promises to eventually make it possible to use huge, fast external storage media libraries a possibility, thanks to devices like the Pegasus RAID array.

On the other hand, the new Mac mini does away with the built-in optical disc drive, so users looking to play back their DVD movies either have to pony up an additional $79 for the MacBook Air SuperDrive, or set about converting their existing media library. Personally, the DVD drive removal is a welcome change; I long ago abandoned physical media for the convenience and reduced clutter of digital purchases and rentals. But if you have an extensive DVD movie collection you aren’t eager to part with, look at Apple’s deals on previous-generation refurbished Macs for a media center PC that will better suit your needs.

If you’re looking to use the new Mac mini as a workstation or traditional PC, this update has a lot to recommend it. I found that — like the MacBook Air I reviewed last week — it deals well with the load caused by using multiple open apps simultaneously, including demanding apps like Photoshop CS5 and iMovie. What it doesn’t do as well as the MacBook Air is load apps quite as fast, or handle shutdown and startup with the same lightning speed. That’s due mostly to the spinning disk drive which the Mac ships with by default, but Apple does offer a (fairly expensive) SSD customization option.

There’s one area where the new Mac mini has quite a bit of unique niche appeal: it’s road-readiness. With just a couple of input devices and the Mac mini itself, which has just a power cord with no heavy and unsightly brick, it actually gives Mac notebooks a run for their money in terms of physical footprint. Frequent travellers could easily pack one for use with the HDTVs now common in most business hotel rooms. And if they want a device that’s a desktop at home and offers more screen real estate than a laptop on the road, it’s quite a bit cheaper than a MacBook.

Verdict

Apple’s newest Mac mini is the best yet, thanks to a lower price tag and processor updates that deliver big CPU performance boosts with even lower power consumption. If you’re looking for a fairly future-proof home theater PC, or a low-cost, moderately powered workstation that can follow you wherever you need to go, this is the Mac for you.

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