byNilay Patel||June 18th 2010 at 8:00pmJune 18th 2010 8:00 pm
The Mac mini has long been the oddball child of the Mac family: it's the only consumer-level machine from Apple that isn't a fully-integrated experience, and it's the only Mac to have had a sub-$1,000 sticker price in some time. But people love this little weirdo, and they love to do weirdly awesome things with it -- we've seen Mac minis stuffed into everything from old G4 Cube shells to volleyball-playing robots to pianos to... DeLoreans. Yes, DeLoreans. And, of course, people have longed been connecting Mac minis to HDTVs and using 'em as a media players -- it's small, quiet, relatively powerful, and it's a real computer, so it can play virtually any video file you throw at it. And now it's gotten even more attractive as a home theater PC, since Apple's given the newest Mac mini a striking unibody makeover, NVIDIA GeForce 320M graphics, and -- a first for any Mac -- an HDMI port, making it a dead-simple addition to your HDTV. On the flip side, the base price of the only stock consumer configuration has gone up to $699, and to be blunt, much cheaper PCs have had HDMI ports forever. So is the mini worth the premium? Is it the ultimate small PC for the living room -- and beyond? Read on to find out.
Mac mini (mid 2010)
Sleek, attractive design fits anywhere
Low power consumption
No Blu-ray options
On your own for home theater support
The new mini represents the first major redesign in the product's history since it was first introduced in 2005. That's partially a testament to the minimalist good looks of the previous design, of course -- it's managed to blend in with every Apple design trend of the past five years. By the same token, the new design promises to have equal staying power: it's at once both simpler and more deeply considered. Obviously the major portion of the case is the aluminum unibody, which is thinner than the previous-gen at an inch and a quarter, but slightly bigger around at seven by seven inches square. Apple tells us the new and old minis are essentially the same size by volume; you might think of the new mini as being a flattened-out version of the old. In fact, the new mini looks like nothing so much as the Apple TV -- but we'll get to the heart of that comparison later.
The new mini doesn't actually sit flat on a surface -- it actually rises up off the ground by a few millimeters on a circular pedestal. This is for two reasons: the front lip houses an air intake, which is vented out the back, and it also creatively conceals a WiFi antenna, which would otherwise be stifled by that all-aluminum enclosure. Bluetooth and a second matching WiFi antenna are also located on the plastic back panel for 360-degree coverage. We tried the mini all over the house on our 5GHz WiFi network and suffered zero problems, so it seems like this little trick was effective for us -- we'll see how others with larger or more complex WiFi setups fare.
About that pedestal: as you might have noticed from our hands-on photos, flipping the mini over reveals a circular access door, which you can twist off to get at the RAM. It's hard not to marvel at the sheer Apple-ness of the panel the first time you interact with it -- other companies simply don't make computers like this. Unfortunately, you can't get at anything other than the RAM once the panel is off, as the hard drive isn't user replaceable. That's pretty silly, in our opinion: hard drives have a nasty habit of failing, especially when you run 'em non-stop in servers and video playback machines, and we'd much rather have a hard time upgrading the RAM once at the outset than feel helpless about replacing a glitchy hard drive.
Round back there's a pretty standard array of ports: four USB, FireWire 800, gigabit Ethernet, an SDXC card slot, mini DisplayPort, HDMI, mic in, and audio out, which supports optical out as well. Apple says the idea is for the mini to be able to plug into most everything out of the box, so there's an HDMI-to-DVI adapter packed in the box, and you can obviously score a VGA mini DisplayPort adapter as well. The HDMI port itself is said to be "HDMI 1.3-compliant," and it'll carry up to eight channels of audio and run displays up to 1920 x 1200, although it doesn't support the little-used Deep Color. As with the previous mini, you can use both display outputs simultaneously; the mini DisplayPort supports a max res of 2560 x 1600. Oh, and this is the first time Apple's done an SDXC slot, so that's nice -- expect to see that on other SD-equipped Macs as time goes on.
Inside, the mini is very similar to the $999 MacBook: our tester was the lone standard configuration, with a 2.4GHz Core 2 Duo, an NVIDIA GeForce 320M GPU, 2GB of RAM, and a 320GB hard drive. It's not a ton of computer for $699 -- you can get any number of Core i5 PC towers with similar GPUs for the same money -- but as usual, that's not really what Apple's going for, and what you lose in raw computing power you gain in saved power power, as the mini draws less than 10 watts of power at idle, lower than almost every other competitive machine. What's more, the new 85-watt power supply is now built right in, so there's no power brick, which is quite nice, especially for home theater and other nonstandard installations. (In fact, the power plug is the same as the Apple TV, so you can swap in the mini right in place.)
The mini is also exceptionally quiet: we never heard the fan kick in, even while we played games or watched videos. That's not to say the fan wasn't going, but just that we never heard it. Given our recent experiences with incredibly obnoxious MacBook Pro fans, we're marking that in the plus column. The mini was also laudably cool -- we never felt it get even slightly warm after a full day of testing.
Of course, there's one very notable hardware omission here: a Blu-ray drive. It's sort of amazing that Apple will happily sell you a $700 computer with an HDMI port that doesn't support the best, easiest and highest-quality consumer HD playback format available, but for whatever reason the company just doesn't offer any machines that do Blu-ray, even though it's a member of the Blu-ray Disc Association. When we pressed them about it, Apple told us they just don't see customer demand for BD drives because the format has yet to take off. We obviously disagree, but that's the final answer -- maybe the mini's newfound affinity for HDTVs will finally push Apple to offer Blu-ray in the future.
At this point the performance characteristics of a 2.4GHz Core 2 Duo Mac with a 1066MHz bus are pretty familiar territory; Apple's had similar basic hardware in its lineup since 2008. The new mini adds the NVIDIA GeForce 320M graphics processor to the mix, which is a more potent successor to the familiar 9400m from the previous model -- it's still integrated graphics, but it's reasonably fast integrated graphics.
Needless to say, the new Mac mini was more than capable of basic tasks like browsing, word processing, and running iTunes. And unlike the Atom- or Ion-based nettops you might consider putting under your TV, the mini is also more than capable of running HD Flash video without any hesitation -- and it'll be even better when Flash 10.1 "Gala" ships with hardware video acceleration for Mac OS X. The mini can also play virtually every other video file you might throw at it using either QuickTime with the open-source Perian component or other popular video apps like VLC or Movist, which is our new favorite. We didn't have any issues playing 1080p files from a variety of sources, and we wouldn't have any hesitation doing a little light iMovie work on the side. On the straight benchmark front, the mini put up a Geekbench score of 3385, which is right in line with what we'd expect.
Where the mini does struggle is gaming performance. Although the GeForce 320M can handle less taxing games and lower resolutions just fine, it can't hang once you crank things up -- we averaged between 17-20fps running Portal at 1920 x 1200 with the default settings, and about the same when we ran it at 1080p connected to our TV. If you're willing to step it down, though, you should be fine -- we got 30fps running Half-Life 2 Episode 2 at 1280 x 800. Passable, but if you're a hardcore gamer you're probably not looking at Macs anyway.
In the living room
So this is where it gets interesting -- people have been using the Mac mini as a basic HTPC for years now, and the new model's HDMI port certainly makes it seem like Apple's given the little guy its blessing to invade the living room. It's not quite that simple, though -- and if you were hoping to just drop in the new mini in place of an aging Apple TV, well, you've got some surprises coming. First, you should note that all the HDMI port really gets you is a simpler interconnect story; otherwise you're still dealing with a full-on computer, not an integrated media device. Second, the fact that you're using a real computer means that you need some sort of keyboard and mouse to do anything of value -- sure, you can click through Front Row using an Apple Remote, but that's a pretty limited experience compared to even the Apple TV, and you didn't just pay $700 for a limited experience. Apple was pretty upfront about this: they told us that the mini's HDMI port is about offering flexibility, not making a play in the living room, and that mini customers who wanted to hook it up to a TV were probably savvy enough to find their own software and input methods. In fact, the only HDTV-specific piece of software on the mini is a new underscan slider in the Displays preference pane, which lets you dial in the size of the image on your TV. Apart from that, you're on your own here, Chico.
That said, the mini is a capable little HTPC once you get it set up and going with the software of your choice: we obviously tried out Front Row and Boxee, which both worked flawlessly, and we had no problem playing back a 1080p MKV over HDMI once we installed Perian. Since the mini can output up to eight audio channels over HDMI, it's technically possible to run a full 7.1 surround system from it, but getting DTS audio output in OS X from anything other than a DVD is seemingly impossible, so if you're a stickler you should be transcoding to AC-3 surround and sending that to your receiver. Like we said, you can't just hook this up to a TV and go -- you've got to baby it a little if you want the best experience. Of course, all this would be a lot easier if Apple would just offer a Blu-ray drive, but we digress.
Update: Turns out VLC will send encoded DTS output over HDMI, but you have to specifically tell it to do so under the audio menu. Huzzah!
That's really the only hardcore home theater testing we did -- other, simpler things like playing back Netflix and Hulu obviously work just as well as they do on any other Mac, and you won't run into any problems. Of course, you can also purchase or rent movies and TV shows from the iTunes Store; we didn't run into any problems doing that, obviously.
And that's really it -- the Mac mini is just a Mac, albeit one that's really easy to hook up to your TV. If you want to take the leap into having a full-on computer in your living room, it's a fine way to start, since it's small, quiet, cool, and fast. Just know that getting the best experience isn't necessarily plug and play -- unless you're willing to spend some time monkeying around with semi-obscure utilities like Audio MIDI Setup, putting a mini under your TV might cause more problems than it solves.
Apple tells us its goal with the Mac mini was to make a small, flexible computer that would fit into whatever environment people wanted it to go -- the company seems quite chuffed with the number of people who put minis into cars, for example. By that measure, the new Mac mini is a raging success -- it's one of the most perfectly-executed small PCs we've ever encountered, and it can indeed hook up to almost anything and accomplish nearly any task. If you've got $700 and you need a small Mac, you're going to be pretty happy with a Mac mini.
On the other hand, $700 ain't cheap. You'll almost certainly get more bang for those bucks in the PC world, although you'll sacrifice some fit and finish. It's also fairly easy to find a $700 HDMI-equipped PC with a Blu-ray drive, which is a striking omission from the mini -- especially since it seems so perfectly suited to the living room. No, the mini isn't the perfect HTPC, although it's close. But if you can live without Blu-ray and you can afford the price tag, the mini promises to be just as lovable an oddball as its predecessor.