Review: Mac mini 2011

Apple gives the Mac mini a shot of speed while taking the disc away. (August 7th, 2011)

When the Mac mini first arrived on the scene, it was in many ways a tool for Apple to attract Windows users and get them to switch to Apple. Since then, it's still been an occasional switcher tool but is now increasingly used for home theaters and servers. With a Core i5 and even optional dedicated graphics in the 2011, the tiny computer is poised to grow even larger. But will the lack of an optical drive set it back? Read our 2011 Mac mini review to find out.

Electronista Rating:

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Product Manufacturer: Apple

Price: $599 base, $799 as tested

The Good

  • Compact and sleek design.
  • Thunderbolt port for (future) expansion.
  • Much faster than previous gen; quad option.
  • Discrete graphics finally a choice.
  • Relatively easy to upgrade.
  • Quiet and low power.
  • Lion as an OS is high grade.

The Bad

  • No optical drive.
  • No system reinstall media; Internet only.
  • Hard drive not (easily) user upgradeable.
  • No USB 3.0 ports, few Thunderbolt devices.
  • Relatively expensive for a computer without a display, keyboard, or mouse.

When the Mac mini first arrived on the scene, it was in many ways a tool for Apple to attract Windows users and get them to switch to Apple and Mac OS X. The thinking was that it was sold without a keyboard, mouse and display. Windows users already had these and this could give them a taste of the Apple world. It was also in many ways the spiritual successor to the Power Mac G4 Cube, with the critical difference being that it was relatively inexpensive, for a Mac.

Since then, it has still played that role, and continues to be sold without peripherals. It has also evolved into what many consider to be the ideal home theater PC. The latest iteration of the Mac mini has now arrived, and not without controversy. It takes a huge leap forward in speed with Intel's second-generation Core-series processors. The 2.5GHz Core i5 Mac mini we've reviewed also sports a first for a Mac mini: a discrete graphics chip that opens the door to gaming for the first time. But without an optical drive, it's a major gamble on the future of software and that price trumps a DVD drive. We'll gauge in our review just how true that is.

Design and expansion

The Mac mini itself is classic Apple. It revolves around a minimalist, industrial design with a now seamless unibody enclosure borrowed from the previously server-only edition; it's one of the few small form factor computers that looks attractive, not just functional. Underneath the device is a circular cover that is designed to be twisted off to allow you to upgrade the RAM yourself. While we'd like to have the option to more readily replace the hard drive, having quick access to the memory is still appreciated. More adventurous owners can upgrade the drives if they like, although there's a good chance you'll void your warranty in the process as you empty a large part of the case.



On the back, the user is greeted by the same array of ports as on the 2010 model, with one major excpetion. There are four USB 2.0 ports -- USB 3.0 sadly remains missing -- as well as a FireWire 800 port, an SDXC card slot, audio out and line in jacks, and an HDMI port. In place of the pure Mini DisplayPort, however, is the Apple- and Intel-developed Thunderbolt port. While there's not as much expansion as on a tower PC, it's surprisingly good at accommodating most home users and even pros. Who'd have thought just a year ago that a Mac mini could handle an external, multi-disk array of solid-state drives as well as if it were inside the computer?

The omission of the USB 3.0 standard isn't surprising, and it doesn't have much to do with trying to promote Thunderbolt: Intel won't have native USB 3.0 support until its Panther Point chipset arrives in 2012. However, there are at least a number of USB 3.0 peripherals available. You would be hard pressed to find anything to use the Thunderbolt port for at the moment outside of a few RAID arrays. It will of course connect to Apple's new Thunderbolt Display, giving users an even larger array of ports to fill.



Wireless gets its own kick. Networking still comes through 802.11n Wi-Fi, but the Mac mini is Apple's first desktop to support Bluetooth 4.0. The addition lets it not only support the very low power devices that 4.0 allows but also gives the Bluetooth 3.0 support Apple was missing for using Wi-Fi to boost transfer speeds. Like Thunderbolt, there are few if any Bluetooth 4.0-compatible devices to take advantage of the technology; as it's backwards compatible, though, there's no real loss by being futureproof. The Wi-Fi is fast and reliable in our experience, with no drop-outs experienced during our testing.

One trait unchanged since the original, 2005 Mac mini is the environmental friendliness of the system, both on a global level and inside the house. Using notebook parts reduces the idle power to about 13W and the peak power to less than that of many desktop video cards; even if reducing energy dependency isn't on the top of your list, it should return a small amount of money each year. Being smaller and using an aluminum shell goes a long way towards reducing its impact, too. From a strictly selfish requirement, though, it's also just blissfully quiet and can sit in a living room without irking others.

Hardware and new internal options

The Mac mini has almost always shared the performance of Apple's more frugal notebooks, but because it was updated on a slower schedule than most models, usually ended up being the slowest Mac. Not so the 2011 update: it starts off with at least a 2.3GHz Core i5, putting it in the company of the 13-inch MacBook Pro. Intel's more recent architecture, Sandy Bridge, is not just more efficient at the same clock speed; it adds Hyperthreading, or code that can replicate some of the effect of having two cores in one processor. As such, there's some tasks in which even the starter Mac mini will feel like a quad-core desktop, and that will make all the difference for some users.

Apple is back to using Intel for integrated graphics, though unlike any previous year, that's not an embarrassment. The HD 3000 video is at least on paper roughly on par with the GeForce 320M that Apple had NVIDIA custom-design. Because it's now backed by a much faster processor, though, it should still be a tangible leap forward just because the processor raises the baseline for performance.

Our review unit is the higher specified of the standard, non-serrve Mac mini models available. It comes equipped with a 2.5GHz Core i5 that can Turbo Boost to 3.2GHz when one of the cores isn't needed. Users have the option to upgrade this to a 2.7GHz dual-core Core i7 processor. Which model you pick still determines how reasonable the memory is, however: ours came with 4GB of RAM, but the base 2.3GHz system comes with an anemic 2GB of RAM. Apple should have made 4GB the baseline. They can only top out at 8GB, too, so Photoshop workers and other pros with very large memory demands may want to look elsewhere.



Crucially, the server version now packs a full quad-core processor. It runs only at 2GHz, but the quad Core i7 answers a common demand from server admins and even just very CPU-bound Mac mini owners for having very parallel performance. Xserve owners won't necessarily have a replacement. Cluster operators or just those who wanted more grunt for a small server will be very happy, however.

The standard hard drive is a 500GB notebook-sized model spinning at 5,400RPM. Apple hasn't wasted the opportunity to use the space from the missing optical drive. though. There's enough room to install a second hard drive in the standard Mac mini, again like the server model, and it opens new options that couldn't have been considered before in the home edition. If you want, you can have both a 256GB solid-state drive and a 750GB, 7,200RPM hard drive in the one system. It's close to double the price of admission, but it can lead to an extremely responsive system that still has a decently large amount of space.

You can have either of the two drive options by themselves depending on needs, but you curiously can't add just a second conventional hard drive unless you opt for the server model, which limits your video options. Ideally, Apple would let users make the choice, though there's a chance Apple may have found heat issues with the more advanced graphics in the mid-tier model.

As hinted just a moment ago, the new Mac mini's real secret weapon is its video: if you buy the 2.5GHz Core i5 model, you get an AMD Radeon HD 6630M graphics core with 256MB of dedicated GDDR5 memory. While not enough to scare an iMac owner or most Windows gamers, it's a huge leap in what you can expect: a Mac mini can now play some games at moderate detail and will have a much better time driving one or more large displays. We'd consider it almost mandatory if you'll use a Thunderbolt Display.

Performance: objective and subjective tests

The 2.5GHz Mac mini is well equipped to be a solid everyday computer, at least on paper. Apple claims that the 2.5GHz model outperforms the model it replaces by nearly double in both processing and graphics performance. After all, like the previous MacBook Air line, the previous Mac mini range was still lopsided but is now theoretically well-balanced for the price and the tiny design.

Jumping two generations in processor architecture makes it hard to dispute those claims.  In practice, the user interface in Mac OS X Lion is highly responsive, and even with a slow 5,400RPM hard drive in standard trim, programs launch quickly, and everyday computing tasks perform without a hitch. GarageBand handled multi-tracking without any problems with recording latency low and completely acceptable. The only time that we noted a system performance slowdown was when running Word, Mail, Safari, Filezilla, Photoshop, and iChat while performing multiple file transfers in the background -- a circumstance some will see, but not many. Our 2.93GHz quad Core i7 iMac loaded with 16GB of RAM and a 256SSD would have handled this scenario with ease, though we believe that the Mac mini with the faster hard drive and especially the SSD would juggle the tasks almost as well.

A quick check of the Mac mini's performance with the Activity Monitor utility showed that, although the processor was easily coping with the workload and using only about 20 percent of its headroom, the Mac mini was maxing out the stock 4GB of RAM. Consider 8GB a high priority if you expect to work the system hard, though also consider ordering with the 750GB hard drive if you want to eliminate choke points.

To test out the Mac mini's wares against some independent and objective benchmarks, we ran both the Cinebench R11.5 and Geekbench 2.1.13 (32-bit) tests to see how the Mac mini performed.  The addition of the AMD Radeon HD 6630M with 256MB of VRAM makes a huge improvement, in relative terms, to the graphics performance of the Mac mini. Compared to our 2010 MacBook Pro equipped with a 2.4GHz Core i5 and a a discrete GeForce GT 330M for graphics, the new Mac mini is a dramatic leap at 24.5 frames per second on the demanding Cinebench test. The year-old MacBook Pro could only manage 18 frames per second, even with a similar-speed 5,400RPM drive.




The graphics performance of the Mac mini makes it a genuine contender for casual 3D gaming. Games like Bioshock and Portal 2 run smoothly with medium to high detail levels. Professionals using image editing tools will also find the Mac mini to be powerful enough to offer reasonable rendering performance for effects, as long as their art assets aren't so large as to crush the 8GB maximum.

Less surprisingly, the Mac mini performs better in the Cinebench raw CPU stakes as it offers a new processing architecture and a slightly higher clock speed the first generation Core i5 processor found in our MacBook Pro.  In the Geekbench testing, the Mac mini blows past the MacBook Pro with a score of 6526 versus the MacBook Pro's 4790 points. We also checked the effect of having 8GB of RAM on raw performance: it only slightly moves the Geekbench score from 6526 to 6598, suggesting there will be some benefit but that most of it will come from apps already on the limit. We tried adding a 2.5-inch 256SSD to Mac mini that is compatible with the current MacBook Pro line, but for some reason, the Mac mini didn't want to play nice with it as it crippled the system's performance.



Overall, the Mac mini has come of age in terms of its performance. For its size, it is certainly a little powerhouse and offers Mac die-hards an easy and relatively cheap upgrade path to OS X Lion. For the fence-sitters, the addition of the discrete graphics card may encourage you to dip your toes in the water and give the Mac mini a go.

Software

If you're new to the Mac or unfamiliar with its latest OS, check our Lion review first. It's a polished OS that feels fresher and more distinctive than Windows 7, albeit with a few quirks.

Seeing as the Mac mini is designed with Windows switchers more in mind than usual, it does bear mentioning one often unsung advantage: the clean software install. Windows PC builders have gotten better about a good out-of-box experience, but it's still the case that many PCs are loaded with nag-prone third-party antivirus software (somewhat unnecessary with Microsoft's own, newer tools) and custom front ends that may only occasionally get used. These add to the startup times and, importantly, drag down the perceived speed. We'd like if Mac minis came with the iWork apps Keynote, Numbers, Pages, but the uncluttered stock system keeps boot times to a minute and lets you focus on using your computer, not contending background apps and hiding custom interfaces you'll never use.

The absence of the optical drive: going download-only

Like most people, we were surprised to discover that Apple had decided to drop the optical drive in the Mac mini. It may have been as much to drop the asking price by $100 as well as to embrace a download-only philosophy. If you really want or need an optical drive, Apple offers a standalone Superdrive as an alternative for $79, and many generic USB drives should work for less. Compared with an integrated slot loading drive, it's not the most elegant solution, though, and it rules out some more exotic uses, like an in-dash disc player. Some might have even been prepared to pay $100 more just to have the drive built-in. Whichever way you look at it, it's a bold move from Apple that has sparked what was always going to be a divided reaction.

It reminds us of the decision by Apple to drop the floppy drive from the original iMac when it launched in August 1998 and, instead, offered Internet access and CD drives in its place. The "i" prefix was originally meant to represent many concepts, but one of them was the Internet. Apple could see a near future where people shared files electronically, not through physical media.

However, many people see the Mac mini as being quite possibly the ideal home theater PC. For a long time, users had requested an HDMI port on the Mac mini for this very purpose. Apple finally delivered that often requested feature last year, but it now doesn't have a DVD drive inside to feed conventional movies. While it's apparent that much of the media we currently consume is delivered through iTunes, Hulu, Netflix, and other options, many of us still have large DVD collections, while others have also amassed large  Blu-ray collections. If it ever was a pipedream that Apple would integrate Blu-ray into the Mac mini, or any other Mac for that matter, that dream is officially gone.



We can see a time when optical media is dead, but the death knell of optical media has not really started ringing. Sales are down, but not to the point where CDs, DVDs or Blu-rays discs are suddenly scarce. There's also the question of restoring the system in a pinch. You can recover the entire OS online or through a USB drive, but in an era where bandwidth caps can be low for basic users or overly restrictive Internet providers, it could be an expensive proposition.

Even so, while it's not an option for those who want neither download-only stores nor an external drive, it gets much better for conventional users. It's more of an occasional inconvenience than a major burden. With our phones and MP3 players being the repositories of our music, we can't remember the last time we ripped CDs. And even if you don't shop the Mac App Store, you can still get many even very large apps from download-only sources. When we were testing gaming, we used not just the Mac App Store but Valve's Steam to get titles: you won't find a shortage of modern apps, although migrating them from an older system may take some doing without discs to install.

Given Apple's history, we get the lingering sense that Apple is pushing its users down a path that they might come to appreciate later but wouldn't necessarily have taken of their own volition.

In our view, then, the decision to drop the optical drive is premature, but not necessarily a deal killer. It can certainly be annoying if you have no other optical-equipped system to fall back on, and you may end up shelling out for an external Superdrive, eating up most of the cost saving you may otherwise have enjoyed over the superseded Core 2 Duo model. If you're quick, and you really want a Mac mini with an optical drive, you might still find one on Apple's refurbished products site if you're willing to forgo a Thunderbolt port and the discrete graphics performance.

Wrapping up

We found the mid-2011 Mac mini, at least in 2.5GHz form, to be a very satisfying desktop computer experience. It has more than enough grunt for the typical user and runs Lion seamlessly. The new AMD Radeon HD 6630M graphics even makes the new Mac mini a reasonable proposition for those whose gaming or other 3D interests go beyond Plants vs. Zombies. The leap to a Core i5 certainly now gives it enough power to keep up with Adobe's Creative Suite, HD video editing in iMovie, or other tasks that could sometimes be borderline for the older system.



We'll take a gamble and say that the lack of an optical drive won't be a serious setback. The drop in price of $100 is some compensation for the missing optical drive, but if it's your only computer, you will almost certainly want to plump for an external optical reader, much as many early iMac owners paid for floppy drives to ease the transition. It's hard to imagine that the industry will suddenly fall back to depending on optical drives more. Apple may have just been early.

Like with every other Mac mini to date, there's also what's not included: you'll have to bring your own keyboard and mouse, so the $599 price may not be the end if you can't bring over existing input from a previous Mac or Windows PC. You can use most any USB or Bluetooth input you like; Mac-focused hardware will work best for the native keys. We suggest that newcomers take maximum advantage of Lion's new multi-touch gestures with Apple's own Magic Trackpad instead of using a mouse.

Had it retained its optical drive, the Mac mini would have scored a notch higher by being a truly complete system for those who still have a legacy of older discs. Our view is based mostly on the addition of the discrete graphics card in the 2.5GHz edition, which turns it into more of a 'grown up' system that can handle more than just the basics. The Mac mini is a well-built and distinctive system, and a good gateway into the Mac universe if you're a typical Windows user. The only real hitch is that it isn't meant for everyone.

by Sanjiv Sathiah


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