The littlest Apple received a makeover that includes more than just the widely publicised move to Intel processors. True, the Mac Mini line now features two Intel-based models: an entry-level, single-core Mac Mini Core Solo for AU$999 and a faster, more feature-rich dual-core Mac Mini Core Duo for AU$1,299. Both offer impressive specs for the price and will tackle most common software with ease. The new models are also welcome gifts to entertainment-minded customers, with additions that include a remote control and Front Row software, better multimedia ports for entertainment-room connections and an improved ability to share media with other computers on the same network. We tested the higher-end configuration, and we think that if you're shopping with a Windows Media Center PC in mind, you should also consider the Apple Mac Mini, which is far easier to set up and use. You'll have to buy a TV tuner separately, and we have reservations about its video quality, but dollar for dollar, the Mac Mini is one of the best home-theatre PCs on the market.Design
Apple's new Mac Mini Core Duo wisely maintains the square, squat shape of the original (a 165.1mm square that's (50.8mm high and weighs 1.31 kg)). It's small enough to fit in any crowded entertainment centre and portable enough to unhook and take with you. As before, you'll have to add your own keyboard, mouse and display, but their absence keeps the price down, which is an added boon for people who have existing peripherals and don't want to pay for new ones that they don't need. And while its default configuration costs AU$1,299 our review unit cost AU$1,454 due to a AU$155 upgrade to 1GB of memory over the standard 512MB.
The Mac Mini's front looks as minimal as before, with the small addition of a barely perceptible IR receiver to the right of the CD/DVD slot. The included Apple remote transmits by infrared, so you'll need a direct line-of-sight to your Mini to control it. The backside of the case offers more changes; Apple has added two more USB 2.0 ports, for a total of four. The Ethernet port has been upgraded to 10/100/1000BaseT, for up to 10 times faster Internet or local area connections. Best of all, though, is the addition of combined digital and analogue audio input and output. This is a big help for entertainment-centre connections, because you can now rely on your Mac Mini for audio with digital clarity. The Mac Mini has a DVI video output built in, but it comes with a VGA adaptor if you have an older monitor. If you want to connect it to a television, the DVI port is flexible enough to accept adaptors for a variety of connections, among them DVI-to-S-Video/composite, and DVI-to-HDMI. The back also holds a single FireWire 400 port.
The Mac Mini is a quiet operator, and the design helps it stay cool with no need for a noisy fan. It produces a low hum while spinning a disc, but it's so low that it will likely be drowned out by other sounds around it. And as before, the Mac Mini isn't a sealed box, but it's not made for easy upgrades. If you need to add more memory after checkout, you're probably better off going to an Apple store or an Apple repair shop than trying to upgrade on your own.Features
Under the hood, the Apple Mac Mini Core Duo has been beefed up nicely, most notably with a 1.66GHz dual-core Intel Core Duo processor. The Mac Mini Core Solo uses a single-core 1.5GHz Core Solo CPU. Each processor features 2MB of shared L2 cache and a 667MHz frontside bus. The Core Duo configuration we tested features an 80GB serial ATA 5,400rpm hard drive, 512MB of 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM (expandable up to 2GB), and a SuperDrive (double-layer DVD burner) -- specs that haven't changed since the line was refreshed in July 2005.
We're also happy to see that both 802.11g Wi-Fi networking and Bluetooth 2.0+EDR remain standard features. Although even the lower-price configuration is AU$350 more expensive than before, you get enough of a boost to the computing power and enough new features to make the price bump worth it.
Also prominent among the new features is Front Row, Apple's media centre software that debuted with the iMac G5, and Apple's lighter-size remote. The software and the remote make it possible to browse videos, music tracks, DVDs and photos from the comfort of the couch. Front Row brings the ease and intuitiveness of the iPod's menu structure to the Mac Mini, and it will feel familiar to anyone who's comfortable with Apple's eponymous music player. Front Row also gains an important improvement with this release, which in turn exposes a flaw with Windows Media Center.
Windows Media Center (MCE) is definitely more robust than Front Row, giving you in-menu power to do things such as build file libraries and set preferences. Front Row's strength lies in its simplicity and the fact that it's tied into iTunes. Front Row adopts all of your iTunes settings, which presumably are already how you like them, thus eliminating the need for Windows MCE's directory organisation features. And thanks to Apple's Bonjour local networking technology, Front Row lets you easily share media from other computers, Macs or Windows PCs, on the same network as long as they use iTunes (with the exception of photos, which require iPhoto, a Mac-only app for now). In addition to music, you can stream and play video files stored in iTunes, so you can use Front Row to play MOV and MPEG-4 videos. You can stream iTunes-purchased DRM content, but only after you authorise the Mini to play content from a specific iTunes account. With the other systems on our network turned on and set to share, Front Row found them easily. We can't say the same for the Intel Viiv-certified Dell XPS 400 with Media Center we just reviewed. We tried using that system to share music from our Mac Mini, but it required a long song and dance between the Mac Mini's and the Dell's network settings that we never really got to work.
While the previous Mac Minis had ATI Radeon graphics processors, the Mac Mini now offers an Intel GMA950 graphics accelerator integrated with the system controller. The GMA950 is a poor 3D chip for crunching the frames you need for gaming, but it does add pixel shader support. That feature, which is not processor intensive, enables graphic effects, such as the shimmering water droplet effect, when you add a new Dashboard Widget. Cool graphical tweaks like that aren't possible on the older Mac Minis.
The Mac Mini can handle a variety of media-playback tasks but, like all Macs, still lacks a TV tuner. Apple sells a TV tuner on its Web site for AU$294.95. Another potential shortcoming is that the included Front Row remote, while compact and elegantly designed, lacks the full functionality of the chunky Windows Media Center remote. It can't pause a video, then advance frame by frame, for example.
Like every Mac, the Mac Mini comes with a media-rich software bundle, led by Apple's iLife '06 suite, which includes iTunes, iPhoto, iMovie HD, iDVD, GarageBand, and iWeb, the newest member. These apps let you not only import music and play videos from the start, they also let you edit home movies, create professional-looking DVD menus and compose music. The bundled third-party software has changed slightly and now includes Quicken for Mac 2006, a collection of classic board games, ComicLife (for turning photos into comic book-style pages), OmniOutliner, and trial versions of Apple iWork '06 and Microsoft Office 2004 for Mac. The included software is either coded for the Intel processor or runs in emulation mode using a built-in, invisible emulator called Rosetta. Not all Mac software has been coded for the new processors yet, though, so you should verify that the apps you'll need will run well on an Intel Mac before you buy.Performance
We gave the Apple Mac Mini the complete rec-room test to find out exactly how powerful a home-theatre PC it really is. Hooking it up couldn't have been simpler, as we got it connected to four large, flat-panel TVs, each within minutes (using a direct digital distribution amplifier with four DVI outputs). Screen colour varied among the sets and we learned that users should take time to carefully calibrate the Mac Mini with their televisions. The calibration wizard in the Displays System Preference is a help, but it's also confusingly worded and overly difficult for nontechnical users.
Given Apple's tradition as a media-friendly company, we were shocked during our DVD and high-definition video-output tests to discover the poor image the Mac Mini sent out. Apple didn't include 3:2 pulldown processing as part of its video-out specifications, resulting in image quality that's quite degraded. This processing is necessary for high-def screens playing video from film sources and is found in even low-cost components. The Mac Mini's DVD- and video-output quality was marred by false contouring (banded or splotchy colours), moirÃ© patterns (line distortion) and jagged diagonals. We've seen $50 DVD players perform better.
As for its benchmark scores, our expectations for the Mac Mini weren't sky-high given its budget price and it performed about as well as we expected. In our iTunes-encoding benchmark test, the Mini showed a serious improvement over the previous high-end Mac Mini, a 1.42GHz PowerPC G4 model, demonstrating the kinds of processing improvements Mac Mini owners can expect from the Intel Core Duo chip. The previous Mac Mini took 203 seconds to encode a CD into MP3 files, while the current model took only 122 seconds.
(Lower times are better)
Our Adobe Photoshop and Sorenson Squeeze tests are more demanding of the new Intel-based Mac; because the programs run in emulation, they're not yet available in Intel-native versions. The Mac Mini Core Duo performed poorly on both of these tests; on Sorenson, even the PowerPC-based Mac Mini SuperDrive beat it. We expect (or at least hope) that when the new, Intel-friendly versions of these apps come out, performance for the new Macs will improve. But Adobe has said that it might be more than a year before it releases an updated version of Photoshop. If you depend on Photoshop or another nonnative app, we suggest putting off an Intel-based Mac purchase for as long as you can. Apple has a history of updating its systems' specs with little to no price increase, so you might be able to get more computer for your money by the time all of the software has caught up.
(Lower times are better)
(Lower times are better)
On our Doom 3 graphics test, the Mac Mini easily bested two recent Viiv-branded Media Center PCs, although these two have particularly poor specs and graphics cards. We recommend none of these systems for gaming, however.
(Higher scores are better)
NOTE: Products in this test are for comparative purposes only and are not necessarily available in the Australian market.Support
Apple's support resources remain merely mediocre. Buy a Mac Mini Core Duo, and you'll get only 90 days of toll-free phone support (9am to 9pm (AEST), Monday to Friday; noon to 6pm Saturday) and a one-year warranty on parts. Apple's phone support has historically been good, although we're distressed to learn that Apple is opening a call centre in India, introducing the potential for the well-documented type of language and overall customer satisfaction issues that Dell experienced with its own outsourced support operations.
For an additional AU$229, you can purchase the AppleCare Protection Plan, which extends both the phone support and the warranty to three years. Apple also offers terrific online support resources, including articles, FAQs and forums.