∞ Hands on: 2.26GHz Mac mini

I’ve been using Apple’s newest Mac mini for the past week or so and found it to be an eminently practical desktop computer that’s a solid value for the money. It’s not as sexy as the new iMac that Jim Dalrymple recently looked at, but for Mac users on a tight budget – and who isn’t these days – the Mac mini offers a great user experience.

macminifrontI had been using the previous generation Mac mini – the model introduced this past March. Up until that system’s release, Apple had given the Mac mini short shrift, not refreshing it for more than a year. That was a significant update, changing the ports on the back, a new motherboard with faster processor and improved graphics capabilities, and such.

Evolutionary improvements

This fall update isn’t as dramatic a shift, but it does bring the Mac mini up to spec with Apple’s other consumer systems, incorporating in its base model a 2.26GHz Intel Core 2 Duo microprocessor and retaining a motherboard that features Nvidia GeForce 9400M integrated graphics. Meatier minimum RAM specs (2GB on the low-end system, 4GB on the high-end system) mean the integrated graphics have a little more room to work with. This isn’t a hardcore gaming system or a system suitable for really heavy work dependent on the GPU, but it’s good enough to get by, and my 14-year-old son finds it perfectly adequate to play games like Feral Interactive’s Black and White 2 without any complaints.

macminibackPhysically, the Mac mini looks identical to its predecessors – 6.5 inches on a side and about 2 inches tall, with a slot-loading 8x “SuperDrive” taking up the front. On the back is a mini DisplayPort jack and a mini DVI port (the mini can support two displays simultaneously, within reason – don’t forget, you only have 256MB of RAM allocated to video to work with), Gigabit Ethernet port, FireWire 800, USB ports, audio input and output – same as before. Inside is Airport Extreme (802.11n-compliant) Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR.

Apple includes a mini DVI to DVI display adapter in the box, just as they did before. DVI’s the de facto standard for most of the new flat-panel displays you’ll see in stores, so it should be trivial to hook up, but if you can’t make the investment and need to recycle an old analog CRT, that’s not a problem – just buy an Apple mini DVI display adapter when you get your Mac mini. They’re available from Mac resellers and Apple stores.

The Mac mini comes pre-installed with Apple’s standard suite: Mac OS X 10.6 “Snow Leopard” and iLife ’09. That’s surprisingly good enough for a lot of first-time Mac switchers to get by for months without having to add anything new.

The $799 model that’s joined the Cohen household comes from the factory with a 2.53GHz processor, 4GB of RAM operating at 1066MHz and sports a 320GB hard disk drive. That’s about a 25 percent bump in processor speed, twice as much RAM and the same amount of storage capacity. I’m not terrifically worried about the lack of storage increase, as the device has FireWire 800 (making it better equipped than my new MacBook, which uses the same processor).

I won’t be cracking the case any time soon to put in a new drive, that’s for sure. Even though Apple won’t void your warranty if you open one up, Mac minis are an unmitigated pain in the ass to work on, and are best left sealed unless you know what you’re doing and don’t mind the frustration of dealing with tiny things. I’m not so into that – hell, I even find working inside a Mac Pro to be claustrophobic at times. That’s what comes with having a physique like Shrek.

I don’t have a suite of benchmarking tools to measure specific aspects of the Mac mini’s performance, but I clocked the amount of time it took to open applications, encode some basic MPEG-2 video segments, rip a DVD to MPEG-4 and run a time demo in a couple of games.

What I discovered is that the new Mac mini is faster, but not always proportionally faster than the old Mac mini – 500MHz more clock speed, faster RAM and a faster motherboard bus design definitely make a difference, though not always a 25 percent boost, at least not in my tests. Differences in operating systems, hard disk types and other factors may have played into my results.

I doubt the under-the-hood enhancements will make enough of a difference to switch if you already had a Mac mini that you bought earlier this year. With only seven months or less of use, you’re probably still getting a lot out of your investment. But if you have a 2007-era Mac mini that you want to replace, you’ll definitely notice a significant performance boost. And if you have a PowerPC-era Mac that you’ve been thinking about replacing, but you’re on a tight budget, like me, I can’t think of a better way to step up to the Intel Mac experience than the new mini.

Excellent value

The Mac mini certainly doesn’t have the “wow” factor of the new 27-inch iMac, and it’s not portable like the new MacBook. But it shouldn’t be overlooked. It’s a fine little system for users looking to get a new Mac without having to break the bank. Especially if you’re thinking about buying a Mac after working with a PC, and you want to recycle a display, keyboard and mouse that are working fine, this gives you a way to do exactly that.

We continue to ride through one of the most serious economic downturns in recent memory, and Apple is keenly aware of that. With the new Mac mini, Apple has improved the performance and value of its most affordable desktop computer, keeping a great Mac experience within the reach of users who have to tighten their belts.

  • I’m thinking about getting the small Mini for my parents for Christmas. CPU and hard drive will be fine for them, they just surf the web and write the occasional letter, but what would you say, are 2 GB enough for OS X, or should I BTO it to 4 GB?

    • 2GB should be enough for mild use, Andre – that’s what I have in my MacBook, which has identical specs, and it’s great for surfing and light productivity use.

      Disclaimer: I have a 4GB upgrade kit on order, but that’s because I’m not your parents. 😉

    • I do some pretty heavy work with my Aluminium Unibody MacBook, including video editing and code. I bought it in January 2009, and upgraded to 4GB only a couple of weekends ago.

      You’re not going to find much that you can’t do with 2GB of memory, and I’d wager for your parents you’re not going to find much that 4GB would improve.

  • Every time I look at the Mac Mini, the iMac blows it out of the water UNLESS price is your ONLY criterion.

    Mac Mini for $600 and a Speedmark score of 111.

    iMac for $1200 and: Speedmark score of 148 gorgeous 21.5-inch monitor larger disk up to 16GB of memory new mouse and keyboard

    • “Every time I look at the Mac Mini, the iMac blows it out of the water UNLESS price is your ONLY criterion.”

      No shit, Sherlock. 🙂 That’s the whole point of the mini.

      • Jocca

        We just got the 27″ iMac and for the money we paid, I do not think there is anything out there to compete with this model. Just the quality of the display is making me wonder how did Apple come us with such reasonable prices? In short it is well worth breaking the bank over this.

        • I’m glad to hear you love your iMac. It’s a remarkable machine. I spent a few minutes with one at my local Mac reseller and was very impressed.

          Unfortunately, I don’t have the budget for that, and “breaking the bank” to get one is simply not an option. Plus I have a very nice 17-inch display, keyboard and mouse that I’m very happy to continue to use. In that respect, the Mac mini is a better value and better suited to my limited budget.

          And if my informal, unscientific poll of friends who are considering a new computer is any indication, there are others in the same boat. For them, the Mac mini may ultimately be a much better value, whizbang iMac technology and improved benchmarks notwithstanding.

    • jd-

      does the imac do dual 24" matte displays for 600 bucks? tied to a kvm switch for a pc? negative… for some of us mac mini does just the work we need it to. it is actually a VERY good niche product and i'm def not a fan boy.

  • Michael Adams

    I’m currently using a mid-2007 Mini (2.0 GHz Core2Duo, 2 GB RAM, 120 GB HD – Apple refurbished November, 2008). Suits my requirements very nicely. My wife’s 1.66 GHz Mini, also a refurb, is serving her quite well too. Yes, they are tight in there, but not impossible. I’ve upgraded the RAM in both and swapped out the HD in the 1.66.

  • AdamC

    The most difficult part of opening the Mac mini is getting it out of the casing, once it is done – only 4 screws hold it together. Remove these four screws you can do whatever you want.

    Try it, it is not as difficult as you thought.

    Btw an external HD with an OS installed can be used as the primary OS.

  • Steve Basile

    If you have a mini or similar computer with more than adequate monitor, keyboard, and mouse, then a $599 or $799 mini looks a lot more attractive than a $1199 iMac.

  • JohnO

    Am I reading these specs correctly? Can it drive two 20 inch Dell 2005FPW LCD displays with DVI at 1680×1050?

    “Simultaneously supports up to 1920 by 1200 pixels on a DVI or VGA display; up to 2560 by 1600 pixels on a dual-link DVI display using Mini DisplayPort to Dual-Link DVI Adapter (sold separately)”

    If so, I might have found a replacement for my PowerMac Dual G5 which has a Radeon 9600 XT video card. On the other hand, I do do some video transcoding on that machine… Not a lot. Moving stuff back and forth to the TiVo mainly. No gaming use.



    • Yeah, that’s right.

      As far as video transcoding, you can certainly do it. Is it as fast as other machines, like my eight-core Mac Pro? Not at all. But it’ll work, which is more than you can say for your Power Mac G5 when it comes to Snow Leopard or any other Intel-only product. 🙂

  • JohnO

    Thanks Peter. I figure I’ll get another 4-6 months out of the PowerMac before the lack of Snow Leopard goodness becomes a real issue.


    • Steve Basile

      If you have Leopard then Snow Leopard is not that compelling.

      Going to a duo or quad core Mac is way more exciting than anything Snow Leopard offers over Leopard.

  • gaz

    I’ve got an early 2009 mini, and I love it. It’s just the 2 GHz model, but I’ve upgraded it with 4GB of RAM and a 500GB Seagate 7200RPM drive that has a 5 year warranty. It’s a really nice, dependable machine. At home, I drive a 27″ 1080p monitor with it with no problems. It’s no serious gaming PC, but the 9400m does a surprising job nonetheless. I can run WAR on it @ 1440×900 with decent detail and framerates. I love this little thing so much I’ve been taking with me to the sites where I’m contracted instead of my Thinkpad. OS X 10.6, Windows 7 – runs both without a hitch, and is a very very nice, compact desktop. I’m seriously thinking of buying an older mini (or two) and dropping them off with my customers to use as my on-site desktops.

  • MacDSmith2

    I have the top end 2.66 GHz Mac Mini with the 500 GB Hard drive. I love it! It’s very fast (Geek Bench score of 3750), (Apple Insider Benchmark of < 7 seconds). I love the flexibility and portability of the little tiny box. It can go anywhere easily and connect to anything. Looking forward to getting lots of Apple goodies to go with it such as Airport Extreme, wireless keyboard and an ethernet NAS 1 TB drive for movies.

  • Gary

    I got one of the 2.26 minis from the last round special order. I love the thing 🙂 I bumped the memory to 4 gigs and swapped out the drive for a WD 320 black.

    I do CAD design with Vectorworks and this little box does everything I need it to and more … at a fraction of the electricity used compared to the Mac Pro it replaced 🙂 Not to mention the space saved and the noise. They are utterly silent. I put a watt meter on the system. It was ridiculous.

    Mac Pro = 130 watts doing everyday stuff, not in sleep mode Mac Mini = 14 watts doing everyday stuff, not in sleep mode

    280 hours a month usage @ 12 cents a kW

    Mac Pro = 43.68 a month to turn it on Mac Mini = 4.70 a month

    That’s 468 bucks a year difference on the electric bill. It will pay for itself in less than two years.

    You speak of limitations with running dual screens? I run two 26″ Planar’s with mine with no problem at all. None. In addition to Vectorworks, I use a variety of graphics apps and SketchUp Pro, all of which are reasonably demanding. Think back, it wasn’t that long ago we were using discreet graphics cards with a gasp whopping 32 megs of video buffer memory ..and running two screens.

    Unless you are gaming or doing something like video processing … these little marvels are all the computer anyone can use …. at a fraction of the cost of a conventional computer.

    • Steve Basile

      Gary, Really happy to hear your story. However, many folks doing CAD don’t have patience for a single Core 2 Duo processor and the consumer video chip in the mini. Four cores and a mid to high end video card would be the min I’d recommend for a pro. Budget permitting, the more cores the merrier. Continued success with your setup. Steve

      • Gary

        Hi Steve.

        For a Pro? Uhhhhh … I have been doing do house design blueprints professionally for years. I know some guys doing great stuff still using DOS CAD programs for gods sakes. Being a pro means you do it for a living and make money at it.Which also means you think of things like …how much does my equipment cost and cost to run verses what am I doing with it. I have 2 large format printers each of which costs more than most computers.

        There seems to be a big misconception regarding CAD as a software type. Most CAD work ..professionally .. is done as vector drawngs which doesn’t take any hyper fire breathing cutting edge machine. Which is what I do. Blueprints. There may be a lot of lines and layers and views, but its still just lines. 2D or 3D, The mini handles that and two screens too without a blinking an eye.

        What distinguishes CAD from more typical vector drawing programs is the precision, how lines are created and organized and how the elements interact with each other.

        Its the renderings in 3D which take a lot of cpu and gpu horsepower and the impression from outside the professional community that CAD requires some sort of super computer to use. That same mindset led me to having the Mac Pro to start with. Unless you are doing rendering flybys, there is no animation in CAD and no real use for a hyper horesepower gpu.

        I use Vectorworks. Its a major, heavy weight program. The only other CAD application for Mac which is like it is ArchiCAD which is about 4 grand. I can run that on the mini too, but its not geard to doing the kind of work I do.

        Vectorworks the mainstay full featured professional CAD app widely accepted in the architecture community which costs 3 time as much as the computer I’m using it on. Half the price of AutoCAD and runs circles around AC in some ways, but 1600 bucks for one progran is nothing to sneeze at.

        The rendering module is sold separately, its not necessary for my work and I used it so infrequently, I didn’t even bother getting it last time.

        It’s my own view that for most people doing anything but animations, redering and video work … computers have reached a point where they are overkill for what we are using them for. Budget permitting? I have the budget for it. But ..why would I? Last time I noticed, my local electric company is not a charity organization.

  • Gary

    To put this in perspective: Vectorworks minimum system requirements are a 2 gHz G5 on 10.4 or a 2 gHz Pentium on XP with 2 gigs of ram. Neither of which is anything cutting edge by todays standards. The more capable the hardware and the more memory you have obviously the better, and they encourage it, but still, its not anything mind blowing.

    I keep a hopped up maxed out old G4 around to run an old OS 9 classic CAD program I have a lot of work done in which I need to refer to every now and again. The last machine which will boot into OS 9, it was introduced in late 2002, it had dual 1.25 G4’s, a 167 mHz bus, a max of 2 gigs of DDR 333 mHz memory, the hottest graphics card at the time was an NVidia 4600Ti with 128 megs of ram, OpenGL and Quartz Extreme accelerated and ATA 100 drives. SATA was just appearing on the scene. It been upgraded with dual 1.8 G4’s, a SATA drive card running a 10 K Raptor drive. the Ti is still the fastest graphics card for OS 9 and it has 4 gigs of memory, though the logic board doesn’t recognize the extra 2 gigs of ram, its obvious in use the system does make use of it.

    Lots of bruhaha parts and upgraded verbiage which all SOUNDS impressive doesn’t it? It does in actual performance beat the pants off a machine meeting the minimum requirements to run the program and runs the program just fine. I used this machine for my professional work for some time and I could continue to do so, but in spite of all the noise reductions I’ve done to it, it’s also irritatingly loud, uses a lot of electricity and is now dead ended for the OS system. A big part of the slow resistant adoption of Vista is that the technology advances far more rapidly than most companies upgrade their equipment or software. Most for profit professional machines in use are older and out of date, far less capable than this G4 of mine.

    The only upgrade I have done to the mini is 4 gigs of ram and put in a larger, faster drive than Apple offers.

    Using exactly the same system software – 10.5.8

    Tested with Cinebench release 11, Geekbench and XBench

    The lowly consumer mini is:

    2 – 3 times faster in the processor tests 4.5 – 6 times faster in the memory tests 2 – 6 times faster in Open GL tests 2.5 times faster in Quartz Graphics tests 10 times faster in the User Interface

    The only test where the old machine beats it is the disk test which is not unexpected because the 10 k Raptors are still a hot setup for a single drive even today.

    My point being, we have come so far, so fast between 2002 and now, even the lowly consumer mini with its integrated graphics is many times faster a machine than what was the hottest fastest professional grade bleeding edge setup available a mere 7 years ago.

    At a fraction of the electricity used, the space used, the noise it makes and the money used to buy it. It may be the bottom of the barrel compared to what else is being sold now, but is this machine a wimp or is the other overkill?

    I need a four or eight core cutting edge machine to get into the pro ranks?

    I think not.

    Not only that, I don’t think a lot of other people who bite into all those impressive sounding parts, specs and sales hype, especially for work usage, do either.

    But I don’t think anyone would complain at a smaller electric bill 🙂

  • SLmanDR

    I often see the “not for serious gaming” proviso. Has anyone got experience with Halo running on the Mac Mini?

    Thanks for the review Peter, and the comments. SL