Apple's latest Mini gets a 'serious' speed boost

It gains a low-end Core i5 chip, but loses the optical drive

Since its unveiling in January 2005, the Mac Mini has been the cheapest Mac that Apple sells, making it the least expensive way to get hardware that natively runs OS X. In the past, this usually meant settling for older components -- especially compared to the pricier iMac and MacBook Pro lines. Although Apple has updated the Mini's look several times since its debut -- most recently in 2010 -- the internal hardware often received only minor improvements.

That changed in July, when the newest Mini received significant upgrades -- including some serious speed enhancements -- as well as an interesting subtraction or two, one of which might be a deal-breaker for some potential buyers.

What's inside

The new Mini is but 1.4 in. high and retains the squat 7.7-in.-square aluminum shape that arrived last year, a big improvement over the earlier white plastic/aluminum model. It weighs 2.7 lbs. and feels absolutely solid -- as it should, considering that it is cut from a single block of aluminum using Apple's patented unibody-carving techniques. It sits on a palm-sized, circular, plastic base that can be twisted open for quick access to internal components such as the RAM.

The Mini comes in a box that's actually smaller than the OS X software boxes from just a few years ago. Inside that box is just the Mini, a power cord, an HDMI-to-DVI converter, two Apple stickers, a small welcome booklet and a warranty agreement. There are no software disks to lose, and, even better, no power brick to take up additional space.

Low-end minis have a dual-core 2.3GHz Intel Core i5 processor, 2GB of 1333MHz DDR3 memory (you can boost it to as much as 8GB through the Apple Store, or to as much as 16GB through third-party vendors), a 500GB 5400rpm hard drive, and an integrated Intel HD Graphics 3000 (which shares 288MB from main memory). Price: $599. For $200 more, you get a faster 2.5GHz dual-core i5 chip, 4GB of RAM, the same 500GB hard drive and a discrete graphics processor called the AMD Radeon HD 6630M, which offers 256MB of dedicated video memory.

The Mini can be optioned in a variety of ways, and it's entirely possible to customize one that will perform faster than an iMac, though the extras add up quickly. If you start with the $799 model and opt for 8GB of RAM, a Core i7 processor and a 750GB hard drive/250GB SSD drive combo, you'll spend $1,849! For a Mini.

All minis come standard with 802.11n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth and a host of ports on the back: FireWire 800, an HDMI port (perfect for home entertainment uses), an SDXC slot, gigabit Ethernet, four USB ports, and optical/analog audio in and out.

There's also the new Thunderbolt port. Thunderbolt replaces the Mini DisplayPort used before, but since the port is the same shape, displays or adapters that worked with the old Mini DisplayPort will work with Thunderbolt. The biggest difference is what you don't see. Thunderbolt is a new connection technology that can move a lot of data quickly (it's 20 times faster than USB 2.0, and 12 times faster than FireWire 800, according to Apple). This is a good thing for anyone looking to squeeze the most out of this machine, particularly if you have a growing digital library and plan to use Thunderbolt-based drives for external storage.

The Mini's graphics card supports monitors via both the HDMI and Thunderbolt ports, simultaneously, for video mirroring or extended displays. And according to Macworld, the $799 Mini's dedicated graphics card can support up to three displays -- as long as you daisy-chain the monitors over Thunderbolt.

Mac Mini
The latest Mac Mini loses the optical drive (though an external one is available from the Apple store).
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