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

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

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There is one thing noticeably missing: an optical drive. The uninterrupted aluminum case no longer has a slot for disks to pass through. Gone is the venerable SuperDrive, capable of reading and writing to CDs and DVDs. As with the MacBook Air, Apple is attempting to create an all-digital, disc-less future.

Putting the new Mini through its paces

As the owner of a 2008 Mini, I was very much looking forward to testing the new model. The Mini's attraction has always been about power per square inch as well as cost. With this value equation in mind, I requested the entry-level $599 model when Apple offered Computerworld a Mini for review purposes. I planned to use it in the living room and as a space-saving desktop.

Plugging the Mini into a work environment was easy; setting it up in my living room was even easier. In either setting, you need your own keyboard, mouse and display (either a computer monitor or a TV). The living room setup required only plugging in the power and HDMI cables (with the HDMI going to my TV). Everything else was wireless: Internet access used Wi-Fi, and peripherals were connected with Bluetooth.

The new Mac Mini fixes many of the gripes I had with earlier models. I still use my three-year-old Mini, but it's been supplanted in the living room by the smaller, quieter AppleTV. The older Mini's power brick, converters and additional wires did nothing for the decor, but it was the fan noise that finally convinced me to retire it to the office.

Last year's unibody redesign changed a few things, such as the aforementioned power brick, which is no longer required since everything is built in. The new Mini runs cool to the touch under light load; only after converting video does it ever become warm. It's also silent: There's no more distracting fan noise, which you'll appreciate when sitting at your desk or on your couch.

Even better, this machine is more than fast enough to be a workstation. Everything I threw at it ran as well as it does on my other Macs. Apple's new Mac operating system, Lion, while problematic on my 2010 Nvidia-based MacBook Pro, didn't crash at all on the Mini. Software from Adobe (such as the latest Creative Suite), Microsoft (Office 2011) and Parallels was also responsive.

In the living room

In the living room, any files that QuickTime and iTunes couldn't play (there are a lot) were handled with ease by the free VLC. The Mini even fed sound to the surround system. (For true living-room immersion, however, you have to use third-party hardware like El Gato's TV tuners). Even with the integrated graphics, the Mini performed well when playing movies and streaming video -- no stuttering -- alleviating concerns that it would suffer in comparison to more expensive Macs.

Note: Since Apple killed Front Row in Lion, there's no centralized media software built into OS X for TV use. Basically, you'll be relying on a slew of free apps -- such as VLC and iTunes -- to play media files. Thankfully, both VLC and iTunes can be controlled using apps found in the App Store (VLC Remote and Apple Remote, respectively). So, be warned: using a Mini with a TV is sort of a slap-dash affair that requires different bits of software depending on what you want to do.

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