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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To see how a Mac stacks up to others I've used, I like to export a fairly complex 50-minute video created in iMovie. (I export an iMovie file using Apple's "Large" settings, resulting in an h.264 m4v file with a resolution of 960 by 540 pixels.) The 24-in. iMac I reviewed in 2009 rendered the movie in two hours and 15 minutes; the 21.5-in. 3.06GHz iMac released last year rendered the movie in one hour and 49 minutes. This Mini was able to render the project in one hour, thirty-three minutes and twenty-six seconds -- a nice reminder that under the hood lives Intel's Core i5. It is quite the capable little chip.

A few gripes

What's not to like? For starters, the price is a little disappointing. The original promise of the Mac Mini was "the affordable Mac," but over time its price has crept up -- as, admittedly, has the quality of the design. This year's version starts off $100 cheaper than last year's, with a really nice bump in performance. But remember, the Mini no longer has an optical drive. (That's not a bad tradeoff for some, but it's potentially problematic for others, including anyone who might have planned to use a Mini in the living room as a DVD player.)

The loss of the optical drive means you'll be more dependent on the Mac App Store for software. One reason the iPhone and iPad have been so compelling is the App Store, which Apple earlier this year rolled out for the Mac. Old news? Maybe. Big deal? Definitely. The Mac App Store is one of the biggest reasons Apple was able to kill off the optical drive, though OS X lets you wirelessly access a DVD or CD drive on another computer if you need to. (The option for doing so is under the Sharing system preference.) Or you can buy an external SuperDrive for $79. It plugs right in to one of the USB ports. If you require constant access to an optical drive and don't want to buy an external unit, this Mac Mini is not for you. If you're not really using optical disks any more, the DVD/CD Sharing feature will get you by in a pinch.

I'd also criticize Apple for using last year's Mac Mini design, sans the optical drive slot -- Apple must have a ton of these cases just waiting to be used! But at least the extra internal space allows you to use third-party kits like this one to expand storage with a second hard drive. (Warning! This can be a difficult install, though that obviously depends on your skill level and comfort with taking machines apart.)

I mentioned earlier that the ports are all located at the rear of the machine, so as not to break up the aluminum design. That's probably not much of a problem if the Mini is within reach on your desk, but it could be an issue in some living room setups.

Bottom line

I'm sure there will be comments about how you can build your own, cheaper media/work PC (which is possible), but for those interested in purchasing a Mac, this Mini is the least expensive option. It makes a great living room machine for anyone looking for a full Mac OS X experience on their TV, and it fits in just fine in the office if you're looking for an inexpensive Mac. Recommended.

Michael deAgonia, a frequent contributor to Computerworld, is an award-winning writer, computer consultant and technologist who has been working on computers since 1993. You can find him on Twitter (@mdeagonia).

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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