Review: Apple's Mac Mini offers versatility, better graphics

The new improved Mini starts at $599, but you can push the price past $1,000 if you're not careful

In the four years since the Mac Mini was introduced, the versatile little box has been updated four times, with the latest permutation finally showing up this month.

I say "finally" because the Mini -- Apple Inc.'s lone foray into the low end of the computer market -- has gained something of a cult status among its fans, and they were rather annoyed that their favorite Apple computer had been neglected since August 2007. In fact, a lot of them had given up on ever seeing a new Mini, assuming the diminutive machine had been left for dead.

Certainly, when I bought a Mini last August, I figured it was a mere matter of days before Apple either pulled the plug on the device or morphed it into something different. I was wrong on both counts. Apple didn't kill off the Mini; it simply waited another seven months before rolling out the latest version -- along with an updated line of iMacs and refreshed Mac Pros.

Since its debut in 2005, owners have found all kinds of uses for the little Mini, sticking it in cars for mobile computing of a different sort or hooking it up to their TVs as an inexpensive media center. Some have even used it as a computer.

Count me among those with a Mini hooked up to a high-definition television, where it dutifully serves as sort of a glorified Apple TV. Not only can I use it to surf the Web, but I can also watch videos, catch TV shows downloaded through iTunes and do big-screen video chats with iChat (and my own iSight Web cam). Versatile indeed.

More firepower, same shape

With the latest updates, Apple has added some solid firepower under the hood, while leaving the Mini's basic nature intact. The price still starts at $599 -- there's a $799 model, too -- but it now boasts better graphics, faster DDR3 RAM, a SuperDrive that's now standard in the lesser model, 802.11n Wi-Fi, five USB ports, a FireWire 800 port and a MiniDisplay Port. The stock processor is an Intel Core 2 Duo running at an even 2 GHz, though you can opt for a marginally faster 2.26-GHz chip if you want to spend another $150. (My advice: don't worry about the faster processor. The Mini isn't really about speed. It's about price and convenience and, as I said earlier, versatility.)

The new Mac Mini still looks the same, but it offers updated hardware.
The new Mac Mini still looks the same, but it offers updated hardware.

In other words, Apple has modernized the Mini so that it's on par with the rest of the lineup. The question is: Are these changes worth the price you'll pay?

Short answer: Maybe. It really depends on how you outfit the Mini and what you plan to do with it.

I'm not going to focus on performance here, as that's not the Mini's strong suit. It's fast enough for most tasks, and the addition of the Nvidia 9400M integrated graphics processor should be a boon -- especially once Apple delivers on Mac OS X 10.6 "Snow Leopard." That's because the next version of Apple's operating system, due out this summer, can offload some of the tasks normally performed by the CPU to the GPU. It's the same Nvidia chip that's offered in the MacBook and MacBook Air line and did a fine job displaying 30 Rock (bought through iTunes) in high-definition on the 1,920-by-1,200-pixel screen.

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