Editor's note: Apple today updated the specs of the $499 Mac Mini. It now comes standard with 512MB of system memory, up from 256MB. (7/26/05)
Editor's note: We have changed the ratings in this review to reflect recent changes in our rating scale. Find out more here.
Apple has tried everything to get Windows users to switch to the Mac. First, it created a revolutionary operating system, Mac OS X, then it launched the "switch" ad campaign, with former Windows users frankly explaining why they like Macs better. When these efforts didn't produce the intended results, Apple employed a more straightforward strategy: make Macs cheaper. With the Mac Mini, Apple has finally conceded the possibility that most people shopping for a desktop choose price above all else and don't want to toss their expensive monitors to move to the Mac platform. Now, at $499, the standalone Mini (and it really stands alone, without a keyboard, a mouse, speakers, or a monitor) offers would-be Apple converts a more affordable and flexible, but still stylish, entry-level Mac. Its performance limitations make it glacially slow at processor-intensive tasks, so power users, look elsewhere; but for everyday home computing, it's a great buy. Even with a few recommended upgrades, the Mac Mini still costs less than $1,000, an enticing price point for investigating the Mac platform and the included software, such as the bundled iLife '05 suite. Apple has become synonymous with sleek, minimalist design, and the Mac Mini certainly embodies this ethos. A low, square box with rounded corners, the Mini is made of white plastic and anodized aluminum, and it measures 2 by 6.5 by 6.5 inches (HWD) and weighs 2.9 pounds. Smaller than any Shuttle system we've seen (and Shuttle pioneered the small-form-factor PC), the Mini looks great in any environment, equally at home on a desk or in the den. And when in use, the Mini is marvelously quiet, with its cooling fan making less than a whisper.
True to Apple's styling, the top of the Mac Mini displays the simple Apple logo, and on the front, there's only a slot-loading CD/DVD slot and a small white power light. In order to maintain the Mini's elegance, Apple has put even commonly used items, including the power button and the audio jack, on the rear. You may tire of feeling around back to turn on the thing or to sync your iPod, but the Mini's small dimensions mean it will likely be sitting on top of your desk vs. under it, making its back-panel ports more convenient than they would be on a tower design.
Also on the back of the Mac Mini, you'll find two USB 2.0 ports, one FireWire 400 port, a 10/100BaseT Ethernet port, a modem port (for the included 56Kbps V.92 modem), and a DVI video-out port. We were happy to see that the Mini ships with a DVI-to-VGA video adapter so that users can connect both digital and analog monitors. We were less than happy to find only the pair of USB ports; unless your monitor or keyboard provides such ports, you'll need to get a USB hub. It's far from a big-ticket item, but it will somewhat diminish the Mini's small footprint and clean design.
The Mini's case isn't sealed, but opening it is a bit of a challenge and not for the nontechnical (it involves some elbow grease and confidence with a putty knife). If you want Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, or extra RAM, we recommend ordering them as custom options when you buy the Mini or taking it to a local Apple repair shop. Adding an AirPort Extreme card is especially challenging, since besides installing the card, you'll also need to add an internal antenna. If you plan to shuttle the Mini from room to room, as Apple suggests, you'll want to tack on the wireless upgrade prior to purchase.We tested the basic $499 Mac Mini, which equips you with a 1.25GHz G4 processor, 256MB RAM, a 40GB hard drive, and a combo drive (CD-RW/DVD-ROM). Apple also sells a $599 Mini that has a faster 1.42GHz G4 processor and a larger 80GB hard drive. We tested the Mac Mini before Apple's latest OS release, but both models now ship with Mac OS 10.4 Tiger.
The Mini comes hobbled, with only 256MB of RAM, which makes it a poor performer (as you can see in our test results) for any processor-intensive applications, including editing video or high-resolution photos and playing 3D games. Memory has long been a shortcoming in Macs, including both the iMac G5 and even a couple of Power Mac G5 configurations, which also ship standard with 256MB of memory. (In fairness to the G5 machines, they do use faster 400MHz memory, but 256MB is still not enough.) If Apple wants its computers to be seen as cutting-edge media machines, it should make 512MB of RAM the standard and ship high-end machines with a full gigabyte. We'd recommend that anyone eyeing the Mini spend $75 to double the memory to 512MB. And if you plan to make use of iMovie and iDVD, you'll want to upgrade the combo drive to Apple's DVD-burning SuperDrive. That upgrade was more costly than we expected at $100.
In our real-world testing, the Mini's limited RAM meant it performed complex tasks much slower than would a Power Mac G5, but the difference was usually in seconds, not minutes. Working with clips in iMovie was noticeably slower but never so slow that we needed to make a cup of coffee while the machine caught up. Transferring an iMovie file to iDVD, however, gave us more than enough time to fetch a cup o' joe. The Mini also choked on GarageBand songs with several instrumental tracks, occasionally pausing for a split second in the middle of a song during playback.
In addition to the memory, the slow-spinning hard drive contributes to the Mac Mini's performance limitations. In order to pack it into such a small case, Apple uses a notebook hard drive. Whereas the iMac G5 uses a 3.5-inch, 7,200rpm drive, inside the Mini spins a 2.5-inch, 4,200rpm drive. Expansion, or lack thereof, is also another obvious drawback to the Mini; there are no free PCI slots, and opening the case is difficult.
One way Apple has kept the Mini's price down is by not including a monitor, a keyboard, or a mouse. If you're switching from a Windows computer, that won't be a problem, as Macs can use nearly any peripherals that Windows PCs can use--as long as your keyboard and mouse are USB and not PS/2. If you're a new user, however, you'll need to tack on the extra expense. Look for a Logitech or Microsoft mouse and keyboard (Apple's one-button mouse and rinky-dink plastic keyboard are so poor that it's probably a plus that the Mini doesn't come with them). You can also configure the Mini with wireless capability: Bluetooth for wireless keyboard and mouse--saving valuable USB ports in the process--and 802.11g for wireless networking. Apple just lowered the price on these two upgrades; you can get both for a reasonable $99.
The $499 price pulled us in, but when we were done customizing the Mac Mini the way we'd want it, the price rose to $823 with four upgrades: doubling the memory ($75) and the hard drive ($50), upgrading to the SuperDrive ($100), and adding wireless Bluetooth and the AirPort Extreme card ($99). The eMachines T3256, for example, costs $599 and includes 512MB of memory, a 160GB hard drive, and a DVD burner, plus a keyboard and a mouse. It has the Mac Mini beat on the hardware, but the Mini has the edge--in addition to its small footprint and quiet operation--with its software bundle. The Mini comes with the recently released iLife '05 suite, which includes iMovie HD, iTunes 4.7, iDVD 5.0, iPhoto 5.0, and GarageBand 2.0. You also get AppleWorks (oddly, the Mini doesn't come with iWork, Apple's new office suite) and a few kid-friendly games. The abundant software bundle greatly adds to the Mini's overall value.Application performance
Using an older, slower G4 processor, the Mac Mini couldn't keep pace with its G5 family members on our Photoshop benchmark. Also hurting its performance was its piddling allotment of memory: the Mac Mini ships with 256MB of RAM while the iMac G5 and the Power Mac G5 models we tested previously had 512MB and 4GB, respectively. The Mac Mini took 23 minutes, 1 second to complete our test of applying a variety of techniques to 15 images. The iMac G5 completed the same test in 8 minutes, 31 seconds, and the Power Mac breezed though the test in 3 minutes, 13 seconds--more than seven times faster than the Mac Mini. But that's to be expected; the Power Mac G5, for one, has two processors to the Mini's one--each of which is clocked twice as fast--and it has eight times the memory. For lengthy photo-editing sessions, you may grow frustrated with the Mini's modest specs. If your photo editing rarely goes beyond reducing red-eye, then the Mini can save you a bundle of money and still suit your needs. We do recommend, however, spending the additional $75 to upgrade the Mini's memory to 512MB.
The Mac Mini had a better showing on our iTunes test, taking just more than 45 seconds to convert a 10-minute song (in AIFF) to MP3. It still trailed the iMac G5 and the Power Mac G5 but not by nearly the large margin as in our Photoshop test. And the Mini narrowly outpaced the similarly equipped eMac, which we attribute to the optimizations Apple has made to Mac OS X between versions X 10.3.3 and 10.3.7.
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)