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Mac Mini Review

First impressions

What sets the Mac mini apart from every other computer is its size. At just 5 cm (2 inches) high, and 16.5 cm (6.5 inches) square, its dimensions are remarkable. When compared to the bulky horizontal cases and towers of so many similarly priced machines, the Mac mini is in a class of its own.

This isn’t the full story, of course, but on size alone, the Mac mini offers a space-saving opportunity for PC owners to switch to a Mac and retain their existing monitor, keyboard, mouse and other peripherals. It’s even possible, thanks to a Belkin KVM switch, to retain your PC, put a Mac mini nearby, and change from one to the other as you wish without rearranging your desk.

Technical specs and performance

On the technical side, the latest Mac mini models are also well worth a look. They now have Intel Core 2 Duo processors of either 1.83GHz or 2GHz. These processors are from Intel’s 65-nanometre family with 64-bit architecture. To complement them, Apple has added 2MB of L2 cache for the 1.83GHz Mac mini and 4MB for the 2GHz model, together with a 128-bit SSE3 vector engine on both.

The result of this technology is interesting, to say the least: the new Mac mini is up to 39% faster than the previous model. This jump in speed varies according to your application – the 39% figure refers to Apple’s iPhoto ’08 – but there are many examples of improvements with other software. For example, overall speeds using Apple’s web browser, Safari, are up by 26%; and compressing a film with the 2.0GHz Mac mini has accelerated by 35% compared to the old equivalent machine.

For memory, the 1.83GHz and 2GHz Mac minis have 1GB of 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM on two SO-DIMMs as standard. 1GB of RAM is certainly a respectable amount; but if you want more capacity, you can double it if you wish.

Standard storage for the 1.83GHz Mac mini is an 80GB 5,400 rpm Serial ATA hard disc drive. The 2GHz version has a more spacious 120GB. Apple does give you the chance to improve on both of these with a 120GB drive for the 1.83GHz Mac mini, and 160GB for the 2GHz.

As for graphics, the Mac mini has an integrated processor so you’ve no choice but accept it. This needn’t be a problem, however, because the processor is the Intel GMA 950, a unit that can handle the latest 3D games.

Hardware

A useful piece of hardware that accompanies the Mac mini is the Apple Remote. This is handy when you use Apple’s Front Row media application. You can sit back and control at a distance the music and films you play through the computer.

Ideally, of course, you want a good quality monitor to take full advantage of Front Row. The Mac mini has a DVI video output port that supports digital resolutions up to 1,920 x 1,200 pixels. This means you can connect and enjoy a 20 inch Apple Cinema Display or a 23 inch Apple Cinema HD Display. If you don’t have such a monitor, however, and you’re thinking of buying one, consider the total cost. An iMac, with its better spec, can make a more attractive financial alternative to a Mac Mini/Apple Cinema Display combo.

For analogue monitor connections, the Mac mini has a DVI to VGA adaptor. You can also buy an Apple DVI to Video Adaptor to give you S video and composite video out connections to a projector or TV.

Other ports on the back of the Mac mini include a combined optical digital audio input/audio line in minijack and a combined optical digital audio output/headphone out minijack. You can use these for your digital audio equipment, headphones, a microphone or external speakers. Incidentally, despites its compactness, the Mac mini does have a built-in speaker.

The remaining ports are a FireWire 400 and four USB 2.0s. Four USBs may seem generous but don’t forget that you have to connect a keyboard and a mouse before you start. You could, though, opt for wireless versions.

Wireless technology is Apple’s built-in 54 Mbps AirPort Extreme wireless networking plus built-in Bluetooth® 2.0 + EDR. These two are just what you need for wireless activity. There’s also a 10/100/1000 Ethernet port for those who prefer cable connection to the Internet or a network.

At the front of the Mac mini is a slot-loading optical drive. Here there’s a distinct difference between the two models with the 1.83GHz coming with a Combo drive, and the 2GHz with the more versatile SuperDrive, which allows you to burn DVDs as well as CDs.

Software

As ever with Macs, the software that accompanies the Mac OS X v10.5 Leopard operating system is comprehensive. Between them Leopard, iLife ’08, and Front Row give you pretty much everything you need for a full multimedia experience.

With iLife ’08, for instance, you receive iPhoto for enhancing and organising your photographs; iMovie to help you create and share your films; GarageBand, which lets you play with a virtual band as well as create music and podcasts; iWeb for making websites that contain photos and films as well as text; and iDVD, an application that enables you to transform your home movies into professional-looking films.

Other Mac mini applications include iChat for video calls, and Safari, the fastest web browser around. A further bonus is the chance to try out iWork, which contains Pages ’08 for word processing; Numbers ’08 for spreadsheets; and Keynote ’08 for presentations. If you’re more familiar with Microsoft Office, this is a good opportunity to see what iWork can offer instead. You can also make a direct comparison because the Mac mini has trial software of Microsoft Office for Mac.

Conclusion

Pros

A small neat package with high-quality specs

Ideal for making the change from PC to Mac

Much faster than the previous model

Remote control included

Contains all the usual Apple software plus iLife ’08

Great value if you already have a monitor, keyboard, and mouse.

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