Apple Mac Mini Core Duo

In the third chapter of my Intel Mac reviews, I cover the Mac Mini.

Lets start at the beginning where all things were PowerPC. The Mac Mini was introduced as an affordable solution for those who wanted to give the Mac a try out. So it was important for Apple to get the formula right first time with this major new product.

The last revision to the PowerPC Mac Mini featured a 1.42GHz PowerPC chip, 512MB of DDR RAM, SuperDrive and 80GB of hard disk space. The integrated graphics was supplied by ATi in the form of the Radeon 9200 with 32MB of VRAM.

Apple did go a little bit weird on us all by throwing out some 1.33GHz and 1.5GHz G4 chips in the two models without informing customers and without changing any of the marketing materials such as the spec on the boxes or the spec on the web-site.

It was purely a case of luck if you happened to receive these chips inside your Mac Mini.

We then fast forward to February 2006 when Apple sends out invitations to its big event announcement for some ‘cool new products’. The Mac Mini received the Intel makeover and at the heart of it sat an Intel Core Solo or Intel Core Duo processor at 1.5GHz and 1.66GHz respectively.

The memory was upgraded to DDR2 and the ATi chip, to the moans and cries of many critics, was replaced for the Intel GMA950 chip with shared memory. The Apple community was quick to learn that this graphics chip had HD capability hidden up its sleeves and is considered to be the Trojan horse for what Apple has planned for this mini-powerhouse.

You get all this in a chassis that is the exact same dimensions as the previous generation but with up to 5.5x boost in performance. This mini iLife 06′ machine is primed and ready to go.

Enhancements like Front Row were integrated, and now made perfect sense for flat panel screen owners to use this as a living room media centre. Could this have been Apple’s attempt at testing the waters to see whether this would work? Within days and weeks, pictures were popping up all over the web showing many a Mac fans implementation of a Mac Mini hooked up to their gigantic plasma and LCD screens. The entire world could feel that this was just the start of some big changes that were going to happen at Apple.

Whilst my MacBook Pro was in the repair shop for its ‘whining’ noise issue, I got the chance to spend some decent time making real use of the 1.66GHz Core Duo Mac Mini with stock 512MB of RAM and 80GB hard drive.

Design

At 6.5-inches square and 2 inches tall, the Mac Mini is literally small and light enough to be held on the palm of your hand. The aesthetics closely follow the traditional industrial design that Apple are ever so happy to pump out. It’s quite clear where the inspiration came from with this product. Back in Y2K, Apple launched the PowerMac G4 Cube; it was shortly discontinued after just two years of production. The Mac Mini can only be described as the reincarnation, only it’s much smaller and packing much more power.

Turn this thing around and you will find an array of ports. Starting with the Gigabit Ethernet port, FireWire 400, DVI, Four USB ports, Optical In/Analogue In and Digital Out/Analogue Out. Inside you also get an integrated 802.11g chip and Bluetooth 2.0+EDR.

In terms of upgradeability, the Mac Mini has a non-soldered CPU and uses two standard DDR2 memory sticks. The first part of what you just read is really good news for those who like to mod or upgrade in future. There have already been successful attempts to put an off-the-shelf 2.16GHz Core Duo chip in the Mac Mini.

Memory however is a different story. Apple ships these systems with matching pairs of memory rather than a single stick. This initiates Dual Channel memory and gives the system a slight boost in performance; however the other reason this was done is to help with the integrated shared graphics. As always, I recommend 1GB of memory to keep OS X happy.

The Mac Mini ships default with 512MB on a 256 x 2 configuration. So I would advise those who are going to get this system to buy it with the memory configured by Apple otherwise you’re going to have to pay for another set of two memory sticks when you come to upgrade.

On the note of upgrading, the Mac Mini is not as easy as you would suspect to open up. There are various methods, tips and tricks on the web outlining how to open up the Mini chassis; however most of them inevitably end up either damaging or marking the anodized aluminium. Not something I would be prepared to do with my Mac.

In the same fashion as before, the Mac Mini follows the concept of BYODKM (Bring your own display, keyboard and mouse). In the box you get the Mac Mini itself, power supply and cables, DVI to VGA adapter, Apple Remote and that pretty much covers it.

Since this machine was aimed at tempting Switchers to cross over, it’s assumed that you would already have your own USB keyboard, mouse and monitor of some description.

Performance

The same tests that I performed on the MacBook Pro and MacBook, I also performed on the Mac Mini. You can see these results below:

Mac Mini MacBook MacBook Pro PC
Bootup 00:28 00:29 00:32 01:50
CD Rip 02:02 02:03 02:05 01:57
Audio Finalising 09:37 08:34 08:33
Video Rendering 03:28 03:15 03:18
Xbench 59.84 64.44 75.61

Time is in seconds – lower the better
Xbench – higher the better

The Mac Mini Core Duo is certainly no slouch. Boot up time delivers on its promise of 30 seconds. The CD Ripping scores interestingly scores the same across the board for all three Macs.

The difference, as expected, comes in the CPU intensive tasks. Audio finalising took about a minute longer than the MacBook and MacBook Pro. However, in the video rendering task, the Mac Mini was only 13 seconds slower than the MacBook. This is a very respectable figure and one that many users should take in to account.

Xbench scores tell a different story though. At 59.84 it’s a way off the 75.61 that the MacBook Pro scores but surprisingly the MacBook was not that much quicker at 64.44. This can be put down to the fact that both machines feature a shared memory integrated Intel chip for its graphics capabilities.

So it seems there’s a bit of a mixed result in my tests. One thing we can be sure of is that the Mac Mini Core Duo is bloody fast for a machine of its size. For an entry level Mac, the performance ability and feature set make this the ideal ‘first time’ buy.

Cost

If you have all those things then great, but that’s a big if, considering the Intel Core Solo model comes in at £399 and the Intel Core Duo model comes in at £529. Should you be starting fresh, you would have to fork out for a USB keyboard and mouse as well as a display.

So lets price that up with some theoretical sums. The standard Apple ‘wired’ Mighty Mouse and ‘wired’ keyboard total at £54. Then attach a decent mid-range display from HP at 19-inches wide. This adds £180 to the price. So for the entry level Mac Mini you are going to be spending £633 for a complete system (Of course you don’t have to get the Apple branded peripherals, but for examples sake I’ve used them).

I think you’ll all agree that’s quite expensive for an entry level system with a mediocre specification. Now take the same attachments to the Core Duo model and the price jumps to a staggering £763. That’s just £116 away from the 17-inch iMac.

Just a quick look at www.pcworld.co.uk shows a system at a similar price of £650 and you get a 2.8GHz Pentium D, 1GB of RAM, 250GB HDD, X500 graphics, 6-in-1 card reader and a 17-inch LCD.

Of course there’s the chassis difference, the OS X difference and all the other differences, but when matching like for like price and what you can get from a PC, it seems you can get a whole lot more. If we continue to do the comparison it becomes even more embarrassing. At £730 you can get a Fujitsu Siemens machine running with an Athlon X2 3800+, 2GB RAM, 200GB HDD, 512MB ATI X1300 graphics, and 19-inch LCD screen.

Despite the price gap, the Mac Mini still holds its own corner for many features that you won’t ever find in a PC. For starters, the Mac Mini is tiny in comparison to these full sized tower systems. The family, the student, the chef, the kids, are all going to love it. The fact you can hide the unit away or carry it from location to location is a major boon for investors in this machine.

Media Centre with Front Row?

The only thing missing from this system for the living room is a digital tuner. You can however buy a third party peripheral that will do this. Elgato recently announced its software integration with the Front Row interface for EyeTV, so you now have complete control over what you watch using the simplicity of the 6-button Apple remote. The EyeTV software comes with a range of digital and analogue receivers either from Elgato themselves or from another company called Miglia. Combine this with the Mac Mini and you have a complete media centre with HD compatibility. Add to that all the usual PVR functions that you expect to get from a Media Centre such as the ability to schedule programming, view an EPG and most importantly of all pause and rewind live TV or fast forward recordings.

So what makes the Mac Mini so good at what it does? Apart from its size, the noise that emits from this tiny device will be barely noticeable. This makes it ideal for any use, but in particular the bedroom, living room or office.

When hell froze over and pigs flew

I recall one journalist saying the above titles not far from the truth. Never did any of us, apart from the wackiest, ever suspect that Apple would allow users of its hardware to install Windows XP on its own partition. However, as soon as the first Intel Mac hit the market, the hacking community worked around the clock to get XP to boot up on it.

With the stability and performance available in Boot Camp and Parallels, you can now run Windows XP on your Mac! So you can now get the best of both worlds. With Boot Camp you can choose to boot in to Windows when you switch on your Mac. At that point, you leave the nice comfort zone that OS X offers and enter the spyware, trojan and virus infested waters of the Windows world. Be aware, if you are using Windows on a Mac, it will be as vulnerable as all other machines with Windows on it, if you don’t take the necessary pre-cautions. Rest assured, if your machine does get infected, your Mac partition will be safe. All you need to do is to boot in to OS X and wipe the Windows partition and start again. If you dare that is.

Using a third party application called Parallels, you can get Windows to install and boot straight on top of OS X. It allows near native speed but of course has its downsides such as shared resources and a lack of hardware graphics acceleration. However if it’s just to run the odd app that you can’t do without, then this is the perfect solution for you. Parallels are hard at work in getting full 3D acceleration to its software and should be ready by the end of this year or early next year. I’m certainly looking forward to it already!

To conclude

As you can see, it’s never been a better time to own a Mac. With the ‘Get a Mac’ ad campaign running in the US gaining lots of attention, the iPod trend with no end in sight and Steve Jobs’ cloak of mystery. Sitting in front of an Apple Mac just isn’t quite the same as it used to be.

Now featuring the Intel Core Solo and Core Duo processors, same brilliant form factor all combines to make this a bloody great machine. I suggest if you haven’t tried a Mac before and you’re not willing to spend a lot, this is the starting point and what a great start it is!

The Mac Mini Core Duo gets the TechCast Recommended Award.

2006-08-17 Onwah Tsang

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