Six years ago I tried using a Mac exclusively for 30 days. The OS was 10.3, the hardware was a PowerMac G5 and Apple was still the quirky company with a 2% market share.

Five years ago I reviewed my third Mac, the very first Mac mini. In this pre-hackintosh world, Apple was enough of a curiosity that a $499 Mac made a lot of sense. It wasn’t fast, but with a 1.25GHz PowerPC G4 it was quick enough for most of what you needed to do with a Mac back then. Like many Macs, all it really needed was a memory upgrade.

Interest in Apple has obviously gone up since then. Apple’s resurgence coincided with the shift from desktop to notebook computers and thus the preferred entry platform for many into the Mac world were the PowerBook G4, MacBook and MacBook Pro.

The original Mac mini

The mini continued to receive updates, but its role in Apple’s lineup shifted. The need for an introductory Mac so that users might test drive OS X declined. The mini became a plain old desktop Mac for those who didn’t want an integrated display. For others it was a nice looking HTPC; an Apple nettop before the term existed.

The Mac mini arrived with a bang but was quickly relegated to an almost niche product. It wasn’t Apple TV-bad, but definitely not in Apple’s top 3. The fact that Apple didn’t overhaul the chassis in nearly five years exemplifies the mini’s importance to Apple. Nearly all other consumer targeted Apple hardware gets visual updates more regularly than the Mac mini.

All signs pointed to the mini going the way of the dodo. A couple years ago we regularly saw rumors of Apple killing off the mini entirely. The need for an ultra cheap introduction to OS X had passed. Apple’s customers either wanted a notebook or an iPhone, and if they wanted a netbook Apple eventually addressed that market with the iPad.

While the role of the Mac mini has changed over the years, so has hardware. Originally the mini was 2” tall and measure 6.5” on each side. Small for its time, but bulky compared to what companies like Zotac have been able to do with off the shelf components since then.

In 2005 very few companies were concerned about power consumption, today it’s even more important than overall performance. Intel alone has an internal policy that doesn’t allow the introduction of any new feature into a design that doesn’t increase performance by at least 2% for every 1% increase in power consumption.

What we finally got, after years of waiting, was a redesigned Mac mini:

The 2010 Mac mini looks more like an Apple TV than a Mac. At 1.4” high the new mini doesn’t sound much thinner than the old one until you realize that most of the visible thickness (excluding the pedestal stand) is even smaller than that.

Yes I know the irony of using Blu-ray discs to show the thickness of the DVD-only Mac mini

The Apple TV comparison continues when you look at the ports along the back. Apple’s recent infatuation with mini DisplayPort continues, but there’s also an HDMI port on the back of the new mini. Apple thankfully provides a single-link DVI to HDMI adapter in the box for those of you who aren’t hooking the Mac mini up to a HDTV. The HDMI output supports a max resolution of 1920 x 1200 while the miniDP can drive a 2560 x 1600 display with an active miniDP to DVI adapter.

But it’s clear that the HDTV pair is something Apple thought of. The mini is no longer a way to get a taste of OS X, it’s a full fledged HTPC or Apple’s take on the ION nettop.

Internally the Mac mini is pretty much a 13-inch MacBook Pro. You get a 45nm 2.40GHz Core 2 Duo with a 3MB L2 cache (technically it’s the Core 2 Duo P8600). The chipset is NVIDIA’s GeForce 320M, identical to what’s used in the 13-inch MacBook Pro. There’s no dedicated frame buffer. The GPU carves 256MB of main memory out for its own use, which is a problem because the base configuration only ships with 2GB of memory.

The hardware may sound dated since it isn’t using Intel’s Core i3/i5 processors, but we’re limited by space. Apple is unwilling to ship any of its Macs with just Intel integrated graphics. Apple wants a huge installed base of Macs with OpenCL capable GPUs for some reason. And since NVIDIA isn’t allowed to build chipsets for the Core i-whatever processors, Apple would have to go to a three chip solution in order to have a Core i-whatever, Intel’s associated chipset and an AMD/NVIDIA GPU. In size constrained products (e.g. 13-inch MacBook Pro or the new Mac mini), Apple prefers to use a Core 2 generation CPU and a single chip NVIDIA IGP to fit the form factor and GPU requirements.

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  • iwodo - Monday, August 9, 2010 - link

    By end of 2012, we should be able fit Sandy Bridge, 4GB Ram, SSD, and a much faster GFX within the same size.
  • james.jwb - Monday, August 9, 2010 - link

    We will never get to the end of 2012 :)
  • tech6 - Monday, August 9, 2010 - link

    The Apple box is nice but its too bad Apple feels the same way about Blue Ray than they do about Flash (and SSDs apparently).

    The ASRock i3 based box reviewed earlier is much better value for those seeking an HTPC. For around $700 it delivers i3 performance, a remote as well as BD.
  • Oscarcharliezulu - Monday, August 9, 2010 - link

    Is the CPU soldered in place? No chance of diy CPU upgrades?
  • futurepastnow - Monday, August 9, 2010 - link

    Yes, it is. Can't you tell just by looking at it?
  • Ratman6161 - Monday, August 9, 2010 - link

    It's almost as if they scoured their parts bins for the parts that were obsolete and would otherwise be thrown out and stuck them in a white plastic box and slapped a $699 price tag on it. It may be the cheapest way to get a new OS X system - but it seems to me like Apple has lost it's way with this product. If the goal were to lure new OS X users, I suppose I could see this if it were priced at about $300.

    I know Apple people hate price comparisons with Windows PC's but since the hardware is basically identical these days, the comparisons are inescapable. I recently bought my wife a new HP laptop at Best Buy. It has an i3 330M (which blows away the 2.4 GHZ core 2 duo in my Dell laptop by the way), has 4 GB of RAM and a 500 GB 7200 RPM hard drive. And of course the laptop has to include a screen as well. It cost $649.00 + tax. Given spare parts bin components being used, there is just no way that the Mini should cost more.

    Like I said, you have to really want OS X to buy this.
  • Ratman6161 - Monday, August 9, 2010 - link

    I forgot to mention that this thing comes with absolutely no input devices so if you want Apple stuff the real price is $819. And unlike a laptop it doesn't even need a battery.
  • futurepastnow - Monday, August 9, 2010 - link

    While I couldn't care less about Apple's mouse and keyboard, upgrading the mini (via Newegg, not Apple) to 2x2GB of RAM and a 7200 RPM drive increases the total to nearly $840. That's completely unacceptable.
  • fic2 - Monday, August 9, 2010 - link

    My laptop doesn't need a battery unless I want to use it on the go. It is usually plugged into a wall sitting on my desk at work with the battery laying next to it.
  • v12v12 - Monday, August 9, 2010 - link

    Haha I 2nd these comments of common-sense! This is nothing but another overpriced Apple rehash of old-technology into a small, shiny, sleek, box. Profiteering for "Apple" is merely how to out fox the fanatical, tech-obsessed "Mac-phile" user base, out of their snidely earned cash.

    It's way out of date, comes with sub-standard parts, no BR, "mini" crap ports, sub-par full HDMI port blah blah. Oh and the PRICE? I know the editors have to give Apple a soft, white pillow to slam them down on, but come on... Take a look at these quotes right here;

    "The user experience of the Mac mini is noticeably diminished by only having 2GB of memory."

    “There are actually no input devices included in the purchase price, so expect to add another $120 if you want an Apple keyboard and Magic Mouse ($140 if you want them to both be wireless). There’s no remote included either, although Apple’s IR remotes do work with the mini.”

    That's a very polite way of saying something (honest) such as, "Apple is again cutting corners in the hardware department, yet making it seem 'adequate' for most users." Is 2GB "fine" for 8/10 “users” (highly ambiguous!?) YEP sure is. I work with a huge Win/OSX client base and NOBODY is screaming about needing 4GB of ram, but the industry standard IS 4GB now. 2 is "acceptable," but not up to pace. It's per user's demands, but (in general) anyone with experience dealing with "Apple" knows they've cut corners again. You just softened the blow.

    Let’s recap; SEVEN HUNDRED DOLLARS ($820*) for:

    -No peripherals*---WTF?
    --Dated CPU
    ---Sub-par Ram (should I bother asking about timings/quality of the Dimms, lol?)
    ----Sketchy Vid-output connections (HDMI 1900x1200!)
    -----Sub-par GPU vs a laptop (all it is stuffed in a small box)
    ----Sub-par 5400rpm HD. (Is this a joke?)
    ---No SSD???
    --PRICE! (Overpriced KB/M?)
    -No IR remote (this IS marketed as an HTPC?!)

    And lastly... dealing with "Apple" is nothing but a PITA if you're not blindly "appeased" with what they've attempted to brainwash you into buying, and then spoon-fed to you. Oh BTW... it's up to YOU to provide your own bib and paper towel to wipe off all that drool. That is until you use the thing and realize; OMFG I shoulda gotten a smaller LAPTOP instead.
    __Apple MARKETING is very, very keen on deception and mental-washing and this is how; SMALL FORM FACTORING (SFF). SFF'ing is nothing but a MARKETING ploy.

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