The Mac mini is yet another Mac to be updated with Intel’s Sandy Bridge CPUs and Thunderbolt. The Mini saw its last update on June 15th 2010 so a refresh was widely expected and also a bit overdue. There are no major chassis changes to the new Mac mini (sans the missing CD/DVD slot). Like the previous generation, there are three models: two consumer and one server. The Mac mini lineup has been like this since late 2009 when the server model was first introduced.

Let's get to the specs:

2011 Mac Mini Specifications
  Low-end High-end Server
Processor i5-2410M (2.3GHz dual core) i5-2520M (2.5GHz dual core) i7-2635QM (2.0GHz quad core)
Graphics Intel HD 3000 with 288MB of shared DDR3 AMD Radeon HD 6630M with 256MB of GDDR5 Intel HD 3000 with 384MB of shared DDR3
RAM 2GB 1333MHz DDR3 (up to 8GB) 4GB 1333MHz DDR3 (up to 8GB) 4GB 1333MHz DDR3 (up to 8GB)
Storage 500GB 5400rpm 500GB 5400rpm 2x500GB 7200rpm
Ports Thunderbolt, HDMI, FireWire 800, 4x USB 2.0, SDXC card slot, Gigabit Ethernet, audio in/out Thunderbolt, HDMI, FireWire 800, 4x USB 2.0, SDXC card slot, Gigabit Ethernet, audio in/out Thunderbolt, HDMI, FireWire 800, 4x USB 2.0, SDXC card slot, Gigabit Ethernet, audio in/out
Connectivity 802.11a/b/g/n, Bluetooth 4.0 802.11a/b/g/n, Bluetooth 4.0 802.11a/b/g/n, Bluetooth 4.0
Dimensions (WxDxH) 7.7" x 7.7" x 1.4" 7.7" x 7.7" x 1.4" 7.7" x 7.7" x 1.4"
Weight 2.7lb 2.7lb 3.0lb
Price $599 $799 $999

The most obvious change is a drop in price: the entry-level Mini is now $599 and the high-end is $799, instead of $699 and $849 like the previous generation. The 2011 Mac Mini in fact adopts the old pricing model as before the 2010 update, the Minis were priced $599 and $799 respectively. The server model retains its $999 price tag. This is definitely good news.

As for the hardware updates, the two most obvious ones are Core i5 and Core i7 Sandy Bridge CPUs and Thunderbolt. Every Mini now comes with one Thunderbolt port as well, which replaces the Mini DisplayPort, just like in the 2011 MBPs. A smaller update is that all models now come with 1333MHz DDR3, similar to the rest of the Mac lineup. The consumer models also come with 500GB HDDs instead of 320GB while the server model’s storage remains unchanged (2x500GB 7200rpm).

Now the unexpected changes. First, the high-end Mini now comes with a discrete AMD Radeon HD 6630M GPU. This is the first Intel Mac mini to adopt a discrete GPU. The old PPC Mac minis used discrete GPUs but since the transition to Intel CPUs in 2006, the Mac mini has been stuck with IGPs - first Intel GMAs and then NVIDIA since early 2009. It will be interesting to see how Apple has managed to find space for the dGPU and its cooling, especially because the Thunderbolt controller is a discrete chip as well. We applaud the move though. While Intel HD 3000 was great improvement from Arrandale graphics, it’s still not all that great for gamers.

AMD 6630M is actually based on the same Whistler core as 6750M and 6770M found in MacBook Pros and iMacs. What you get is 480 shaders at 485MHz, which is 115-240MHz (19-33%) less than 6750M’s and 6770M’s. Thus the graphics performance won’t be as good as in iMac and MBP but 6630M will still be a huge step up from nVidia 320M and Intel HD 3000. There's no word on GPU clocks.

The second intriguing aspect of new Mac minis is the server model: It now comes with a quad core CPU. This appears to be the same i7-2635QM as found in $1799 15” MacBook Pro. The previous generation server model came with a 2.66GHz Core 2 Duo so this will be a huge upgrade in CPU performance. It will again be interesting to see how Apple has handled the extra heat as i7-2630QM has TDP of 45W compared to P8800‘s 25W.

Third, there is no more SuperDrive (ODD)! Apple is distributing nearly all of their software through Mac App Store now (including new OS versions), reducing the need for an optical drive.. This move is logical and I wouldn’t be surprised to see MBPs following Mac mini. There is always the option of an external ODD if you really, really need one.

Some of the BTO options are also new. The base model gets the option for a 750GB 7200rpm HDD but the high-end and server model can sport a 256GB SSD. That alone isn’t a big deal but the high-end Mini has an option for a 750GB HDD + 256GB SSD. That's not a big surprise given that the ODD is gone now so there is space for a second 2.5” HDD. Whether there will be a second SATA port in one-drive configurations is still unknown but that would leave the option of a 3rd party SSD as a boot drive. The high-end Mini also offers an optional i7-2620M (2.7GHz dual core).

All in all, the 2011 Mac mini update is a good one. There are several welcome additions to the lineup, such as a discrete GPU. The prices are a lot more reasonable now too. Before, it made very little sense to buy Mini because a few hundred more got you an iMac with better specs and IPS panel. At $599, the Mac mini makes sense and is a great option for a first time Mac buyer.

The updated Mac mini comes with Lion pre-installed (Lion Server in server model) and is available from the Apple Online Store with estimated shipping time of 24 hours.

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  • name99 - Wednesday, July 20, 2011 - link

    Then go to freaking Fry's and buy an external optical drive for $30.

    Heck, if you want one that matches Apple lines, you can buy the *Apple* model from the *Apple* store for $79 --- though undoubtedly you'll want to complain about how that is price gouging.

    WTF should Apple make everyone pay the costs (both in dollars and in size/power/weight) for an item that only some need? Do you also think they should ship the mini with a screen because some people will have to go out and buy a screen? Perhaps they should include a built-in printer because some people will want to connect it to a printer?
  • LordConrad - Wednesday, July 20, 2011 - link

    For the technically savvy, those are good arguments. However, you are in a different market from those who are most likely to purchase a Mac mini. Keep in mind that the Mac mini is not marketed to the technically savvy, it is marketed to the same people who would get the most use from an optical drive.
  • name99 - Wednesday, July 20, 2011 - link

    LC, just how stupid do you think Mac users are?

    I have already pointed out the bizarre nature of your claim regarding who buys Mac minis. But let's assume this is not a Mac mini. Let's assume it's the 2012 iMac, shipping without optical.

    Presumably the way this will go down is naive buyer goes to the Apple store, looks around, and says "how come it has no CD drive"?
    Apple minion asks him "what sort of things do you use a CD drive for?"
    He then either says "hmm, I guess I can't think of any" in which case, minion says "Enjoy your iMac". OR
    He says "well, I like to get DVDs from Netflix" (or whatever) in which case minion says "OK, I'd suggest you also buy the Apple DVD drive. You just plug it in to this connecter here at the back."

    I mean, we are talking about plugging a device, sold by Apple, bus-powered (so no power cable) into a USB socket. If someone has the intelligence to pop a CD into a CD drive, they have the intelligence to plug this thing into a Mac.

    You seem to forget that Apple has a HUGE infrastructure, in the form of Apple stores, to TELL people that things like external CD drives exist, not to mention a large installed base of savvy customers (ie friends, family, co-workers) who can do the same.
  • LordConrad - Thursday, July 21, 2011 - link

    In regards to your first sentence: They're called "sheeple" for a reason. :-)
  • TheAbsintheHare - Thursday, July 21, 2011 - link

    But they only get the most use out of an optical drive because it's the only thing they know how to use. They would get just as much use out of the newer, faster, alternative methods if they were exposed to them and learned how to use them. Apple has invested heavily in these new technologies, thus it would be stupid of them from a business stand point to cater to people who don't want to use them simply because they want to hold on to their old technology. These arguments against the removal of the optical drive are the same that were given with the removal of the 3.5" floppy; can you imagine still using one of those? Sometimes it takes a push to get people to move forward, even though moving forward is the smartest move.
  • erple2 - Saturday, July 23, 2011 - link

    No, I'd disagree - I'm not sure the mini is targeted at the non-savvy. For one thing, it doesn't come with anything - just the box. You'd still need a keyboard and mouse, which the non-tech savvy won't realize. You'll also need a screen of some sort.

    I'd posit (damn, I love that word) that the mini is actually for the tech savvy individual that wants a small, unobtrusive "good enough" machine to run OSX on it in an environment where they don't actually have OSX, or just need a side file server (hence the "server version" of the box) or other headless server like duties for as little money as possible, within reason.

    The iMac, I think, is for the non-savvy - it comes with everything you need to start using a computer built in, or included.
  • lwatcdr - Tuesday, July 26, 2011 - link

    Do you really think they will? I mean most people already have a blu-ray player these days. I have more DVD playing devices than I can shake a stick at. I have a Blu-Ray, and my XBox plus the DVD drive on desktop, the DVD drive on my wife's desktop, the DVD on my notebook, the DVD drive on my wife's notebook. We hardly every use any of them because streaming and Amazon are built into my Blu-Ray, my Roku, and my XBox!
    Buying Mac software isn't that easy. I am not sure that Wal-mart has any, Best buy has some but most people are going to buy online these days. The Mac App store will actually make that easier for those average users. They will just buy it on line. No need to keep backups of the programs or find the disks to re install.
    You can download software from other sources as well. The last box of software I bought was FSX. Well not counting XBox games.
    I don't see many none tech savy people using their desktop for DVDs. Their laptops maybe but not a desktop. For those that want to hook it to their tv they could just get an external Blu-ray for it, use one of their blu-ray players, use their PS3, or use a DVD player on another machine. I am guessing most of the real techie media center users just rip everything they get and store it on a server. If so then the $99 AppleTV might be what they need.
    Honestly I see this as a great modern C-64. Hook it to any HDMI monitor and plug in a keyboard and mouse and your have nice little computer.
    It will play a lot of games, will not be loud, and will probably run forever. It is a lot easier to add your own ram on this bad boy also.
  • sean.crees - Thursday, July 21, 2011 - link

    The writing is on the wall though for optical drives, even Blu-Ray drives. Streaming/downloading is obviously the future, it's just so convenient.

    Need to get local files from A to B, put them on a thumb drive. They can hold a lot more data and are a lot faster.

    Thumb drives are so cheap now a days. I wouldn't be surprised to start seeing HD movies and software in stores being sold on cheap usb 2.0 thumb drives soon.

    It's not shortsighted at all. I've been building my own PC's for 15 years, i stopped putting optical drives in my systems about 5 years ago. I have an external optical drive that i dust off and need to use maybe once a year.
  • Exodite - Thursday, July 21, 2011 - link

    Digital distribution have been the future for a decade already and will most likely continue to be the future of media for some time yet.

    Meanwhile, in the right here and now, it's not nearly ready for wide consumer adoption - mostly due to artificially enforced limitations.
  • steven75 - Friday, July 22, 2011 - link

    I think Apple is being very shortsighted in removing the floppy drive from the Mac mini. I know many people who send and receive disks with documents and/or pictures on them. Getting an external drive defeats that nice clean Apple look, but then Steve Jobs has never been known for thinking about the needs of others.

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