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Apple Mac mini Dual Core 1.66GHz Review

Highs

  • Small size; attractive design; powerful; low power consumption

Rating

Our Score 9
User Score 9

Lows

  • Mono speaker: cost is higher than expected; video output could be better
The Mac Mini is the Bruce Lee of the computing world - small frame, incredibly fit, lightning fast...

Summary

The Intel-based Mac Mini is a sub-compact (smaller than Small Form Factor) desktop computer worthy of the Apple name and completely devoid of the sub-compact stigma.  No other computer manufacturer could have brought such a tiny powerhouse to the world with as much style and appeal as Apple did.  The Mac Mini is a marvel.  From the outside, it looks small, unassuming, minimalist and possibly even austere.  Visitors to Apple stores have commented to me that the Mini doesn’t look like a computer – that it looks more like a metallic CD case or an external DVD player.  This is a ploy, a Jedi mind trick, for inside the Mini is a high-tech, turbo-charged, sharp-toothed monster ready to take on any computing challenge.

Features and Design

The brushed metal and white body of the Intel Mac Mini measures 6.5″x6.5″X2″, smaller than half a loaf of bread – only 84 cubic inches.  In comparison, ATX-sized cases for PC computers average 18″x8″x16″ – a whopping 2,304 cubic inches – 27 times the size of the Mini!

The Mini weighs about 2.9 lbs and can be carried easily in one hand, in a backpack, briefcase or purse.  Compare that to an average weight of 28 lbs for a PC in an ATX case – nearly 10 times the weight of the Mini.

Upon its release, the Mac Mini was the smallest Mac desktop computer ever produced, and without a doubt, it carries similar status in the PC world.

The sleek format has inspired a rapidly growing number of matching accessories and peripheral devices – all the good things a Mini owner could want to take advantage of the computer’s potential.

The Mini comes in 1.5GHz Intel Core Solo or 1.66GHz Intel Core Duo processor models.  Each model offers one Firewire 400 port and four USB 2.0 ports, Apple Remote with Front Row, up to 2GB memory, Intel GMA950 graphics processor, DVI connector, VGA adapter, slot-loading optical drive (Combo or SuperDrive), up to 120GB hard drive, built-in 10/100/1000 Ethernet, AirPort Extreme, Bluetooth 2.0, analog and digital audio ports, iLife ’06, Mac OS X Tiger and a whole lot of fun.

System as tested:

    • 1.66GHz Intel Core Duo processor
    • 512MB memory (667MHz DDR2 SDRAM)
    • 80GB Serial ATA hard drive
    • Double-layer SuperDrive (DVD+R DL/DVD±RW/CD-RW)
    • Built-in AirPort Extreme and Bluetooth 2.0
  • Apple Remote

Apple Mac mini
Image Courtesy of Apple

Setup and Use

Setting up the Intel Mac Mini was one of the quickest desktop computer setups I have ever experienced.  From sealed box in-hand to running OSX in all its glory, only 14 minutes passed.

Removing it from the box and hooking up the monitor, keyboard and mouse took just 2 minutes 45 seconds.  Granted, a few moments were lost as I scrambled through the contents of the box for the signature Apple stickers, much like how I used to plunge my whole hand into a box of Cracker Jacks in search of the coveted prize.

Once the hardware was set up and plugged in, the Mini sped through the first-time setup of OSX in less than 7 minutes.  After entering in all my user information and wireless network password, I was officially logged into and running OSX in another 4 minutes.

Because Apple has been boasting about the speed increase from G4 Mini to Intel Mini, and because there are people out there who will try to dismiss Apple’s claims as marketing gimmick, I think this setup process deserves a recap.  I spent less than 3 minutes on physical prep, and only about 11 minutes of actual OSX setup before I was browsing designtechnica.com.

Comparatively, the last time I ran a Windows XP installation, it took upwards of 60 minutes to get to the Start menu.  For impatient, gotta-have-it-now folks like me, 11 minutes of operating system setup feels lifetimes faster than an hour of dealing with superfluous informational screens and 256-color dialog boxes.

One of the most time consuming steps of properly setting up a computer is the security, software and driver updates.  Strictly using Internet downloads (as opposed to pre-downloaded drivers on CD or USB memory key), XP Pro takes upwards of an hour or more to complete SP2 updates, depending on whether you start with SP1 or release-date-SP2.  In my time-test, the entirety of OSX updates took 8 minutes 36 seconds.

Apple Mac mini - Rear ViewThe Mac Mini with the Intel Core Duo processor was a pleasure to use.  Safari browser windows opened in less than a second.  Huge websites with thousands of words of text and dozens of photos took mere seconds to load.

Address Book, iCal and iPhoto all opened in about 2.5 seconds the first time after booting up.  Thanks to highly intelligent management of cache, these programs opened in less than a second on subsequent uses.

As a photographer, I make good use of iPhoto on my 20″ G5 iMac.  I have well over 15,000 photos on external drives, and 6,500 or so that I keep in iPhoto.  Why do I have less than half of my photos in iPhoto?  The import process for full-res photos, even from a USB 2.0 drive, can often take longer than a Senate filibuster.  The more photos I take, the more grey hairs I get.  Enter the Intel Mac Mini and Intel-optimized iPhoto.  Importing and default organization of 600 full resolution 8 megapixel photos took 7 minutes.  That’s about 85 photos per minute!  Holy smokes!  At that rate, if sustained, I could import my 15,000 photos in less than 3 hours.

From the beaming pleasure of my iPhoto discovery, I moved on to testing the Mini’s DVD playback performance on my 23″ HD LCD television.  I hooked up the Mini by DVI cable and popped in “The Bourne Identity”.  OSX’s DVD Player was quick to open up, and in seconds I had the FBI, CIA, Interpol, ATF, FDA, HUD and UNICEF warnings on my screen.  A few minutes later, opening credits were rolling.  Once Bourne Identity started playing, the video quality looked quite good.  Colors were brilliant and motion was very smooth.

I was all ready to give an unequivocal thumbs up to the Mini’s integrated graphics chip when I noticed that dark scenes were splotchy when they should have been crisp.  Resizing the DVD Player window from full-screen to “Full Size” (which represents the actual pixel size of the DVD video, not interpolated upwards to max screen resolution) solved most of the grain and washed out black, but not entirely.

Running video from a computer to TV via DVI cable is not the way to get ultimate picture quality, though with the Mini it is the only way.  I tried the Bourne Identity DVD on a 20″ Apple Cinema Display connected to the Mini.  The output was nearly identical.  Both DVDs looked much better at Full Size on the Intel Mini, but the playback was not as clean as it was on the G5 or Intel iMacs.  Granted, all this critique is being made from a viewing distance of about 18 inches.  Moving 6 feet back from the screen, an average TV viewing distance in living rooms, the pixellation was virtually imperceptible.

Running the very same DVD through Front Row seemed to result in a better picture.  Perhaps Front Row has better vide compression algorithms, or my eyes were deceiving me.

To be fair, I dropped Bourne Identity into my almost-new progressive scan DVD player.  Full-screen playback was only slightly better than on the Mini.  This is, of course, a hyper-critical analysis of the Mini’s video package, but it’s important to note.  I think it also acts as a compliment to the Mini.

An Apple rep explained that any splotchy, faded blacks in DVD playback could possibly be the integrated video card or the compression algorithms (or just the DVD), but that there was no conclusive evidence of any flaw.

After hearing so much harumph about how the Intel Mini would make an ideal DVR, and after time consuming investigation, I came to the hard-earned impression that it is a great DVR, especially considering the size, price and huge list of other talents, but I personally feel it could be even better if it had a more virile graphics setup.  While I understand Apple’s use of an integrated graphics chip in such a tiny little computer due to space limitations and an interest in exploring Intel’s newest graphics solutions, it seems to me that this is the one and only place where Apple can improve upon future releases of the Intel-based Mac Mini.  Hardware geeks may have good arguments to this, but my conclusions are through empirical evidence and user-opinon, not mathematical formulas or marketing promo.

Many Mac users hail the goodness of Handbrake, a free application designed to rip DVDs into MPEG-4 files for use in Quicktime, iTunes or on a 5G iPod with video (only do this if you own the subject DVD and can legally make a backup copy for your own personal use, lest you unleash the wrath of legal teams and rogue hit squads).  On the 20″ G5 iMac, Handbrake rips at about 15 frames per second for near-DVD quality output.  The Intel Mac Mini did the exact same job at an average of 60 frames per second!  Surprisingly, the playback quality of a Handbrake-rendered MPEG-4 file appeared as good as DVD, with file sizes between 780MB and 1.1GB.  Blacks were more black, colors were just as bright and crisp, but I noticed pixellation in fast-action scenes.  A minor inconvenience, if that.

The only annoyance that I experienced while using the Mini was in regard to the way Apple advertises the need for keyboard, mouse and monitor to have a fully functioning computer that’s great for iTunes, movies, web browsing and a plethora of other media-rich activities.  When I first played the Bourne Identity DVD, I realized that there is only a tiny mono speaker stuffed inside the Mini.  I lost no respect for the engineering team at Apple over this; I remain impressed and awed by their skill and vision.  But Apple makes no mention of the Victrola-like audio coming from the Mini.  I’d suggest that they say “Bring your own display, keyboard, mouse AND speakers.”  That would complete the picture.

Apple Mac mini - Top View
Image Courtesy of Apple

Boot Camp – Windows on Mac:

On April 5, 2006, Apple announced a beta program called Boot Camp.  Boot Camp is a bundle of software and firmware that allows users to run OSX and Windows XP SP2 on their Intel-based Macs, including the Mac Mini.

The download and setup of Boot Camp was quick and painless.  After a 5 minute download and a 2 minute configuration, the Intel Mac Mini was ready to reboot for Windows XP installation.

Once rebooted, the Mini agreeably started up in the standard DOS-blue Windows installation screen.  Of course, Windows installations are never as fast as OSX installations, but the Mini waited for Microsoft’s software to collect itself.  Moments later, Windows XP Professional was being installed on the Mini.

Nearly an hour later, the main desktop of XP Pro was displayed nicely on my widescreen LCD.  Please note that the installation time of an hour is not a Mini flaw or any compatibility problem – it is a Windows reality.  Once XP was successfully installed and drivers were updated with the Boot Camp CD, Windows XP was running faster than it had been running on my last tricked-out AMD64 system.  Everything was fluid and fast – as perfect as it could be.

For Mac users who need or want to run XP-only programs, but want an Apple computer, Boot Camp is absolutely perfect!  Boot Camp requires an Intel-based Mac and a fully licensed copy of Windows XP with SP2.  To date, nothing other than XP SP2 will work correctly.

Parallels Workstation  – Windows in OSX:

On April 6, 2006, Parallels announced a Boot Camp rival called Parallels Workstation 2.1 Beta for Mac OS X.  Essentially, Parallels Workstation works like Microsoft Virtual PC – it allows a Windows operating system, like Windows XP, to run in a window on the OSX desktop.  The major difference between Boot Camp and Parallels Workstation is that Boot Camp requires a reboot to get into the alternate operating system, whereas Parallels Workstation runs Windows and OSX at the same time.  Users can open and run Mac programs in OSX, then simply double click the Parallels icon to open Windows in a separate program window.  It can be minimized to the Dock, moved around the screen, and shut down like any other program.  It runs surprisingly fast – significantly faster than Virtual PC, though it is not as fast as the Boot Camp instance of XP.  One caveat – Parallels Workstation requires an Intel-based Mac and a valid license for whatever version of Windows you want to run.

Notes about Boot Camp vs. Parallels Workstation:

Boot Camp is free.  Parallels Workstation is $49.99.

To date, Boot Camp only does Windows XP SP2.  Parallels Workstation handles any version of Windows (3.x, 95, 98, Me, 2000, NT, XP) as well as Linux, FreeBSD, OS/2, MS-DOS, etc.

Boot Camp is slated to become an integrated part of Apple’s next generation operating system – Leopard.

Performance/extra

One thing that impressed me about the Intel-based Mini is it’s ability to do more than just run OSX and look svelte.  I plugged the Mini into a 20-user Windows XP network, duplicated the entire contents of the Dell PowerEdge server onto to the Mini’s hard drive, and after a little configuration on the Mini and Windows machines, had the Mini running as a worthy replacement file server.  Gigabit Ethernet helps a lot, especially if the Mini is going to be used to send or receive large files over a LAN.

Conclusion

The Mac Mini is the Bruce Lee of the computing world – small frame, incredibly fit, lightning fast and able to take on any sized opponent with unflinching confidence.  The video performance was impressive – exceptional in many ways – but could be improved upon.  The integrated video chip is certainly worthy of applause and congratulations but it may not deserve a standing ovation.

The Intel-based Mini is more computer than grandma or grandpa would ever need for emailing the grandkids or cataloging jam recipes (unless they manage an international jam conglomerate).  It would be a great system for students – perhaps even those Computer Sciences geniuses at MIT.

All in all, the Mini is a fantastic computer for home use, quite sufficient for experienced users who need computing speed yet suffer for space, and it’s a great place to start for those who want to sample the design prowess of the Apple team and/or get their feet wet with OSX.

The Intel-based Mini met or exceeded all my expectations.

Pros:

  • Super small size
  • Low power consumption
  • Silent operation
  • Ease of use
  • Multi-purpose computer – jack of all trades, master of most.

Cons:

  • Full motion video output could be a little better
  • Total cost of ownership is higher than expected
  • Mono speaker

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