Mac Musings

The 2011 Mac mini Value Equation

Dan Knight - 2011.07.27 - Tip Jar

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The more things stay the same on the outside, the more they change under the hood. That seems to be Apple's motto this summer.

Last year Apple overhauled the design of the Mac mini, moving from a 6.5" square, 2" tall enclose with an external power brick to a 7.7" square, 1.6" tall enclosure with a built-in power supply. The Mid 2011 Mac mini retains that redesigned enclosure, but there are a host of changes under the hood.

In terms of processing power, the big news is the adoption of Intel Core i5 and i7 CPUs, replacing the Core 2 Duo processors that Apple began using in Mid 2006 Macs. The new CPUs pay off in a big way. Where the 2.4 GHz 2010 Mini had a Geekbench score of 3733 and the 2.66 GHz version hit 4040, the 2.3 GHz i5 zooms past that to score 6396, and the 2.0 GHz quad-core i7 found in the new Mac mini Server blows past that with 9573.

In terms of expansion, the addition of Thunderbolt, introduced with the Early 2011 MacBook Pro line and also included with the Early 2011 version of the iMac, is being positioned as the expansion bus of the future. Thunderbolt has over twice the bandwidth of USB 3.0, 60% more than SATA 3, and enough bandwidth to support high resolution monitors, SSD RAID arrays,external video cards, and adapters for FireWire, USB 3.0, and other protocols. Look at it as a virtual expansion slot.

Apple's new Thunderbolt Display is a perfect complement, especially if you transport your Mac mini between locations, as it has its own USB 2.0, FireWire 800, and Gigabit Ethernet, along with a Thunderbolt pass-through port and a FaceTime HD webcam. (This is also Apple's first display with a built-in webcam, something iMacs and 'Books have had for years.)

In terms of graphics, it depends. The Nvidia GeForce 320M graphics used in last year's MBA were nice but far from state of the art. The same can be said of the Intel HD Graphics 3000 built into the CPUs of this year's models. Early benchmarks using Crysis at native resolution turn in higher frame rates for the new models - 48 fps instead of 21! Benchmarks using Call of Duty 4 give last year's 2.4 GHz Mini 38.9 fps, the new 2.3 GHz model 27.3 fps (a huge step backwards), and the 2.5 GHz models, with its AMD Radeon HD 6630 GPU achieves 59.5 fps.

In terms of storage, the huge change is the addition of SSD support - and Apple was kind enough to use exactly the same SSD modules in the Mac mini as it used in last year's and this year's MacBook Air. That means you don't have to pay Apple's $600 price for a 256 MB SSD. Vendors such as Other World Computing to the rescue with better prices, faster drives, and more capacity options, ranging from 180 GB for $400 to 480 GB for $1,400. And the new Mac mini supports 6 Gbps SATA 3.0, which has twice the bandwidth of the 3 Gbps SATA 2.0 used in last year's model.

What About that Server?

In terms of sheer processing power, the 2.0 GHz Mac mini Server with its quad-core i7 CPU is something else with a 50% higher Geekbench score than the entry-level Mac mini. That's overkill for most users, but it finally gives power users an option that doesn't include a built-in display or retail at well over $2,000. And with Thunderbolt, the Mini has expansion options it never did before. I know that I'd find it tempting at just $100 more than the 2.7 GHz i7 build-to-order consumer model, especially if I already had a monitor I really liked.

If the quad-core model had Radeon graphics as an option, I could see gamers really going for this one, but for most users the integrated graphics are more than adequate.

What About Last Year's Model?

It's not often that Apple doubles processing power like this, which raises the question, Should anyone buy the 2010 Mac mini?

Probably the biggest reason to choose it over the 2011 model is that the 2010 Mac mini runs OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard, which contains Rosetta, which means it is compatible with PowerPC software - things like Quicken, AppleWorks, older versions of Photoshop, etc. These apps won't roar with Lion, but they will continue to run under Snow Leopard.

If you're a gamer, you might want the 2010 model for its Nvidia graphics. This year's entry level model has Intel HD 3000 Graphics, which don't perform as well on some 3D games.

Another factor is how much power you really need. If you've been happily working with a 2005, 2006, or 2007 Mac mini (let alone vintage PowerPC gear), the 2010 represents a big step forward, so if the price is right, it can be a legitimate alternative to the Mid 2011 model.

That said, there just isn't much of a price difference. You can save $36 by choosing a 2.4 GHz Core 2 Duo Mini with 2 GB RAM and a 320 GB hard drive instead of a 2.3 GHz i5 with 2 GB RAM and a 500 GB hard drive, but the 50% larger hard drive alone is worth most of that difference. You really need a compelling reason, such a Snow Leopard or Nvidia graphics, for the 2010 model to make sense with such a small difference in price.

I don't consider the lack of a built-in SuperDrive important, since you can add an external one for just $79. With a $100 reduction in retail price, you're still ahead compared to the original price of last year's model.

At this point, I usually go on about the value of refurbished Macs, but Apple doesn't have any refurbished Minis except for Servers - not what most of us are looking for.

Where's the Sweet Spot?

I've been working with a 2007 Mac mini for several months. It's mostly a very nice computer, but with just 1 GB of memory - over half of it tied up by graphics and the operating system - running three apps at once bogs the thing down horribly. I'd consider 2 GB an absolute minimum for decent performance with OS X 10.5 Leopard or 10.6 Snow Leopard. I haven't tried Lion yet, but I'm sure the same applies. Consider 2 GB a starting point, and seriously consider going with at least 4 GB of system memory. A 7200 rpm drive will also make a very noticeable difference.

Bumping the base Mac mini to 4 GB brings its price to $699, which is $100 shy of the "better" model, which has a faster processor (2.5 GHz instead of 2.3 GHz) and a dedicated graphics processor. Okay, an 8.6% faster CPU is nothing to get excited about, but at a 14% higher price you're getting that plus a significantly better video card. It 3D graphics are important to you, it's probably worth the extra cost.

For the rest of us, I think the 2.3 GHz i5 is going to blow us away. Upgrade your memory, consider a 7200 rpm hard drive for its responsiveness, and be sure you look at third-party alternatives. For instance, you could buy the base model, pick up 8 GB of RAM from OWC, and save $15 over Apple's 4 GB option. (OWC can even sell you a 16 GB upgrade, but it costs way more than the computer.) Want a faster hard drive? Look at the WD Scorpio Black, which is fast, quiet, and runs cool. Instead of paying Apple $150 for a 750 GB drive, you could get a 750 GB Scorpio Black plus an enclosure for your 500 GB drive for a few dollars less.

For me, the most impressive new feature in the 2011 Mac mini is the ability to use 6 Gbps SSDs instead of or in conjunction with hard drives. Apple wants $600 to put 256 GB of wicked fast SSD in your Mac mini, but OWC can get you into a faster, slightly smaller (180 GB) SSD for $400, 240 GB for $520, and 360 GB or 480 GB SSDs if you need more capacity than Apple offers.

The ultimate Mac mini would have a 7200 rpm hard drive for storing work and media files, 8 GB of system memory, and an SSD for booting the OS and launching apps - and set you back about $1,300! But you can choose what's important to you and upgrade as you go along, which is my plan for my Mac mini.

Looking at the new models, the first question is whether you need Radeon graphics, which means choosing the $799 2.5 GHz model over the $599 2.3 GHz one. If you don't need Radeon graphics, the next question is whether you need ultimate processing power, as found in the 2.0 GHz quad-core i7 Server, or not. I suspect that the vast majority of you will find the base model meets your needs.

Do It Yourself?

It's easy to install memory in the new Mac miniUpgrading memory on the Mac mini is easy - turn it over, remove the bottom cover, remove the old memory, and install the new. Anyone who can hook up a computer or TV should be able to do it, and third-party memory is usually a lot more affordable than Apple's. I'm not saying you shouldn't spend $100 to double memory on the base Mini, only that for the same price you can double that if you're willing to do it yourself.

OWC rates hard drive and SSD upgrades as moderately difficult and estimates the process will take about 30 minutes. Their video (for the 2010 model - expect a 2011 version soon) takes you through the process step-by-step, but if you're not comfortable doing it yourself, Apple's $150 upgrade to a 7200 rpm 750 GB hard drive is a good value. I prefer to do upgrades myself, as that gives me a spare hard drive for backup or whatever.

But Are You Ready for Lion?

The biggest drawback to the Mid 2011 Mac mini is that it comes with OS X 10.7 Lion. If you are still using PowerPC apps (AppleWorks or Quicken, for instance) and want to keep doing so, you don't want to run Lion exclusively, as it no longer supports PowerPC apps. You may also have apps that are Intel-compatible but no yet compatible with Lion.

We've heard that VirtualBox will let you virtualize Snow Leopard and run it as a session on your Lion Mac, but that was done using hardware that supported Snow Leopard. Whether Macs that can't boot Snow Leopard will be able to virtualize it remains to be seen, but it could give users the best of both worlds - the totally up-to-date Lion environment plus Snow Leopard for all those old apps you can't run in Lion.

For some of us longtime Mac users, that's a real issue. If you've come to the Mac in the past five years, it's probably not an issue at all.

The new Mac mini is a forward-looking machine with lots of power, and Thunderbolt gives it expansion options the Mac mini hasn't had in the past. If Lion isn't a problem for you, the Mid 2011 Mac mini is a great value.

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Dan Knight has been using Macs since 1986, sold Macs for several years, supported them for many more years, and has been publishing Low End Mac since April 1997. If you find Dan's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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