- Review Date: 07/25/11
- Bottom line:
In addition to being as powerful as a tower PC, the Apple Mac mini (Thunderbolt) innovates and sounds the death knell for the optical disc.
Super compact design. Aluminum unibody construction. SD slot supports SDXC cards. Included HDMI-to-DVI adapter and HDMI port. Internal power supply. Thunderbolt interface. Second generation Core i5 processor. 3D performance rivals a tower PC.
Hard drive is hard to upgrade. Thunderbolt peripherals are scarce. No optical complicates some installs.
The Apple Mac mini (Thunderbolt) ($799 list) is the latest iteration of Apple's compact desktop PC. While the iPads and iPhones have much of the attention these days, the Mac is still an important part of Apple's business. You'll use your tablets and phones while you're mobile, and the Mac when you want to do serious work like typing for extended periods of time or watching a movie on a big screen with the family. The new Mac mini upgrades with a Thunderbolt port, second-generation Intel Core i5 processor and new AMD discrete graphics, but it's also notable for something that you probably don't even use anymore: It removes the optical drive from the chassis. Oh yeah, and it's as powerful as a tower PC. Users used to regard the Mac mini as an extra second or third PC around the house, rather than a primary PC. The new iteration is now powerful enough to take over as that primary PC in your house. Plus it's still a great base station for your iPod, iPhone, and iPad. For all these reasons, the Apple Mac mini (Thunderbolt) earns the Editors' Choice for compact desktop PCs.
Design and Features
The new version of the Mac mini looks just like the previous iteration the Apple Mac mini (HDMI) ($699 list, 4.5 stars). It has the same unibody aluminum chassis, with one glaring difference. There is no longer any slot-loading optical drive, a feature that had been prominent on the Mac mini line since its debut in 2005. Basically, it's as if Apple is saying "we gave you the iTunes Store, Safari, and the Mac App store online, why would you need an optical drive?" Just like the original iMac dropped the then prominent floppy drive from its desktops, the Mac mini (Thunderbolt) puts a stake in the ground and declares that you don't need an optical drive anymore. Sure, there have been miniature nettops without optical drives for a while now, like the Giada MiniPC A50 ($449 street, 3.5 stars). But the Mac mini is one of the few premium compact desktops without an optical drive.
Thing is, optical drives are pretty useful for installing programs and rebuilding the operating system. Apple's Mac App Store and online downloads will take care of the programs, and Mac OS X Lion is designed to be installed from a recovery partition, over the Internet, or from a USB stick. True, you can install Windows 7 from a USB stick too, but you first have to find a way to create one yourself: All new Mac minis will be able to reinstall Lion from either the recovery partition or over the Internet after typing in a key combination on startup. Apple will be selling pre-made Lion USB sticks in the near future. If you absolutely need to read an optical disc, you can share the optical from any Mac or PC on you LAN by installing a client program on the remote PC or Mac. You can also use the same optional Apple External SuperDrive ($79) that was released with the MacBook Air. If you have older software that you still install from DVDs, you might want to think about picking one up. That said, the 800-pound gorilla of all Mac programs, Adobe Creative Suite 5.5, is available as an online download.
The internal layout of the Mac mini is the same as last time: opening the bottom panel reveals the (filled) memory slots with 4GB of memory, and not much else. You can see the 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi antenna, but to go further you'll need Torx screwdrivers and a lot of patience. The Mac mini isn't designed to be serviced by users (aside from the memory), so unless you have a boatload of fortitude, you won't be replacing the internal 500GB hard drive anytime soon. The desktop comes with a 500GB, 5,400 rpm drive, which trades its compact size for a little performance. You can configure the mini when you order it on Apple's online store to a 7,200rpm 750GB hard drive ($150), a 256GB SSD ($600), or both ($750).
On the back panel, a lot will seem familiar: power button, power port for the AC power cable, Gigabit Ethernet, FireWire 800, HDMI, Thunderbolt port (functionally incorporating the previous mini-DisplayPort), four USB 2.0 ports, the SDXC card reader, and a pair of audio ports with digital audio capabilities. The power port is notable, since the desktop has a built-in power supply instead of the power brick found on many small PCs. This is both a lot more convenient and a lot better looking than the power brick. The Thunderbolt port uses Intel's new interface (think of it as external PCIe), so you can theoretically hook up multiple monitors, hard drives, and even other interfaces like USB 3.0 or eSATA. In practice, the only Thunderbolt peripherals that you can order are the Promise Pegasus R6 RAID array and the upcoming Apple Thunderbolt Display (27-inch). Hopefully, we'll see more Thunderbolt peripherals before the end of the year.
The desktop comes with a few extras on the hard drive, including the iLife Suite (iPhoto, iMovie, etc.) in addition to the new Mac OS X Lion operating system. Lion is optimized for the Magic TrackPad and Apple Magic Mouse, so newer functions like Launchpad and Mission Control work great on these touch-sensitive pointing devices. However, using an older mouse will be a bit disconcerting. The scroll wheel works opposite to what you're expecting (spinning the scroll wheel toward you pushes the page up, and vice versa), and you obviously can't activate the multi-touch swipes with a third-party mouse. Settings in the mouse and trackpad control panels can change the scrolling behavior back to what you're used to. The Mac mini (Thunderbolt) does come with a HDMI to DVI adapter, so you can use the system with an older display, mouse, and keyboard. However to get the full use of Lion's new features, you'd be better off budgeting $69 for the Magic Trackpad.
The Mac mini (Thunderbolt) has an Intel Core i5-2520M processor and AMD Radeon HD 6630M discrete graphics, which are certainly powerful enough to run all our benchmark tests well, including the 3D games. We tested the system under both Mac OS X Lion and Windows 7 Enterprise (64-bit) using Boot Camp. The Mac mini (Thunderbolt) completed our Handbrake video in a quick 1 minute 42 seconds in Windows and 2:23 in Mac OS. The system also finished the Photoshop CS5 test in 3:47 in Windows and 5:10 in Mac OS. This is significantly faster than the Core 2 Duo equip ped Mac mini from last year, which took around 3:32 to complete Handbrake and 7:14 to complete CS5.
Likewise, the Mac mini (Thunderbolt) has improved 3D graphics capabilities as well: Back then, the Mac mini (HDMI) was the best 3D performer in the compact PC class, scoring 21 frames per second (fps) at Crysis at medium quality. The Mac mini (Thunderbolt) completed the same test at a much more playable 48 fps. It's still not quite the ultra-smooth 60+fps point yet, but you should be able to play Crysis at those frame rates on the Mac mini with some tweaks to the settings. This is significant, because the only other rival that we've seen lately at this price range is the Asus Essentio CM6850-07 ($829.99 list, 3.5 stars). The Asus CM6850-07 is a full tower with a huge gaming-class discrete graphics card. Even then, the Asus only got a slightly better Crysis score with 50fps. The Asus did get a better score on Lost Planet 2 at medium quality (26 fps Asus, 19 fps Apple), but neither scores are considered playable.
The Asus CM6850-07 was faster than the Mac mini (Thunderbolt) on benchmark tests like Handbrake, CS5, and PCMark Vantage, attributable to the Asus CM6850-07's faster 7,200 rpm hard drive (the Mac mini has a 5,400rpm drive). The Mac mini (Thunderbolt) blew away the compact PC Editor's Choice Dell Inspiron Zino HD (Inspiron 410) ($849.99 direct, 4 stars) on the same tests. All this means that the Mac mini shows that you don't have to sacrifice performance if you want a compact desktop.
The compact form factor is usually about compromise. You can either go really compact but low-powered like the Giada PCs and Asus' Eee Box, or go a bit larger and really inexpensive like the HP Pavilion Slimline s5-1020 ($429.99 list, 3.5 stars). At the high-end are systems like the Dell Zino HD and the Apple Mac mini. These systems use higher end multi-core processors like the Intel Core i5 and AMD Phenom II X4 along with discrete graphics to give you tower desktop-class performance in a compact chassis. Like the iPhone and the iPad, the Mac mini is now a true extension of the Apple ecosystem, where you can hook up to the Internet to purchase media, entertainment, and programs from online and Apple stores. It's likely that you don't miss your optical media now, so you certainly won't miss it going forward. It's not like Blu-ray was ever a concern for Mac users in the past: if you own them, you already have something else that can play them.
The Dell Zino HD, which is pricier than the Mac mini, is still available on Dell's website, but it's essentially the same model with a similar AMD quad-core processor and ATI Radeon HD graphics as the previous iteration Dell Zino we reviewed. Blu-ray aside, new Mac mini is much more powerful and more capable overall. Therefore the Apple Mac mini (Thunderbolt) is the new Editor's Choice for compact PCs.