Although not specifically designed as a Media Centre PC, the tiny Mac mini’s diminutive proportions, elegant design, excellent performance and low power consumption all add up to a formidable piece of hardware for the living room.

Based on components designed for laptops, the Mac mini is impressively small and draws a tiny amount of power. We measured only 10W when idling at the desktop – which is around a one third of the juice required to maintain any of the competition.

Our combined £896 review system was fitted with a 2.53GHz Intel Core i5-2520M processor – plenty fast enough to form a quick and responsive multimedia machine. This version of the Mac mini also comes with a discrete AMD Radeon HD 6630M graphics card delivering superior gaming performance.

Tested under Windows, WorldBench 6 returned a score of 123 points, which is slower than much of the competition but more than needed for our purposes. Gaming performance was excellent too. In the Windows video transcode test, though, Apple Boot Camp drivers don’t allow accelerated compression, so a time of 8 mins 33 secs is lower than that from systems that allow full hardware transcoding.

Since the demise of Apple’s Front Row software, there’s no Media Centre environment shipped as standard with the Mac. However, there are plenty of options available such as XBMC or Boxee which have versions that run just fine on the Mac mini and support the Apple remote control.

Alternatively, it’s easy enough to navigate to your media and apps within the standard OS X interface. When displaying on a large screen across the room, just set resolution down to a level that lets you read text and icons – for example, 1024 x 640 works well on a 30in screen viewed from six feet away.

We added Apple’s compact Bluetooth keyboard (£57), along with the Magic Trackpad (£59) – a great way to control from the desk or sofa, with full multi-touch gesture control not available anywhere else. You can also control music and film playback with the simple Apple Remote (£15).

Missing from the mini now is an optical drive, so to play CDs or DVDs you’ll need to hook up an external model such as the Macbook Air SuperDrive which we’ve included in the price. Blu-ray is less straightforward. There’s no native Blu-ray support within OS X, but you can use third-party apps like Mac Blu-ray Player. Or rip the disc first, removing obstructive encryption, then play films directly with video apps like VLC.

You can also install Windows easily enough on a Mac mini, although you would lose all the benefits of OS X, such as stable UNIX-based operation, multi-touch interface and a virus-free environment.

Apple Mac mini (MId 2011): Specs

  • Intel Core i5 2520M processor
  • 4GB DDR3-1333 RAM
  • 2.53GHz 500GB 5400rpm 2.5in SATA HDD
  • Mac OS X 10.7 Lion
  • Radeon HD 6630M Graphics card 256MB
  • Gigabit Ethernet
  • HDMI
  • Thunderbolt
  • SDXC card slot
  • Bluetooth 4.0, IR remote control, Apple Bluetooth Wireless Keyboard
  • Intel Core i5 2520M processor
  • 4GB DDR3-1333 RAM
  • 2.53GHz 500GB 5400rpm 2.5in SATA HDD
  • Mac OS X 10.7 Lion
  • Radeon HD 6630M Graphics card 256MB
  • Gigabit Ethernet
  • HDMI
  • Thunderbolt
  • SDXC card slot
  • Bluetooth 4.0, IR remote control, Apple Bluetooth Wireless Keyboard

OUR VERDICT

Ultra-compact in size, ultra-low in power consumption, and crucially quiet to use, the Apple Mac mini makes a compelling media centre when matched with the right peripherals and software. Its performance is much faster than a box this size deserves and the built-in graphics card provides gaming horsepower too.

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