Apple has given the casework of its entry-level Mac the full unibody makeover, making the new Apple Mac mini (Mid 2010) the most significant update in the product's history. And revisions to its graphics card plus a new HDMI port will make it even more attractive as the foundation of an efficient media-centre PC

We always thought the original Mac mini design was an understated marvel. Just two-inches high and seven-inches square, it offered so much more than the new wave of under-aspirated nettop PCs. With its aluminium sides wrapping around a plastic top, it was the armour-plated Tupperware box of modern computing.

Like those newer Atom-powered compact PCs, the mini was designed as an easy-to-site desktop computer, only so small and discreet you’d be happy to keep it in the lounge too. And thanks to its essentially silent operation, it made an ideal media centre hub for enjoying DVD films, music and TV (with the help of Elgato EyeTV).

But keeping the size of PCs down has always meant compromising performance. Thankfully significant technological leaps have been made recently, inspired by the massive uptake of portable computing.

Look to the 21st-century laptop: size, performance and thermal design are all carefully balanced. And since laptops now account for the biggest slice of all PCs sold, the components to make high-performance computing in a small chassis have become increasingly easy to source.

The Mac mini started out with a lowly single-core 1.25GHz PowerPC G4 processor back in 2005; but by early last year it had evolved into a minor powerhouse, even the entry-level model earning a speedy 2.0GHz dual-core processor and capable nVidia GeForce 9400M graphics. For the first time, the Mac mini could now even entertain a little gaming too.

Later last year, a 2.53GHz version was offered as the top-spec model.

Now we have a complete makeover for this updated Mac mini – or the Apple Mac mini (Mid 2010) as Apple quietly dubs it.

Like Apple’s professional notebooks, the Apple Mac mini (Mid 2010) now takes a completely aluminium case, milled from solid block just like the unibody design of the MacBook Pro. This new mini sits lower and wider than before, at 7.7 inches along its edges but just 1.4 inches high.

Build quality is, literally, flawless. The selection of raw material quality and final fit-and-finish are so far removed from that of almost any other computer we test, it’s hard to equate this as a PC alongside the rattling Windows boxes we see in the lab for our monthly group tests.

That revised Apple Mac mini (Mid 2010) chassis is hewn from a solid ingot of aluminium by CNC machining, with all components loaded through a circular hatch on the underside.  Think of a high-tech ship in an opaque metal bottle.

Turn this Apple Mac mini (Mid 2010) over, twist the plastic lid a few degrees to the left and the hatch lifts to reveal the mini within. This is an important development over the original mini’s case, which required a putty knife, some dexterous fingers and a leap of faith to prise the lid away as lines of hidden clips became unfastened.

It’s now a doddle to exchange RAM, with only a little more work required to unfasten the grille that covers the hard disk. Included with the unit is 2GB of DDR3 RAM, and this can now be upgraded to a maximum of 8GB.

Also visible here is one of three antennae required for full-MIMO (multiple-input and multiple-output) 802.11n wireless connectivity. Like all Apple Macs, wireless can also operate on the 5GHz band for reduced congestion.

And to save you the hassle of finding a home for the bulky external power supply unit (PSU), Apple has even found space to squeeze a complete 85W switch-mode PSU into the chassis of the Apple Mac mini (Mid 2010). No more trailing power bricks are required, just a thin mains lead with figure-8 plug.

Apple Mac mini (Mid-2010)

Inside the Apple Mac mini (Mid-2010): Airport antenna at top; RAM and cooling fan below

Replacing the previous base model’s 2.26GHz Intel Core 2 Duo is a 2.4GHz processor, joined by an nVidia GeForce 320M graphics controller – the same as fitted to the latest white MacBook and entry-level MacBook Pro.

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In the lab, this new nVidia GeForce 320M graphics procesor let the new Apple Mac mini (Mid 2010) play our FEAR game benchmark at 29fps (Maximum detail settings), over twice the framerate of last year’s model (14fps) in this graphics test.

Other running changes include a loss of one USB 2.0 port, down from five to four, and the addition of an SD Card slot. Also able to accept SDHC and SDXC cards (the latter curently available in sizes as large as 64GB), this slot is sited on the rear panel, in order not to upset the clean lines of the unit’s front face.

So up front is just a single thin aperture for the slot-load DVD±RW dual-layer optical drive, which additionally hides an IR sensor for use with the optional dinky-sized remote control.

Video connectivity has changed, HDMI replacing the mini-DVI port. An adaptor is included in the box to easily allow this port to be used with regular DVI cables. But that single switch to HDMI ought to be enough to overcome some people’s lingering inertia in considering the Mac mini as a drop-in media centre PC, now it can be so easily connected to a large flat-panel television. And don't forget that HDMI can also carry multichannel digital audio alongside high-definition video.

Apple Mac mini (Mid 2010)

Rear panel of the Apple Mac mini (Mid-2010). Note HDMI port [fourth from left], and SD Card slot to the right

We gave the new Apple Mac mini (Mid 2010) a full real-world speed test with WorldBench 6. It finished with a score of 93 points, just two points below the 95-point score of last year’s top model with 2.53GHz processor.

Note that for this 2010 generation of Mac mini, there is only one ‘standard’ configuration offered, although you can specify a faster processor as a build-to-order option direct from the online Apple Store. The 2.66GHz processor option does add £123 to the price though.

Not only is the mini a very quick and very compact computer even in standard trim, it’s also incredibly power efficient. In fact, it’s the most economical PC we’ve ever seen, consuming just seven watts (7W) in our tests when idle. This is an incredibly low power-consumption figure, underlining some clever industrial engineering in the Apple Mac mini (Mid 2010)'s design.

Following the last refresh from late last year, the Apple Mac mini (2010) is also available in a server edition, which sees the optical drive inside replaced with a second 500GB 2.5in hard disk. This model comes with Snow Leopard Server Edition pre-installed.

With two hard drives on tap, you could use one as boot drive and one for additional storage; or elect to set up the mini with a RAID 0 or RAID 1 array, for respectively increased performance and capacity, or for maximum data security.

NEXT PAGE: Original Macworld US first-look review >>

The PC Advisor Verdict >>

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Apple Mac mini: Slimming down

The first thing you'll notice about the new Mac mini is its box. Or, more specifically, how small that box is - 60 percent of the size of the previous container. Open the box, and you'll immediately see why: the new Apple Mac mini, while wider than the previous model, is only 36mm thick. And something else is missing - the power supply. Instead of the heavy, bulky, white power brick that's shipped with every mini since the line was introduced, the newest mini comes with only a thin power cord and a video adaptor.

In the process of redesigning the Mac mini's enclosure, Apple was able to shrink down the power supply and fit it inside the mini itself. (The new mini is actually slightly heavier than the previous model's enclosure, but the lack of an external power supply allows the new version to shed about a pound of weight overall.)

The Mac mini's visual redesign takes its cues from two other Apple products. The new enclosure is made of a single piece of aluminum, a la Apple's unibody laptops - gone is the plastic top of previous models, making the new mini feel rock-solid. But the shape is closer to that of the Apple TV - thinner and wider than the previous Mac mini models. In fact, the new mini is almost exactly the same size as an Apple TV, just with rounder corners.

Apple Mac mini: Output changes

On the back of the new Apple Mac mini, you'll find all the mini's connections. As with the previous version, you get Gigabit Ethernet, FireWire 800, a Mini DisplayPort connector, digital/analog audio input and output, and four USB ports served by two USB buses. But you also gain - at the expense of a USB port, which is why the new model has four instead of the old model's five - an SD-card slot. This card reader is less accessible on the back than it would have been on the front, but in a briefing Apple conceded that the compact design of the new Mac mini does limit where ports and connections can be placed.

The new Apple Mac mini drops the previous model's mini-DVI port in favour of an HDMI output - a nod to the fact that many Mac mini owners use the computer in home-theatre systems and for other AV uses. In fact, Apple has even updated the Displays pane of System Preferences for the new mini to let you tweak video underscan - useful when connecting the mini to a TV. (Sorry, AV lovers - there's no update to Front Row. Apple told us this Displays option is the only software change you'll find.)

The Apple Mac mini's two video ports will also provide better graphics performance thanks to the new Nvidia GeForce 320M integrated graphics processor which shares memory with the system RAM. For what it's worth, Apple executives told us they've seen up to twice the performance when running games on the new mini, and the new GPU is optimised for HD video.

Internally, you get Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR, but the new Mac mini also supports 802.11a/b/g/n wireless - Apple didn't officially support 802.11a on the previous model. The new model may also provide better wireless performance thanks to the placement of its two antennae: one in the rear behind the plastic back panel, and the other on the bottom, near the front of the mini, also behind a plastic cover.

In addition to one USB port, the new Apple Mac mini model is also missing one other connector: a security-lock slot. Apple's infrared Remote remains an optional purchase.

Apple Mac mini: Easier upgrades?

Perhaps the most welcome change to the new Mac mini is the fact that it's now easy to upgrade the RAM - a feat that, while relatively easy once you get the hang of it, was a fairly major undertaking for the uninitiated. While the new Mac mini ships with 2GB of RAM, you can swap the two 1GB SO-DIMMS for two 2GB or two 4GB chips - Apple officially supports up to 8GB of RAM. (The previous mini worked with 8GB, but it wasn't a supported configuration.)

The actual upgrade process is among the easiest of any Mac. To open the Apple Mac mini, you just flip it over, place your thumbs in the two recessions you find in the black-plastic base, and turn that base counter-clockwise a few degrees. The base then lifts off, revealing the two RAM slots on the right-hand side. Release the clips for each chip, lift them out, put new ones in, and you're done. You don't even have to use a screwdriver, let alone a putty knife!

While you're inside, there are a few interesting things to see. One is the Apple Mac mini's new 85-Watt power supply, which is just to the right of the RAM slots. It's tiny. You can also see, right in the middle, the mini's small cooling fan. It actually draws air in through a small gap around the base and then pushes that air out a small exhaust opening on the back panel.

You'll see a round, black item near the front of the mini. That's one of the two AirPort antennae. The section of the base that covers this antenna has no metal to allow for better performance.

Just being able to see the hard drive requires removing six screws, pulling the fan mechanism to the side, and removing the metal screen that holds the AirPort antenna.

Apple's policy on upgrading the Mac mini yourself has always been that as long as you don't break anything in the process, your warranty is still valid. We confirmed with Apple that this is, indeed, still the case with the newest Mac mini. However, the company contends that because the new mini includes at least 320GB of hard-drive space - and you can upgrade at the time of purchase to 500GB for £80 (and one pence) - there's less of a need to upgrade the hard drive than when the mini shipped with only 160GB.

(And, of course, we found in a previous Mac mini review that if you've got a bit of desk space, you'll likely get more storage and better performance for the money by connecting an external FireWire drive than by upgrading the internal hard drive.)

Apple Mac mini: Split the (price) difference

Apple continues to offer a Snow Leopard Server version of the Mac mini, complete with a second hard drive - both now running at 7200rpm - in lieu of an optical drive, for £929. However, the company no longer offers a choice of non-server models. The new Mac mini is available in a single £649 configuration. This model includes a 2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor, 2GB of RAM, a 320GB SATA hard drive, and an 8X SuperDrive. These specs are only a mild bump from those of the previous-generation's £499 model, which sported a 2.26GHz processor and a 160GB hard drive, although the new graphics card may increase performance dramatically in software with heavy graphics requirements.

Dan Frakes

Macworld US

See also: Group test: what's the best desktop PC?

NEXT: Our expert verdict >>

Apple Mac mini (Mid 2010): Specs

  • 2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo P8600
  • 1066MHz FSB
  • 3MB L2 cache
  • Mac OS X 10.6.4 Snow Leopard
  • 320GB 5400rpm 2.5in SATA HDD
  • 2GB (2x1GB) DDR3-1066 RAM
  • nVidia GeForce 320M graphics with 256MB shared system RAM
  • 1 x HDMI, 1 x mini DisplayPort
  • slot-load 8x DVD±RW DL drive
  • gigabit ethernet
  • 4 x USB 2.0
  • FireWire 800
  • SD/SDHC card slot
  • 3.5mm audio input with Toslink S/PDIF
  • 3.5mm audio output/headphones with Toslink S/PDIF
  • mono speaker
  • 802.11a/b/g/n (2.4GHz and 5GHz)
  • Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR
  • iLife ’09 (iPhoto, iMovie, iDVD, iWeb, GarageBand)
  • 197 x 197 x 36mm
  • 1.37kg
  • 2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo P8600
  • 1066MHz FSB
  • 3MB L2 cache
  • Mac OS X 10.6.4 Snow Leopard
  • 320GB 5400rpm 2.5in SATA HDD
  • 2GB (2x1GB) DDR3-1066 RAM
  • nVidia GeForce 320M graphics with 256MB shared system RAM
  • 1 x HDMI, 1 x mini DisplayPort
  • slot-load 8x DVD±RW DL drive
  • gigabit ethernet
  • 4 x USB 2.0
  • FireWire 800
  • SD/SDHC card slot
  • 3.5mm audio input with Toslink S/PDIF
  • 3.5mm audio output/headphones with Toslink S/PDIF
  • mono speaker
  • 802.11a/b/g/n (2.4GHz and 5GHz)
  • Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR
  • iLife ’09 (iPhoto, iMovie, iDVD, iWeb, GarageBand)
  • 197 x 197 x 36mm
  • 1.37kg

OUR VERDICT

Only the price stands in the way of making this a no-brain recommendation for purchase. At £649, Apple has raised the budget Mac mini to a level where more justification is required for the expense. It doesn’t help that we’re being asked to pay conspicuously more than the $699 in the US. Even after VAT, that’s still around £535 State-side, meaning UK customers are being asked to pay over 20% more. Nevertheless, this remains the cheapest Mac you’ll find, and the condensation of performance components into a space-age case has wrought a step-up in quality and style for the already upmarket Mac mini. The UK price is inflated but there’s no escaping that Mac mini 2010 is a sublimely designed PC, quietly oozing style and with performance to spare.

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