It was a welcome surprise when Apple quietly updated the Mac mini to include Intel Core 2 Duo processors.

See also: Apple Mac mini review (mid 2010)

With its low price and small size, the Mac mini has always offered a versatile and economical Mac experience. But, while Apple has regularly updated its line of consumer laptops and desktops, this year the Mac mini seemed to have been all but forgotten by the company.

In fact, many industry pundits predicted that the mini would be eliminated from Apple's product line. So it was a welcome surprise when Apple quietly updated the Mac mini to include Intel Core 2 Duo processors, the same processors the MacBook, MacBook Pro and iMac have been using since the end of 2006.

The good news for those remaining loyal to the Mac mini, or for people just looking for the least expensive Mac available, is that this under-hyped upgrade gives the Mac mini an impressive performance boost in several applications.

Out of the box

Externally, the Mac mini continues to use the same white plastic and aluminum design that it has sported since it was introduced. The Mac mini still requires you to supply your own keyboard, mouse and display, and there are plenty of ways to connect these peripherals.

On the back of the Mac mini you'll find four USB 2.0 ports, one FireWire 400 port, a power button and combination optical and analogue audio in and out jacks. There is also a security slot, a gigabit ethernet port, and a DVI port for connecting an LCD display with up to 1,920-by-1,200 resolution (the same as Apple's 23in Cinema HD display); a DVI-to-VGA cable is included for hooking up an analogue LCD or CRT monitor.

The Mac mini also includes an Apple Remote for use with Apple's Front Row program, as well as built-in Bluetooth and 802.11g networking. Curiously, the MacBooks, MacBook Pros, and iMacs all ship with the faster, and wider-range, 802.11n capability. And although the 802.11n standard is backward compatible with g devices, the Mac mini will still operate at the slower speeds and shorter range of the 802.11g standard.

Internally, the Mac mini mixes the new with the old. The biggest change is the inclusion of Intel's Core 2 Duo processors. Running at clock speeds of either 1.83GHz (£399 inc VAT) or 2GHz (£499 inc VAT), this second generation of Intel's Core Duo processor supports twice the amount of L2 cache and RAM, although only the higher-end 2GHz model includes the maximum 4MB of cache memory.

The 1.83GHz Mac mini ships with 2MB of L2 cache, the same amount found in the last generation mini. Both models now ship with 1GB of RAM, upgradeable to 2GB. And that's good news, because both models still use Intel's GMA 950 integrated graphics processor, which shares 64MB of the system's main memory, instead of the dedicated video RAM found in most Macs. The Mac minis have two memory slots, which ship filled with two 512MB DDR2-667MHz SO-DIMMs. If you want the full 2GB of RAM, Apple will install two 1GB modules for an additional £100. You can find the RAM cheaper through a third-party online store, but be forewarned that installing the RAM requires the use of a putty knife and a little bit of nerve.

The Core 2 Duo chipset also contains a 128-bit SSE3 vector engine; this can process twice the amount of data per cycle than the Core Duo processor, which can handle only 64 bits at a time. The new Mac minis offer 5,400rpm hard drives with a higher capacity than those in the last batch, too, with an 80GB drive in the 1.83GHz Mac mini and a 120GB drive in the 2GHz model; both can also be upgraded to 160GB (for £100). The low-end Mac mini ships with a CD-burning and DVD-reading optical Combo drive. The high-end Mac mini has a DVD-burning SuperDrive that can burn dual-layer DVDs at eight-speed.

Performance

The Mac mini represents a complicated marketing and engineering juggling act - striving for the best performance possible while maintaining a small size and affordable price. And though many people complain about its limited graphics capabilities and sluggish hard drive, there is a reason the Mac Pro and other high-performance workstations are so large.

Higher performance components tend to run hotter and therefore need more space and cooling fans - and they cost a great deal more, too. Although it would be great to be able to have our computing cake and eat it too, the Mac mini does do a nice job of balancing cost, performance, and size limitations. Looking at the benchmarks, you can see the improvement provided by the Core 2 Duo processors in the results of our processor-intensive tests.

In our Photoshop test, for instance, the 1.83GHz Core 2 Duo model was 19 percent faster than the previous high-end Mac mini, the 1.83GHz Core Duo. The new 2GHz Mac mini was 24 percent faster than the older model in that test. Compressor scores showed even more dramatic improvement, with the 1.83GHz Core 2 Duo model besting the Core Duo model by 28 percent; the new 2GHz system was 35 percent faster than the old 1.83GHz Core Duo Mac mini.

Comparing the Mac minis to the new aluminum iMacs, the 2GHz Core 2 Duo Mac mini held its own against the entry-level, 20in 2GHz Core 2 Duo iMac in many tests, finishing just one second behind the iMac in our iMovie, iTunes, and Cinema4D tests. Other tests showed the iMac's advantage in using full-sized, 7,200rpm hard drives.

For instance, it took the 2GHz Mac mini twice as long as the 2GHz iMac to duplicate a 500MB file in the Finder. Another place where the iMac has the advantage is in the realm of 3D graphics. With its ATI Radeon HD 2400 XT graphics processor and 128MB of dedicated video memory, the low-end iMac was able to display three times as many frames per second than the high-end Mac mini with its integrated Intel GMA 950 graphics with 64MB of shared memory.

Mac mini: Specs

  • 1.83GHz Intel Core 2 Duo (2GHz available)
  • 2MB shared L2 cache
  • 1GB (two 512MB) of 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM (PC2-5300) - up to 2GB optional upgrade
  • 80GB Serial ATA, 5400rpm hard drive - up to 160GB optional upgrade
  • 24x Combo Drive (DVD-ROM/CD-RW) (2GHz Mac mini has 8x double-layer SuperDrive (DVD±R DL/DVD±RW/CD-RW))
  • Intel GMA 950 graphics processor with 64MB of DDR2 SDRAM shared with main memory
  • 1.83GHz Intel Core 2 Duo (2GHz available)
  • 2MB shared L2 cache
  • 1GB (two 512MB) of 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM (PC2-5300) - up to 2GB optional upgrade
  • 80GB Serial ATA, 5400rpm hard drive - up to 160GB optional upgrade
  • 24x Combo Drive (DVD-ROM/CD-RW) (2GHz Mac mini has 8x double-layer SuperDrive (DVD±R DL/DVD±RW/CD-RW))
  • Intel GMA 950 graphics processor with 64MB of DDR2 SDRAM shared with main memory

OUR VERDICT

The latest Mac mini models have made some impressive gains in terms of performance, without gaining bulk or higher price tags. Still a great bargain, especially for those who already own a mouse, keyboard, and display, the Mac mini's size and price allow it to fit into spaces and budgets that other Macs cannot. With its faster performance and DVD-burning capabilities, the 2GHz Mac mini is worth the extra £100, but if DVD burning isn't something you need, the 1.83GHz Mac mini still gives a lot of bang for the buck. If space is not an issue and you don't have a spare keyboard, mouse, and display hanging around, you may be better off with an iMac, whose superior graphics and hard disk performance may be worth the extra money.

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