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First look: Apple's new unibody Mac mini

Apple's new aluminum unibody Mac mini retains its role as the company's low price, compact PC and server while adding HDMI output and support for Secure Digital Extended Capacity flash memory cards with higher speeds and capacities (more than 32GB).

The physical size of the new Mac mini shifts from a 2 inch tall, 6.5 inch square unit into a new 1.4 inch tall, 7.7 inch square form factor similar to 1.1 inch tall Apple TV.

Also new compared to the previous Mac mini and Apple TV is its new unibody shell, which slides the logic board and power supply in through the open rear side, rather than sandwiching a cover on top of a base.

The WiFi antenna and RAM are exposed through a rear opening covered by a twist off rubber base for easy access. The back panel provides four USB 2.0 ports, a FireWire 800 and Gigabit Ethernet port, along with standard audio input and outputs that support both analog and digital cables. A new HDMI port supports resolutions up to 1920x1200, and the unit also supplies a Mini DisplayPort that supports a separate display up to 2560x1600 resolution.

Video output is provided by an NVIDIA GeForce 320M that uses 256MB of DDR3 SDRAM, making the Mac mini architecturally similar to the latest MacBook. It also uses the same 2.4 Intel Core 2 Duo CPU and 1066MHz frontside bus, with an additional option for a faster 2.66GHz processor.

Like the previous generation of Mac minis, the new model comes in both a standard version with 2GB RAM, a DVD drive and single 320GB, 5400rpm SATA drive, and a 4GB server configuration that trades the optical drive and its slot for a secondary hard drive preinstalled with Mac OS X Server, providing two 500GB, 7200rpm SATA drives. Both models can accommodate up to 8GB of RAM.

Mac mini

New SD Card support

In addition to conventional RAM, the new Mac mini also supports Secure Digital flash memory cards via a rear slot. The slot supports cards following the Standard SD format of 4 MB to 4 GB, SDHC (Secure Digital High Capacity) cards from 4GB to 32 GB, and new SDXC (Secure Digital Extended Capacity) cards 32 GB and larger. SDXC theoretically supports cards up to 2TB, but Apple does not specify a supported ceiling for the new slot.

The Mac mini's SD slot with SDXC support is a first for Apple, as the most recent iMacs and MacBook Pros with SD card slots do not yet support the new higher speed, higher capacity specification, and are limited to SDHC cards with a 32GB maximum capacity.

Apple TV Plus?

The new Mac mini also has obvious potential in home theater uses, given its built in HDMI audio and video output, which support secure playback of copy protected content over a single cable. The HDMI port can be converted via a dongle to DVI to drive a standard display. Previous models supplied a DVI output, offering a converter to HDMI but lacking audio support, as DVI does not provide audio (it is essentially HDMI without sound).

The Mac mini differs from Apple TV in that it runs the full Mac OS X Snow Leopard and all Mac software, whereas Apple TV runs an embedded version that only runs an enhanced Front Row-style interface. Apple may likely port the Apple TV's software to the Mac to offer a more complete experience in home theater compared to the existing Front Row, which is still on the level of Apple TV 1.0.

Rumors suggest Apple may convert future versions of Apple TV into a low cost, cloud based appliance running iOS and discontinue the existing hard drive-based local storage and sync product. Regardless of the future of Apple TV, the Mac mini offers a more powerful features, including support for DVR software (providing TiVo-like functionality) and other third party software and games that Apple has never enabled for Apple TV.

The Mac mini also provides more processing muscle, more storage, multiple display support, and the capacity to present additional video formats that Apple TV won't play out of the box. It is however significantly more expensive; the existing Apple TV retails for $229, while the new Mac mini now starts at $699, with the TB server model starting at $999.