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Review: Apple's aluminum Mac mini and Mac mini Server (2010)

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All new body

The new aluminum construction of the Mac mini makes the tiny computer appear targeted more toward the living room as a computing appliance; it shares the same 7.7" square footprint of Apple TV and the company's Time Capsule wireless base station. It also includes the same internal power supply, which packs the system's AC transformer within the device rather than using an external power brick.

The new unibody construction provides an elegant outline with minimalist, precision details. Its wrap-around rear panel presents a series of ports and a single outlet slot for the fan's air exhaust. In contrast, the previous 6.5" square Mac mini looked more like a tiny PC than a home theater appliance, with a bit more ill-fitting back panel and a light, cheaper look overall.

The new redesign also now supplies an easy-access, twist-off bottom for exposing the RAM; the old version required using a putty knife to open up the case, a task Apple reserved for authorized technicians. It's still a big job to replace the new unit's hard drive; users are probably about as likely to need to do that at some point over the next three years as they are to need to access the RAM once they've upgraded it.

The plastic bottom lid doubles as a radio window into the metal case for WiFi and Bluetooth signals. The antennas sit just below the metal lip, poking down into the lid that also serves as the Mac mini's foot. That gives the antennas a 360 degree exposure. The lid itself locks into place leaving a slight (and invisible) gap all the way around that serves as a cool air inlet for the fan.

The new metal shell serves double duty as both a rugged shell and a heat sink for the electronics. Even so, the new design is only slightly heavier (3 lbs compared to its former 2.9 lbs; the new server model weighs in a just 2.8 lbs). It feels a lot more dense and solid. It's also now just 1.4" tall, compared to the previous 2" mini cube design.

Mac mini 2010 bottom cover

New HDMI audio/video output for home theater

The new Mac mini replaces Apple's unique, mini-DVI port with a standard HDMI connector. The HDMI 1.3 compliant port supplies up to 1080p video with 8 channel, 24-bit audio that supports both stereo and Dolby Surround 5.1. Using an HDMI to DVI connector, the port can also be used to drive a DVI monitor up to 1920x1200 resolution.

The unit also includes a Mini DisplayPort for a second display; that port can drive a monitor up to 2560x1600 resolution (it also supports HDMi/DVI or VGA signaling in addition to DisplayPort, with the appropriate dongle), and like recent MacBooks, also supports audio output. That means, with the proper connector cable, you can drive two HDMI displays, providing audio to both. Beware that early Mini DisplayPort-to-HDMI dongles do not support audio, because the original Mini DisplayPort Macs didn't support audio over Mini DisplayPort.

Note that when you plug in an HDMI display, you may still need to manually select HDMI as the audio output source from System Preferences. In testing with a Samsung HDTV, plugging in HDMI began delivering a 1080p video signal that cropped off the Mac menu bar, something that's easy to fix from the Displays panel, using the Overscan slider. We also had to activate "Samsung HDMI" as the audio output before the internal speaker delegated audio to the display's speakers.

The Mac mini continues to provide Apple's normal audio input and output jacks, each of which handle both analog and optical-digital signaling. The audio output port also handles iPhone-style headphones with an integrated mic for chat applications and voice recording.

Video performance on both ports is plenty capable of HD video from iTunes, Hulu and YouTube. As with its other products, Apple steadfastly refuses to support Blu-Ray on the Mac mini, which will limit its appeal to users who want a one-box unit to handle all sorts of modern video playback for their HDTV home theater.

The new $699 price of the Mac mini is likely on the high end of what most users might want to pay for a dedicated set top box. The more limited Apple TV is priced at just $229, while a variety of mini Windows PCs aimed at the home theater market are in the range of $250 to $550, even if they skimp on certain features to hit those price points.

While the Mac mini is fully capable of performing as an HD video appliance, it's not powerful enough to run the latest first person shooter games at its full resolution. Valve Software's new Team Fortress 2 begs to be run below 1080p for example, although less demanding titles are more responsive. Apple's not quite in the game console business just yet, but if you've splurged on the Mac mini as a dedicated home theater appliance, you do have the ability to play a variety of modern games with it if you adjust your resolution and other game settings to fit its entry level performance.

On page 3 of 4: Performance as a general purpose PC, server