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

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Performance as a general purpose PC

Testing the Mac mini against an Asus Eee Box EB1501 (using a 1.6GHz Intel Atom N330), Dell Inspiron Zino HD (with a 1.5GHz AMD Athlon X2 3250e), and Gateway SX2840 (packing a 2.93GHz Intel Core i3-530), CNET determined that the latest Mac mini tied or bested the slightly faster CPU in the Gateway, while far outpacing the other mini PC designs in a variety of tests. Only in a multithreading benchmark test did the Gateway and its multithreading-optimized i3 CPU substantially outperform the Mac mini.

The new Mac mini design also includes an SD card slot supporting high capacity SDXC (Secure Digital Extended Capacity)memory cards 32 GB and larger (the first Mac to do so), in addition to the Standard SD format of 4 MB to 4 GB and SDHC (Secure Digital High Capacity) cards from 4GB to 32 GB. SDXC theoretically supports cards up to 2TB, but Apple does not specify a supported ceiling for the new slot.

Mac mini

The SD slot is a handy feature for photographers loading up their photos into iPhoto, Lightroom or Aperture, but comes at the expense of one of the 5 USB ports on the former model.

The new design also lacks a Kensington security slot, which is intended to both lock the device to a cable, and prevent it from being opened up; note that the new twist off bottom means the Mac mini's RAM is easy to steal. That easy access is probably going to be perceived as a feature rather than a vulnerability by most Mac mini owners, however.

The Mac mini retains its existing Firewire 800 and Gigabit Ethernet, as well as WiFi 802.11a/b/g/n wireless networking and standard Bluetooth 2.1+EDR for peripherals. The device also supports IR for use with the Apple Remote, which is sold separately for $20.

Mac mini port evolution

Cheaper mini-PCs often supply more RAM, but skimp on features such CPU and video performance, WiFi (dropping support for faster 802.11n, or sometimes lacking any WiFi support at all), Firewire, or Gigabit Ethernet. All the same, at its higher new $699 price, the Mac mini is less likely to win over lots of price conscious Windows switchers.

However, it's more likely to satisfy new users to upgrade to a Mac and find themselves with a well rounded machine. The skimpy hard drive capacity is an issue, and the design of the Mac mini makes it tricky to replace the drive. However, USB and Firewire offer external hard drive options that will likely be enough to cover the needs of most users who want additional storage space.

Overall performance in Geekbench scores (below) indicates a significant bump over last year's Mac mini and overall scores slightly better than the higher-end, faster-clocked iMac from two years ago.

Mac mini 2010 performance

Performance as a server

Apple introduced a server version of the Mac mini last fall, and maintains the configuration in this new form factor. For an additional $300, server buyers get a faster processor upgrade (sold separately for $150), 4GB of RAM rather than 2 (which Apple sells for $100) a hard drive upgrade from a 5400rpm, 320GB disk to a 7200rpm, 500GB disk (sold for $100 by itself).

If you were planning an upgrade all around, you're already ahead on the server model, but wait there's more: you also get a second 7200rpm, 500GB disk that replaces the optical drive (the option to buy an external optical superdrive for $100 more). Relative to the base model, the server hardware bundle is already a pretty good deal. But the real kicker is that Apple throws in an unlimited user version of its Mac OS X Server operating system, something it sells separately for $500 (and used to offer for $1,000).

The redesigned Mac mini server is also a slightly better deal than the previous model because it provides faster 7,200rpm drives; before, the server option only delivered larger but not faster disks. Apple also offers an external RAID option: the Promise SmartStor DS4600, a Firewire 800 device with 4x1TB SATA disks for $800, or a 4x2TB model for $1300.

Note that the internal hard drives in the Mac mini are notebook style 2.5" disks, which are designed to be thin and draw less power; they are not well suited to regular server use. If you are doing heavy file serving or other tasks that constantly work the disks, that data should be put on an external drive or RAID unit. And of course, any valuable data you have on the unit should be regularly backed up.

The Mac mini server supplies an entry level option for workgroups to set up easy to use and maintain file sharing; email, calendar and contact services; web-based collaboration tools (blogs, wikis and web calendars), and VPN services for secure remote access. As a fully fledged Mac, the server configuration is far faster for network Time Machine backups when compared to Apple's anemic server embedded within the Time Machine appliance.

With a Gigabit Ethernet switch, users will be able to copy files to the server nearly as fast as they can locally. Even with 802.11n wireless networking, the Mac mini Server should perform well enough in light duty to cover its cost of entry. A Mac mini server certainly isn't going to take over server functions for offices larger than a couple dozen people, but it's a great deal for small offices that don't want to deal with complex hassles or invest a lot of money in server gear (and very expensive server software) to handle basic needs.

Learning how to setup and use Mac OS X Server is a significant project, and involves more work and expertise that most other Apple products, simply because of the complexity of managing network services. If anything, Apple's highly simplified "Server Preferences" setup might be easy enough to give users the impression that everything will "just work," which is not actually something that happens for very long when dealing with network and server issues. Running a server requires planning and experience, not just a nice interface.

That said, the new Mac mini Server model provides a slightly improved version of Apple's new entry level server at a price point that should be attractive to small businesses or even professionals who work from home and want to set up essential services that run independently of any desktop computer.

On page 4 of 4: The New Mac mini in Review.