Maybe, but compromised graphics support and expensive RAM upgrades make the value equation questionable

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Will The MacIntel Makeover Rekindle Mac mini Magic?

3406 When it was introduced at Macworld Expo last year, I thought the Mac mini was one of the most magnificently charming and innovative products from Apple in a long time, with something of the spirit and elan of the original compact Macintoshes back in the 80s, and the G4 Cube of fond memory (although the mini is less than half the size of the Cube (6�x6�x2� vs 8� x8�x9� respectively). A truly original idea elegantly executed.

Indeed, the mini almost enticed me back into the Mac desktop orbit, which is saying a lot, because I am a consummate portable computer aficionado. As I said in my initial Mac mini report, "The Mac mini makes me salivate... The Mac mini may be the most significant Apple computer model since the original iMac,"

The mini got off to a great start, with lots of positive press and immediate sales success, promising to be the next big (albeit very small-sized) thing. It inspired columns, like Applelinks' own Mac mini Muse, and even whole mini enthusiast websites.

It also inspired imaginative uses such as service as a low-end rack mount server, and automotive installations. At just $499 for the base model, it was the most affordable Mac ever, the "headless iMac", and as the logical successor of both the Cube, and perhaps even more the original Mac LC low-end modular desktop unit. There was much discussion about, and some criticism of Apple's decision to price and sell the mini sans keyboard and mouse, with the naysayers perhaps forgetting, or never having been aware, that modular Macs sold without standard keyboards (they did come with ADB mice) into the mid '90s.

Anyway, the Mac mini was quick out of blocks, fulfilling its central premise of being an inexpensive solution for both PC and Mac desktop users wanting to upgrade their system hardware but on a tight budget, enabling them to just plug the mini into their existing mouse, keyboard and monitor.

Tapping into the first flush of Mac mini enthusiasm, a whole raft of mini-themed peripherals soon came on the market to enhance the little critter. For a few months, it seemed like Apple might have another launched another techno/cultural fad phenomenon, not likely of full iPod-esque proportions, but still something lots of people would just have to have. And so quite a few did, but for some reason, Apple appeared to quickly lose interest in the Mac mini.

Now, some of that can surely be attributed to the fact that the MacIntel revolution announcement was imminent, which had to be a major distraction, but that didn't fully explain, at least to my satisfaction, why the mini only received a minor refreshments in its first revision update in July, 2005, unlike the iBook, which shares quite a bit of internal engineering with the mini, and which got a major specification enhancement just a few weeks later.

Clock speed remained the same, and the hard drives were still 4200 RPM pokies, but most serious omission from the mini update was that Apple stuck with the two or three generations out-of-date RADEON 9200 graphics processor, which doesn't fully support the Core Image feature in OS X 10.4 Tiger, while the iBook got a radio on 9550 which does.

Another somewhat peculiar decision was to remove the internal modem from the two higher-end Mac mini models (it remained standard equipment on the base, $499 mini), a move I think Apple is at least two or three years premature in making. Most home Internet users still are using dial-up, especially those at the low end of the market where the mini is targeted.

Then, after the July stealth update, the mini received no further attention save for an unannounced and unheralded speed bump to 1.42 GHz in the fall.

It had been speculated that the Mac mini might be first in line for the MacIntel makeover, but that didn't happen either, with the iMac and MacBook Pro the first out the door with Intel inside. However, the mini is third, with Apple's announcement this week of the new Intel Mac mini. The question is, Will it have the legs to rekindle the Mac mini magic that seemed so promising back in early 2005?

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Apple has, wisely in my estimation, chosen not to mess with the mini form factor, which they got perfectly right from the get-go. It's essential charm is its minimalism, so more would actually be less. The price has unfortunately been bumped up word by 20 percent on the base model, to $599.00, but you do get standard AirPort and Bluetooth wireless, two more (total four) USB 2.0 ports, a wireless remote control, a second RAM slot, and a higher capacity, faster hard drive, none of which was included with the original $499 mini.

The higher price also reflects the consequence of Intel's higher-priced CPUs compared with the Freescale G4 chips used in the PPC minis. The model range has been cut back to two from three, but there is a much more substantial performance difference between the low and high-end minis now, with the base $599 machine equipped with a 1.5 data hurts Core Solo Intel processor, while the $799 top model gets a 1.66 MHz Core Duo, which should offer a much greater performance boost than the nominal 166 MHz of clock speed difference would indicate.

Both the Core Solo and Core Duo models have 667 MHz frontside buses compared with 142 MHz on the PPC mini and 2MB of L2 cache instead of 512k. The Intel Mac mini also uses 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM which is faster than the 333MHz DDR SDRAM used in the previous mini. The Mac Intel mini has two memory slots, that come preloaded from the factory with two 256mb PC2-5300, DDR2-667 SO-DIMMs, and since this memory must be installed in pairs, in order to upgrade, you will be obliged to remove those two original 256mb modules and replace them. You can install a maximum of 2Gigs with the Ramjet 2Gig kit (2x 1Gig SO-DIMMs).

Also upgraded is the power supply, now 110W. vs. 85W.in the PowerPC model, and the hard drives are 5400 RPM 2.5" (laptop type) units compares with the poky 4200-RPM drives that shipped in earlier Minis. There is also built-in 10/100/1000 BASE-T Gigabit Ethernet, and an included DVI interface and a VGA-out adapter to connect to a variety of displays, including most modern flat panel televisions, as well as analog and digital audio outputs to connect to home stereos. On the downside, the modem is now gone accross the board.

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The Intel mini's most significant performance shortcoming may still turn out to be its graphics processor, which is Intel's new http://www.intel.com/products/chipsets/gma950/Graphics Media Accelerator (GMA) 950 unit, which bleeds off processor cycles form the CPU in order to do its stuff, and doesn't have its own dedicated video RAM, but shares the main system RAM, which now can be upgraded to a maximum of 2 gigabytes. Which is fortunate, because the GMA950 gets at least 64MB and as much as 224 MB of memory, however, Apple's specs state that "Memory available to Mac OS X may vary depending on graphics needs. Minimum graphics memory usage is 80MB, resulting in 432MB of system memory available.". The functional consequences of this in terms of performance await some benchmarking, but if it turns out that two gigabytes of system RAM will be needed in order to provide decent graphics performance, that will amount to a lot greater effective price increase that the nominal hike in the purchase price, because unless your needs are VERY modest, even the full 512 MB of standard RAM would be only barely adequate for running Tiger, and if you're planning on using legacy PowerPC software in emulation, remember that Rosetta emulation is memory-hungry, and 1 GB will be no more than enough for decent performance. The necessity of replacing both RAM sticks in order to upgrade represents a substantial extra cost factor in real-world terms.

The GMA 950 graphics engine is built into the chipset on the motherboard without the need for a separate graphics card., which Intel claims provides performance on par with mainstream graphics card solutions that would typically cost significantly more. Optimization of System Resources Dynamic Video Memory Technology (DVMT) 3.0 supports up to 224MB of video memory; with system memory allocated where it is needed dynamically.

Intel Graphics Media Accelerator 950 Graphics Core specs:
• 256-bit graphics core running at 400MHz
• Up to 10.6 GB/sec memory bandwidth with DDR2 667 system memory
• 1.6 GPixels/sec and 1.6 GTexels/sec fill rate
• Up to 224 MB maximum video memory
• 2048x1536 at 75 Hz maximum resolution
• Dynamic Display Modes for flat-panel, wide-screen and Digital TV support

There are some interesting observations pertaining to the Intel Mac mini's video capabilities here:
http://www.friday.com/bbum/2006/02/28/intel-mac-minis-video-card/

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The new Mac mini's software bundle includes the next generation of Apple's Front Row media experience allowing music, photos and videos to be controlled from across the room using the Apple Remote. With the latest version of Front Row, users can access shared iTunes playlists, iPhoto libraries and video throughout their home via Bonjour, Apple's zero configuration wireless networking built into Mac OS X. Also included of course is iLife '06 with the latest versions of iPhoto, iMovie HD, iDVD, GarageBand, plus iWeb, a new iLife application for creating Websites with photos, blogs and Podcasts and publish them on .Mac. All the iLife '06 applications are Universal Binary applications that run natively on Intel-based machines.

The 1.5 GHz Mac mini, for a suggested retail price of $599 (US), includes:

* 1.5 GHz Intel Core Solo processor;
* 512MB of 667 MHz DDR2 SDRAM, expandable up to 2GB;
* a slot-load Combo (DVD-ROM/CD-RW) drive;
* 60GB Serial ATA hard drive running at 5400 rpm;
* Intel GMA950 graphics processor;
* built-in AirPort Extreme wireless networking & Bluetooth 2.0+EDR;
* Gigabit Ethernet (10/100/1000 BASE-T);
* four USB 2.0 ports;
* one audio line in and one audio line out port, each supporting both optical digital and analog;
* DVI-out port for external display (VGA-out adapter included, Composite/S-Video out adapter sold separately); and
* the infrared Apple Remote.

The 1.66 GHz Mac mini, for a suggested retail price of $799 (US), includes:

* 1.66 GHz Intel Core Duo processor;
* 512MB of 667 MHz DDR2 SDRAM expandable up to 2GB;
* a slot-load 8x SuperDrive with double-layer support (DVD+R DL/DVD±RW/CD-RW);
* 80GB Serial ATA hard drive running at 5400 rpm;
* Intel GMA950 graphics processor;
* built-in AirPort Extreme wireless networking & Bluetooth 2.0+EDR;
* Gigabit Ethernet (10/100/1000 BASE-T);
* four USB 2.0 ports;
* one audio line in and one audio line out port, each supporting both optical digital and analog;
* DVI-out port for external display (VGA-out adapter included, Composite/S-Video out adapter sold separately); and
* the infrared Apple Remote.

Build-to-order options and accessories include up to 2GB DDR2 SDRAM, 80GB, 100GB and 120GB Serial ATA hard drives, iWork '06 (pre-installed), AirPort Express and AirPort Extreme Base Station, Apple Wireless Keyboard, Apple Wireless Mouse, Apple USB Modem and the AppleCare Protection Plan.

At these prices, is the mini a real value? Remember that if you aren't using the mini as a CPU upgrade from an existing system, you will also need a monitor, keyboard, and mouse.

Applelinks reader Peter Vanacore sent along this real-world price comparison of a Mac mini with a 20" Intel iMac:

Take a look:

Apple Cinema Display (20" flat panel) $799.00
Mac mini 1.66 GHz Intel Core Duo
Accessory kit
SuperDrive 8x (DVD+R DL/DVD±RW/CD-RW)
Intel GMA950 with 64MB shared memory
120GB Serial ATA drive
512MB 667 DDR2 SDRAM - 2x256 $924.00
Wired Keyboard & Mighty Mouse Set - U.S. English $78.00

Total: $1,801.00

Intel iMac
512MB 667 DDR2 SDRAM - 1x512
250GB Serial ATA drive
ATI Radeon X1600/128MB VRAM
SuperDrive 8x (DVD+R DL/DVD+RW/CD-RW)
Keyboard & Mighty Mouse
Accessory kit
20-inch widescreen LCD
2GHz Intel Core Duo
AirPort Extreme
Bluetooth 2.0 + EDR
Total $1699.00


"Where is the value in the Mini?" Peter asks. "You can pick up a less expensive (and better) display with your Mini but the iMac is faster, has much better video and has twice the HD space."

The iMac also has a 3.5" hard drive, which will be more responsive than the 2.5" notebook drive in the Mac mini, and it has dedicated video memory, so you don't lose 64 MB to 224 MB of system RAM for video support..

Here's my assessment, for what it's worth.

If you already have a system that could stand a CPU upgrade, the Mac mini is worth considering, although in order to get a decent amount of RAM to work with you will need to buy at least two 512MB sticks, which will jack the price to $699 and $899 for the two models respectively if you order your RAM from Apple, which in this instance may make sense because the mini's RAM is not officially user-upgradable (and reportedly getting at the RAM slots in the Intel mini is even more difficult than it was with the PPC mini). If you want the full-zoot 2 GB of RAM, the prices zoom up to $899 and $1,099.

For comparison, RamJet offers DDR2 RAM for Mac Mini Intel at:

1Gig Kit PC2-5300 for Mac Mini Intel $149
2Gig Kit PC2-5300 for Mac Mini Intel $269
http://www.ramjet.com/Macmini.asp

Other World Computing has upgrade stick sets for the Intel mini:

1.0GB Matched Pair (512MB x 2) PC5300 DDR2 667MHz 200 Pin SO-DIMM Modules - $109.00

2.0GB Matched Pair (1024MB(1GB) x 2) PC5300 DDR2 667MHz 200 Pin SO-DIMM -
$229.00

More info here.
http://eshop.macsales.com/Search/Search.cfm?Criteria=DDR2+Mac+mini+%28Intel%29&Manufacturer=&x=0&y=0

That makes the Apple BTO upgrade actually cheaper for the i GB upgrade, although you won't still have the pulled 256 MB sticks (which are probably pretty useless to you anyway).

However, if you don't already have the requisite monitor, keyboard, and mouse, and the mini's portability is not a compelling factor, the 20" iMac is a no brainer better value, and by a substantial margin, the way I see it anyway.

Has the Mac mini magic returned? You'll have to be the judge.



Charles W. Moore



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Great article especially the details about graphics cards in general which I learned some things I didn’t know before - one of which is that the integrated graphics cards suck out processor power as well as RAM.

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