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Mini Wins and Losses

August 2, 2011 - Dave Hecei
With the release of Lion, Apple’s latest and greatest Mac operating system, came some new Macintosh models. This included a new update of the MacBook Air, Apple’s thinnest and lightest laptop, plus a new update of my favorite Mac, the mini.

The MacBook Air update pretty much exactly followed the rumors. It now has a backlit keyboard, new Intel ‘Sandy Bridge’ Core i5 processor, and the new Thunderbolt port. This last port replaces the Mini DisplayPort for video output, plus it can act as a high-speed I/O port, which will eventually be used for drives, video capture, and will hopefully have adapters for other types of ports like USB 3.0, Firewire, HDMI, etc.

This new Air looks exactly like the old Air. Nothing was really added or removed from the design. The new mini can’t really say this. The new mini also has the new Thunderbolt port, along with the new Intel Core i5 (and even Core i7 in the server model). The mini also lost what some might feel is an important computer component – the optical drive. At least Apple lowered the price of the mini $100 to compensate for the loss of the optical drive. The mini starts at only $599.

On the outside the mini is still the same size and is made of the same block of aluminum. The big tell is that looking at the front of the mini you no longer see the slot for CDs or DVDs. With the new Mac OS X Lion, the future is pretty clear and its name is the Mac App Store. They are also starting to push a new service called iCloud. This is what Apple feels is the future – iTunes Music Store, App Store, and cloud services.

If you have an iPhone, iPod Touch, or iPad, then you know all about an App Store. The App Store is a major contributor to the popularity of the Apple mobile devices. Apple decided that they would bring the success of this store to the Macintosh. I have to say that after loading up Lion on one of my Macs, I can see why Apple is thinking that optical media is on its way out. This might be the case for software, but I still think having a burner to create backups or make your own movie and music discs is an important computer component.

The good news is that the new Mac mini is the fastest mini yet. The new Sandy Bridge i5 and i7 chips are a definite improvement over the aging Core 2 Duo processors in the previous mini. The base model now had the Intel HD 3000 integrated graphics chip, which is actually slightly slower than the nVidia 320M it replaces. The good news is that the next model up has a discrete video processor – the AMD Radeon HD 6630M. The Radeon graphics processor boosts the 3D and 2D video performance as much as 2X.

Macworld magazine ( ran several tests on the new minis. For gaming and 3D performance they measured the game Call of Duty. The base Intel graphics mini displays 27.3fps, while the upper-end mini with Radeon graphics can display 59.5fps. This is a pretty decent score for a mini computer.

While the lower price of $599 is good news, I think the mini is actually $100 more, not less. For the best performance the mini to get is $799. This next-step-up model has a faster processor (2.5GHz up from 2.3GHz), more RAM (4GB up from 2GB), and discrete graphics (Radeon 6630M up from integrated Intel 3000HD).


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