Apple Mac Mini: An updated box of tricks that is faster, cheaper and more tempting than before

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Apple Mac Mini: An updated box of tricks that is faster, cheaper and more tempting than before
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The Mac Mini may lack the glamour of the iMac or the stunning new MacBook Air models, but it’s maturing into a very capable little machine.

Like last year’s models, the 2011 Minis come in base (RRP: $699) and premium (RRP: $899) consumer models, plus a beefed-up server model (RRP: $1099). The stylish unibody aluminium design remains, but the optical drive slots have gone: Apple argues an optical drive is no longer essential for everyday computing, and it has a point.

You can, of course, attach an external drive, or share an optical drive from another Mac or PC over the network. If you want to install Windows, the Boot Camp Assistant can create a bootable USB drive from an ISO image of the Windows DVD.

Apple has retained the same  aluminium 'unibody' design.

Round the back, the mini-DisplayPort socket has become a Thunderbolt port, but otherwise external connections are unchanged. You still get HDMI, four USB 2 ports (there’s no USB 3 in Apple-land, alas) plus FireWire 800, Gigabit Ethernet and an SDXC slot.

There’s dual-band 802.11n and Bluetooth 4 wireless connectivity too. As usual, what you don’t get is a keyboard and mouse, but you can use existing PC peripherals so long as you don’t mind a few keys being in the wrong places.

Internally, the big news is a switch from ancient Core 2 Duo CPUs to powerful Sandy Bridge processors. The basic Mini now uses a 2.3GHz Core i5-2410M, while the premium one comes with the choice of a 2.5GHz i5-2520M or a 2.7GHz i5-2620M and the server uses a quad-core 2GHz Core i7-2635QM.

These are mobile parts, so power consumption remains low – our review unit idled at around 30W, rising only to 65W under heavy load – but desktop performance is boosted by around 50% over last year’s models. In our benchmarks the 2.5GHz model achieved an overall score of 0.72, pointing to a score of around 0.66 for the base model. That’s enough power to keep everyday computing tasks snappy and responsive.

Connectivity now includes a Thunderbolt port. Other options include HDMI, USB 2 (x4), FireWire 800, Gigabit Ethernet and an SDXC memory card slot.

Storage has been increased too. The consumer models now come with a 500GB 5,400RPM drive as standard, up from 320GB. You can trade up to a 750GB, 7,200RPM drive or, for the premium and server models, a 256GB SSD – but prices are through the roof, raising the cost by $200 and an eye-watering $400 respectively.

Note that internal drives can only be fitted at the factory: if you need more space down the line you’ll have to make do with external storage, or use the SDXC slot at the back of the Mini.

You can at least upgrade the RAM yourself. That’s just as well, as the base configuration still comes populated with a rather mean 2GB, and Apple will charge you $120 for an upgrade to 4GB. Unscrew the base to access the two SO-DIMM DDR3 slots, however, and you can install third-party modules costing less than half that.

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