Review: Mac mini Core Duo – Great machine, debatable value - Macenstein

Review: Mac mini Core Duo – Great machine, debatable value

Posted by Lab Rat

Okay, we’ve had our Mac mini core duo for a few weeks now, and we think we have gotten a pretty good picture of what people can expect from the new mini (and the new Intel Macs in general). Here we hope to answer the 2 most often asked questions about the new mini; namely, “How well does it perform?�, and “Is it worth the money?�

So how does it perform?

First off, let me just say that this machine REALLY surprised us. Based on the mini’s snappy and responsive performance in our day-to-day use, the controversial move to Intel now seems like a no-brainer in hindsight.

The mini is unique (so far) among Apple’s Intel offerings in that it is the first to not include a dedicated video card. Apple’s decision to go with the built-in Intel graphics chipset with shared video memory caused MUCH discussion in the Apple community when first announced, but to be honest, we found it had no adverse impact on anything you would normally use a Mac mini for (although it should be noted we splurged for the extra 512MB of RAM). Safari runs very fast. Word seems just as snappy as on an iMac G5. The iLife suite SCREAMS compared to our old G4, and apps like iPhoto feel very comparable to our Dual G5 (even with our 13,000 8-megapixel photo library).

Many of you have written us asking about the mini’s HD playback capabilities. We’ve played every HD movie trailer on Apple’s site, in both full size and scaled, and are happy to report an almost constant 24 frames per second playback on all titles (with no other apps running). Occasionally the FPS would dip briefly to 23 in scenes with very fast motion, but never below that. As a whole, we estimate that out of the approximate 1 hour of HD footage we played back, about a 93% was at 24 FPS (of course, take into account these are 1 to 3 minute clips, not a whole 1 hour HD program).

I won’t bore you with benchmarks here (we’ve done that already), but I just would like to make it clear that the Intel Core Duo mini delivers a very smooth user experience. Everything “feels� fast. Sure, a PowerMac G5 will still out render and out perform the mini (although not by as much as you might think) but those machines cost 3 to 4 times as much.

So, is it worth the price?

The answer to this question is a resounding “maybe�. This year’s mini costs $100 more than last year’s G4 model. While it is still the cheapest Mac out there, the price to performance ratio is now a bit lopsided. I chose the mini because I was one of those people Apple speaks about in their mini pitches. I had an extra keyboard and mouse lying around. I had an extra 17-inch CRT. I had an extra iSight lying around too. Realistically, all I needed was a CPU to bring them all together, and the mini seemed like a great idea.

However, when the mini showed up I discovered 2 things. First, that old keyboard I thought I had in the garage wasn’t there, and second, that 17-inch monitor I DID have in the garage was a piece of garbage. 2 days after hooking it up to the mini, it died on me. So suddenly I needed to buy a new 17-inch LCD and a keyboard. Even a cheap DCL brand 17-inch LCD ran me $220 (after rebate), and the budget Kensington “Keyboard-in-a-Box� cost me another $20, meaning I now spent $240 more than I expected to on the mini (which cost me $899 to begin with after adding RAM). So I now had spent a total of $1139, just $160 less than a 17-inch iMac, which has a slightly faster processor, twice the hard drive space, a better 17-inch monitor, and a dedicated graphics card. At this point fellow Macenstein contributor Helper Monkey told me I should just return the mini and get the iMac. But there was nothing wrong with the mini itself, it just wasn’t as great a deal as it first seemed to be. I guess I’m just more honest than HM.

So anyway, the real deciding factor as to whether the mini is a good investment really does depend on whether you are able to bring the required keyboard, mouse, and monitor to the party. If not, the 17-inch iMac is a no brainer, and will give you much more value than the mini.

Of course, the mini also serves a different purpose than an iMac. Due to its small size, some ambitious people are mounting minis inside their cars as media hubs; some people are hooking them to TVs as DVRs. Others like the mini’s ability to be accessorized with items such as Plasticsmith’s Mini Tower and mini Grandstand. For those people an iMac wouldn’t work. But if you’re looking for a small computer, the iMac actually has a smaller footprint than a mini once you add a monitor.

Other issues

Aside from an expected slowdown in some Power PC apps like Photoshop (which is still completely useable, although to be sure power users will feel the performance hit), the only real issue I noticed with the mini has to do with its Airport reception. There have been reports that the Intel mini’s Airport reception is not all it should be, and I tend to agree. I never tested a G4 mini, but I can tell you the Intel mini DOES indeed have some inconsistent reception issues. Without moving the Airport base station, mini, or people in the room, our Intel mini’s Airport reception will fluctuate from full reception, to half, down to nothing, then back up to full a couple times a day (this is with the base station located approximately 20 feet from the mini). We could find no reason for this behavior.

A final thing to keep in mind when contemplating buying the new mini, or ANY Intel Mac, is that for the time being, not everything will work like you thought. While not as bad as the transition from OS 9 to OS X, there ARE a couple odd things I noticed about the new mini. First, that Kensington “Keyboard-in-a-box� I told you I ended up buying? For some reason the Intel mini thinks it is a Japanese keyboard. Keys such as “@.#$%}� won’t work without a trip to the Keyboard & Mouse system Prefs, and once you manually identify it as an English keyboard, it will work fine for awhile, then inexplicably revert to Japanese requiring you to go back and rei-dentify it. Trying to run the latest Kensington software screws up the System Preferences panel completely, necessitating an un-install (Kensington support said they have no workaround for this, and will pass my concern on to their tech support team). The fact that a cheap USB keyboard doesn’t work makes me wonder just what else is changed in the new minis. I mean, a keyboard is a pretty basic USB peripheral. Additionally some children’s games I tested (such as Dr. Seuss’s ABCs) give a runtime error on boot, but then play fine once that dialogue box is dismissed. Civilization III Complete ran perfectly, with no real slow down even on giant maps (there was the occasional audio glitch though). There are other games and software which cannot run on Intel yet, so be sure to check their status out before buying an Intel machine.

The point here is Intel Mac buyers should still consider themselves “early adopters� at this point. Intel is certainly the future of Apple, so compatibility issues will become less of a hassle each day, but they are there, to be sure.

Final thoughts

It is important to keep in mind the mini’s intended use when reviewing it. It is not designed to be either a hard core gaming machine nor a graphics workstation. It is a cheap (for a Mac anyway) home PC. These days a home PC is occasionally expected to serve as a jack of all trades, and sometimes assume the role of graphics workstation and or gaming platform. But the majority of its users do not have delusions of running Final Cut and Maya on the mini. Most are content to run the iLife suite, Safari, Mail, and Word, and the mini does that extremely well. The mini is Apple’s cheapest line of computers, but its perceived value drops off sharply when a user does not have all the necessary peripherals. The average user is probably better off in the long run buying an iMac.


If you own a monitor, (compatible) keyboard, and mouse: 8 out of 10

If you need to buy all those things: 6 out of 10

3 Responses to “Review: Mac mini Core Duo – Great machine, debatable value”
  1. Zachariah says:

    $260 less than the iMac. Don’t forget you dropped extra money on RAM. You would have to do that for the iMac too. It is not a huge difference, but you should present a balanced picture here.

    In any case, I usually tell people that if they are interested in a nice LCD monitor, that they do not already own, they should get an iMac. I mostly agree with you. However, if you are really interested in a budget machine, you shouldn’t mind using a cheap CRT with your mini. A cheap CRT, monitor keyboard and mouse could easily be aquired for less than $100 (for all three). Then you are coming in cheap enough that an iMac is still pretty distant.

  2. Bjoggi says:

    Considering the price tag of the Mac mini, I wonder how much the MacBook (iBook) will cost? If the price will start at $999 USD, then it will definitely be a better value than a Mac mini + BYODKM.

    Personally, I was considering the Mac mini core duo + cheap LCD display, but I ended up buying the iMac since the price difference was so small, and the display on the iMac, one word: wow.

    Like he says, if you have the display, keyboard and mouse, the Mac mini is the best and cheapest way to upgrade.

  3. Way Cool Jr. says:


    True, sort of.
    I think the point of going with the extra 1GB was to offset the integrated video memory. I know that’s why I did it anyway.
    If I had gotten the iMac, I wouldn’t have felt I HAD to egt the extra memory, because it has the dedicated graphics card with 128 MB of RAM.

    So I think they are saying to get the kind of performance of the iMac, it is a good idea to get the extra RAM.

    they could have been more clear on that though.

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