Apple’s refreshed 2011 Mac minis are a tempting choice for users who want a roc solid, low-footprint desktop machine on a budget. But exactly how much of a budget do you need to allot yourself?
No matter which Mac mini you buy, you’ll be getting a deceptively small machine, absolutely packed with some top-of-the-line tech, like Thunderbolt. But if we had to recommend just one, we’d recommend the $799 Mac mini with a 2.5GHz Intel Core i5 processor and 4GB of RAM.
Why 2.5GHz, Not 2.3GHz?
To be honest, the difference between the entry-level $599 Mac mini’s 2.3GHz Core i5 CPU and the $799 Mac mini’s 2.5Ghz Core i5 CPU is pretty unimportant. Why not go for the cheaper option?
Easy: the graphics.
In the $599 Mac mini, Apple is using the Core i5 CPUs integrated graphics chip. It’s a way inferior graphics chip to the $799 mini’s dedicated AMD Radeon HD 6630M. Not only does the integrated Intel HD Graphics 3000 GPU piggyback off of your system’s DDR3 RAM, taking valuable memory from your system, but some argue that the integrated graphics of the Core i5 series is inferior even to the entry level mid 2010 Mac mini’s discrete NVIDIA GeForce 9400M GPU.
OS X is a 3D operating system, and needs a good GPU. While the bump to clock speed in the $799 Mac mini is nice, it’s the addition of a discrete GPU that makes all the performance difference in the world. With the AMD Radeon HD 6630M graphics, the $799 Mac mini should be a capable enough machine for most video editing and even some current 3D games.
As for bumping the processor up to a 2.7GHz Intel Core i7 processor? It’s only $100, but for most users, we doubt you’ll see much of a difference.
What About Upgrading The RAM?
Don’t upgrade the RAM… at least, don’t upgrade it through Apple.
Honestly, you want to stuff most computers with as much RAM as you can afford. The problem with Apple’s memory upgrades, though, is they are outrageously expensive: to upgrade your Mac mini to 8GB of RAM, you need to add $200 to the price of the machine.
That’s expensive, and it should be possible in the coming weeks to purchase a supplemental 4GB stick of DDR3 1333GHz RAM that works with the Mac mini for significantly less. And even though Apple has been fairly unfriendly to DIY types with their recent designs, the Mac mini should still have user upgradeable memory.
We think you can pass on having Apple upgrade your Mac mini’s RAM for you, for the time being. 4GB should be just fine.
What About More Disc Space?
Honestly, it’s just not worth the premium. A 250GB jump to a 750GB HDD @ 7200 RPM costs an outrageous $150. Plus, with that Thunderbolt port, you can simply buy a Thunderbolt equipped external drive and supplement your storage with that without noticing much (if any) of a performance hit… and if you ever trade in your Mac mini for a new machine, you can take the drive with you.
What about an SSD? For a $600 fee, Apple will install a 256GB solid state drive. The performance benefits of an SSD can’t be overstated, but even so, that’s just too much money. If you’re really feeling adventurous, you can wait for the likes of OWC to release an SSD upgrade kit for the Mac mini and do this upgrade yourself later down the line for a much lower price.
This isn’t for everyone, but if you’re bothered by the fact that Apple ditched an optical SuperDrive in the 2011 Mac minis, you’ll probably want to pay $79 for an external superdrive at checkout: an external USB optical drive will be the only way to watch DVDs (or burn them) from here on out.
The biggest decision to make when buying a new 2011 Mac mini is how important graphical performance is for you. Even so, because of the advantages of the AMD Radeon HD 6630M GPU, we think the $799 Mac mini, stock, is the best all around option available, supplemented — as needed — with Apple’s $79 external superdrive.
Conclusion: 2.5GHz Intel Core i5 Mac mini With 4GB of RAM
What do you think of our recommendation? Agree? Disagree? Let us know which Mac mini you’d get in the comments.