Apple's entry level Mac was in the doldrums for almost two years... and now sees two updates just six months apart.
The first update in March this year saw more socketry for the venerable compact PC, in the shape of an extra USB port, FireWire 800 and two digital video outputs. And with that came faster processors, bigger hard drives and more RAM. But the biggest step forward was an upgrade to the graphics processor, moving from an integrated Intel GMA 950 to an nVidia GeForce 9400M.
Where previous models could only handle the most basic of 3D games, the Apple Mac mini (Early 2009) could now take on modern games, providing details settings were kept modest.
Now Apple has three base Mac mini models to choose from: two regular minis incorporating the familiar slot-load DVD±RW drive, plus a slot-less version that slips in an extra 500GB hard disk where once was the optical drive. We'll return to this Mac mini server, which includes Snow Leopard Server as standard, in another review.
The two standard Mac minis have now been spruced up again in the key areas of processor, memory and storage. This year's £499 entry-level Mac has moved from a 2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo to 2.26GHz; from 1GB to 2GB of DDR3 RAM; and from 120GB to 160GB SATA hard disk.
Meanwhile, the higher spec version we tested here at £649 takes a 2.53GHz dual-core processor, 4GB RAM and 320GB hard drive.
All other specs remain the same as when we last tested, including five USB ports, FireWire 800, optical digital audio in and out, and mini DVI and mini Display Port video outputs. For wireless connections, there's built-in Bluetooth 2.1 and 802.11n wireless.
Our lab testing process gives a level playing field to Windows and Mac PCs, using WorldBench 6 running in Windows to check real world speed by timing real programs at work. When we tested the entry level Mac mini, we found it hampered by its limited 1GB of RAM.
While that amount may be fine for the leaner Mac OS X, providing you don't have too many programs running at once, we found the Mac mini almost unusable in Vista with the same 1GB RAM.
That 2.0GHz Mac mini scored an uninspiring 72 points, although this quickly rose to 83 points once we upgraded memory to 4GB.
The new 2.53GHz Apple Mac mini (Late 2009) romped home in the WorldBench 6 test with 95 points.
We also ran our standard graphics test, playing FEAR at Maximum quality settings. Here the new Mac mini could keep an average framerate of 14fps; below what's needed for smooth gameplay, but easily resolved simply by lowering quality settings one level to ‘High', where it played at a smooth 37fps.
Despite using a more powerful processor, with an expected rise in required power and heat output, the new Apple Mac mini was as cool and quiet as ever. In fact, the 2.53GHz Intel P8700 CPU is listed with the same 25W thermal design power (TDP) rating as the 2.0GHz P7350 processor in the Mac mini model we tested in March.
In lab tests, we noted the idle power consumption was down at just 12W, rising to 40W peak when under load. And in use, the top spec Mac mini remained essentially silent, a low-speed fan quietly venting through rear ventilation slots.
The Apple Mac mini (Late 2009) is now more compelling than ever as a compact computer that's built to very high standards, and including a feature set unmatched by any other PC on any platform. Whether used as a space saving desktop PC for the office or home, a room friendly media centre hub or even as an office or business server, the Apple Mac mini (Late 2009) represents peerless performance at the price.