Benchmarks: New Mac Minis

The Mac mini, waiting patiently on the sidelines for the past 17 months, has finally been refreshed. Though the new systems appear identical to the previous Mac mini, there are some important changes internally--changes that have a positive impact to the tune of a 21 percent increase in overall system performance, according to our testing.

The two standard Mac mini configurations both come outfitted with 2GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processors and either 1GB of RAM and a 120GB hard drive for US$599, or 2GB of RAM and a 320GB hard drive for $799. The new Mac mini now has a 1,066MHz system bus, as well as 1,066MHz DDR3 memory, up from the 667MHz bus and DDR2 RAM in the previous Mac mini. The new systems support up to 4GB of RAM; the previous Mac mini only officially supported 2GBs, though some folks reported getting the older Mac mini to recognize up to 3GBs. The new Mac mini has 3GBs of shared L2 cache.

The new Mac minis represent the end of the Mac's Intel GMA 1900 integrated graphics era, as the Mac mini adopts the new Nvidia GeForce 9400M graphics chip. Though still integrated, the new Mac minis share either 128MB or 256MB of main memory, depending on whether you have 1GB or 2GB RAM (or more) installed. The previous Mac minis maxed out at just 64MB of shared memory.

Speedmark 5 requires a minimum of 2GB of RAM, which means we had to increase the RAM on the entry-level Mac mini, eliminated the graphics advantage of the higher-end model. Predictably, both Mac minis turning in virtually identical frame rate scores in the three games we tested. When we tested those same games with the standard 1GB of RAM installed in the entry-level Mac mini, it suffered about a 15 percent performance hit compared to the same system running with 2GB of system memory, which allows access to the full 256MB allocation of memory for graphics.

Even with just 1GB of RAM installed, the new Nvidia graphics performed much better than the Intel graphics of the previous Mac mini. The older Mac mini couldn't even run our Call of Duty test, and struggled to get just 5.6 frames per second in our Quake 4 test. The new Mac minis, with 2GB of RAM installed, were able to push through nearly 7 times as many frames per second in that test.

With the identical processors and the same 2GB of RAM installed for our testing, the difference between the two new Mac minis comes down to the hard drive. (Upgrading the entry-level Mac mini to 2GB of RAM is an extra $50.) And though you'd think that might make for some pretty similar performance results, it turns out that the different hard drive helped the high-end Mac mini post a nearly 7 percent higher Speedmark score. Many scores were nearly identical, like the aforementioned 3-D graphics tests, as well as processor intensive application tests like Cinema 4D and Compressor encoding. But in disk-related tests like duplicating and uncompressing files and folders, the high-end Mac mini was much faster-26 percent faster at duplicating a 1GB file and 22 percent faster at unzipping a compressed 2GB folder.

The new high-end Mac mini was 21 percent faster overall than the previous high-end Mac mini, which also had a 120GB hard drive. The biggest differences between the two Mac minis were in 3-D game performance, of course, but drive tests and even Compressor and Photoshop tests, show some real improvement in this new generation.

Comparing the new entry-level Mac mini to its predecessor, a 1.83GHz model with a 80GB hard drive, we see a performance gain of 23 percent in our Speedmark 5 score, with the new mini beating the older model in every test we ran.

The performance of the new low-end Mac mini and the entry level, White MacBook 2GHz are very similar. With just 3 Speedmark points separating them, the two systems finished within a second or two of each other and the majority of our tests.

We're still testing the new Mac minis as well as the new iMacs and we'll include the results in Macworld's full review. it will be interesting to see how the new desktop systems compete.

[James Galbraith is Macworld's lab director.]

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