The Mac mini is yet another Mac to be updated with Intel’s Sandy Bridge CPUs and Thunderbolt. The Mini saw its last update on June 15th 2010 so a refresh was widely expected and also a bit overdue. There are no major chassis changes to the new Mac mini (sans the missing CD/DVD slot). Like the previous generation, there are three models: two consumer and one server. The Mac mini lineup has been like this since late 2009 when the server model was first introduced.

Let's get to the specs:

2011 Mac Mini Specifications
  Low-end High-end Server
Processor i5-2410M (2.3GHz dual core) i5-2520M (2.5GHz dual core) i7-2635QM (2.0GHz quad core)
Graphics Intel HD 3000 with 288MB of shared DDR3 AMD Radeon HD 6630M with 256MB of GDDR5 Intel HD 3000 with 384MB of shared DDR3
RAM 2GB 1333MHz DDR3 (up to 8GB) 4GB 1333MHz DDR3 (up to 8GB) 4GB 1333MHz DDR3 (up to 8GB)
Storage 500GB 5400rpm 500GB 5400rpm 2x500GB 7200rpm
Ports Thunderbolt, HDMI, FireWire 800, 4x USB 2.0, SDXC card slot, Gigabit Ethernet, audio in/out Thunderbolt, HDMI, FireWire 800, 4x USB 2.0, SDXC card slot, Gigabit Ethernet, audio in/out Thunderbolt, HDMI, FireWire 800, 4x USB 2.0, SDXC card slot, Gigabit Ethernet, audio in/out
Connectivity 802.11a/b/g/n, Bluetooth 4.0 802.11a/b/g/n, Bluetooth 4.0 802.11a/b/g/n, Bluetooth 4.0
Dimensions (WxDxH) 7.7" x 7.7" x 1.4" 7.7" x 7.7" x 1.4" 7.7" x 7.7" x 1.4"
Weight 2.7lb 2.7lb 3.0lb
Price $599 $799 $999

The most obvious change is a drop in price: the entry-level Mini is now $599 and the high-end is $799, instead of $699 and $849 like the previous generation. The 2011 Mac Mini in fact adopts the old pricing model as before the 2010 update, the Minis were priced $599 and $799 respectively. The server model retains its $999 price tag. This is definitely good news.

As for the hardware updates, the two most obvious ones are Core i5 and Core i7 Sandy Bridge CPUs and Thunderbolt. Every Mini now comes with one Thunderbolt port as well, which replaces the Mini DisplayPort, just like in the 2011 MBPs. A smaller update is that all models now come with 1333MHz DDR3, similar to the rest of the Mac lineup. The consumer models also come with 500GB HDDs instead of 320GB while the server model’s storage remains unchanged (2x500GB 7200rpm).

Now the unexpected changes. First, the high-end Mini now comes with a discrete AMD Radeon HD 6630M GPU. This is the first Intel Mac mini to adopt a discrete GPU. The old PPC Mac minis used discrete GPUs but since the transition to Intel CPUs in 2006, the Mac mini has been stuck with IGPs - first Intel GMAs and then NVIDIA since early 2009. It will be interesting to see how Apple has managed to find space for the dGPU and its cooling, especially because the Thunderbolt controller is a discrete chip as well. We applaud the move though. While Intel HD 3000 was great improvement from Arrandale graphics, it’s still not all that great for gamers.

AMD 6630M is actually based on the same Whistler core as 6750M and 6770M found in MacBook Pros and iMacs. What you get is 480 shaders at 485MHz, which is 115-240MHz (19-33%) less than 6750M’s and 6770M’s. Thus the graphics performance won’t be as good as in iMac and MBP but 6630M will still be a huge step up from nVidia 320M and Intel HD 3000. There's no word on GPU clocks.

The second intriguing aspect of new Mac minis is the server model: It now comes with a quad core CPU. This appears to be the same i7-2635QM as found in $1799 15” MacBook Pro. The previous generation server model came with a 2.66GHz Core 2 Duo so this will be a huge upgrade in CPU performance. It will again be interesting to see how Apple has handled the extra heat as i7-2630QM has TDP of 45W compared to P8800‘s 25W.

Third, there is no more SuperDrive (ODD)! Apple is distributing nearly all of their software through Mac App Store now (including new OS versions), reducing the need for an optical drive.. This move is logical and I wouldn’t be surprised to see MBPs following Mac mini. There is always the option of an external ODD if you really, really need one.

Some of the BTO options are also new. The base model gets the option for a 750GB 7200rpm HDD but the high-end and server model can sport a 256GB SSD. That alone isn’t a big deal but the high-end Mini has an option for a 750GB HDD + 256GB SSD. That's not a big surprise given that the ODD is gone now so there is space for a second 2.5” HDD. Whether there will be a second SATA port in one-drive configurations is still unknown but that would leave the option of a 3rd party SSD as a boot drive. The high-end Mini also offers an optional i7-2620M (2.7GHz dual core).

All in all, the 2011 Mac mini update is a good one. There are several welcome additions to the lineup, such as a discrete GPU. The prices are a lot more reasonable now too. Before, it made very little sense to buy Mini because a few hundred more got you an iMac with better specs and IPS panel. At $599, the Mac mini makes sense and is a great option for a first time Mac buyer.

The updated Mac mini comes with Lion pre-installed (Lion Server in server model) and is available from the Apple Online Store with estimated shipping time of 24 hours.

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  • LordConrad - Wednesday, July 20, 2011 - link

    The Mac mini isn't made for people like us, it's made for people just like "grandpa" who would use the drive often. DVD drives are incredibly cheap nowadays, so the added cost would be next to nothing.
  • name99 - Wednesday, July 20, 2011 - link

    So you, LordConrad, have better knowledge than Apple of how their products are used and what features their customers find most important.

    Please enlighten us as to how you came by this knowledge.
  • LordConrad - Wednesday, July 20, 2011 - link

    Because I mingle with your average, everyday sort of people. Completely unlike Steve Jobs who is locked away in his tower and unable to see anyone's needs except his own.
  • Wizzdo - Wednesday, July 20, 2011 - link

    That must be why Apple is so successful ;)

    Listen LC, USB kicks butt as a small-backup\portable medium. Backing up to CD tech rather than online or an external HD\USBkey is a waste of time, resources, money, power, and space (computer and otherwise).

    Besides, using a Thumbdrive is far simpler than burning to CDs etc.

    a) Stick in USB port
    b) Copy files.
  • name99 - Wednesday, July 20, 2011 - link

    So, Conrad, your "ordinary folks" grandpa buys a mac mini, NOT an iMac?

    He understands that he needs to buy a separate screen (with the appropriate display connector) and keyboard and mouse --- but then he is confused about buying an optical drive?

    I call bullshit.

    Steve Jobs' "locked in a tower" mentality seems to grown Apple's revenues by, what, about 15x over the past five years.

    Your "hanging out with weird folks who claim to know nothing about computers but buy Mac Minis rather than iMacs" has achieved what exactly? You don't have to have built a company --- all you need to do is apply that keen insight into investing on the stock exchange. How much has YOUR portfolio grown in the past five years?
  • LordConrad - Thursday, July 21, 2011 - link

    Jeez, just trying to make a point. I hope I never drop the soap when you're around.
  • Exodite - Wednesday, July 20, 2011 - link

    Personally I find the only reason to avoid using the optical drive to be the jet-engine noise it makes. :)

    It's a long ways away before I'd consider a PC without an optical drive but obviously that's not necessarily true for everyone.
  • Bob-o - Wednesday, July 20, 2011 - link

    And how is removing a cheap DVD drive "progress"? What bold advancement does that enable?

    I think all desktops should have a DVD drive. It adds 1/2 inch of height at most. On a mobile device size/weight requirements may take precedence, but on a desktop the added flexibility is nice to have. Especially for the target market, as others have pointed out.

    I've had my parents using several generations of the Mini since the powerpc model. And yeah, they occasionally use the optical drive, for photo exchange, actually watching a DVD movie, etc. I'll probably buy a used previous generation mini rather than this new one, since they don't need Sandy Bridge speed or game-level graphics. A DVD drive would be more useful for them.
  • TheAbsintheHare - Thursday, July 21, 2011 - link

    Removing the drive pushes people to adopt new technologies like the cloud, movie streaming, online music purchases. Apple is invested in these technologies, so it makes sense for them to nudge their users in that direction from a profitability standpoint. Yes, some people still use their optical drives, but that's they have not had experience with newer technologies. Without the optical drive, they have no choice but to move on and experience these.
  • Exodite - Thursday, July 21, 2011 - link

    Or buy an external optical drive.

    Or another computer that has one.

    As of today the usage scenarios you mentioned doesn't account for all the uses of optical drives, nor are they adequate replacements for those services they aim to supersede.

    Media consumption especially, since streaming or digital downloads remain more expensive, requires propriety software solutions and is riddled with nefarious DRM solutions.

    People have been harping about the death of physical media for a decade already and doubtless they'll be correct, eventually, though it's going to be one epic death scene.

    Anyway, it's undoubtedly true that not everyone buying a Mac Mini would want/need an optical drive but I'd be surprised if not a significant part of the existing market wouldn't.

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