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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  • Plester - Wednesday, July 20, 2011 - link

    Apple wouldn't want to make 4gb the baseline for RAM, what with the staggering price of that extra 2GB.
  • ninjit - Wednesday, July 20, 2011 - link

    As mentioned elsewhere in the thread - profit margin on the baseline models are usually reasonable, it's the upgraded models where they make all that money.

    And while you're right, the extra 2gb would probably only cost them <$10 (in volume), they aren't avoiding it to save money...
    They're doing it to make the upgraded models look more appealing, so that more people will opt for the high-end if its specs "look" more high-end compared to base.
  • Greguar - Wednesday, July 20, 2011 - link

    Also, at +$100 for an extra 2GB of RAM vs +$200 for the RAM plus a CPU upgrade plus a GPU upgrade, it will likely persuade a lot of customers to get the higher-end model instead of upgrading the base. Even with the crazy margin on that RAM upgrade, Apple undoubtedly makes more profit overall on the model upgrade.

    The other sneaky thing is rolling in a portion of their inflated RAM prices into the model upgrade, so that folks who want the CPU/GPU upgrade are taking a nice big gouge on the RAM.

    And then there's just pricing to take advantage of the powers of convenience, where lots of customers will just swallow Apple's price in order to have the RAM installed right out of the box rather than having to do any aftermarket legwork or having to venture inside the scary depths of the case to install it themselves.
  • Wizzdo - Wednesday, July 20, 2011 - link

    Apple has to support the hardware it installs. Proper support costs $.

    You're free to source your own Ram and stick it in at your own risk.

    I still think they charge too much for RAM but I also think other companies are FAR WORSE when it comes to support and support has a value.

    4 GB should be default these days but the Apple OS can run pretty well on 2GB in a lot of typical scenarios.
  • gmcalpin - Friday, July 22, 2011 - link

    And you should be thanking them! You can buy the RAM elsewhere for MUCH, MUCH less. OWC, for instance.

    Why do non-Mac users always complain about Apple's RAM prices? Nobody with any sense buys RAM upgrades from Apple.
  • peterlws08 - Wednesday, July 20, 2011 - link

    Just with a power connector (e.g. 12V dc), ipod connector and thunderbolt. maybe Include Wifi + GPS + 3G.

    That way I could.

    Slot it into the palm rest of a future laptop shell, or connect it to one of the new apple displays.

    It could have a 1.8"ssd.

    Or maybe make it iPhone dimensions to include the Apple Magic Trackpad as the top of the device and make an additional model with same dimensions and connectors plus a screen and call it a iPhone5. (iPhone 5 version will use citrix like technology to get big screen experience.)

    [CPU + Storage + Thunderbolt + Apple Dock Connector + Top surface multitouch ] + [Power / Battery] + [Display , connectivity, interface ]

    Apple. Modular, flexible.. sorted.
  • peterlws08 - Wednesday, July 20, 2011 - link

    Oh and a really tiny battery too, just enough to suspend to disk if power loss.
  • andrew_rs - Thursday, July 21, 2011 - link

    Overpriced for it's internals, but in a purdy, stylish aluminum package. The iSheep should love it. I'm not an apple owner, but I am a shareholder.
  • Uritziel - Thursday, July 21, 2011 - link

    That's the way to play it.
  • ET - Thursday, July 21, 2011 - link

    When the mini first appeared I thought it might be my first Mac, which I could use as a media PC. Price was always a bit of a problem, and since it went up last time even more so. Now without an optical drive, that's a bit of a death to that option.

    Problem is, if you're outside the US then the option of getting all your media via the internet is just not there. I understand that the US is the target market, so I guess the design makes sense.

    In any case, these days there are good alternatives for media PC's, such as E-350 based ones, which are just as small or smaller and also cheaper.

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