Mac Musings

Mac mini the Best Value in Desktop Macs

Dan Knight - 2009.08.25 - Tip Jar

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Several readers responded to The Perfect Mac: MacBook Pro or iMac? by asking why I had overlooked the Mac mini. They reasoned that it was a better choice than an iMac for someone who already had a keyboard, a mouse, and a monitor they were happy with - and for a lot less money than a 20" iMac.

Also, they argued, iMacs are an expensive choice because you're paying for a display every time you buy one. And with the Mac mini, you can change to another display any time you want to.

Why didn't I name the Mac mini the best desktop Mac?

Enough Processing Power

The March 2009 upgrade gave the Mac mini Nvidia GeForce 9400M graphics, just like every Mac made today except for the Mac Pro. The Mac mini has a decently powerful 2.0 GHz Core 2 Duo CPU, includes an 8x SuperDrive, and can be expanded to 4 GB of RAM, which should be plenty for most users.

The 20" iMac costs twice as much, has a 2.66 GHz CPU (33% more power) with twice as large a level 2 (L2) cache, ships with twice as much memory and tops out with twice as much, has a built-in 1680 x 1050 display, and uses a 320 GB 7200 rpm hard drive. LIke the Mac mini, it has an 8x SuperDrive.

Compare that to the Mac mini with its 120 GB 5400 rpm notebook drive. It ships with just 1 GB of RAM, of which 128 MB is used for graphics. When you upgrade RAM - and you need to for best performance - the video card ties up 256 MB of system RAM. Of course, the iMac also gives up 256 MB of system memory for video.

Macworld benchmarked the Mac mini and the 2.66 GHz iMac in March, and the iMac had a 35% higher Speedmark 5 score than a mini with 2 GB of RAM - just a bit more than you'd predict based on clock speed alone.

That said, I don't find my dual 1.6 GHz Power Mac G4 slow, so I'm sure the 2009 Mac mini has more than enough power for anything I'd throw at it. And, like the iMac, it can support two displays.

That Notebook Hard Drive

Those 2.5" notebook hard drives cost a lot more than 3.5" drives for equivalent storage. Here are some current prices from DealMac and Amazon.com:

  • 2.5" Hitachi Travelstar 500 GB, 5400 rpm, 8 MB cache, $70
  • 2.5" Seagate Momentus 500 GB, 7200 rpm, 16 MB cache, $176
  • 2.5" Seagate Momentus 500 GB, 5400 rpm, 8 MB cache, $90
  • 2.5" WD Scorpio Blue 320 GB, 5400 rpm, 8 MB cache, $65
  • 2.5" WD Scorpio Black 320 GB, 7200 rpm, 16 MB cache, $76
  • 3.5" Hitachi Deskstar 1 TB, 7200 rpm, 16 MB cache, $65
  • 3.5" Hitachi Deskstar 500 GB, 7200 rpm, 16 MB cache, $45
  • 3.5" WD Caviar 320 GB, 7200 rpm, 8 MB cache, $59

High capacity 7200 rpm 3.5" drives are commodity items - that 500 GB Travelstar drive works out to 9¢ per gigabyte. A 2.5" drive with the same specs costs four times as much, and scaling back to a 5400 rpm drive with a smaller cache is still twice as costly per gigabyte. Laptop hard drives are expensive relative to desktop drives at any capacity.

I've looked up Xbench hard drive scores for the current 2 GHz Mac mini and the current 2.66 GHz iMac and made some interesting discoveries:

  • Apple uses 120 GB 5400 rpm drives with 8 MB buffers from Hitachi and Fujitsu. The Hitachi Travelstar has an average Xbench drive score of 37.0, the Fujitsu 47.3. Big difference, but you have no way of knowing which you'll get.
  • There were two reports on 7200 rpm notebook drives, both with a 16 MB buffer. The Seagate Momentus scored 54.94, while the Western Digital toasted it at 71.70.
  • All four iMac scores used the same 320 GB 7200 rpm Western Digital Caviar hard drive with an 8 MB buffer. The average score: 78.3.
  • Someone put a Vertex solid state drive (SSD) with a 64 MB buffer in his Mac mini, achieving a drive score of 217.45! I don't know whether this is the $400 or $1,300 version, but it's not something you're likely to put in a $600 Mac mini.

The big point is that even the fastest 2.5" hard drive had a lower score than the run-of-the-mill $59 hard drive used in the low-end iMac. On the plus side, the 320 GB Scorpio Black laptop drive only costs $17 more than the 320 GB Caviar desktop drive. If you want a speedy notebook drive, Scorpio Black looks like the winner - but it's only available up to 320 GB.

End Cost

You can pick up an entry-level 2 GHz Mac mini for $579 shipped. For $58 you can max out RAM to 4 GB, and another $76 gets you that 320 GB Scorpio Black hard drive, bringing your total to $713.

You can buy the entry-level 2.66 GHz iMac for $1,079 shipped (after mail-in rebate). It already has a faster hard drive than the Scorpio you can put in a Mac mini. Boosting RAM to 4 GB adds $66, for a final cost of $1,145.

For $430 more, you get a 20" 1680 x 1050 display (over 30% more space than my 1280 x 1024 display), a Mighty Mouse, and Apple's current keyboard (either the small version or the one with a numeric keypad). The extra screen space would be nice, but I don't see the 33% faster CPU as a big factor for my own use. Compared to my aging, reliable, generally fast enough G4 Power Macs, even that 2.0 GHz Mac mini is going to seem like a speed demon.

I have a keyboard and mouse that I love, which eliminates the disadvantage of the Mac mini shipping with neither. I would like a higher resolution display, but I can find 1680 x 1050 displays starting at about $115. At that point, the Mac mini still saves me $315 compared to the iMac. (Add in $15 for a Mini DVI-to-DVI or Mini DisplayPort-to-DVI adapter.)

Even Cheaper

If you're fortunate enough to find these models refurbished, you save even more. The base Mac mini sells for $499 refurbished, and the 2.26 GHz version for $649 - just $70 more than the best price you'd pay for the 2.0 GHz machine. You could trim your Mac mini price to $613 with a refurb from Apple.

When the Apple Store has refurbished 2.66 GHz iMacs, they sell for $999, saving you $80 over the best post-rebate price. Refurb to refurb, you get an extra $20 in savings with the Mac mini, coming it at $335 less vs. a similarly configured iMac - or $450 if you don't need a new display.

Where's the Value?

Those who wrote in to extol the virtues and value of the Mac mini were right. In terms of out-of-pocket expense, the Mac mini provides a lot of value. And the best notebook drives are coming close to matching desktop performance, which is a pleasant surprise.

In addition to saving you money up front, the Mac mini is the world's most energy efficient desktop computer. When idling, it uses 45% less power than the previous Mac mini - and a whole lot less than my Power Mac G4 (which does help keep my office warm in the winter).

The Mac mini is small, but it does mean a bit more cable clutter due to the separate display. On the plus side, there are some great external hard drives with the same footprint as the Mac mini. (Newer Tech's miniStack is a personal favorite, as it includes powered USB 2.0 and FireWire 400 hubs. We use them with Power Macs and eMacs at Low End Mac headquarters. The current miniStack v2.5 ships with a FireWire 800 to FireWire 400 cable, while miniStack v3 includes FireWire 800 and SATA ports.)

Looking Ahead

There's another big plus with the Mac mini: When you decide its time to move to USB 3.0 (Macs should have it sometime in the next year), you'll buy a replacement Mac mini, move everything over, and be up and running for about $600. And you'll have a used Mac mini to sell, a computer that holds its value remarkably well. It's very likely you could get $450 for it, dropping your net cost to $150.

Compare that to spending $1,200 for a new iMac and reselling your old one for $750 (a typical price for a used 20" Intel iMac). Your net cost comes to about $450, a lot more than with the Mac mini.

Granted, the iMac will probably always be significantly more powerful than the Mac mini - say 25% to 35% - but for most users the Mac mini should be more than sufficient. If you upgrade RAM and the hard drive yourself, it's a very economical choice, and when it comes time to move to a newer model, the net cost for buying new and selling used also works to your advantage.

Value choice: Mac mini.

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Dan Knight has been using Macs since 1986, sold Macs for several years, supported them for many more years, and has been publishing Low End Mac since April 1997. If you find Dan's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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