Mac Musings

The 2007 Mac mini Value Equation

Dan Knight - 2007.08.08 - Tip Jar

It's a tough call whether to look at the iMac value equation or the Mac mini value equation first. The iMac has been Apple's most popular desktop for nearly a decade, but the Mac mini has seen both a speed bump and switched to a newer, slightly more powerful CPU.

With the world taking a close look at the new iMac, we'll be contrarian and do the Mac mini value equation today. We'll look at the iMac value equation tomorrow.

What's Changed?

The August 2007 Mac mini is essentially the same computer as the first and second generation Intel-based models. The motherboard remains the same, only the hardware connected to it has changed.

The new mini has a more powerful CPU running at higher speeds, twice as much RAM, and more hard drive space.

Core 2

The biggest and most important difference is moving from 1.66 and 1.83 GHz Core Duo CPUs to 1.83 and 2.0 GHz Core 2 Duos. The difference in clock speed is only 8-10%, but the Core 2 is also more efficient. Apple claims "up to 39%" better performance, but that's primarily on CPU intensive work.

In reality, a computer's performance involves several factors: raw processing power, the size of the CPU's data cache, memory access, video performance, the amount of RAM, and hard drive speed. The Core 2 is more powerful and runs at a higher clock speed, and the 2 GHz Mac mini has twice as large a cache as the 1.83 GHz model. The 2007 model also ships with 1 GB of RAM, twice as much as last year's model.

We've seen some benchmarks of minis upgraded with Core 2 CPUs and comparing the Core Duo and Core 2 Duo MacBooks. We're going to estimate a 15% performance gain from the CPU and another 8-10% due to clock speed. We estimate a 25% improvement for the 1.83 GHz model vs. last year's entry-level 1.66 GHz model (assuming identical amounts of memory) - and a 15% improvement vs. the 2006 1.83 GHz Core Duo model. On the top, we'll project 30% better performance for the 2.0 GHz Mac mini, which has a 4 GB level 2 cache, with the same amount of RAM installed.

Memory

We specify "with the same amount of RAM" for a reason: There's a big performance difference between having 512 MB and having 1 GB of RAM installed. (Going from 1 GB to 2 GB makes a much smaller difference.)

The MacBook uses the same CPU and graphics processor as the Mac mini, so we can look at Other World Computing's memory performance tests to project the impact of memory on overall performance.

The difference between 512 MB and 1 GB of RAM was very significant for the Photoshop and "stress test" benchmarks, in some cases cutting 30-50% off processing time. Comparisons of earlier Mac minis with 512 MB of RAM to the new models with 1 GB of RAM will therefore be quite unfair.

These benchmarks also found the Core 2 MacBook about 15% faster than the earlier Core Duo model at the same clock speed, as we note above.

Finally, other Macs built around the Core 2 and pre-Santa Rosa chipsets support 3 GB of RAM. While Apple officially states that 2 GB is the maximum, it may be possible to install 3 GB in any Mac mini with a Core 2 CPU. I'm sure someone will test that theory soon.

Hard Drive

The best thing about moving the Mac mini to Intel CPUs was Apple abandoning 4200 rpm hard drives in favor of 5400 rpm drives. It makes a big difference, especially in low RAM configurations that are more dependent on virtual memory (Bare Feats has some great benchmarks). And for the ultimate Mac mini performance, there's nothing like a 7200 rpm drive (a 5400 rpm drive with a big buffer - say 8-16 MB - is the next best thing).

If you want the ultimate performance from your Mac mini, max out RAM and put in a 7200 rpm hard drive. In order, I'd say the biggest speed gain comes from having 1 GB of RAM (vs. 512 MB in earlier models), followed by the boost from a 7200 rpm drive. Going to 2 GB will further improve things, but it's the least important in terms of performance unless you're running virtualization software or programs that haven't been made "universal" for Intel Macs.

Overall, the new minis will blow away the stock configuration of the old ones because of the additional memory, the Core 2 CPUs, and higher clock speeds.

Blowing Out the Old Mac minis

We've updated our Mac mini price tracker this morning, and we've seen the "blow out" prices on the 2006 minis. The good news: The high-end 1.83 GHz SuperDrive model is being cleared out for as little as $549, a whopping $250 drop. The bad news: The low-end 1.66 GHz Combo drive model has only dropped to $499, a mere $100 decrease.

Best prices on the new models are $569 for the 1.83 GHz Combo drive Core 2 mini and $769 for the 2.0 GHz SuperDrive model.

Comparing low-end to low-end, the new model is easily worth $70 more than the model it replaced. You get a faster, more efficient CPU, 512 MB more RAM, and a larger hard drive. At $499, last year's 1.66 GHz Mac mini is not a good value.

Comparing last years 1.83 GHz Core Duo model with the new Core 2 model, there's just a $20 difference in price. With the 2006 model, you get a SuperDrive and save $20. With the 2007 model, you get a more efficient CPU, 512 MB more RAM, and a Combo drive. Tough call - I say go for the 2006 model if the SuperDrive is important to you, as you can bump RAM to 1 GB for $44. If the SuperDrive isn't a factor, the 1.83 GHz Core 2 model is the value champion.

Finally, we'll compare the SuperDrive models. $549 vs. $769. You get a bigger hard drive ($75 value) and 1 GB of RAM ($44 online) plus about 30% more processing power (harder to value, but $125 seems reasonable). In other words, it's pretty much a wash in terms of value. However, in terms of power (not the reason most people pick a Mac mini), the Core 2 SuperDrive model is a winner.

Refurbished 2006 minis

Apple has refurbished Mac minis listed at $429 for the 1.66 GHz Combo model, $479 for the 1.83 GHz SuperDrive. The price of entry has never been better, particularly for the SuperDrive model.

At $429, the 2006 Combo model is a very good value compared with the new Core 2 Combo model at $569. The $140 difference is more than enough to upgrade RAM from the stock 512 MB to a very useful 2 GB.

The real value king of the mini line is the refurbished 1.83 GHz SuperDrive model at just $479. Compared to $769 for the Core 2 SuperDrive mini, you can max out RAM to 2 GB, drop in a faster or larger hard drive, and still have money left.

As nice as the upgraded models are, for overall value, the refurbs have them beat.

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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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