Mac Musings

The New Mac mini Value Equation: Core Duo Entry Level Changes Everything

Daniel Knight - 2006.09.07

Depending on how you look at things, the entry level Mac mini Core Solo grew a second brain with no change in price or that top-end Mac mini had its price slashed by US$200.

Yesterday Apple replaced the ho-hum 1.5 GHz single-core Mac mini with a 1.66 GHz dual-core version. That's exactly the same speed as the former top-end Mac mini, and the only differences between today's low-end model and last week's high-end one are a smaller hard drive (60 GB instead of 80) and use of a Combo drive instead of a DVD burning SuperDrive.

This was a smart move for Apple, because the core-solo Mac mini lagged way behind the dual-core model for things like ripping music in iTunes, video work, and Rosetta emulation. As the only single-core Mac, it was the odd man out of the Macintosh line.

For value, the US$599 1.66 GHz Mac mini Core Duo with Combo drive absolutely blows the doors off the similarly priced 1.5 GHz Core Solo model it replaces.

The Top End

I can't get as excited about the new 1.83 GHz Mac mini Core Duo. It has the same SuperDrive, the same 512 MB of RAM, the same graphics processor, and the same hard drive as the 1.66 GHz model it replaces. Sure, it's 10% faster with no change in price (still US$799), but that's hardly significant.

I'm sorry, Apple, but 20 GB more drive space and a SuperDrive aren't worth a $200 premium over the new entry-level Mac mini. While the new 1.83 GHz model is improved and offers more value than the model it replaces, the new 1.66 GHz Core Duo wins hands down for value.

Version 1 Value

Dealers such as MacMall are offering the old Core Solo model for US$549, and the discontinued 1.66 GHz Core Duo model with SuperDrive for US$749. Considering that this is just $25 less than their "after rebate" prices on the new models, I can't recommend them.

All things considered, the 1.66 GHz SuperDrive model is both 10% slower and discontinued, so anything higher than $725 (based on the speed difference) is too much to ask. As a close-out model, $699 would make the most sense.

As for the 1.5 GHz Core Solo model, there's no way it's worth $549 today. Or even $499. After all, the 1.66 GHz Core Duo is anywhere from barely 10% to over 100% faster, depending on whether the software takes full advantage of dual cores. Macworld's Speedmark 4.5 puts the difference at about 16% on their mix of tests. MacSpeedZone marks it at about 20%.

Again, we're dealing with a discontinued model, and now that all Macintel models have dual-core CPUs, we can be sure that future software will take better advantage of multiple cores, leaving the Core Solo mini further and further behind. Based on all that, I'd peg $499 as a maximum realistic price for a new 1.5 GHz Mac mini, and I think $475 would be the optimal price.

In short, I can't recommend buying the close out January 2006 Mac minis at the prices I see online today.

Okay, What About Refurbs?

As anyone who regularly reads my "value equation" articles knows, I'm a huge fan of Apple refurbished hardware. I've purchased three eMacs as refurbs, saving a fair bit of money and getting the same one-year warranty you get with a new Mac.

Today you can order a refurbished 1.66 GHz Mac mini Core Duo with SuperDrive - the model discontinued yesterday - for a mere US$649. That's just $50 more than the new entry level model for exactly the same speed, along with a larger hard drive and a SuperDrive (so you can burn DVDs).

As good a value as the new entry level Mac mini is at $599, this refurb is an even better one if there's any chance at all that you'll ever burn a DVD (whether for backup or video).

Apple has had refurbished 1.5 GHz Core Solo minis at US$519, but that was before the new model introduction. I can't imagine Apple getting much more than US$449 for them now - and at that price they could make a great entryway to the Macintosh for switchers or a good first Macintel for someone running older G3 or G4 hardware.

(Actually, the best thing about the Core Solo mini is that you can buy a fast Core Duo CPU, drop it in, and run circles around Apple's top-end mini. Not for the faint of heart, but bargain hunting hackers seem to love projects like this.)

If you've been thinking about a Mac mini, the best values are the new 1.66 GHz Combo drive model and the refurbished 1.66 GHz SuperDrive one.