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Not Bad For A Monkey (Part 2)

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As we’ve hinted, it’s graphics tasks that the new minis struggle more to impress. In Cinebench’s OpenGL test, based on the cross-platform API widely used in games and graphics-oriented apps, the entry-level model rendered at 18.6 frames per second, up from 12 frames per second with last year’s basic mini and its Intel HD 3000. This is a very welcome improvement, and much as we would have expected based on the similar spec changes made to the 13in MacBook Pro earlier this year.

The problem comes with the higher model, which has shifted from using a discrete graphics processor with its own dedicated memory to the same integrated system that relies on leeching some of the Mac’s RAM. The higher of the two standard 2011 Mac minis rendered Cinebench’s OpenGL test at 24.5 frames per second. The 2012 equivalent, despite its more capable CPU, fell a bit short of that in our tests, at 21.9fps, thanks to the Intel GPU.

. The higher of the two standard 2011 Mac minis rendered Cinebench’s OpenGL test at 24.5 frames per second. The 2012 equivalent, despite its more capable CPU, fell a bit short of that in our tests, at 21.9fps, thanks to the Intel GPU.

. The higher of the two standard 2011 Mac minis rendered Cinebench’s OpenGL test at 24.5 frames per second. The 2012 equivalent, despite its more capable CPU, fell a bit short of that in our tests, at 21.9fps, thanks to the Intel GPU.

To further compare the different GPUs, we ran our Portal 2 test. At display resolution of 1600x900, the Core i7 mini rendered at a just about playable 35 frames per second. Increasing the resolution to 1920x1080 – typical of third-party monitors from 21.5 to 27in – decreased this to 27.2fps. Compare that to the ATI-powered 2011 iMac, which rendered these tests at 44.6fps and 33.8fps respectively.

It’s clear that the mini’s integrated GPU, although it beats last year’s, is still a fair way behind the performance of the discrete graphics processor in 2011’s pricier model, and the practical upshot is that you’ll need to turn down some options to get games running smoothly. Simply disabling anti-aliasing at 1600x900 increased the mini’s output to a respectable 50.3fps.

For tasks that depend on a more powerful GPU, you’ll need to look to the forthcoming iMacs, of which only the 21.5in will be available by the time you read this. Discrete GPUs are one of their distinguishing features, and although the least expensive iMac now costs $1550 – back up from last year’s dip to $1500 – it does come with an Apple keyboard, mouse and screen, none of which are included with the mini. Look out for our review in January.

All Mac minis now come with a usable 4GB of RAM (last year, $750 only got you 2GB), and this is a component you can and should upgrade yourself. The maximum has been increased from 8GB to a whopping 16GB, which will cost you a little over $75 from reputable third-party suppliers. Bizarrely, Apple asks $120 for 8GB as a build-to-order option and $360 for 16GB. Even if you pay your friendly local Mac engineer to perform the upgrade, it’ll cost you a lot less and doesn’t void the warranty.

There’s little reason to do so, however, because the mini’s case design makes upgrading straightforward. Apple’s printed documentation no longer includes instructions for accessing the memory sockets, but it’s trivially easy. Do take the usual anti-static precautions for handing components – an anti-static wrist strap is recommended, but touching something earthed before you start, such as a bare metal part of a radiator, is as much as many of us would do. Now flip over the unplugged Mac mini, twist its base using the two depressions made for your finger and thumb, and lift it off. The sockets are immediately accessible, and an adjacent diagram shows how to remove what’s already fitted. The process is detailed at support.apple.com/kb/HT4432.

The memory in these minis runs at 1600MHz, up from 1333MHz in the 2011 rage. Accordingly, we saw another boost in scores in our benchmarks, with the entry-level model marginally outpacing last year’s equivalent by 3%, while the more expensive model managed a more significant 9% increase. It’s not a huge improvement, but for everyday responsiveness, every little helps.

All minis now have 4GB of Ram as standard

All minis now have 4GB of Ram as standard.

The late 2012 mini, then, is not an ideal choice for 3D or video editing tasks, but perfectly adequate for general and creative apps. As an all-round multi-purpose Mac, it’s a better buy than its predecessor at a similar price. While the lack of GPU options will push some buyers to the iMac, USB 3 and the Fusion Drive option make this a practical system for users whose priority is access to fast, high-capacity storage.

Thunderbolt port *FireWire 800 port* Four USB 3 ports* Gigabit Ethernet* HDMI port with multi-channel audio output*SDXC card slot * Headphone port/optical audio out * Optical/analogue audio in *Built-in mono speaker *Bluetooth 4.0 *802.11n wifi *Infra-red receiver for optional Apple Remote OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion

Magic Mouse or Magic Trackpad $90; Apple wireless keyboard $88; Apple wired keyboard with numeric keypad $60; external 8x Super-Drive (DVD R DL/DVD RW/CD-RW) $100; 27in Thunderbolt Display $1350 (third-party monitors also compatible)

2.6GHz CPU $120; 1TB Fusion Drive $300; 256GB SSD $360 (all available with $1020 configuration only)

From the front, the mini is a slab of pure aluminium broken only by the power LED and IR receiver. Which is nice, but it means Apple has hidden the SD card slot around the back. Handy this ain’t

With four USB 3 ports on top of the existing connectivity, apple’s corner-cutting is only of the literal variety

With four USB 3 ports on top of the existing connectivity, apple’s corner-cutting is only of the literal variety

Cool air is sucked into the case from around the circular base and blown out of the vent in the back panel by a large, very quiet fan

Power - Despite its compact from, the mini has its power supply built in, so you only need a mains lead, not an external transformer

Ethernet - Gigabit (1000Base-T) networking is standard as is fast 802.11n wifi

FireWire - Gone from the latest MacBooks, FireWire 800 is still here

HDMI - The mini is the only desktop Mac with this HDTV connection

Thunderbolt - Just one port (even the 13in Retina MacBooks Pro has two!) means all your Thunderbolt peripherals except one – likely a non-Thunderbolt display – will need pass-through ports

USB - Then again, these four USB ports all offer the widely supported USB 3 for fast external storage, so who needs thunderbolt anyway?

SDXC - This reader slot takes all capacities of memory card

Audio - Analogue and digital inputs and outputs are supported

Specs and prices

·         Mac mini (late 2012)

·         With 2.5 GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 $750

·         With 2.3 GHz dual-core Intel Core i7 £1020

·         8GB 1600MHz DDR3L RAM (upgradable to 16GB)

·         500GB (2.5GHz) or 1TB (2.3GHz) 5400 rpm hard drive Intel HD Graphics 4000

 

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