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Mac Mini Adds Faster CPUs and Thunderbolt, Drops Optical Drive

Along with the release of Mac OS X 10.7 Lion, Apple also updated the Mac mini, giving the diminutive desktop Mac new processors, discrete graphics, a Thunderbolt port, and more, while at the same time removing the previous model’s optical drive. The new Mac mini’s industrial design remains the same, and it ships with Lion pre-installed.

More so than other Macs of recent times, the Mac mini comes in three rather different configurations, making the decision of what to get more confusing than in the past. The configurations are:

  • 2.3 GHz Mac mini: The $599 low-end configuration features a 2.3 GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 CPU, along with 2 GB of RAM (upgradable to 4 or 8 GB for $100 or $300 more), a 500 GB 5400-rpm hard drive (with a 750 GB 7200-rpm drive as an option for $150 more), and built-in Intel HD Graphics 3000 processor that shares 288 MB of RAM with main memory.

  • 2.5 GHz Mac mini: The $799 higher-end consumer configuration of the Mac mini provides a choice of either a 2.5 GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 CPU, or a 2.7 GHz dual-core Intel Core i7 (add $100). It ships with 4 GB of RAM standard (upgradable to 8 GB for $200), and provides a selection of storage options, including the default 500 GB 5400-rpm hard drive, a 750 GB 7200-rpm hard drive (add $150), a 256 GB solid-state drive (add $600), or a 750 GB 7200-rpm hard drive plus a 256 GB solid-state drive (add $750). Along with the faster processors, this configuration includes a discrete graphics processor, the AMD Radeon HD 6630M with 256 MB of dedicated GDDR5 memory. It should increase graphics performance by as much as two times.

  • 2.0 GHz Mac mini with Lion Server: The $999 server configuration of the new Mac mini relies on a 2.0 GHz quad-core Intel Core i7, provides 4 GB of RAM (upgradable to 8 GB for $200 more), and ships with a pair of 500 GB 7200-rpm hard drives. You can trade out the drives for a pair of 750 GB 7200-rpm hard drives (add $100), a 256 GB solid-state drive (add $400), a 750 GB 7200-rpm hard drive plus a 256 GB solid-state drive (add $550), or a pair of 256 GB solid-state drives (add $1000). Since servers don’t generally have significant graphics needs, it too relies on the built-in Intel HD Graphics 3000 processor that shares 288 MB of RAM with main memory. And, of course, it ships with Lion Server pre-installed.

In terms of video specs, the new Mac mini includes a single Thunderbolt port with support for up to 2560-by-1600 pixel resolution on a connected monitor, an HDMI port with support for up to 1920-by-1200 resolution, and DVI output via an included HDMI-to-DVI Adapter. On the audio side, the Mac mini includes an audio line-in minijack, a line-out/headphone minijack, support for the Apple iPhone headset with microphone, and a built-in speaker.

Standard expansion ports beyond the single Thunderbolt port and the HDMI port include a FireWire 800 port, four USB 2.0 ports, an SDXC slot, and a Gigabit Ethernet port. Speaking of networking, the Mac mini supports 802.11n Wi-Fi, along with Bluetooth 4.0. For those desperate for fast storage via Thunderbolt, Apple is selling the Promise Pegasus RAID systems and Thunderbolt cables now; as far as we know, they’re the only Thunderbolt peripherals aside from Apple’s new Thunderbolt Display announced so far.

None of the Mac mini configurations come with an optical drive built-in, but you can add the USB-based MacBook Air SuperDrive for $79. Also still missing are a keyboard and pointing device; you can use existing devices or buy new ones as you wish.

As with most of Apple’s recent hardware updates, the new Mac mini provides welcome changes at the same price points as the previous models, although it’s possible that some people will be distressed by the loss of an internal optical drive. It is a bit surprising that Apple is so thoroughly differentiating the different configurations rather than just enabling customers to configure a base configuration with all the various options.

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