The Mac mini is yet another Mac to be updated with Intel’s Sandy Bridge CPUs and Thunderbolt. The Mini saw its last update on June 15th 2010 so a refresh was widely expected and also a bit overdue. There are no major chassis changes to the new Mac mini (sans the missing CD/DVD slot). Like the previous generation, there are three models: two consumer and one server. The Mac mini lineup has been like this since late 2009 when the server model was first introduced.

Let's get to the specs:

2011 Mac Mini Specifications
  Low-end High-end Server
Processor i5-2410M (2.3GHz dual core) i5-2520M (2.5GHz dual core) i7-2635QM (2.0GHz quad core)
Graphics Intel HD 3000 with 288MB of shared DDR3 AMD Radeon HD 6630M with 256MB of GDDR5 Intel HD 3000 with 384MB of shared DDR3
RAM 2GB 1333MHz DDR3 (up to 8GB) 4GB 1333MHz DDR3 (up to 8GB) 4GB 1333MHz DDR3 (up to 8GB)
Storage 500GB 5400rpm 500GB 5400rpm 2x500GB 7200rpm
Ports Thunderbolt, HDMI, FireWire 800, 4x USB 2.0, SDXC card slot, Gigabit Ethernet, audio in/out Thunderbolt, HDMI, FireWire 800, 4x USB 2.0, SDXC card slot, Gigabit Ethernet, audio in/out Thunderbolt, HDMI, FireWire 800, 4x USB 2.0, SDXC card slot, Gigabit Ethernet, audio in/out
Connectivity 802.11a/b/g/n, Bluetooth 4.0 802.11a/b/g/n, Bluetooth 4.0 802.11a/b/g/n, Bluetooth 4.0
Dimensions (WxDxH) 7.7" x 7.7" x 1.4" 7.7" x 7.7" x 1.4" 7.7" x 7.7" x 1.4"
Weight 2.7lb 2.7lb 3.0lb
Price $599 $799 $999

The most obvious change is a drop in price: the entry-level Mini is now $599 and the high-end is $799, instead of $699 and $849 like the previous generation. The 2011 Mac Mini in fact adopts the old pricing model as before the 2010 update, the Minis were priced $599 and $799 respectively. The server model retains its $999 price tag. This is definitely good news.

As for the hardware updates, the two most obvious ones are Core i5 and Core i7 Sandy Bridge CPUs and Thunderbolt. Every Mini now comes with one Thunderbolt port as well, which replaces the Mini DisplayPort, just like in the 2011 MBPs. A smaller update is that all models now come with 1333MHz DDR3, similar to the rest of the Mac lineup. The consumer models also come with 500GB HDDs instead of 320GB while the server model’s storage remains unchanged (2x500GB 7200rpm).

Now the unexpected changes. First, the high-end Mini now comes with a discrete AMD Radeon HD 6630M GPU. This is the first Intel Mac mini to adopt a discrete GPU. The old PPC Mac minis used discrete GPUs but since the transition to Intel CPUs in 2006, the Mac mini has been stuck with IGPs - first Intel GMAs and then NVIDIA since early 2009. It will be interesting to see how Apple has managed to find space for the dGPU and its cooling, especially because the Thunderbolt controller is a discrete chip as well. We applaud the move though. While Intel HD 3000 was great improvement from Arrandale graphics, it’s still not all that great for gamers.

AMD 6630M is actually based on the same Whistler core as 6750M and 6770M found in MacBook Pros and iMacs. What you get is 480 shaders at 485MHz, which is 115-240MHz (19-33%) less than 6750M’s and 6770M’s. Thus the graphics performance won’t be as good as in iMac and MBP but 6630M will still be a huge step up from nVidia 320M and Intel HD 3000. There's no word on GPU clocks.

The second intriguing aspect of new Mac minis is the server model: It now comes with a quad core CPU. This appears to be the same i7-2635QM as found in $1799 15” MacBook Pro. The previous generation server model came with a 2.66GHz Core 2 Duo so this will be a huge upgrade in CPU performance. It will again be interesting to see how Apple has handled the extra heat as i7-2630QM has TDP of 45W compared to P8800‘s 25W.

Third, there is no more SuperDrive (ODD)! Apple is distributing nearly all of their software through Mac App Store now (including new OS versions), reducing the need for an optical drive.. This move is logical and I wouldn’t be surprised to see MBPs following Mac mini. There is always the option of an external ODD if you really, really need one.

Some of the BTO options are also new. The base model gets the option for a 750GB 7200rpm HDD but the high-end and server model can sport a 256GB SSD. That alone isn’t a big deal but the high-end Mini has an option for a 750GB HDD + 256GB SSD. That's not a big surprise given that the ODD is gone now so there is space for a second 2.5” HDD. Whether there will be a second SATA port in one-drive configurations is still unknown but that would leave the option of a 3rd party SSD as a boot drive. The high-end Mini also offers an optional i7-2620M (2.7GHz dual core).

All in all, the 2011 Mac mini update is a good one. There are several welcome additions to the lineup, such as a discrete GPU. The prices are a lot more reasonable now too. Before, it made very little sense to buy Mini because a few hundred more got you an iMac with better specs and IPS panel. At $599, the Mac mini makes sense and is a great option for a first time Mac buyer.

The updated Mac mini comes with Lion pre-installed (Lion Server in server model) and is available from the Apple Online Store with estimated shipping time of 24 hours.

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  • triclops41 - Wednesday, July 20, 2011 - link

    they shoulda used llano,
    much better for a system like this than sandy bridge.
    Reply
  • TheAbsintheHare - Wednesday, July 20, 2011 - link

    Pretty sure they have a contract to stick with Intel. Reply
  • 996GT2 - Wednesday, July 20, 2011 - link

    Why? Mobile Llano has less CPU performance than the 2C/4T mobile Core i5s and considerably less CPU performance than the 4C/8T i7-2635QM.

    Sure, the GPU performance is a little better, but does that really matter for a Mac Mini? I doubt many people are going to be buying Mac Minis with the intention of using them as gaming machines. I'd rather take the much better CPU performance of Mobile Sandy Bridge and the lower power consumption.
    Reply
  • FITCamaro - Wednesday, July 20, 2011 - link

    Because the CPU performance is plenty good for the task and then you wouldn't need a discrete GPU to get decent GPU performance. Thus saving on space and producing less heat. Reply
  • joe_dude - Wednesday, July 20, 2011 - link

    Either AMD A8 for HTPC or SFF, or go with a mini gaming PC with a real video card at those prices. Reply
  • zxnczxcn - Sunday, July 24, 2011 - link

    I also was confused about that. There is literally NO ROOM for anything in these boxes.

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    Reply
  • thesix - Wednesday, July 20, 2011 - link

    Wish Sandy Bridge CPU and a discrete GPU, in such as small box, I wonder how stable it is ... Reply
  • tipoo - Wednesday, July 20, 2011 - link

    Well, its not built for 24/7 maxed loads, but the Mini hasn't had issues with heat in the past that I know of so the update shouldn't change that, but we'll know soon enough.

    Speaking of which, anyone know if they will use graphics switching in the Mini? Its disabled in the iMac's.
    Reply
  • quiksilvr - Wednesday, July 20, 2011 - link

    I also was confused about that. There is literally NO ROOM for anything in these boxes.

    The price is better but with no Superdrive it should be $499 for the mid range model and no low model. I detest companies that do this. Here are some examples of the nonsense here:

    1) You want a faster processor? Well shell $200 more for the mid range model.
    2) Want a SSD? You can't on the lower, spend $200 more just to get the option.
    3) Want dual hard dives? You can't on lower, spend $200 more...

    What a load of crap. Just sell the mid range model for $499 and push your competitors. Right now Mac Mini is a laughing stock and although it's improved, it has a ways to go.
    Reply
  • ShoePuke - Wednesday, July 20, 2011 - link

    Agree. Problem is the Mac sycophants will eat it up. Just like the iPad2 (which was iPad1.5 really). Reply

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