There's more to the changes in the updated Mac mini than meets the eye. The small form-factor desktop looks exactly the same, but even the $599 base model now includes much better graphics, a faster Intel Core 2 Duo processor, 1GB of memory, a larger hard drive, 802.11n wireless and a DVD burner. Look closely and you'll also notice it has a whole new set of ports including five USB 2.0, FireWire 800, and Mini-DVI and Mini-DisplayPort.
All of this adds up to much more capable SFF desktop, according to several recent reviews. The graphics performance is many times better than the old Mac mini. It can handle two displays or even drive the 30-inch Apple Cinema Display at its full 2560x1600 resolution (though I'm not sure how many people would pair a $599 desktop with an $1,800 display). The 5,400rpm drive still slow things down a bit, but overall the new Mac mini is clearly a much better multi-tasker. Finally, though it's tough say whether it's really the "world's most energy-efficient desktop," as Apple claims, based on testing by CNET.com and PC Magazine, it is certainly right at the top of the list.
Of course you'd expect major improvements from a desktop that was last updated in August 2007. The question is how it stacks up to current Windows PCs. This depends on how you look at it. If you think of the Mac mini as a nettop that competes with the likes of the Asus EeeBox PC, it looks pretty good. The Mac mini costs more than most netttops, but it also has far better features and performance than any Atom-based desktop.
If you compare to other SFF desktops, however, the Mac mini doesn't stack up as well. For the same price, you can get an Acer Aspire X1700 series with a 2.66GHz Core 2 Duo E7300, 4GB of memory, Nvidia GeForce G100, 750GB hard drive, DVD burner, 802.11n and Windows Vista. (I chose a similar model for ZDNet's Holiday Gift Guide.) And with the Mac mini you'd still need to a keyboard and mouse, for $98, and a set of speakers, which start at $50 on Apple's site. Throw in the Apple Remote--now a $19 option-and the total system price for the base Mac mini is $766. Of course, it almost goes without saying that you'll get a lot more for the money with a standard tower PC than with any SFF desktop including the Mac mini.
Apple knows all this, and that is why the company positions the Mac mini as the least expensive way to get your hands on Mac OS X and the recently-released iLife '09--the first time the Mac mini has been "truly capable of handling the iLife suite," according to Macworld. So like with most Macs, the decision really comes down to how much value you attach to the Apple software.
Apple Mac mini reviews: