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Apple’s Mac mini Upgrade Widens Its Entertainment Options – OWC RAM Upgrades
The Seattle Times
March 28, 2009
By Glenn Fleishman
Original Article Link: http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/practicalmac/2008938480_ptmacc28.html

Apple's entire line of desktop Macs was bumped up in performance and capability in early March when the company unleashed new models of iMac, Mac mini, and Mac Pro. Only the Mac mini was truly overhauled, a much-needed refresh to a computer smaller than, but the same weight as, Neal Stephenson's latest hardcover. The iMac and Mac Pro received moderate to significant improvements in speed, base options and expandability.

The Mac mini tends to parallel the features and performance of the same-generation iBook or MacBook. Before this month, the Mac mini was stuck in 2007; now it's a reasonable part of the iMac and Mac Pro family, while being a viable option as a home entertainment hub.

The Mac mini still starts at $599 for a system very similar in specification to the $1,299 MacBook; the lack of battery, durability, and integral display most of the price difference.

I own two minis, neither of which has a real "head": One functions as a backup server in a co-location facility near Tukwila; the other is a home-entertainment system mostly controlled using screen-sharing software. I'm partial to the size but have been eager for a faster machine with more expansion.

After testing the new mini for a few weeks, it's clear that it's a good choice for anyone with existing monitors who wants to upgrade a computer set up, or who isn't interested in Apple's built-in displays in the iMac series.

Like newer MacBooks, all MacBook Pros, and recent generations of iMac, the Mac mini can now handle two monitors either as distinct displays or for mirroring through two video outputs. One uses a mini-DVI connector; the other, Mini DisplayPort.

DisplayPort is a relatively new industry standard Apple has jumped on wholeheartedly, building into the latest versions of the MacBook, MacBook Pro, and Mac Pro in its compact Mini DisplayPort variant. Few monitors yet support either the full-sized or Mini DisplayPort, so you'll need an adapter to use that second jack.

The Mac mini comes with a mini-DVI to full-sized DVI adapter, and can push out up to 1,900 by 1,200 pixels on that port. The Mini DisplayPort can drive a monitor up to 2,560 by 1,600 pixels, which includes Apple's $1,799 30-inch Cinema HD Display. Any non-DisplayPort connection requires a separately purchased adapter: $29 for either DVI or VGA, or $99 for a dual-link adapter required for the 30-inch monitor.

Several studies have shown that using larger monitors or multiple monitors can improve productivity by an alarming degree, sometimes allowing a set of tasks to be accomplished in one-third less time. I've grown so used to two 19-inch displays at work that when I try to get something done on my MacBook, it feels like someone cut off one of my arms.

The main difference beyond processor speed between the Mac mini and the revamped iMacs is memory: a Mac mini maxes out at 4 GB of RAM, which is fine for nearly all ordinary programs, but would be restrictive for those who use routinely work with large image or video files. The new iMac models can accept up to 8 GB of RAM.

Of course, graphics and video professionals would likely turn to the new Mac Pro (now starting at $2,499) for its far faster processing power, and options for more and bigger monitors. The latest Mac Pro can handle up to 32 GB of RAM, too.

As always, I recommend consulting a third party for RAM and hard-drive upgrades. Apple charges an extra $150 for 4GB RAM and $175 to include a 320 GB drive. From Other World Computing, the same options are about $60 and $100, and you get the 1 GB RAM and 120 GB drive that Apple ships, which you could resell. The Mac mini isn't a walk in the park to disassemble for upgrades; Other World offers free how-to videos at macsales.com.

As a hub for watching video, playing music and even playing games, the mini can use a DVI-to-HDMI adapter to power an HDTV set. Using a wireless keyboard, game controllers and an Apple Remote (sold separately for $19), you would have a pretty good array of choices.

Amazon (purchase and rentals) and Netflix (subscription) now stream via the Mac but require a fast-enough processor to handle video, which the mini has. Add to that Boxee (which provides a TV-like interface to Web video sources), Hulu.com and network TV streaming sites, and Drive-In for storing full DVD images on a hard drive, and you're only leaving actual broadcast and cable TV behind. (Get an eyeTV in one of various models to handle that gap.)

And don't forget the iTunes Store, either.

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