Whither Mac Mini?

Apple has been manufacturing the Intel-powered MacMini for three years now. All this time it has been using the Intel GMA 950 integrated graphics processor. The GMA 950 was considered underpowered even in 2006*, but by today’s standards it is seriously lacking. Compare to the MacBook’s graphic chip, which has been upgraded twice:

  • May 2006 MacBook: Intel GMA 950
  • November 2007 MacBook: Intel GMA X3100
  • October 2008 MacBook: Nvidia GeForce 9400M

In many ways the MacMini is an ideal machine. It’s inexpensive (for a mac) and blissfully quiet. I used to enthusiastically recommend them to fiends and family. I can’t recommend them now. Why pay $800 (or $600 without a DVD writer) for a MacMini with four-year-old integrated graphics when $1000 buys a white MacBook and $1200 buys a 20″ iMac?

The MacBook has much more capable graphics than the Mini. Also a keyboard, pointing device, integrated display, and battery are included. Even for those that plan to use their own keyboard, mouse, and display it probably makes sense to buy a white MacBook (and just leave the lid closed) than to buy a MacMini for $200 less.

The next version of OSX (Mac OS X.6 “Snow Leopard”) is due this spring. There are indications that Apple considers GeForce 9400M graphics to be essentially the minimum requirement to run Snow Leopard properly. These are unsubstantiated, but Snow Leopard includes OpenCL technology which is designed to make the power trapped in the machine’s graphics cores available for non-graphical tasks. It remains to be seen how heavily OpenCL will be utilized in Snow Leoard, but the Mini is now the only Mac sold with anything less than GeForce 9400M graphics.

Because the Mini has such antiquated graphics, there have been many upgrade rumors. None of them have panned out so far. The most recent one is from December: an OSX kernal extension file refers to a new MacMini with an Nvidia MCP79 chipset, which would indicate GeForce 9400M graphics. So some Apple watchers are predicting new MacMinis any week now, but they don’t know for sure. I guess we’ll see.

*Way back in May 2005 ExtremeTech wrote:

We can state flatly that if you buy a system using Intel’s GMA950 integrated graphics and want to play 3D games, invest at least $60 in an add-on card. If what you want is simply a system that can run standard office software, plus maybe play some DVD movies, then Intel’s new graphics core is probably suitable.

You might wonder what the point is of putting all the engineering effort into the 3D core, if it sucks so badly at games?