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Mac mini: Surprisingly powerful and affordable

If you want a new Apple desktop but can't spend $1,200, your only option is the Mac mini. The good news is that it is now a very viable alternative.

The diminutive Mac mini was updated in 2012 to include Ivy Bridge technology and, as an option, Fusion Drive technology. That, along with earlier upgrades, has helped the Mac mini evolve from being the also-ran option for the second computer in a household into a force to be reckoned with in its own right. As with other Apple desktops, rumors suggest that a further upgrade to Intel Haswell processors should be expected in the not-too-distant future.

There are two options available among current Mac minis, including a 2.5 GHz model (Est. $600 and up). This configuration comes with a 2.5 GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 Ivy Bridge processor, 4 GB of RAM, a 500 GB hard drive and Intel HD 4000 integrated graphics.

Most review the stepped-up version (Est. $800 and up), however, which upgrades the processor and hard drive to a 2.3 GHz quad-core Intel Core i7 processor and a 1 TB hard drive, respectively. Many take that a step further by opting for a 1 TB Fusion Drive. That brings the configuration to a not-so-entry-level Est. $1,050, but leaves users with a blisteringly fast performer that can handle most tasks, short of high-end gaming and professional graphics work. Alas, where last year's mini offered the option of discrete AMD Radeon graphics, this year's version only allows for the Intel HD Graphics 4000 that is part of Intel's Ivy Bridge technology.

The mini is generally well equipped for its price tag, with some caveats. Connectivity is excellent, including Ethernet, Wi-Fi (a/b/g/n) and Bluetooth. You also will find a FireWire port, four USB 3.0 slots, audio in and audio out connections, an SDXC card slot, a Thunderbolt port and, at long last, an HDMI output. The attractive aluminum enclosure is largely unchanged from that of its predecessor, as is its major shortfall -- the lack of any kind of optical drive. The Mac mini also comes sans a monitor, but that's true of most traditional desktop computers, including Windows machines. You'll also need to bring your own keyboard and pointing device (mouse, trackpad, etc.) to the party, but the peripherals packaged with most competing desktop systems aren't of that high a quality to begin with.

At the end of the day, critics generally say that if an all-in-one doesn't float your boat, the Mac mini is your best choice for an Apple desktop. In addition, comparing Apples to apples, many reviews say that the Mac mini, whether in its base or stepped-up configurations, delivers the same level of performance as price-competitive Windows machines -- something that's not traditionally thought of when talking about Apple products.

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