As long as you're not looking for gaming gusto, you'll find the Apple Mac mini (*Est. $600 and up) one saucy, sturdy performer. The entry-level Apple computer now boasts a 2.5 GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor, a 500 GB hard drive, integrated Intel HD Graphics 4000 and 4 GB of memory. There's little it can't do for general users and in most multimedia applications. One disappointment: Where last year's Mac mini allowed for at least a little gaming boost in the form of a discrete AMD Radeon graphics option, that's missing this year.
With its small (about 8 inches square) brushed-aluminum shell, the Mac mini stays true to its minimalist history. Though compact, it offers a good array of connections. You get four USB 3.0 ports, Ethernet, FireWire, HDMI output, a Thunderbolt port and a full-sized SD memory card slot, along with 802.11n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. An HDMI-to-DVI adapter is also included.
The blissfully silent Mac mini would seem to be an ideal home theater PC (HTPC) save for one flaw -- the lack of an integrated optical drive. If you still use physical media (Blu-ray Discs or DVDs), that means you'll need to rely on another device (either a stand-alone disc player or an external Blu-ray Disc/DVD drive that's connected to the Mac mini via USB) for that.
In addition, don't search for a monitor, keyboard or mouse in the box. They've never been part of the Mac mini package and here Apple hews to tradition.
For those with a little more to spend, a step-up Mac mini boosts the processor to an Intel Core i7, the hard drive to 1 TB, and the bottom line to around $800. It also opens the door to Apple's lightning fast Fusion drive, which marries a 1 TB traditional hard drive and a 128 GB solid-state drive. Critics love the Fusion drive, but at $1,050, the resulting configuration's price falls outside of the boundaries of a cheap desktop computer.