As long as you're not looking for gaming gusto, you'll find the current Apple Mac mini (Est. $600 and up) one saucy, sturdy performer. The entry-level Apple computer now boasts a 2.5 GHz dual-core 3rd generation 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. A couple of disappointments: Where the previous Mac mini allowed for at least a little gaming boost in the form of a discrete AMD Radeon graphics option, that's missing from the current version. Also, the mini is still waiting for an upgrade to 4th generation Intel processors.
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 adheres to tradition.
For those with a little more to spend, a step-up Mac mini boosts the processor to a 3rd generation 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. Fusion is Apple's take on a hybrid drive design that marries a traditional spinning hard drive and a lightning-fast SSD (solid-state drive). The SSD portion holds 128 GB of the most-often-used content -- files and applications -- so access is very fast, with the rest going onto the slower-spinning platter. It also serves to speed up boot times.
Long before all-in-one computers were such a "thing" in the PC world, Apple had its iMac. That all-in-one has also grown greatly from its roots to become one of the best-regarded systems of its kind. True, touch is still missing, but it's not missed by the majority of users since Apple's OS X has yet to follow Windows 8 down that twisty road.
Apple's latest iMac refresh was modest. That's perfectly fine, as the earlier iMacs were widely praised by experts and users. Changes upped the CPUs to 4th generation Intel Core processors, added some new storage options, and added support for the latest Wi-Fi standard (IEEE 802.11ac).
Performance remains terrific. The base 27-inch iMac (Est. $1,800 and up) includes a 4th generation Intel Core i5 processor, 8 GB of memory, a 1 TB hard drive, Nvidia GeForce GT 755M graphics with 1 GB of graphics memory, and a 27-inch display with 2560-by-1440-pixel resolution. The step-up iMac (Est. $2,000 and up) boosts the processor to a slightly faster Intel Core i5 and graphics to an Nvidia GeForce GTX 775M graphics processor with 2 GB of memory. However, its real benefit is increased upgrade options not available on the base version. Among those is an optional processor upgrade to an Intel Core i7 (Est. $200) and a graphics upgrade to discrete Nvidia GeForce GTX 780M graphics with 4 GB of dedicated graphics memory (Est. $150).
Storage options have been increased in both versions. The base hard drive is 1 TB, though that can be upped to 3 TB (Est. $150). You can also upgrade the drive to Apple's Fusion drive in 1 TB (Est. $200) and 3 TB (Est. $350) capacities. Solid-state drives ranging from 256 GB (Est. $200) to 1 TB (Est. $1,000) are also offered.
If you don't need quite so much horsepower or quite as large a screen, the 21-inch iMac (Est. $1,300 and up) also draws some praise, but also a few more quibbles. The screen size is cut to 21.5 inches and the resolution is reduced to 1920 by 1080 pixels. You also get a slower Core i5 processor than the one found in the base 27-inch configuration (2.7 GHz versus 3.2 GHz) and integrated Intel Iris Pro graphics.
Like the 27-inch version, the 21-inch iMac offers a step-up version (Est. $1,500 and up) with better specs. Processor speed is upped to 2.9 GHz, and you can opt for a Core i7 processor. The integrated graphics are replaced by discrete Nvidia GeForce GT 750M graphics with 1GB of dedicated memory. Both versions come with a 1 TB standard hard drive, but can be upgraded to a 1 TB Fusion drive or flash storage (256 GB or 512 GB) at purchase. Note that aside from the memory on the top-of-the-line 27-inch iMac, virtually nothing else on either iMac is user accessible, upgradable or repairable, so it's best to be realistic about what you need from your computer at the time of ordering.
Regardless of which version you opt for, you do get the same absolutely stunning design, carried over from the previous version. At first glance the computer looks impossibly thin, and it measures just 5 mm at its edge. There is a bit of a bump at the back (to house the computer part of the iMac, of course), something Apple failed to mention when touting this computer's profile at its launch. Critics were quick to pounce on that, but many softened their stance when they saw the computer in person.
While the Mac mini and the iMac are either unchanged or minimally changed, the Mac Pro (Est. $3,000 and up) finally received its long-anticipated makeover -- and it's a huge one. Inside and out, there's nothing about the Mac Pro that will remind you of any other desktop computer.
"Apple's new Mac Pro is a stunningly fresh take on the desktop computer. But it's probably not for you," says CNET's Dan Ackerman.
That's because it bypasses consumer-grade components (such as Intel Core processors) in favor of professional-grade components such as Intel Xeon E5 processors -- "a workstation class processor, designed to offer plenty of raw processing power," says PCMag.com's Brian Westover.
The Mac Pro also sports two professional-grade AMD FirePro graphics cards. "Unlike consumer graphics cards, which are optimized for gaming and multimedia, professional GPUs are designed to offer powerful and reliable processing for media editing and creation programs, engineering tools like CAD, and to also drive multiple displays for enhanced productivity," Westover notes.
Testing reveals the Mac Pro to be a speedy performer in all regards, but whether it's worth its premium price over other systems or even the older Mac Pro depends on the user and the usage. Macworld finds mixed results in its testing, depending on the benchmark. Dan Frakes says that applications that can take the best advantage of the multi-core design of the Xeon E5 will likely see the biggest performance boosts. "Indeed, if you look at Apple's webpage on performance, the company touts the new Mac Pro for video editing, 3-D modeling and animation, photography, design and layout, audio production, and science -- all areas of computing where multi-core processors and/or high-end, high-resolution displays are key," he says.
Of course, there's also the design. "The tabletop-size cylinder design has been described as resembling everything from a small beer keg to a jet engine to a kitchen composter, each clad in gleaming Darth Vader black," Ackerman says. He also says that the interior volume is only a tenth of that of the old Mac Pro. Opening the case is easy, but unlike previous Mac Pros, doing very much of anything once the case is removed isn't. Other than the memory slots and the flash storage drives, getting to other components will be a challenge. There is an abundance of expansion ports, including six Thunderbolt ports and four USB ports.