Whither the optical drive? Apple has introduced the high-speed Thunderbolt port and a welcome CPU update to its latest iteration of the Mac Mini desktop, but the absent DVD burner in the newest model may stall purchases from those who like the Mac Mini chiefly as a home theater PC. While most software, and many movies are available for direct download, this move effectively out-modes the DVD collection of anyone interested in using the new Mac Mini in the living room.
For those who want to use the Mac Mini as a more traditional computer, the new software and hardware features will have more appeal. Buyers should welcome the update to Apple's new, well-reviewed OS X Lion operating system. The new, second-generation Intel Core i5 and Core i7 CPU updates should also help the Mac Mini stay competitive in terms of performance.
The benefits of the Mac Mini's new Thunderbolt port will be less obvious to consumers. Apple's new Thunderbolt Display can of course take advantage of the new port, but other Thunderbolt devices are either more specialized, like the $2,000 2TB Pegasus RAID array, or have yet to materialize. The updated $999 server edition of the Mac Mini fits logically with products like the Pegasus array. Buyers of the standard Mac Minis may have a harder time putting Thunderbolt to immediate use, but they can at least be thankful that Apple didn't add Thunderbolt at the expense of the HDMI port.
In all, Apple seems to have a two-pronged strategy with the new Mac Minis. The new operating system and CPUs come as relatively routine updates; leaving off the optical drive and adding Thunderbolt advances Apple's agendas in content and connectivity. With a new $599 starting price for the entry-level Mac Mini, Apple can claim some magnanimity from adding such a forward-looking feature alongside a price drop. We expect that those with large DRM-locked DVD collections would happily trade the new Mac Mini's Thunderbolt port for an optical drive.
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