Intel Mac Mini’s GPU (Video Chipset)

Update (Post-Ars): Arstechnica has done a thorough review of the Intel Mac Mini with the Core Solo processor; the entry level machine.. As usual, their analysis includes lots and lots and benchmarks (starting on page 4 of the review).

Update #3: I’m sticking this up at the top. A cup of has cinebench benchmarks comparing the G4 Mac Mini with an Intel Core Solo based mini. Significantly faster across the boards, save for the Hard GL metric, which is about 20% slower. However, the Soft GL metric is slightly more than twice as fast (and faster than the G4’s Hard GL).

For the obvious impaired: This update does not claim that the Mini is a smokin’ fast graphics engine. Not at all. It is a significant upgrade over the prior G4 based model. That combined with the interesting graphics capabilities of the GMA950 make for a lot of interesting potential.

And, before anyone asks, I have no idea as to how Mac OS X leverages the GMA950, nor the details of how the chipset is wired into the system.

After this morning’s announcement of a new Mac Mini sporting an Intel CPU, I had a look at the machine’s specifications.

I was a bit surprised to see the video chip listed as Intel GMA950 graphics processor with 64MB of DDR2 SDRAM shared with main memory with a footnote indicating that the GPU will potentially consume more main memory as graphics demands are increased.

Wait. On-board video? That seems kind of lame.

So, I had a look at Intel’s GMA950 chipset overview.

OK. Not so lame. Clearly, the Mac Mini is not intended to deliver 3D gaming performance comparable to the iMac or MacBook Pro.

It is, however, designed to deliver absolutely smokin’ video playback to displays more traditionally found in the home; TVs, home theaters, etc…

The marketing materials have a relatively lengthy session devoted to connecting the Mac Mini to various kinds of TVs. It also implies that the whole thing can take a bit of futzing to get right.

The chipset includes support for regular and HD playback, with the ability to up/down scale video content, as necessary. And it isn’t limited to a single stream of HD as it can simultaneously decode and display two streams. It can also handle pretty much any standard HD resolution in both interlaced and progressive scan mode (including 1080p) and it also natively supports both 16:9 and 16:10 aspect ratio displays.

Neat. I really hope the DVD player on my entertainment center finally stops playing discs soon as the mac mini would now make a perfect replacement.

Minor update: Let me restate a couple of obvious points. (1) I know that the chipset is not well suited for rippin’ 3D gaming action. (2) The features I describe are in the chipset that the mac mini uses. The potential is there, I have no idea to exactly what degree Tiger and/or the Mini leverages said features. (3) Yes, it is on-board video. It uses system resources. It is all about the cost proposition!

Update: KCD was kind enough to chime in with some very specific details about the system’s GPU capabilities in the comments. Read it — I learned quite a bit from it!

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67 Responses to “Intel Mac Mini’s GPU (Video Chipset)”

  1. bbum says:

    The reports from various Core Duo owners indicate the same, Frank.

    And –yes — I would agree. The Core Solo is truly an entry level machine. Given that the on board video will put a greater demand on the CPU, there is no doubt that a Core Duo based Mini has significantly better graphics performance potential.

    It is also clear that the Mini is going to require a bit of tuning on the part of 3D gaming engine makers.

  2. Marty says:

    It is also clear that the Mini is going to require a bit of tuning on the part of 3D gaming engine makers.

    Ick… I’m not holding my breath. On the PC side where the game market is huge, few of the higher-demand 3D games even bother to support non-ATI/nVideo chip sets. My friend, who has a relatively new PC with onboard video (one which does support 3D, by the way) says half of today’s “modern games” — shooters mostly — won’t even run correctly on his machine. PC game companies are treated users with lower end graphics as throw-aways.

    Now consider the Mac gaming market… It’s near impossible to even get many games ported to our side, and now the porting houses will have to do extra work to support decent frame rates on the Minis? Somehow, I doubt it will happen. The porting houses are on paper thin margins with short development timelines as it is. It doesn’t make much business sense to spend the extra development dollars to support a small subset of their already too small audience.

    I hope I’m wrong.

  3. Marty says:

    oh by the above comment: I’m not implying the games won’t run on the Mini… but they probably won’t have any optimization for it, so framerates will continue to suck in 3D games.

  4. Arsch Krapfen says:

    Intel Chipset-Graphics Core Image performance is about 1/2 to 1/3rd of a Radeon 9600, so far the BY FAR worst and slowest CI-capable GPU there was. So have fun with Imaginator, this thing just SUCKS hard, even Unreal Tournament runs slower than on the measly 9200 the G4 Mac mini had!…

    But hey, it does the water ripple effect in dashboard! \o/ That’s about it concerning its Core Image oomph, but who needs more, really?

    Have fun running aperture or Motion on this thing…

  5. Arsch Krapfen says:

    “In terms of raw bandwidth for simple fill rate stuff, the new Mac Mini is great, and fill rate is still the most important thing for day to day app usage.”

    No, it sucks. Alot. Core Image is almost completely fillrate- (and pipeline) dominated, and -again- a Radeon 9600, really really really old Entry-level-GPU, also with FOUR Pipelines, just like the GMA950, is TWICE to THREE TIMES faster in Core Image! Compare for yourself using iMaginator if you don’t believe me!

    If you’re really an Apple developer, you better do your homework. EVERYBODY (read Anandtech, Tomshardware etc) knows that integrated GPUs are ESPECIALLY bad with regards to fillrate! This can be easily proven when you scale the resolution up: Chipset-GPUs go bellyup faster than you can say “shared memory”, while dedicated GPUs, even really old ones, atleast scale to 800×600 or 1024×768 in most games!

    Dudes, look at what the GMA950 is: It doesn’t even have Vertexshaders, ALL Vertex-calculations are handed off to the CPU! Why? Easy: Intel makes CPUs and wants people to buy faster ones, they’ve ALWAYS hated that the focus for performance shifted away from CPUs to GPUs in the first place during recent years! So the GMA950 is nothing more than Intels try to get some of the functionality that has moved onto GPUs (e.g. geometry processing like Vertexshaders!) in recent years BACK onto the CPU!
    This is why they offer it so cheaply, so system builders rather opt for a faster CPU and tell customers they won’t need any more anyway than spending more dough on a dedicated GPU+VRAM!

    The really funny thing is that Nvidias and ATIs chipset GPUs whoop the GMA950s ass BIGTIME! This may be due to the fact that both ATI nor Nvidia have a need to force-feed people with faster CPUs. So Apple didn’t just opt for sucky chipset gfx, no, they also chose the WORST Chipset gfx there is! We’re talking over THREE TIMES slower than a Nvidia 6200 with Turbocache or ATI X300 Hypermemory!

    Look here if you don’t believe me:

    “An *entry-level* Mac. What are people expecting – for Apple to shoot themselves in the foot by coming up with something that beats the current dual-core Powermacs at a quarter of the price?”

    What I expect? Balanced system design, as i am used to from Apple! But now with Intel they seem to be hell-bent on throwing a Core Duo into everything and flogging SPEC-numbers, COMPLETELY neglecting system balance! What do i need Dualcore for when i have such a sucking GPU? Cinema4D rendering, but not modelling? Games, that don’t run ONLY on a fast CPU? Just forget it!
    A Core Solo for all Mac minis but an age-old ultra-cheap Radeon 9600 64MB instead of the GMA950 would have been MUCH MUCH faster in *anything* that uses 3D _and_ even stuff like Core Image! But then again ATI prolly couldn’t be arsed to port the drivers for such an old card, and Apple did have the GMA-drivers from the developer kit already…

    “They’ve already done that with the new iMac, and *still* people are not happy!”

    WTF are you talking about? G5 Dual 2GHz is $2000, Dual 2.3 GHz is $2500. iMac Dual 1.83 GHz is $1300 and Dual 2GHz is $1700. In how far is this “four times”???

    “Synthetic benchmarks like fillrate and shader performance can be misleading, thus we need to see how the Intel Mac mini handles real applications like UT2004 and WoW for example.”

    According to Macworld testing, the Intel mac mini is SLOWER than the old Mac mini in UT2004!
    UT 2004 Mac Mini Core Duo 1.66 GHz: 12.2 fps
    UT 2004 Mac Mini Core Solo 1.5 GHz: 10.4 fps
    UT 2004 Mac Mini G4 1.42 GHz: 14.5 fps
    UT 2004 Mac Mini G5 1.25 GHz: 13.9 fps

    So much for that…

    Dudes, Apple paid $50 for the G4 1.25 GHz according to iSuppli. They’re paying around $240 for the Core Duo, also according to iSuppli! And we’re talking about a machine with a $500 pricepoint here! Apple cheaped out on the GPU and VRAM to atleast save it’s already drowining margins a LITTLE bit at least, plain and simple! Just forget all your talk about “appealing to target groups” etc….

    “For example, the Intel Mac Mini can readily display 1080p HD streams without dropping frames (as is now being reported from many sources). The original Mac Mini could not.”

    Well, atleast the original mac mini could play UT2k4! What do you think more people do:

    [ ] watch Quicktime H.264 Trailers in 1920×1080 on their $2000 LCD they attached to their $600 computer all day long (because that’s about the only source for 1080p H.264-material currently and will be for some time!)
    [ ] play a game every now and then

    “Huh? I guess you weren’t paying attention when Steve said “HD HD HD HD” about fifty million times in the last year.”

    Well, contrary to you we’re aware what EFFORTS on Apple’s side this actually meant: iMovie can now do HD. In Apples MPEG2-based Intermediate Codec (which the old Mac mini could play just fine), not H.264. Grrreat! That’s it?

  6. Ralph says:

    @ A.K.: apart from your oh-so-funny nickname, you are kind of contradicting yourself here:

    “What do i need Dualcore for when i have such a sucking GPU?” and

    “So the GMA950 is nothing more than Intels try to get some of the functionality that has moved onto GPUs (…) BACK onto the CPU!”

    So what might be the point of having an really good, powerful CPU inside the mini? You were kind enough to provide the answer straight away, think about it…

    “So have fun with Imaginator, this thing just SUCKS hard…”

    Have you actually _tried_ it before posting this flame? I certainly will before starting to whine in the presence of people with more first-hand knowledge than those who post things like “this must be so, I’ve read the BENCHMARKS ON THE INTARWEB!”.

    I don’t really care about game performance, and I’ll wait and see if the Mini can do everything I want.

    If you want to play games, spend 150 EUR on a PlayStation, then you get more than enough games. Seriously, I’ve never heard of anybody who buys a Mac for gaming.

    But I assume you would be more than happy to play UT 2004 @ 14.5 fps on a G4 mini, wouldn’t you? Of course, that’s certainly much better for real gamers…

    Maybe kcd is kind enough to provide some more information about CoreImage performance on the CoreDuo mini? Could you check out iMaginator or whatever comes your way that does a bit more than the ripple effect?

  7. Luke says:

    I’ve read a whole bunch of intemperate stuff posted here. A Krapfen seems particularly worked up about 3d performance.

    I have bought several mac minis. None of them do *any* complex 3d stuff at all, some are headless tiny servers (scripts and command-line tools ahoy!) some are attached to TVs for home theater, some are workstations. For my purposes, the new minis are a HUGE WIN. The older ones were better for you? Buy them on ebay as people like me upgrade.

    You seem to have forgotten that there are a lot of us who are much better off. Not that it means that you shouldn’t be unhappy that you’re worse off. But Apple’s market research is might have led them to some trade-offs which suit a lot more people than you think.

    Or, to put it another way, why should I pay an extra $50 for something I’ll never use so that you can get an extra 4fps in a UT? Answers, questions, comments are more than welcome 🙂

  8. In-side » links for 2006-03-02 says:

    […] bbum’s weblog-o-mat » Blog Archive » Intel Mac Mini’s Video Card bbum’s take on the Mac Mini’s GMA950 chipset (tags: mac macmini mini gma950 bbum intel video front_row) […]

  9. Chris says:

    I have a theory why people get irate about the Mac Mini GPU. It’s because everyone is out looking for the best “deal”. They want maximum bang for their buck. What Apple has gone and done is snatched a the “perfect” deal right out of their hands. If they had just tossed in a middle of the road 128mb video card in there then their dreams would have been made reality. Instead, they took the perfect machine and castrated / spayed / neutered it. (pick your term) There is no hope even of buying a Mini and upgrading the graphics on it. They are forced (cruelly and maliciously) to choose a machine farther up the product line (by the evil Apple).

    Now, I have a Mac Mini Core Duo here serving up my text to you now. I love it. I love the fact that I get full operation of Core Image and I can run my 1600 x 1200 display without maxing out the video memory buffer like the old Mini would have done. The only thing I don’t like about it at the moment is that I am bumping into the 512MB ram limit constantly, and I’m used to opening up a mitfull of apps and work on them simultaneously. Other than that, this thing is waaay faster than my old powerbook G4 1.5ghz. It is jaw dropping. I’m thrilled.

    I can definitely sympathize with those that don’t like the GPU. I feel the pain, but I know that I don’t NEED anything more than this. It fits.

    Now, I think that those who are railing against the GPU might want to sit back and marvel at the marketing pefection that Apple is crafting. It’s like an upward slippery slope. There has to be limitations to make you want to go up to the next step:

    Not satisfied with the Core Solo.. gotta get the Core Duo…
    Not satisfied with the GPU… gota go with an iMac…
    C’mon 17 inches is so .. early 2000’s! I have to at least get 20.
    20 inches.. yeah.. Oh, but just a couple more bucks and I’ve got a 2.xGhz! …
    Oh.. but wait, I can’t lug that thing around…
    Hey. MACBOOK PRO!!
    Oh.. but not 1.8ghz…. … that’s not even 2!

    It’s a totally natural progression of desire. I suspect that most people who drool over Mac updates tend to settle their desires there on the MacBook. Brilliant. Across the line there are no competing products, each different level /category has only one product with the “low end” and the “high end” models. Focussed like a laser.

    Anyway, if you want total control to get a computer to fit your precise, unique, tastes and desires… don’t look to Apple. It’s impossible to be both focussed and diffuse.

    And don’t expect any business to come along and hand you the perfect deal. The economy doesn’t work that way. Why waste your time searching for it? It’s not on eBay, Amazon, PriceGrabber, the flea market, It’s not there because all of those people are looking to get the perfect deal from YOU.

    Now, if I can just find me 2GB of RAM for my Mini for under $200 THEN I’ll be happy!

  10. Frank says:

    Yet another person thinking the solution to the poor gfx problem in the mini, is to get an iMac 🙂

  11. No No says:

    JCR said “the TV apparently can’t take 1080p over the HDMI ports for some reason”. More details: My Sony KDL-40XBR2 (1080p LCD TV), when connected with a DVI->HDMI cable (bought at Radio Snack) will only show 1920×1080 *interlaced* in System Preferences/Displays. However, if you hook the Sony-supplied VGA (HD15) cable to the “PC” input on the Sony TV (and Apple’s supplied DVI->VGA converter wedge), it shows 1920×1080, without the “interlaced” notation! Seems backward to me, i.e. the HDMI connectioni should perform better. But the PC input is rock solid, and looks better than interlaced HDMI input, which chews on the fonts while deinterlacing.

    (Note to anybody who nevertheless chooses to use the HDMI input: Unless you want to turn off the “overscan” option on the Mac Mini (thus leaving a black border on-screen), you must tell the Sony TV to use “Full Pixel” mode on the HDMI input, else it will chop off the edges. And because 1920×1080(interlaced) looks so bad, you really have to choose 1600×900 to use the HDMI input. Looks great, but you get more screen real estate the other way. Also, though you can edit the HDMI source name label to “Mac Mini”, the VGA input is hardwired to be called “PC”. Cope…)

    I know this comment is way late, but the next person who Googles “mac mini won’t display 1080p” will at least get a little more help here!

  12. bbum says:

    Not late at all and this is exactly why I don’t shut off comments on older posts.

    If you happen to read this, THANK YOU for the additional info. Very much appreciated.

  13. JE says:

    i have a mac mini display problem, that maybe is worth mentioning….it’s a solo, and was my media center for 9 months and perfect. didn’t do a ton of hd, and ran it through my hdmi cabele. now in the last 3 months i have red pixelazation, and i can’t figure out why……it happens in gradations of things, in video and even in the front row menu….

    any ideas?


  14. bbum says:

    Sounds like [hopefully] a dirty connector or bad cable.

    Or, pessimistically, it sounds like the GPU is potentially overheating and misbehaving.

  15. Ed Harris says:


    2 Years on and they’re still using the crappy GMA 950.
    They used the money they saved to spend 400 million on advertising last year.

    Now that Macs are PC’s, how will they justify overprice inferior products? By spending 800 million this year.

    Sidenote: There are 2 major brands of mp3 player that are much better than ipod (in terms of sound quality and more) and yet a huge marketing spend seemed to cure that so it seems to be working.

    Sidenote 2: Apparently the 1st computer virus was written on a mac yet expensive marketing makes us think that macs are less prone to viruses.

    I LOVE MACS but I have now seen the light.

  16. bbum says:

    Hmm…. somebody started the year with a big Pill O’ Bitter.

    (1) Don’t like the GMA 950? Buy an iMac instead. Not that much more. Or, if driving an HDTV, get an Apple TV. Frankly, driving an HDTV from a Mini proved to be a disaster because of HDCP.

    (2) Better than the iPod? Name it. Name one player that has the seamless integration of music, movies, tv shows, and podcasts through a store with anywhere near the ease of use and accessibility of iTunes. Yes, movie selection is anemic right now — but it is better than any other service that allows playback on devices. Or how about another music device that can also browse the web or do email via WiFi (or, in the case of the iPhone, EDGE)?

    As per computer virus, yes — the first virus for consumer computers was written for the classic Mac. A completely and totally different architecture and operating system. And your point is what?

  17. Can’t Resist the Urge… « Simply Robert says:

    […] integrated graphics may have been the only option. Furthermore, it seems that this is still a significant upgrade to the G4 mini’s graphics system despite the fact it isn’t exactly geared toward […]

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