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Latest Mac Mini Rumors Are Atomic

Among the letdowns for Apple faithful at this month's Macworld show was the lack of a new Mac Mini model -- despite weeks of rumors, gossip and even images floating around the Web of what many Mac fans believed to be a case for a new Mini.

That setback hasn't stopped the rumor mill from starting up once again. And now, it's churning out more detail. Tom's Hardware, the popular hobbyist Web site, cited an nVidia partner in a report that says Apple was the first PC manufacturer to receive samples of nVidia's Ion graphics processor, ostensibly for use in an Intel Atom-powered Mac Mini.

This would confirm a report on MacRumors that the Mac Mini and iMac would support the new GPU from nVidia (NASDAQ: NVDA). That move would make sense, since Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) is already using the same GPU core in its new MacBook/MacBook Pro notebooks.

If accurate, the news would also come as a win for a third party: Intel. That's because thus far, Atom has been used primarily in netbooks, low-cost, ultra-portable notebooks that have created a thriving new market. Mac Mini would be Atom's first desktop win.

In addition to a boost for Intel, the news would be the first design win for nVidia's Ion as well.

To some observers, the rumors seem likely. The MacBook and MacBook Pro unibody notebooks -- that is, they're constructed using single-piece cases -- use nVidia's 9400M GPU for graphics. The Ion is based on the 9400M chip but designed for ultra-low power devices like netbooks.

According to that line of thinking, Apple would simply continue with the 9400M if a new Mac Mini is going to use a regular Intel CPU. But by using an Ion processor, Apple is signaling that the Mini is going the Atom route.

All parties involved -- Apple, nVidia and Intel -- declined to comment on rumors and speculation, as is their standard operating procedure.

Would Apple do low-cost?

But is Apple likely to adopt the Atom for its low-end desktop machine?

"It gives them a configuration that would be very inexpensive and they could be very aggressive on the price point," Van Baker, an analyst with Gartner, told InternetNews.com. "In this economy, it doesn't hurt to have a low-cost product in the market. It could be Apple's way to having a really inexpensive PC in the market," he added.

However, switching to Atom for the Mac Mini may not be without its drawbacks, Baker added.

The Atom 330 runs at 1.6Ghz and has the performance comparable to an old Pentium M processor, Baker said. The nVidia GPU would do all of the heavy lifting for things like DVD playback and video decoding.

"They'd take a pretty serious performance hit on that, but the Mac Mini probably doesn't need that much in terms of performance, depending on how the typical person is using it, so it's certainly a possibility," he said.

Tom's Hardware and MacRumors.com both now peg the updated Mac Mini to come out around March.

Apple's ultimate next moves remain unclear. Industry watchers have been debating whether it would also intends to join the netbook craze. It may already be feeling pressure to produce such a product, since netbooks have emerged as one of the few hot segments in the market lately.

Yet Apple isn't exactly known for giving in to pressure of any kind. And Apple CEO Steve Jobs has indicated that his company isn't interested in the category.

Prior to announcing a health-related leave of absence from the company, Jobs said publicly that the economics of producing a satisfactory, low-cost netbook made it overly challenging. He also pointed to the iPhone as a substitute for a netbook.

Meanwhile, at Intel, Atom is rapidly becoming the savior for the world's largest chipmaker. The processor is a much smaller, lower-power derivative of its x86 processors, so it's easy to port existing x86 software to the platform. However, Atom uses a fraction of the power as its big brother, the Core 2 processor, and generates far less heat. Both are reasons that it's become a popular choice in netbooks.